When Rules Bring Freedom


While I’ve identified as a writer since I was eight years old, what I’ve written has changed significantly over time.

When I was very young, I was only interested in writing stories. These stories were child-like, to be sure, but they grew in sophistication as I did. By junior high, I was drafting large chunks of fantasy novels (mimicking the books I tended to read at the time). Then, in high school, I discovered a love for poetry.

In high school and college, I mostly wrote poetry. Some of it was actually good, too. (Seriously!) I won contests and scholarships with my poetry, and some of it even saw print in small magazines.

But somewhere along the way, I stopped writing poems. I’ve written a few songs with friends over the years, but that’s it really. The part of me that’s a poet — a part that once was integral — seems to no longer exist.

Anyhow, it occurred to me today that the spending moratorium I’ve set for myself in 2021 is, in a way, like writing poetry. Let me explain.

Rules for Poetry

You see, part of the fun of writing poetry — for me, anyhow — is figuring out how to express yourself while adhering to the rules. And the “rules of poetry” aren’t set in stone. Each poet sets her own standards. What’s more, those rules might change from poem to poem.

Take Shakespeare, for instance. Shakespeare’s sonnets follow a specific format.

  • Each sonnet contains fourteen lines.
  • Those fourteen lines are divided into four groups: three four-line quatrains and a final two-line couplet.
  • Each line contains ten syllables of iambic pentameter.

These rules are part of what makes Shakespeare’s poems so appealing. He was able to express himself, to convey a great deal of emotion, while playing by these rules. If you re-write a Shakespeare sonnet without the rules, it loses its beauty. (Fun fact: One of my favorite Shakespearean sonnets uses money metaphors!)

On the other hand, e.e. cummings played by a different set of rules. “anyone lived in a pretty how town” is still one of my favorite poems, but it’s vastly different than a Shakespearean sonnet.

For many young poets, rules are frustrating. They feel like limits on creativity rather than sources of inspiration. As a result, we often latch on to free verse, which seems less restrictive.

When I was writing poetry, I found that giving myself rules fostered creativity instead of stifling it. That’s kind of counter-intuitive, I think, but it’s true. It’s a fun challenge to see what you can create when your options have been restricted.

To this day, I find that (generally speaking) I admire poets who work with meter and rhyme more than those who simply produce free verse. (This isn’t always true.

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What do you think?

Written by Robert Gragg