I've begun writing a small fable in verse for my girlfriend, whereas she gets one part of the story for each day before Christmas starting December 1st. She likes it, however she tells me nearly each time what I write is not good German. The fact that it isn't my mother tongue doesn't help, but it is mainly due to the fact that I am taking some liberties with the structure of my verses so I could get my verses to rhyme and still move the story forward.

I've heard that many artists used to take those liberties. At which point would such liberties be accepted? (If in need of context: children literacy, or simply casual writing.)

  • @neilfein: I don't know if the ´german´ tag here. Maybe ´foreign-language´ as I would have probably the same problematic, if I wanted to write in english, but I feel that in this question there could be advice for all people wanting to do poetry, even in their mother language.
    – Eldros
    Commented Dec 22, 2010 at 7:32

2 Answers 2


The answer, like most things in writing, is that it depends.

In my own poetry writing I've found that I am greatly helped by first learning and strictly following all stylistic guidelines. I have often been drawn towards formal verse structures such as the villanelle, Shakespearian-style sonnet, or sestina. By forcing myself to follow these guidelines, I really challenge my own creative process. I also learn what the rules do to the poem. I learn the impact of, say, repeating the same line at the end of every other stanza or how a certain rhythm and rhyme scheme hits the ear.

The really famous uses of all of these formal structures for poetry usually, although not always, end up breaking the rules or at least bending them. The key is that there is a structure to be twisted, and in knowing what the impact of that structure is and how twisting it in certain ways has certain impacts. For example if the poem is in iambic pentameter and there is an additional syllable on the line to make it longer or the stress falls on two syllables back to back, the reader will notice that line or those syllables more than other parts of the poem which might be comfortable.

One way of breaking the rules that novice poets often fall into and shouldn't is using antiquated language or awkward language constructs because "that's the way poetry is written." Actually, it is not. A poem by John Donne reads the way that it does because John Donne was writing somewhat in the vernacular of his time but also in a time before the English language was as standardized as it is now. The modern poetry-reading public does not tend to have a high tolerance for poetic license with grammatical constructs unless it really has a great, positive impact on your poem. You can't just re-structure sentences to fit a rhyme scheme and call it good poetry - you have to fit the rhyme scheme in a way that serves the grammar of your sentence, too.

The most revered modern poets often (not always) write very compressed language that also seems modern and moves smoothly. When they break these patterns, the impact adds to the theme and feel of the poem, it is not capricious. As a poet you'll have to learn how to do this as well.

I'd suggest reading some current German poets to get an idea of what's being done in the field and learning what impact different structures have.


You mentioned that German is not your first language, In this case, I suspect that you're modifying the syntax of the sentence in ways that native speakers would not, and thereby violating the rules of German poetics.

All languages have different registers, and it is extremely common for a language to allow constructions in poetry which aren't allowed in prose. This is often referred to as "poetic license". However, despite the common misconception, poetic license is not a carte blanche to do whatever you want. Rather, it simply enables a certain set of poetic conventions that violate the norms of everyday speech and prose, but which still conform to internal regulations of their own.

So when your girlfriend says that you're not writing good German, it's probably not because she fails to appreciate your poetic license, but because your attempts at poetry are violating both the norms of speech and the norms of poetry.

(BTW, don't feel bad. I speak Romanian fluently, and my wife and I use it every day at home, but I still wouldn't venture to write poetry in Romanian.)

  • I more or less planned to do a rewrite of it when I have time. Now it seems that the rewrite will become a reality. :)
    – Eldros
    Commented Dec 22, 2010 at 12:50

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