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Those poetry ‘banned words’ again

Another perennial topic that poets always seem to enjoy debating – what are the ‘banned’ words? The word ‘shard’ came up the other evening at Hasting Stanza and I couldn’t help but mention that it was ‘on the list’ – to which the response was, ‘can you do a blog post about this?’

Is it really the case that certain words, inserted innocently into what might be an otherwise excellent poem, can somehow poison the entire piece? That it can ruin your chance of getting the poem published, shortlisted, or even taken seriously? What are these words? And who decides what they are?

The debate has fascinated me ever since I first fell foul of the banned words police, using – yes – shard, in a poem that I took to workshop a few years back. There was no mass outrage, just a gentle murmuring about it having to go.

The first thing to remember is that many people will say the banned words thing is ridiculous. The second is that those same people will often, when their buttons are pushed, turn out to have their own personal list of words they’d never use. I don’t think there are words that everyone agrees should be avoided. Even the most commonly-quoted ones (shard, myriad, tesserae) sometimes slip through. But editors/judges/tutors have their own opinions, and you can’t always know what they are.

I also think that, like language generally, the list is probably in continual flux. The point being that the ‘banned words’ aren’t necessarily evil or tasteless in themselves, they’ve just been overused, misused and abused. But if everyone studiously avoids ‘cumulus’, there will come a day when it will sound fresh, and we’ll start using it again. And you’ve only got to look at today’s poetry magazines to realise there’s a new generation of words that are shaping up nicely for membership of The List. I also think there should be a ‘bad sex in poetry’ sister award to that for Bad Sex in Fiction. But that’s another post!

If you’re interested in avoiding the banned word landmines, Frances Spurrier lists a few classics here.  Mary Lou Taylor attributes a number of them (including ‘shard’ and – one on my personal list – ‘soul’) to Bill Greenwell.

There’s an ever-evolving list (although I’m not sure if anything ever gets taken off it) at the suspiciously anonymous Pretend Genius. Gems here range from the obviously archaic ‘quoth’ to the more baffling ‘Jennifer’ (number 46). Jennifer? Really? (If you know why, please let me know!) Anyway, I can say with 100% certainty that I have fallen foul of this particular list many times. (‘Black’? ‘Leaf’?) Plus, ‘death’ appears twice… so maybe I’ve just been had. Good fun though 🙂

If you agree or disagree please tell us – have you done well in the NPC with a poem about shards of light peeking through the cumulus? Perhaps you’ve been told never to use the word ‘potato’ in a poem? We need to know!

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  1. Jill Munro Jill Munro

    The First Time I used the word ‘Shard’ in a Poem

    I discovered the word ‘shard’ is on the poets’ ‘no-no’ list,
    maybe written in stone by a gang of poetic police whilst pissed
    (who ARE the authors of this enormous imaginary list?).

    On it are words such as cicada and soul, rainbow, seagull, crimson,
    vermillion, azure (colours are so very hard to do, says who?)
    And yet the word ‘shard’ isn’t so hard – an enormous erection ─

    ninety-five storeys tower over our city, all muscle and gristle
    and glass but still quite pretty. Then there’s those fragments
    that stab at the heart when true lovers part, the wine bottle

    that’s dropped on the floor, scattering shards that make
    it no more. So I think I’ll use it again, like some sharp-souled
    bard, ignore the police, sod ‘em and use the word ‘shard’:

    Shardy Bloody McShardface.

    • Robin Houghton Robin Houghton

      Aha – do I detect a slight lack of respect for The List? I can hardly believe that of you, Jill! 🙂

      • Jill Munro Jill Munro

        Well spotted Robin!

  2. Unless anyone can think of a better word for ‘soul’ I shall continue to use it in poems. Some of my favourite poems contain the word soul, Alice Oswald’s ‘Head of a Dandelion’ for one. And what on earth is wrong with using the word ‘leaf’? ‘Soul clap its hands and sing!’

    • Robin Houghton Robin Houghton

      Well it’s on my personal list mainly because I’ve seen it too often in bad poems. But context is everything of course!

  3. Hi Robin – yes it is a minefield. I cringe now at a poem from my ‘early days’ containing ‘alchemy’ and I was once told not to use the word ‘blue’ in a poem. Although that latter word banishment provided fodder for a wonderful, wine-fuelled discussion among some poets at a writing retreat, a rich on-going FB discussion and finally a poem that incorporates several synonyms for ‘blue’. Thanks for the post.

    • Robin Houghton Robin Houghton

      Good god -‘blue’? Really? I suppose ‘azure’ is better..?? He he. I knew this post would get some good comments!

      • I’m also going to ‘fess up to overusing ‘edge’, ‘silence’, ‘sense’.
        And apparently, for those Scots amongst us, ‘marram grass’ is a HUGE no-no!

  4. Annie Fisher Annie Fisher

    Can I add to the pot of paranoid prohibitions the words ‘freighted’ and ‘ crepuscular’., which annoy me for some reason? Once you notice that a poet likes a particular word, it can irritate; Carol Ann Duffy likes ‘talent’. My own sins are too many to mention, but include ‘golden,’ “Jesus,” infinite’ and (long ago) ‘palimpsest’. Me a culpa. ( maybe mea culpa is another one,……!)

    • Robin Houghton Robin Houghton

      Ha ha! Crepuscular! yes I think that gets a black mark. And Mat Riches on Twitter has already admitted to ‘palimpsest’ – tee hee! My overused words are ‘big’ and ‘face’, and ‘big face’ which is a compound error I believe 🙂

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Robin Houghton 2021