Informally Yours: Colloquialisms in Poems

languageI was talking with another writer recently about familiarity in writing: specifically, colloquialisms. For those unfamiliar with the term, a colloquialism is that word or phrase we would use in ordinary speech. Slang, idioms, local vernacular — all of it falls under the colloquial umbrella.

Anyway, the conversation was about my use of one word in a poem. That word made my writer friend react strongly — “too colloquial. You don’t want to use colloquialisms in your poetry.”

No? Who says?

We use words like “hell” or “damn” in our writing, don’t we? Colloquialisms. Fact is there are lots of colloquial words and terms. Avoiding them is damn near impossible (note my use of “damn near” which is my own colloquialism). If your characters have ever said “F*ck off” or “bite me” they’ve used them. Can you really avoid them? More to the point, should you avoid them?

I don’t think so. I think colloquialisms, used thoughtfully, can bring a depth and purpose to your writing. In prose, they can be essential elements of a fantastic story. Could Mark Twain have written anything without colloquial language? Could William Faulkner have? Toni Morrison?

It’s not a style limited to fiction, either. Just look at John Donne’s poem, The Sun Rising:

Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch…

What is this poem if not full of familiar vernacular? “old fool” – “call on us” – the terms are familiar, everyday terms. Plus, Donne is talking to the sun as if it were human. His is a deliberate choice. Each colloquialism works together. It’s a great example of how familiar can work to create mood. Try writing it without the terms he chose and suddenly it becomes less personal.

My colloquial word — “guts” — will stay in my poem simply because in that instance, it’s the best word for the feeling I’m portraying. When writing terms and words that are in informal vernacular, think carefully about the choice.Is it really the best word for what you’re trying to convey?

Poets, where do you come down on the use of colloquialisms — for, against, or somewhere in the middle? Why?

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