Four Poetry Maxims

Recently, I came across Paul Grice’s “conversational maxims,” in, of all places, a book about dogs — Inside of a Dog (page 97) by Alexandra Horowitz.

Grice, a twentieth century philosopher, described the maxims that regulate language use: 1. relation (be relevant), 2. manner (be brief and clear. I would just say “clear.”), 3. quality (tell the truth), and 4. quantity (say only as much as you need to. Here is where the “brief” belongs.).

As I read them, I thought that they apply not just to conversation but to poetry as well.  After all, isn’t poetry a conversation? Aren’t poems often best read out loud? Isn’t the author conversing with you the reader and aren’t you conversing back in your appreciation or dismissal or dislike?

Four maxims for poetry: be relevant, be clear, be truthful and be brief.

In a poem, those four would come in a particular form (couplet, tercet, quatrain, haiku, limerick, sonnet, ode, elegy, free verse, blank verse, etc.) using metaphors, similes, alliteration, rhyme,  a lot, some or none.

Regarding the maxim of manner, i.e. be clear, I heard Billy Collins make fun of the poetry that is dense, cryptic and pretty much indecipherable.

I agree. What’s the point if no one can understand what it is that is trying to be communicated except if the point of the communication is not to be understood, as in, life cannot be understood, so I am going to write a poem that can’t be understood to make that point. Whatever.

Come to think of it, Grice’s maxims of conversation should be required teaching in all seminary preaching classes – relevant, clear, truthful, brief.

Preachers who follow those maxims, have one up or should I say four up on others, should they try their hand at writing poetry.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s