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OnWords: Poetic Language


Americans love to claim that they don't understand poetry. Its use is relegated to therapy sessions and pop music, often with disastrous artistic results.

Yet we turn to poetry in profound moments, and by looking at how, we can see its impact.

Consider Justice Kennedy's recent writing in a landmark case upholding same-sex marriage.

He wrote: “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.”

Note the strategic grammatical inversion “than once they were,” and the use of “for” rather than the more common “because.” The former we associate with strict poetic forms in which grammatical inversions were used to serve the rhyme and force the reader to consider the material.

“For” for “because” is softer and dressier, avoiding sudden “b,” hard “c,” and smeary “s” sounds.

Kennedy's opening is equally revealing: “The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity.”

A word like “realm” we'd normally only use in a fantasy novel, so here it makes a regal turn, giving weight to a weighty matter.

Poetry is all about the control of tone, and so when the occasion is historical, as this one is, its tools seem natural, and our objections to it petty.

Lael Ewy is a co-founder and editor of EastWesterly Review, a journal of literary satire at www.postmodernvillage.com, and a writer whose work has appeared in such venues as Denver Quarterly and New Orleans Review and has been anthologized in Troubles Swapped for Something Fresh.