As with any inclusion or exclusion in a poetic form, there should (at least in my opinion) be a reason for it – without a reason, you may as well write in standard (if stylised) prose rather than stumbling towards poetry – structured or free verse. One technique I have used over the past decade or so has been the replace of “and” as a word with ampersands. I know, I know, I can already hear you rolling your eyes – “oh no, he’s one of those”.

“Ocean Vuong did it once and so you all have to do it.”

“You’re just following convention under the guise of looking edgy and alternative.”

“You shouldn’t need such cheap tricks to distinguish between prose and poetry.”

I know all the arguments, and I’ve used some variation of them myself in the past.

However, I think blindly disregarding any “artistic” choice in favour favour of convention isn’t the solution to any poetic concerns we might have. So, in this article, I’m going to try and take a balanced approach to the topic, highlighting reasons to use or not use ampersands in favour of “and”, and summarising with why I choose to use ampersands in poetry. It’s entirely likely that, twenty years down the line, I might change my mind and revert back to “and” as a semantic choice, rather than a grammatical necessity. The ability to be flexible, reactive and adaptive in art can be a benefit – but it can also signify a lack of concrete belief in one’s own work and opinions.

What is an Ampersand?

An ampersand (&) is a typographical symbol representing the word “and”. It is a ligature of the letters e and t from the Latin word “et”, which means “and”. So in essence, the ampersand is a graphical representation of the word “and”.

Where Did the Ampersand Come From?

The ampersand symbol has an interesting history dating back to the 1st century AD. It originated from the Latin word “et”, which means “and”. Scribes would write the letters e and t together, which eventually evolved into the symbol & over time. By the 1800s, the ampersand became widely used in English and made its way onto typewriter keyboards in the late 19th century. So while it may seem like a modern typographical flourish, the ampersand actually has classical roots.

Is There a Long History of the Ampersand Being Used in Poetry?

While ampersands have a long history of being used in prose writing, dating back centuries, they haven’t traditionally been used extensively in poetry. It’s difficult to find examples of ampersand usage in poems more than a few decades old. This suggests they have not been a common part of the poetic lexicon through most literary history.

It’s easy enough to find examples in the work of Beat poets, such as Allen Ginsberg, or in relatively early modernist poets like Frank O’Hara, etc. Largely, the inclusion of the ampersand has been the domain of American poets – however, as the stylistic choices of these poets has exported across the world (because what is poetry if not a commodity to be traded, right?) ampersands have started to crop up in English poetry across the world.

Poets like Ocean Vuong, Kaveh Akbar, and Mahogany Browne use ampersands to replace select instances of the word “and” in their work. This novel technique seems to have emerged primarily within the last 10-20 years.

So while ampersands themselves are quite old, their poetic application appears relatively new and still evolving. The jury is out on whether their usage will stand the test of literary time or fade as a stylistic fad.

Why is the Use of Ampersands in Poetry Controversial?

The use of ampersands in poetry is controversial because some view it as an unnecessary gimmick. Traditionalists argue that the accepted use of “and” functions perfectly well semantically and rhetorically. Moreover, they claim casual ampersand usage weakens the overall cohesiveness of a poetic line. It can come across as trendy posturing rather than purposeful technique.

Others counter that creative risk-taking is crucial for poetic innovation. When used judiciously, ampersands can shape rhythm and direct reader attention in unique ways unavailable through standard syntax. So whether one views ampersand usage as progressive or pretentious depends largely on their perspective.

Why Do Some Poets Use the Ampersand in Their Poetry?

There are a few reasons why contemporary poets elect to use ampersands in their work:

  1. To truncate rhythm or accelerate pacing – Removing verbal conjunctions streamlines lines.
  2. To isolate important words or images – Ampersands bracket significant phrases/terms.
  3. To modernise traditional poetic forms – Ampersands “update” conventional structure.
  4. To challenge norms of grammar/syntax – Unexpected typography jars the reader.
  5. To echo conversational speech patterns – Casual ampersand usage mirrors everyday talk.

So in essence, ampersands allow poets to shape sound, direct focus, question convention, and mimic natural language in a way the word “and” may not. The flexibility of the ampersand offers poetic possibilities beyond standard syntax.

Combining Ampersands and “And” in Poetry:

While some poets strictly use ampersands in place of “and”, others blend the two together. Thoughtfully combining both conjunctions allows for greater rhetorical range. “And” maintains formal lyricism while ampersands introduce stylistic edge. Integrating the two prevents overreliance on ampersand usage while still harnessing its unique utility. So moderating ampersand frequency often strikes the best balance for many contemporary poets

What are the Benefits of Using Ampersands in Poetry?

There are a few potential benefits to using ampersands in poetry:

  1. Ampersands can alter rhythm and pacing for artistic impact in ways the word “and” cannot. Removing verbal conjunctions accelerates lines.
  2. Ampersands visually isolate important words/images by bracketing them apart from other syntax. This focuses reader attention.
  3. For poets working in fixed forms, ampersands add stylistic modernity to conventional structures.
  4. Unexpected typography like ampersands challenge norms of grammar and syntax, which jars the reader’s expectations.
  5. Casual ampersand usage echoes natural conversational speech, mirroring everyday language.

In the right poetic context, purposeful ampersand usage allows poets to harness these artistic possibilities unavailable through standard syntax alone.

What are the Downsides of Using Ampersands in Poetry?

However, using ampersands in poetry also comes with some potential downsides:

  1. Overusing ampersands can seem like a distracting gimmick if not used judiciously.
  2. Frequent ampersands might undermine the coherence or cohesion of a poetic line rather than enhance it.
  3. Readers may perceive high ampersand usage as trendy posturing rather than purposeful technique.
  4. Ampersands could likely date a poem stylistically if the technique fades as a passing fad.

So poets should carefully consider if ampersands genuinely serve the poem rather than include them as superficial decoration. While ampersands can be leveraged artfully, their poetic application requires care and discretion.

Why Do I Prefer to Use Ampersands over “And”?

I choose to moderately use ampersands over “and” in my poetry because I believe, when selectively utilised, ampersands offer specific artistic utilities unavailable through standard syntax alone. The flexibility of ampersand allows me isolate images more distinctly within a line and finely tune pacing for sound effect.

I also write a great deal of formal poetry, and the ampersand’s ability to subtly modernise conventional structures without dismantling their core foundations holds great appeal for me. And echoing natural speech patterns remains important to my poetic sensibilities as well.

So essentially, I incorporate ampersands not as a grammatical necessity, but as an intentional stylistic choice when I feel they genuinely deepen a poem’s overall poetic impact.

What are the Limitations of the Way I Use Ampersands?

However, I readily acknowledge my ampersand usage has its limitations:

  1. Overuse still risks perceptions of gimmickry, undermining any actual poetry that can be found in the lines I scribble down.
  2. My specific application may prove too idiosyncratic.
  3. Current ampersand usage could date my work stylistically decades from now
  4. Substituting “and” for & remains non-standard poetics some readers reject – many critics, for example, still have an in-built negative reaction to the site of ampersands on the page, particularly when used as a standard rule.

Essentially the way I integrate ampersands pushes certain poetic boundaries that challenge norms of taste or convention. And my particular usage may not stand the test of literary time. I accept that risk in exchange for the artistic impact leveraging ampersands affords my current poetry. But that exchange may ultimately limit my work’s reach or longevity.

How “Should” Ampersands be Used in Poetry?

There are no absolute rules governing ampersand usage in poetry. Poets ultimately have artistic discretion over stylistic choices like ampersand incorporation. However, certain guidelines might prove useful:

  1. Use ampersands judiciously and only when they enhance a poem’s meaning or sound. Overuse breeds gimmickry.
  2. Be thoughtful about which instances of “and” to replace with ampersands. Choose words carefully.
  3. Consider balancing ampersands with some retention of “and” in a poem. Blending usage often works best.
  4. Remember that many readers still prefer normative grammar/syntax. Beware pushing limits of accessibility.

In the end, ask yourself whether each ampersand makes the poem tangibly richer or risks undermining aspects of the work. Ampersand usage requires thoughtful poetic discretion rather than blind stylistic dogma. Of course, there is the argument that a blank replacement in the way that I tend to write these days is its own kind of blind, stylistic dogma. Still, I’m allowed a little hypocrisy, right?

So in summary, while no universal standards exist, the most effective ampersand incorporation demonstrates conscious, sparing, and selective application to genuinely serve the overall poem, or your own poetic voice within your work. Just… don’t do it because someone else is doing it, yeah?

If you’re interested in reading more about the ampersand and poetry, there is a great article in Poets & Writers – I have my issues with some of the quotes used in it, but they’re professional critics and poets, so there opinion isn’t wrong, it’s just not always one I necessarily agree with.

J.W. Carey
Latest posts by J.W. Carey (see all)