Lifting the Ban on Numerals in Poetry


Distrust unsolicited advise.
~ Aesop

I recently finished reading 151 Charles Bukowski
poems, courtesy of PoemHunter.com. I refer to his
works as mini-episodes on the realities of life on the
outskirts. His writing is spare, biting, brilliantly
descriptive and plain-spoken — perpendicular layouts,
unadorned with needless pomp.

I noticed the liberal use of numerals in his poems
(E.g. Hot — 3,2,8,8, ½, 5,25). This method of usage
brought to mind an arm’s length acquaintance who,
after performing a full body of work MRI on a collection
of my poems, lectured me “numerals up to 100
are spelled out.” It was an absolute pronouncement
without caveats, as if the rule applied to all forms of
writing. And, of course, not true in actual practice.
The fallacious directive was unsolicited, evidently
given without this person having done any homework.

At the time the false guidance made me wonder
if this would-be adviser had experienced a
frontal lobe misfire, may have been imbibing,
or didn’t think to open a poetry book. My unsought
advice, if inclined to offer it to this eager expert
would be, do a bit of reading before offering such
counsel. Set aside the style bible and read a mix of
poetry from different eras. Self-educate on the
real world treatment of numerals in poetry.
Launch the effort with Living in Numbers by
Claire Lee, or, Knowing You Might Some
Day Come by Alice Walker. Even a pinch of
research reveals most poets, avocational to
well-known, laureates to Pulitzer winners,
use numerals freely in their writing.

“Numerals up to 100 are spelled out.” One can
imagine the instructive language the rough-hewn
Bukowski might have invoked had some self-anointed
authority confronted him with such an off the mark admonition.

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A would be grammarian's folly.