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Punctuation in Poetry



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Punctuation in Poetry


Approaching punctuation in poetry is like approaching capitalization in poetry. There is a whole range of things that you can do to create your punctuation dream, but you have to know how to use them. Over the centuries, poetry's landscape has changed dramatically in terms of what is acceptable for capitalization, punctuation, tone, and even what is considered a poem. This article covers the punctuation of poetry.

As capitalization moved towards sentence structure, so did punctuation. The end punctuation habit changed towards sentence punctuation as early as Andrew Marvell who died before the founding of the United States. After that, writers such as William Blake had room to do things like write without punctuation at all as early as 1827. Today, the landscape of punctuation and capitalization are as endless as writers can create.

Exploring those varieties and consistency within your own poem is what will make it seem complete. There are more options with punctuation than capitalization, but they break down in similar ways such as the old, the simple, the modern, the creative, and the challenging. For this article I'll be calling them End Punctuation, Sentence Punctuation, Breath Punctuation, Alternative Punctuation, and No Punctuation respectively. I will go over the style, the effects it can have on the reader, and the things to avoid.

Tip: Try all of the different types of punctuation with all of the different types of capitalization to find the best fit for your poem each and every time.


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This is a sister article to Capitalization in Poetry so I will be using the information in that article as reference.

Index

Introduction
Index
Vocabulary
End Punctuation
Sentence Punctuation
Breath Punctuation
Alternative Punctuation
No Punctuation
Punctuation and Capitalization

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Vocabulary

Punctuation: Any symbol in a language that is not a letter.

Ellipsis: A series of three periods (...) which may or may not be surrounded by spaces.
(1) A punctuation mark that means something has been removed from the line. In poetry this can mean repeat the refrain when reading a poem out loud.
(2) A punctuation mark that means to pause or breathe while reading. Often a longer pause than a comma, and interpreted as a more thoughtful pause than a dash.

Line: Words which are on the same horizontal line of reading. When squished, a single line will be represented by an indent on the immediate next line with the rest of the words. In quotations line breaks are indicated by a slash (/) with spaces on either side.

end punctuation: In this article un-capitalized end punctuation is talking about punctuation at the end of a line. Capitalized End Punctuation is talking about the style of having end punctuation throughout the entire poem.

Stanza: A grouping of lines which are offset from other lines.

Syncopation: The way in which words are naturally spaced and said including stresses of the words.

Stress: The way which words/syllables are said whether emphasized or not emphasized in relationship to other words/syllables. This can be unstressed or stressed. Stressed syllables are longer, and/or louder.

Tonality: The music like quality of words.

Meter: The syncopation of a poem with stresses and tonality of voice. Marked in terms of what type of sounds repeat, and the stresses of those sounds.

Beat: The tonality of a poem different from meter because this refers to the entire poem while meter refers to repeatable sounds.

Established [Anything]: For this article I will be using established to mean that it happens repeatedly, as in more than twice, creating a reader expectation. This could be an established beat, rhyme scheme, capitalization habit, anything.

Enjambment: When a line has two sentences on it. Used to create unique word collections and an individual idea separate from the ideas of either sentence due to what is placed together.

Forced Language: When a poem doesn't read naturally to someone unfamiliar with the poem. This can be seen through broken established beats or sentence structures.

Turn: When the subject of a poem, or the expected outcome of a poem in terms of content and expectations is suddenly and dramatically reversed. This is the climax of a poem, and oftentimes considered the "ah-hah" moment, or the epiphany, or the punch line.

Capitalization In Poetry

Line Capitalization: The first letter of every word is capitalized.

Sentence Capitalization: The poem is capitalized through the sentence structure.

Non-Capitalization: A lack of capitalization through the entire poem. This may or may not include "I" as part of the capitalizations.

Alternative Capitalization: A mix of the previous three, but also using capitalization to create emphasis rather than to punctuate.

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End Punctuation

End punctuation is where each line in a poem has a punctuation mark at the end of it. They may or may not also contain punctuation marks inside, but it has to have some punctuation at the end of every line. This is the oldest style of using punctuation in poetry, similar to line capitalization where the beginning letter in every line must be capitalized. This style often has punctuation following sentence structure grammatically, but has a new line when a comma occurs after a certain number of syllables.

Positives

This method of punctuation is good for creating a metered poem. When there is a particular meter or beat to the poem then the end of the lines will often naturally fall where punctuation would be due to that meter/beat. Oftentimes songs have End Punctuation because of this. The beat and tune of the song dictate when a new line is needed, so the punctuation naturally falls at the end.

Reader Responses

The reader response tends to depend on the group they're in. People who have been reading more modern poetry tend to dislike End Punctuation. For them, it breaks up the flow of the poem and makes it easier to leave a poem because of where the eye stops on the page. Pausing at the end of something can seem like the end.

People who like older styles of poetry, however, can range anywhere from accepting it to requiring it. People who are used to traditional poetry such as old limericks, Shakespeare, and Ezra Pound often will consider it improper to have an ending without some sort of punctuation. The poem can feel naked without it to them. This is their preferred method of punctuation.

Newer readers who haven't read much modern poetry often have a similar belief to people who like older styles of poetry. They often also require a poem to rhyme because that's what makes it a poem to them. It must be rhymed, have a capital letter at the beginning of every line, and a punctuation mark at the end of every line.

Things to Avoid

For this style, it is necessary to read the poems out loud to make sure that they still flow with the punctuation that appear throughout the meter. Without reading out loud, it can be difficult to determine whether the language is forced. Forced language is when it doesn't read naturally to someone unfamiliar with the poem. Often a line needs to end in a certain location because of meter, and the punctuation does not go in that location. The best way to fix this is to change the line entirely and try again.

Another problem that can occur is a lack of variety in punctuation. Having a comma at the end of every line can get tedious quickly, so using dashes and other pause punctuation helps create a better sense of motion and variety.

Know your punctuation! Having a loose understanding of what an ellipsis (…) does, or how to use a semi-colon can bury a poem.

Tip: Using an ellipsis at the end of every line can look very off-putting for modern readers and old readers alike. The traditional use of the ellipsis is only to omit information. It is only a more modern tradition to use ellipsis as a pause — it used to be dashes. If you are catering to an older audience, try to only use the ellipsis to indicate a removed section of text, such as when ending a quote early in an essay. An example is "I have a dream …" (MLK) if you need a refresher.

End Punctuation works best with line capitalization, but out of all the styles, Non-Capitalization works with it the least. This is because a lack of capitalization usually indicates a more modern style, and end punctuation indicates a more traditional style. Mixing traditional styles with modern styles is a bit like mixing orange and blue, you end up with a neutral, which doesn't bode well for impact.

Mixing Non-Capitalization with End Punctuation can be fitting in some cases, but be aware of the feel that the poem is creating with that look and explore alternatives to determine if this is exactly how you want your poem.

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Sentence Punctuation

Sentence Punctuation is when a poem is punctuated strictly grammatically. This means that wherever the sentences would naturally have punctuation, that's where it shows up. This style was adopted pretty quickly after poetry began to be more conversational and less about rhyme, meter, strict styles, and easily memorized. This and Breath Punctuation are the two most commonly used styles of writing punctuation in poetry today.

Positives

This style of punctuation is very straightforward about where punctuation is to be placed. Wherever it naturally would occur in other styles of writing, such as prose and non-fiction, it appears in these poems. For more information about how punctuation works in sentences, check out articles in Grammar and Research.

Tip: To make sure that your punctuation is accurate, one trick is to write it as a paragraph, and then break it into lines afterwards with a mix of lines with end punctuation, and lines without it. This creates the appropriate mix to differentiate this type from end punctuation.

Reader Responses

Usually this is the type of punctuation that people are expecting to see. Several other articles on YWS itself lean towards this style of punctuation. These articles encourage poems to always have this style of punctuation because it is the easiest to read for most people. They argue that grammar is as grammar should always be, and so it should be in poetry, unless you're getting rid of it completely, or doing something weird with it.

Grammar was created to better reflect the way that people read and speak, however as time moved on, English changed and grammar has always had some catching up to do. This proper grammar can occasionally trip people up while reading aloud, so some readers prefer that the grammar rules are morphed a little and end up with Breath Punctuation instead of Sentence Punctuation.

Things to Avoid

Avoid overusing punctuation. Chances are you don't need as many punctuation marks as you actually think you do. As writing changes, punctuation marks fluctuate in popularity. If you look at old writing like Charles Dickens vs Emily Dickinson you'll see that the variety of punctuation is endless in proper sentence structure. Use what style suits you best because that's what's going to be consistent.

Along with that, using punctuation like dashes can fix some overuse of commas. Ensure that there aren't too many punctuation marks clogging up the poem and slowing down the reading. Think about the poem as a paragraph, a very flowery, creative paragraph, and let it develop from there towards proper punctuation.

Sometimes a poem will dictate which type of punctuation you use. It could be that you think it is Sentence Punctuation when really it is Breath Punctuation, so give the poem room to choose by the beat and meter that the poem uses, the way the words come together, and the overall look.

In order for it to be Sentence Punctuation it must follow the proper grammar rules. This does not mean that it couldn't be both Breath and Sentence Punctuation at the same time as oftentimes our grammar is there to show how it would sound if spoken.

  





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Breath Punctuation

This style of punctuation harkens back to the idea that poems are meant to be read aloud and the commas, dashes, asterisks, and whatever other sort of nonsense a poet puts into the work such as weird capitalizations, underlines, italics, and so forth are just there to show the tone, meter, and sound of the poem. They aren't there to be proper according to sentence structure. They're there to show where to breathe, how to say the words, and when to say them.

Some common ideas for this include that a dash (—) is used for a short pause, like a comma (,) and that a period is used for a full stop (.) or a longer pause. Sometimes stanza breaks are used to show these longer pauses instead, and space, such as a poem's second line being indented more, is used to show smaller breaks. It depends on how the words fit together and it changes from poem to poem.

As this punctuation style is one of the more free versions, it is often accompanied by a rather free idea of capitalization such as capitalizing only words that are very important or emphasized by being louder, or said slower. In the end, the best way to write in this style is to go with how you as the author best think you can communicate how you want a poem read.

Positives

This style is especially found in beat poems, and occasionally means that there isn't a single period in the piece, just commas. This could also mean that there are a lot of commas, or even the use of an ellipsis, or dash to best accentuate the sounds used. It also means that anyone can pick up the poem and read it just how the author reads it.

This style also allows poets to express themselves when they do not want to be constrained or limited to proper grammar. It can range from being exactly the same as sentence structure, to as loose as no punctuation at all. It depends on how the author uses voice in the poem. The variety here is really the best thing.

Most of the rest of the articles on YWS which are not about Sentence Punctuation are about Breath Punctuation. The rough summary of them is that as you read, you put punctuation into the poem to establish the proper punctuation for that poem.

Reader Responses

Most readers who are familiar with the idea that poetry like this exists, embrace it full-heartedly and enjoy it. However, that's not everyone. Some readers find it frustrating because it doesn't allow for interpretation of the words and can block off some double meanings by a heightened indication of tone.

Readers who are not familiar with the existence of Breath Punctuation can find it off-putting if they read it because it looks like grammar but it isn't being used in their traditional understanding. This can make it harder for them to understand what is going on until they familiarize themselves with attempting to read it as it sounds, either in their heads or out loud.

Things to Avoid

Inconsistency is the largest problem with this style of punctuation. If a poem starts with commas here or there, and no other punctuation, it needs to continue having commas here or there to indicate places to breathe. Consistency with a climb in tone or voice is good, but it has to be a gradual. Change the established beat by working in a new beat with the old one to better weave together the end results.

If there's a large area where people shouldn't be breathing but reading through the entire thing, it should be taken into consideration that they're going to be out of breath at the end and considerable pauses should be placed.

Being conscious of the reader's ability to breathe is a large factor in writing like this because lung capacity can change depending on what a person is prepared for, and while poems should always be read twice over to really understand them, it is not often that this happens in today's fast paced world.

Like the other styles, avoiding the overuse of punctuation is another caution that a poet must heed. The overuse of punctuation can dull a poem just like the overuse of specific words. Variety is the spice of life, but be consistent with the variety you use.

Tip: Basically, don't change up the rules in the middle of the poem without very good reason. A turn, or a twist in a poem's meaning, can be a very good reason. Without that, it is best to incorporate changes in the poem more gradually.

  





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Alternative Punctuation

Poets in general can be belligerent about rules, so oftentimes they make their own. In many ways they create their style around their use of punctuation, capitalization, word choice, sentence structure and so forth and that is what this is about.

When a poet breaks out of the molds set, they still follow a set of rules, but they make those rules for themselves. In this case, alternative punctuation means punctuation that's not Breath Punctuation, and not End Punctuation, and not No Punctuation, and not Sentence Punctuation, but is definitely a punctuation style. Basically, it means setting your own rules.

If you, as a poet, want to create a unique voice by never using a single period in your poem, but using other forms of stops instead, that is completely up to you. It is possible, and it is done. The idea of this is that you, as a poet, want to create something that allows the reader to understand your communication clearly, however you can.

Grammar, in general, is a way for one person to say to another person "this is what I'm saying and how I'm saying it" on paper, with words. In poetry, it is a way for the author to say "This is how I want this said" and thus, typically, grammar rules apply. The reason being, poets want to get to an audience that is both familiar and unfamiliar with poetry. They want their neighbor to be able to pick up their poem and read it and understand it, and they want their editor to be able to do the same. The most standard communication is going to be their native tongue with their native grammar, however, our spoken grammar today has changed from the standard grammar passed down by schools.

For this reason, it is possible to have an alternate grammar that doesn't match school/standardized grammar, but is still completely understood. Poets utilize this when creating alternate punctuation, and new words. This is where "'cuz" comes from in a poem, or "'til" because they're utilizing the spoken word and the idea that the apostrophe (') can stand in for missing sections of a word like in "can't" and other conjunctions. They're applying old rules to new language.

You can do this too and speak completely like you would actually talk using Alternate Punctuation. The punctuation is there to help you communicate how you said your poem as a support, so you can say "Hey, I break up 'until' to just ''til' and it's the right syllables now for this sonnet" and everyone else to go "yes, I see" and we all move on with our lives.

Positives

This style of poetry allows for writers to really dive into the way they speak and explore how other people speak as well. It is used frequently in cultural poetry, and some people look for it in order to have a marker of what culture a writer comes from.

This can be more than just a way to translate the actual language of today too. It can also make unique, exploratory impressions on a poem by examining how our grammar functions and what we can do to use it better in day to day life.

This style is a challenge to the idea that language can be standardized, and for that, it stands out as one of the hardest choices about how to write your punctuation, but potentially, the most rewarding as well. Each style has it's up and down sides.

Reader Responses

Just like Breath Punctuation, some readers will understand this and appreciate it for what is going on, while other readers will struggle with it. This creates a chance that the poet is going to be isolating themselves into just a poetry reading community rather than being able to share these styles of poems with everyone. However, that is not always the case.

Some readers will actually enjoy this more than Sentence Punctuation to get into poetry because it can be more communicative, more like talking, and they may need that to understand a poem.

Things to Avoid

Avoid going too far out of the box. While this opens the lid, and potentially busts out the walls of grammar and poetry, or punctuation and poetry, it still has to be understandable. Poetry shouldn't be a puzzle for another person to figure out, it should be something written to communicate in a provocative way. To blatantly make a poem confusing with the punctuation is going to put readers off of reading the poem, and there's no satisfaction in it, unless all of your friends are code-breakers, then go ahead and share it with them. These are called riddles and should be labeled as such.

Using this punctuation style means that your understanding of punctuation has to be spot on. Each symbol of punctuation has a particular meaning and those meanings have connotations just like words. A period at the end of a sentence means something a lot different than an empty space. A comma and a dash have a different feel when used in sentences too. It may seem silly, but when exploring punctuation, understanding the uses of those punctuation marks is essential because how people perceive them is what is important in this style.

Most times people will say that the grammar is wrong, and that's just going to happen. As long as it's consistent through the poem, it's okay.

  





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No Punctuation

This style is one of the more popular ones among people on YWS. The basic style is that there are no punctuation marks. There are no periods, no commas, occasionally they'll use apostrophes still, but sometimes they won't. It depends on the author choice. There are poems several centuries old which utilize a lack of punctuation to create tone in their poem, so it's not like this is a new style, however, some poets on here and elsewhere use it to make a more open feeling to their poems, especially if it lacks capitalization.

Positives

This style can create many new and interested interpretations about what the sentences include and allow a more unique reading experience for every reader. It also can encourage readers to pay attention because without those guidelines to dictate what goes where, a reader has to interpret it for themselves.

As a style, it promotes a sense of openness with the reader just having the words. Depending on the poem, it can create a quieter, smoother tone, or a more chaotic tone for readers who aren't reading aloud. It depends on both the reader, and the poem.

Tip: Poems should experience a lack of punctuation at some point in their editing cycle. Poetry can be about bare bones, writing only what is necessary and nothing extraneous, so having a poem at that point of no punctuation can help a writer understand the unique aspects of their word choice better, and develop a deeper understanding of what they want to say and how to change the way they say it if need be. It is good for editing out words, finding fragments, getting rid of punctuation that is in the wrong place, and just overall clearness of a poem.

Reader Responses

The house is split on a lack of punctuation. Many people dislike it, many people love it. There are some people scattered in the middle, but for the most part it is a love-hate relationship.

That relationship comes from the idea that we need grammar to read and understand words, vs the idea that we can understand words by reading them aloud and hearing where the grammar would be.

For readers who are unfamiliar with poetry, no punctuation can be intimidating until they get a grasp of what's going on and how the writer left it open for interpretation and personal exploration. After that point new readers can really fly through these poems and love them.

Some beat poems also tend towards No Punctuation because they're going to be reading it anyway and they want to be able to get into the moment with the words they've roughly sketched out and then they publish that copy. These can be very powerful poems, especially when the emphasis is created by capitalization instead of punctuation.

Things to Avoid

This style doesn't quite mesh so well with line capitalization now-a-days, but it used to be done. That being said, the differences in tone that line capitalization and lack of punctuation or no punctuation create tend to contrast one another like complimentary colors.

The only real hazard to avoid is having a poem that needs punctuation without it. How you can tell if your poem needs punctuation is simple, remove it and see if you like it better. If you do, chances are you don't need punctuation in the poem. Double check what that is going to say as a message to your reader however, because oftentimes it will change.

Without punctuation a poem is basically saying that it is going to disregard formality. For highly emotional poetry, this is perfect. For less emotional, more thoughtful poems, however, this can be a problem. The best thing to do is to explore the different options of both punctuation and capitalization to find what matches what you want the reader to feel when you re-read it.

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Punctuation and Capitalization

Melding punctuation and capitalization is not as hard as it sounds. We do it all the time. The different tones that these mixes introduce is going to be what needs to be discovered.

In capitalization there are basically four choices, Line Capitalization, Sentence Capitalization, Non-Capitalization, and Alternative Capitalization. They are basically what they sound like.

Line Capitalization: Has a capital at the beginning of each line.

Sentence Capitalization: Has a capital at the beginning of each sentence.

Non-Capitalization: Includes little to no capitalization throughout the entire poem.

Alternative Capitalization: Picks and chooses from the other three capitalization styles.

Each of these can be used with any of the punctuation styles. To determine what is best for your poem, you should try different types of capitalization and punctuation. The best way to start is to determine what capitalization you want to use because that can tell you more about the punctuation you want.

For instance, if you're using an alternative capitalization style, such as capitalizing for stress rather than sentences or line, then you have more freedom as a writer to be understood when you lack all punctuation.

To better understand the different feelings that a poem can create with different combinations, write a short poem that's very emotional, and a short poem that's more logical, or beautiful, and test out the different combinations. For shorthand, you can use abbreviations such as SC for Sentence Capitalization and SP for Sentence Punctuation. Then you can try the following list:

LC with LP, SP, BP, AP, NP
SC with LP, SP, BP, AP, NP
NC with LP, SP, BP, AP, NP
AC with LP, SP, BP, AP, NP


You can use these as a template for your exploration and try to determine what your individual style is through what you liked best, and how you learned to explore the punctuation with the repetitive nature of just changing one thing at a time.

For more information about Capitalization in Poetry, check out the sister article to this one Capitalization in Poetry

  








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