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ABC's of Punctuation in Poetry

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Mon Dec 01, 2008 7:07 pm
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Turntable Jack says...

Punctuation and Poetry

Throughout my time reading poetry from young writers, I realized something rather shocking. Punctuation is often ignored. Not incorrectly used most of the time, but simply ignored. Just because poetry is short and it’s structure is unlike any other literature, it doesn’t mean you can ignore punctuation at all. In fact, punctuation is more important in poetry than in any other form of literature.

Importance of Punctuation

Punctuation can be both intimidating and confusing, but when it comes to poetry, it is your closest friend. Poetry is usually written with few words compared to other forms of literature, so making the most out of what you have is very important. punctuation is nothing more than a creative tool to add to your poem. If you ignore punctuation, then the reader won’t know where to stop reading and take pauses, the reader won’t know what words to put more emphasis on, the reader won’t know what words you believe are the most important, and the reader may simply get confused. Not only all of that, but when you use punctuation in your poem, it makes you look like a better writer.

How to Use Punctuation

Believe it or not, using punctuation in poetry is actually easier than most forms of literature. For each line in your stanza, treat it like a normal sentence until you come to the end. So take these individual lines from a poem,

Not very fair or lovely but that is the purpose

Once again, treat the individual line just like a normal sentence with the exception of the end. So the line would be,

Not very fair or lovely, but that is the purpose

Now let’s see that again with this line from a poem,

I am in your bedroom watching you rest

The line would turn into,

I am in your bedroom; watching you rest

Nothing complicated, right? The punctuation in the line of the poem is nothing new, and is just like punctuation in a newspaper, book, or article. That is, with the exception of how you end the line. For the most part, your line will end with a period, comma, semicolon, or nothing. To decide which one of the four to use, you have to look at the following line. In poetry, each line is NOT a sentence always. Instead, multiple lines make up the sentence, which can be very difficult to get use to.

1 = Periods

To end the line in a period, it means that that line is the end of a sentence and the following line is not a part of the sentence. So read the following few lines from a poem,

I am sorry to say I am at your front door
You will beg for mercy, you will beg for aid

The first line and the second line is not the same sentence and should NOT be combined. Therefore, you must end the first sentence in a period. So it would be,

I am sorry to say I am at your front door.
You will beg for mercy, you will beg for aid

You may be wondering why the second line has not punctuation to end it. The reason is we do NOT know what the line after that is. It could be a period if the third line has nothing to do with it, or it could be a comma or semicolon. Which brings us to our next point.

2 = Commas

To end a line of a poem with a comma, the following line must be part of the same sentence. So read this poem,

I am going to buy some chicken
And veggies

It should be this,

I am going to buy some chicken,
And veggies

A very useful technique to find out when to use a comma or not, is to pretend it is not a poem and write everything on the same line. So for the previous poem, write it out like this,

I am going to buy some chicken Eggs Milk Lettuce And veggies

Now when looking at it from this angle, it may be more obvious to you that there should be commas as it is simply a list. Here is another example,

You will beg for mercy, you will beg for aid
But nothing will save you, not even your lord

The previous two lines are actually one sentence and the word “But” is joining them together. So using a comma would be the appropriate choice and the lines would look like this,

You will beg for mercy, you will beg for aid,
But nothing will save you, not even your lord

3 = Semicolons

Semicolons are very difficult to use in any form of literature. So if you cannot use a semicolon outside of a poem, don’t use one with a poem. 99% of the time a comma can take the place of a semicolon. Here is a good link to learn how to use semicolons, ... colon.html . Just like commas and periods, all you do is look at the following sentence and decide whether or not a semicolon is the right punctuation to join the two lines together.

4 = Nothing

You add nothing to the end of the line when you do not want the reader to pause and the next line is just a continuation of the line. For example,

I am going to
get the shoes

This would stay the same because that is all one sentence with no needed breaks.


Let’s be short on this one. Capitalize the beginning of each line. Short and simple. Any other time you should capitalize something is when you normally would. Such as proper nouns or the beginning of a sentence.

No Rules

No rules? What in the world does that mean? Well I sort of lied to everyone who read this. Poetry doesn’t have rules. What I wrote is how to technically add punctuation to a poem and what you may be taught in school. You should learn to use punctuation correctly before ignoring the rules though to be honest. Poetry is whatever you want it to be. If you want to not capitalize anything, or add any punctuation at all to show rebellion in your poem or to prove a point, do it. If you want to incorrectly add punctuation, do it. There is nothing wrong with that if you do it right. Now just don’t ignore punctuation because you can’t do it or you simply don’t feel like. Like I said before, punctuation is a strong creative tool to use when writing poetry. The absence of it also can be a very strong tool such as,

i dont conform
i dont do what you want
i dont follow the rules
i dont bend to the norm

So don't let punctuation hold you back from writing poetry. Have fun.

Written by Turntable Jack,
and last edited on 12/03/2008

You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.
— Anne Lamott