How to Punctuate Poetry

How to Punctuate Poetry

A quick guide to sculpting language.

Image for postPhoto by Shreyas Chaudhari on Unsplash

Today in Poets on Medium, Laura Manipura asked about punctuation and poetry. So I thought that I would give my own quick primer.

Punctuating poetry is not the same as punctuating prose.

There are a lot of rules about how to use standard English punctuation. Most of it is fairly wonky and relatively annoying, but it all serves the purpose of making things clear. There are some obvious examples of how punctuation aids in that:

  • Let?s eat grandma.
  • Let?s eat, grandma.

I could go full-on English teacher and explain all of this in technical language, but you understand the difference between these two sentences, right? The first sentence implies that it?s the grandmother being eaten, while the second is inviting the grandmother to eat.

All of that hangs on a simple comma. The entire meaning of a sentences hinges on a little smudge of ink. This has come up in arguments over the United States Constitution which is, you know, not a document where you want a great deal of ambiguity.

You all are going to think that I?m bat-shit crazy, but one of the things that really helped me understand this was sentence diagramming. It?s difficult as hell, but it really helps you see how all of the words connect to each other, how they all play off of each other.

Anyway, all of this is to say that the first rule of punctuating poetry is clarity: you want the meaning of your words to be clear.

Punctuation can also be used to regulate how poems flow.

Once you get beyond the issue of clarity, however, poetry can play fast and loose with the technical rules of punctuation in order to regulate where pauses are taken while reading, and how long and complete they are.

Think of it in terms of driving speed.

A comma is a speed bump in the middle of a thought. It tells you to slow down, to give a little pause in your speech because you?re transitioning to a new clause. It?s not a completely new idea, but it?s a transition of sorts.

Capital letters, semi-colons, dashes, and line breaks are (in ascending order) slightly bigger speed-bumps. They require more consideration, a heftier slow-down.

A period is a stop sign. Full stop. Not like we do in Southern California, but an actual full stop.

A stanza break is a red light. It takes a moment or two for the light to change; it?s a slightly larger pause. You?re moving on to a new collection of ideas.

If this paragraph was a poem and i wanted to go at breakneck speed i would stop using any punctuation at all and let the words run into each other one after another you might even notice that i stop capitalizing the letter i because even that indicates the beginning of a new thought in other words it tells you to stop and pay attention but by continuing to write without punctuation like this i can put a whole lot of words ideas images into your head one after the other and as long as nothing that i say has its meaning dependent on punctuation like eating grandma i can continue to hammer one concept after another into your head at a breakneck speed.

And then. You stop. You catch your breath.

This. Is. Poetry. You. Can. Break. These. Rules.

Isn?t punctuation fun?

Capitalizing the first letter of each line.

It?s a thing in old-timey poetry.

Let?s consider Mr. Shakespeare:

The little Love-god lying once asleepLaid by his side his heart-inflaming brand,Whilst many nymphs that vow?d chaste life to keepCame tripping by; but in her maiden handThe fairest votary took up that fireWhich many legions of true hearts had warm?d;And so the general of hot desireWas sleeping by a virgin hand disarm?d.This brand she quenched in a cool well by,Which from Love?s fire took heat perpetual,Growing a bath and healthful remedyFor men diseased; but I, my mistress? thrall,Came there for cure, and this by that I prove,Love?s fire heats water, water cools not love. (Sonnet CLIV)

Capitalizing the first letter of each line in old poetry is so standard that it?s almost seen as a rule. Something that has to be done.

But it isn?t. It?s a tool like any other.

Notice that each line contains its own thought. And going back to a capital letter at the beginning of each line hammers home that you?re beginning a new thought, a new idea.

To use the metaphor we used before, it?s like putting an extra speed bump at each line break. It?s a longer, more significant pause.

Now consider the poem ?Good Bones? by Maggie Smith:

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.Life is short, and I?ve shortened minein a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,a thousand deliciously ill-advised waysI?ll keep from my children. The world is at leastfifty percent terrible, and that?s a conservativeestimate, though I keep this from my children.For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,sunk in a lake. Life is short and the worldis at least half terrible, and for every kindstranger, there is one who would break you,though I keep this from my children. I am tryingto sell them the world. Any decent realtor,walking you through a real shithole, chirps onabout good bones: This place could be beautiful,right? You could make this place beautiful.

Read both of these poems out loud and notice how differently they flow! Maggie Smith?s poem doesn?t have the same double speedbump at the front of every line. Instead, the thoughts flow smoothly from one line over the other. It?s sinuous. It?s serpentine. It?s less rigid than the Shakespeare.

If you were working on your poetry MFA, you would say that she employs enjambment to great effect.

In short:

The question isn?t what are the rules, but, rather, what effect do I want to create and how can I use punctuation to create that?

Learn all my tricks for writing a great query letter.

Zach J. Payne is, to borrow the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, ?a polymath, a pain in the ass, a massive Payne?. He is a thespian, poet, and writer for young adults. He is the #2 Ninja Writer. A native of Whittier, CA, he currently lives in Warren, PA.

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