Line Punctuation is one of the most common forms of punctuation for old styles of poetry. If you flip through an old poetry book, you’re going to run across it, and most teachers show poems with line punctuation first in their classes.
Line Punctuation Value
The value of line punctuation really breaks down to one thing, reading poetry. When a reader has line punctuation, they feel more at ease reading a poem if and only if they have a habit of stopping at the end of a line.
Since poetry used to be all about that sound, ’bout that sound, ’bout that sound, not written, the end of the line usually was the end of a sentence, or where a period, exclamation point, comma, dash, or other type of punctuation was sitting.
After all, when poetry was first transcribed and read in letter, it was meant to be read for those who were still illiterate for a long time afterwards. It wasn’t common to read poems in print, therefor the language had to be geared towards shorter lines with obvious beat and punctuation that assisted the reader to get it right each and every time, and the same each and every time.
Rhyming also has some support with line punctuation because the natural meter that line punctuation can provide, can help hide or stretch some of the rhymes that are weaker than others. Using line punctuation cannot make words like word and fear rhyme, but word and chard, yeah, it might hide that if you’re good.
There are some exceptions to the rule ‘punctuation at the end of every line’, like with everything. Line punctuation was never meant to be a strict thing, it was happenstance due to the meter and way that poetry was developing into a literary tool. For instance, when flipping through a book of Spenser, who is a poet around the mid to late 1500s before the standardization of a dictionary was widely accepted (1700ish), we have this poem:
To His Brooke.
Goe little brooke: thy selfe present,
as child whose parent was unkent:
To him that is the president
Of noblesse and of chevalree,
And if that Envie barke at thee,
As sure it will, for succoure flee
Under the shadow of his wing,
and asked, who thee forth did bring,
A shepheards swaine saye did thee sing,
All as his straying flocke he fedde:
And when his honor has thee redde:
Carve pardon for my hardyhedde.
But if that any aske thy name,
Say thou wert base begot with blame:
For thy thereof thou takest shame.
And when thou art past jeopardee,
Come tell me, what was sayd of mee:
And I will send more after thee.
As you can see, the poem is before the time when words were spelled like they are today. This is back around/before Shakespeare, and it has two lines that do not have punctuation at the end. “To him that is the president” and “As sure it will, for succoure flee” both lack a punctuation mark at the end!
This was during the time when punctuation at the end of a line was at it’s height, and the majority of his poems have the cadence that support punctuation falling at the end. So what can this tell us today? Well, that it’s not necessary even when using an older style to maintain strictly to having punctuation at the end of literally every line. There’s more to it than that.
Putting it Together
What line punctuation is good for is when you’re writing a poem with a certain meter [cadence] and you want to ensure that meter is being met. That means the writer is using those punctuation marks more like breath punctuation, or to follow the inflection of the poem, rather than just because it’s the end of a line.
Traditionally, meter ends at the end of the line with a strong or soft beat that feels like the end of the pattern, and therefore it ends up with end punctuation. This is when it’s typically supported the most by how the poem is read. If a poem doesn’t read with a meter, chances are it won’t look good, or sound good, with line punctuation.
- Not all lines need punctuation at the end
- Metered poetry supports line punctuation
- Rhymes also support line punctuation as rhymes can be part of metered poems
- Line punctuation supports a reader who wants to stop at the end of each line
- It can seem like a really old style for a poem.
The problem with using line punctuation might seem obvious to some of you by this point, especially those of you who are familiar with it from personal experience, but let me lay out how I’ve responded as a reader to line punctuation.
Most of the time, poets who are trying to be dramatic use line punctuation exclusively. They will write poems like:
My life is a lie …
I want to die …
I wasn’t so lonely.
No one loves me.
My cat hates me.
I want to drown in the sea!
And being someone who handles a lot of unpracticed poets, I am stuck trying to explain why it doesn’t have any emotion when they’re talking about suicide. So where do I begin? Personally, I start with structure because these lines are not beefy and that’s a big part of the problem.
Taking away the line punctuation doesn’t help this poem, by any means, but, after seeing a lot of poems like this, and writing a lot of them myself when I was at that delicate age of hating the world, I grew out of love with line punctuation. So the first thing I check whenever I read the poem as a critiquer is line punctuation and capitalization. If those two things are there, chances are, I’m not going to like this poem as much.
If the poem shows promise after I get by the first two lines, I try to struggle away my general dislike from years of handling poorly written line punctuated and capitalized poems, but it can be a struggle.
When I did Submission Reading for literary magazines, and when I do contests, these two things are top on the list of annoying things for most readers I was speaking to. Just to stand out, staying away from these two things can be a good idea. The third top thing was rhyming in poems.
That being said, don’t let it compromise your poem if the poem feels best with this formal style. Just know what battleground you’re entering if you want to submit it.
Should I Use it?
I am a strong advocate for using anything and everything in your arsenal, so line punctuation is no different. The question should never be ‘should’, but ‘when’ because it has it’s time and place.
For instance, if you were writing a haiku, probably not the best time to use line punctuation. Haiku aren’t a style that benefit from the added structure because they started out with their own structure and rely on a couplet, and a turn.
However, if you are writing a villanelle, or a cinquain, or some other form of poetry that either requires meter and/or rhyme, using end punctuation and enjambment can create a completely new and unique atmosphere for an old style of poetry, or an older feeling to make it seem dated and antique.
The best thing for you to do as a poet is to experiment and read. The more you read, the more you’ll discover what touches your funny bone, kicks you in the shin, or gives you a back massage after a long day’s work. In other words, you’ll find what you like and what you don’t like. If you avoid writing the types of poems you don’t like, you’ll find an audience who likes what you like too.
After all, we’re a bit of a niche right now. Most people who read poetry are those who write it, so if you, as a writer, don’t like something, chances are your audience doesn’t either.
If you enjoyed reading about line punctuation, check out Quirni on Amazon Kindle to see how I utilize my poetic language in a full on science fiction adventure! Join Erica as she explores a whole new world in Book One and help support my blogging hobby by buying a copy.
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