I mentioned during my segments on capitalization in poetry that I would go over punctuation in poetry in a similar manner. Well, the time has come so let’s dive in with getting an overview of all of the different types of punctuation I’ve seen in poetry. If you’ve seen more, please comment and write your post about your style of punctuation you’ve seen, and I’ll link it in this post! I’d love for this to be collaborative.
The types of punctuation I see most in poetry are what I’m going to call Line Punctuation, Sentence Punctuation, Breath Punctuation, or No Punctuation. This is not an exhaustive list so I’ll add in ‘Alternative’ Punctuation as a final catch-all category to show you some of the author specific methods. I will go over each one briefly but this article is mostly for naming and explaining what they all are. In later articles I’ll go over each one individually and those links will be edited into this article once those articles are posted.
First up is the traditional. Line Punctuation is for when a poem has end punctuation, or very standard punctuation for the syncopation of the poem.
The blue buds bloomed,
beneath the spring sun —
little heads peeking, slowly,
a tentative reach for warmth,
after the long winter.
They calmed into the nippy day,
as it warmed, their green shoots;
unprepared for night, they frosted.
The important thing to note is that not all lines end in just commas. Sometimes they get jumbled up with other punctuation types, but each and every line has punctuation at the end and the beat for each line is typically the same, or at least similar. This is most commonly seen in older styles of poetry.
Today some people see this end punctuation structure as naive because it can break up the flow of the poem, and hinder any real distance of a breath. You’re not reading through the lines to keep the reader interested in these poems, but pausing to contemplate each one. That takes longer as a reader, and sometimes it can lose interest.
The best place for this is when you’re trying to mimic a slower style of poetry, or an older style. If you’re using spoken word and you want each line to be impactful, it’s often a good thing to use as well because you don’t want your readers reading through the end of the line if the end of your lines are your important loud sounds.
This type of punctuation is based on the idea that poems are made up of sentences and it often pairs with Sentence Capitalization. Basically, if you would punctuate it in a paragraph, you punctuate it in the poem like that.
The blue buds bloomed beneath
the spring sun. Little heads peeking
slowly, a tentative reach for warmth
after the long winter.
They calmed into the nippy day as it warmed
their green shoots. Unprepared for night,
The example above is the same words, I just changed the punctuation to show you something fun you can do with sentence punctuation: enjambment. Because you aren’t constrained by having to end with punctuation, you can make different styles of liens and get a more varied experience with a poem using Sentence Punctuation.
This style is the most commonly used today for punctuation in poetry that I’ve seen due to the versatile nature and the general acceptance of grammar guidelines for any other form of writing applying. If you need a comma as a paragraph, you need a comma for a poem. Oftentimes this makes it easier for readers who are more unfamiliar with poetry to accept and read the poem as well due to the familiar nature.
Sentence Punctuation works best with poems that aren’t trying to rebel against anything, or show anything off aside from their words. If you want the punctuation to be in the background, this is a good choice.
This is one of the less traditional methods of punctuation. Basically anywhere you pause while reading your poem, put a comma, anywhere you stop, put a period, and anywhere you feel like it, put whatever other type of punctuation you want. You need to be consistent with what you’re using the punctuation for, but after that, it doesn’t much matter.
The blue buds, bloomed, beneath
the spring sun. Little heads, peeking
slowly, a tentative reach, for warmth
after the long, winter.
They calmed, into the nippy day, as it warmed
their green shoots. Unprepared for night,
This style can be used for more dramatic readings and as a reminder if you’re reading spoken poem where you want your pauses to be. Oftentimes this type of punctuation will get comments that you’re using punctuation wrong however, if you’re on a poetry reviewing site. This could also be why I am slowly beginning to see more of it accepted into poetry magazines. It’s harder to see that the writer isn’t just using punctuation wrong, but the general guideline of it is very straightforward. Read it how the poet wrote it. Use the punctuation as guideposts as they are meant to be.
This is paired best with Sentence Capitalization or Breath Capitalization surprisingly enough because if you’re using either one, the punctuation pretty much falls together with the style. No Capitalization also works nicely with this, especially if you want to add just a touch of structure to your lack of capitalization.
This style is one of the easiest to edit into a poem. Basically, any punctuation you use, take it out. There is some debate about leaving things like apostrophes and other spelling punctuation, so that is up to the poet.
The blue buds bloomed
beneath the spring sun
little heads peeking slowly
a tentative reach for warmth
after the long winter
They calmed into the nippy day
as it warmed their green shoots
unprepared for night they frosted
As you can see I went back to the line punctuation version of this poem to show you the effects and how this works. Without punctuation, our brains will automatically decide where we want to stop and start sentences, so naturally it’s a little easier to see the sentences if we have clear chunks that don’t have enjambment. Because of that, this style lends itself well to shorter lines which are usually just verb/noun/etc. phrases.
The effect on the reader can range depending on the style of capitalization you choose to pair with this particular style of punctuation, so this one is worth exploring. I’ve often found that it works best with dark or brooding poems, or poems that are showing some form of rebellion because we’re stripping away the societal norm of guidelines for how to read something, and imposing the reader’s choice. It can create multiple different ways to read a single poem and a lot of younger poets really love that aspect of this style. You can allow the reader to explore and really just step back into the audience as the poet.
Some more styles of punctuation that some people use are:
- Ellipsis Punctuation: Putting . . . at the end of each line for dramatic effect.
- Dash Punctuation: Look up Emily Dickinson.
- Meter Punctuation: Do the same thing as breath, but for the meter strictly.
- Image Punctuation: e. e. cummings style
And any more that you can find. These other styles are often specialized to a particular group of writer, so their presence really tells us that punctuation is fair game to play with in poetry. If we want to get published in a magazine, it might be smart to see what types of punctuation and capitalization they accept before we try to send in our poems, but as long as we have a purpose for our madness, it’s really no holds barred.
Applications in Poetry
When you’re trying to figure out what type of punctuation you want to use in a poem, the best thing to really do is try them out. Just like capitalization, if you don’t know how something will change things, write a poem, apply it to the poem, and re-read it once you have some fresh eyes. The change might be something you love, or it could be something you hate. It’s up to what type of mood and design you want to create on your page.
Just like Capitalization in Poetry provides the backbone of the emotion in a poem, the punctuation can drastically affect the muscular structure. Some poems use more complex language and sentence structure than others, and those poems could get confusing to read with less punctuation, or with a different style of punctuation than they were originally written. Likewise, some poems are written with clearer meanings without punctuation at all due to the variety of interpretations a reader can receive from the absence.
As a rule of thumb, and an easily broken one, if the poem has complex sentences, stick with a more complex punctuation strategy. If you need to legally use parentheses in your sentence, for instance, chances are you’re never going to be able to get rid of them without jimmying the lines.
Punctuation can be expressed through capitalization, lines, and stanzas however. Oftentimes without punctuation, a gap, such as a stanza break, is read as a full stop, and a comma is the end of the line until after the first readthrough. The same can be true when punctuation is available. Some readers can never get over reading a comma at the end of a line, and some will always stop for a pause between stanzas.
If you look at the examples I created, you can see that the punctuation makes you linger in the poem the most with Breath Punctuation and Line Punctuation. The poem reads the fastest with Sentence Punctuation and No Punctuation. This is because the punctuation forces the reader to pause and breathe which lets the words linger longer. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes that’s bad. It’s up to you to figure out what type of effect you want to create using the different styles you can see here.
And lastly, I’m no expert, so I’ll offer this. I’ve had years of playing with poetry, and I’ve had a few published, but if you see something counter to what I’m saying, let me know. I’d love to talk about it with you and edit this or link to your explanations if you’ve written one of these yourselves.
Here are some parting questions. I eagerly await your responses.
- Did this article help you see a different type of punctuation opportunity?
- Do you see something that’s different from your experience?
- What’s your favorite style of punctuation?
- What style do you want to see in more detail first?