Punctuation in Poetry

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.

Line Punctuation

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.

Sentence Punctuation

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,
they frosted.

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.

Breath Punctuation

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,
they frosted.

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.

No Punctuation

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.

Alternative Punctuation

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.

  1. Did this article help you see a different type of punctuation opportunity?
  2. Do you see something that’s different from your experience?
  3. What’s your favorite style of punctuation?
  4. What style do you want to see in more detail first?

Metaphorical Discussions

Hey guys, today I thought I’d look at metaphor since it’s something that is so heavily laced not only in poetry but in writing in general. Metaphors are something that are around us all day every day, but we never really pay them much mind. For instance, most idioms started out as metaphors. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease” comes from people having squeaky wheels on wagons. “Don’t rock the boat” comes from a time when fishing and boating was more prevalent.

So here are some things that school wouldn’t have taught you:

Metaphors are not always nouns related to one another. For instance “the truck washed through the traffic” is using a verb ‘washed’ for the metaphor. The truck can’t literally wash through anything, and washing out something is usually reserved for a river or a a washing machine of some sort. It still works as a metaphor because it’s descriptive and relatable. We often wouldn’t even qualify it as a metaphor because it’s so commonplace to use phrases like that. They often end up classified as personification too.

Metaphors are best used when relating very common situations. Think about one of the primary uses of metaphors, describing emotions, and consider some of your favorite. “My heart is a racehorse whenever I see her” is a good example of a metaphor with something abstract like love and something common like racehorses. Even if you’ve never actually been to the horse races, you know what they’re like. We’ve all seen them recreated on TV and in movies. We all know that concept. That’s what makes it a strong metaphor.

An entire poem can be a metaphor. Sometimes when writing a descriptive poem I find it fun to create a metaphor and stick with it for the entire poem. There is one I did recently about dust where I used the dust as a metaphor for my speaker throughout the poem. These can be enlightening because they give people a common object to look at and a complex object to relate it to.

Metaphors don’t always have to be bread and butter. By that metaphor I mean they don’t have to match perfectly every time. If I’m writing a longer metaphor, like the poem about dust, I like to work through the metaphor and lead the train of thought down the paths I need rather than the paths that don’t work. It’s all about finding a way to create an expectation away from notions that don’t fit with the metaphor.

You don’t have to use them! Even in poetry using metaphors is optional. If you don’t like them, you have their cousin similes which are just as useful as metaphors, although they don’t always pack the same punch. For example if we were writing a metaphor of someone’s life becoming horrible and saying it was like getting ripped apart by wolves, it’s a very different experience to literally have a man eaten by wolves, and to have his boss eat him like a wolf for a tension in a story.

Readers don’t have to understand or notice every metaphor. Not all readers are engaging with a story as something to analyze and that’s okay. Some of them just like to enjoy the pretty pictures. I know I do. That doesn’t mean you have to stop putting them in, it just means that you don’t have to be upset if they don’t see them. Also, sometimes metaphors come so naturally to a reader they won’t even notice you wrote it in. Those are the good ones.

It’s not necessary to only use real life things as metaphors. One of my favorite things to write are metaphors where the emotion or object we’re somewhat familiar with is actually describing an unknown new book specific thing in what feels like a reverse metaphor. For instance “His twisting mind was a jarraquin eating her lunch.” tells us more information about what “jarraquin” might be or mean rather than how his mind twisted. We know from personal experience what a “twisting mind” might look like and since we have a little context of “eating her lunch” we know this is probably an animal or a living thing of some sort. With “twisting” paired with it we can assume that it’s something that bends awkwardly and twists. This is one way we can clue in our readers using context clues in a very short description. We could even go on to say “his vivacious emotions are bright jarraquin plumage on his face” to add to a description of them using more vibrant words.

The last thing school might not have taught you about metaphor is that they’re great for arguments. If you want to argue with someone about something and you bring up a solid metaphor, oftentimes you can use it to support your argument through a wide variety of examples from the metaphor’s object and it will actually work until they realize they can say “yeah, but the man wasn’t eaten by wolves” to get out of it.

Do you have any tips for writing metaphors?
Do you have any metaphors you love to use?
Have you used a metaphor in a poem recently and you want to share?

Comment! I’d love to hear from you.

NaPo Day 3-5

Where am i?

Rest on borrowed pillows
beneath gifted blankets
in a house which is too expensive,
behind windows with broken seals
and with nothing to own but
that which is given freely.

An employee of the system
self-promotion, negotiation
a debt which negates wages
any wages
what wages can you spare?
Not begging, but taking anything
nothing, a ten, a twenty,
it always seems too much

This is the existence in which i live.
Last in the syntactic order
above only shame as somehow
there is a positive face i steal.


Break fast across my tempting plate
a moment too soon for my stomach
to be ruled by my brain. A second
later and the guilt guts me like a fish.

The melting, gooey, sweet, liquefying satisfaction
bites at my desire and satiates it. Yes, this is guilty making.

Thanks a lot Easter.

In the Barn

I was working with this little filly, a sweet-heart if every I knew one
and this day she just did not want to work.
I had to use the lunge whip and a plastic bag just to get her moving
then she was constantly turning in and trying to spook.

I think she finally talked to the bullheaded gelding next door
because she was trying to buck the saddle off like he’d done yesterday.
She doesn’t quite have his lung capacity though
and the martingale made it harder on her.

Now she’s acting more like a warm blooded than her typical self
but I’m sure she’ll get over it after a couple half passes
as long as I can keep her on the vertical.
I’m going to have fun today.

Was it Something I Said

One of my professors asked me if I was walking in graduation. I’m graduating this May. I replied with this:

I actually feel really attached to that sort of ceremony because it just finalizes things for me and makes me feel more like, united with the world. I don’t know if that seems odd, but it makes me feel good to know that I’m not alone, that I’m a face in the collection and we did it together, even if we didn’t do it literally together, but like, we all managed to get through this journey together in our own unique ways, sort of like going into a dark forest, sometimes spying silhouettes of our neighbors who walk not ten feet away, but we rarely see their faces. Sometimes we grasp hands, sometimes we have leaders or paths paved, but a lot of it is unmarked, overgrown, and we might just have thickets to contend with. Coming out the other side, walking with everyone, seeing all the faces that were in that forest with you, it really fills me with relief. Especially since I can walk with honors. To me that just adds an element of justification, like what I did, I did well, and doing it well matters. So often you hear that it doesn’t matter how good your grades were in school once you get a job, but there, walking, it does. I didn’t just come out the other side, but for my wounds and scrapes, I achieved too.

I’m saving it because she liked it.


It’s between classes now. That’s always a hard time to get things done because so little seems to happen. My most productive season between was when I went out to my grandmothers house. I don’t do well otherwise. To fix this, I’m going to read KL by Shakespeare over the summer and I’ll be reviewing […]