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?
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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.

The Theory of Friendships in Literature

This is sort of something I’ve been rolling around in my head for a while, so I’m going to write it out and you can agree or disagree, but I think it’s important to write out.

When a group of characters start a relationship, it is often the case that the writer will create a clear advantage for one person, and a clear disadvantage for another.

Let’s take some examples

Starting out the relationship between Captain America and Iron Man was very very tentative. They didn’t like each other, to put it bluntly. CA thought IM was a full of himself jerk, and IM thought CA was outdated and a goody goody. How is it that through the story, these two develop a bond?

My answer is the following formula.

  • A is more x, B is more y
  • B dislikes A for x[specific] or A dislikes B for y[specific]
  • B gains p from relationship with A or A gains z from relationship with B
  • A saves B
  • B develops a respect/trust/friendship for A
  • B saves A
  • A finally feels satisfied with B

If we look at this in context, it goes something like this for Captain America and Iron Man.

  • Captain America is physically stronger and more nationally driven, while Iron Man is much smarter with technology and a freer spirit to invent and create.
  • Iron Man dislikes Captain America for being such a goody goody
  • However, Iron Man has to follow Captain America’s leadership while Captain America has to use Iron Man for his innovative tools and information.
  • Captain America doesn’t let Iron Man grind up in the fans[I forget what they were called].
  • Iron Man develops a trust for Captain America’s ability to be punctual enough in the end, and to be able to be there when it counts.
  • Iron Man saves Captain America by throwing the Nuke into the sky. [He might have done it before this too at some point but this is the one I’m going to use.]
  • Captain America finally feels that Iron Man is worth having on the team because he will go all the way in the end if he needs to even if he doesn’t think he will ever need to.

Of course, this formula doesn’t necessarily develop friendship. What it shows developing is trust, in my opinion. You put two people in situations individually where they have to save each other, and they begin to understand that they can rely on each other to be safe. This key development of trust is necessary in two ways, A to B and B to A because once you’re not trusted by someone, you don’t always want to trust them unconditionally again.

We can see this working in more ways than just action movies too. Sometimes it’s something more elementary that is being used as a “save”

If we look at Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling uses this to develop the bond between Harry, Hermione, and Ron.

  • Hermione is smarter and a better wizard but Harry and Ron are more daring.
  • Harry and Ron are reluctant to keep Hermione around because she’s a girl and she doesn’t really fit in. She’s a know it all! [she followed them into the clutch of danger]
  • Hermione wants friendship and she feels like she gets that from Harry and Ron.
  • Hermione uses her smarts to get more information on the Philosopher’s stone and saves them from Fluffy, and the vines.
  • Harry and Ron realize just how useful having Hermione is for everything.
  • Harry and Ron save Hermione from being alone and in the future, protect her from bullying
  • The three of them remain close friends through the series saving each other countless times

Even if we look at some classics, like Pride and Prejudice, we can see this at play.

The initial bond between Darcy and Elizabeth is a bad one. Darcy doesn’t want to like Elizabeth, but he does, and Elizabeth does not like Darcy, but she can’t hurt her sister’s suitor’s friend to his face. That covers the first three. How do they save each other? Darcy saves Elizabeth from ruin when Lydia elopes, and Elizabeth saves Darcy from loneliness in the end when they actually get married. If you’ll notice, Elizabeth too was potentially going to be alone forever, and she too was saved by wedding Darcy because he’s discovered to be a good man and nothing like what she thought. In this way, when Elizabeth realizes that Darcy has saved her, she grows a very tight trust to him, and that trust allows Darcy to reassess and restate what he wants. Before this point, Darcy had every faith that Elizabeth was a beautiful woman who could make him happy, and in a way, she’s already saved him from being bored on a number of occasions.

I’d like to state that save, then, does not have to be something that is simply a physical act, but it can be an emotional one, or a metaphysical one as well. Within any conflict of person vs person, person vs self, person vs object, etc. there is a chance that someone else could step in, and help bring both, or one party out of the conflict by resolving it externally. If Jesus and Lucifer were fighting a war, and God stepped in and said No, Jesus wins, God saves Jesus. Likewise if a child is struggling with a jar of pickles and their parent steps in to open it for them, they are relieved from that conflict and thus, saved. Taking saved to the next level like this will allow us to develop better, tighter relationships through trust, without developing situations that our characters have to die in to be saved. The biggest potential for saving someone else is loneliness. Humans are pack animals, so to speak, we need other people to get along. There is all the potential in the world that one person could save another just by being a stranger who smiled at them.

So what happens if one of the pieces is missing? I think some of these are exaggerated points, to be honest. The key thing is that A saves B, and B saves A. As long as A and B both develop an understanding that the other person will have their back, that trust is going to be there on some level. Even between Villains and Heros there is a trust that goes into this relationship. The hero relies on the villain to not come up and shoot him in the head if he is developing overboard technology to take over the world. Likewise, the Villain is trusting that the Hero won’t shoot him in the head either. It is in their playbooks to avoid direct confrontation until the last minute, and when they do, not to kill each other. If that trust is broken, then, well, usually one party is dead and the story is over. Take Breaking Bad for instance, when Walter started being a complete crazy person, his partner lost faith in him and tried to quit, this is a break down of this trust, but because they both had, at one point in time, saved each other, his partner still didn’t ever think Walter would kill him.

If one of the sides has not saved the other, I think the biggest thing that happens is a weak friendship if there is friendship at all. Sometimes this happens, especially when one side is much weaker than the other and cannot possibly come up with a situation where they can save the other person. They can still form valuable relationships, but they are less valuable than if if that trust was formed, and not as long term.

How this is Applicable

Now that I’ve gone through and displayed the thoughts behind this, and some unique examples for how it can be used, I hope that people will see it as something they can use to develop trust between characters in situations where there wasn’t any trust in the novel to begin with, in a realistically accepted way.

To me, friendship and bonds are built through equivalent exchange. When both parties feel that it is valuable to keep the relationship, that is when they are most valuable to the individuals involved. Relationships, then, are an exchange of worth between two individuals. This requires trust that the other individual isn’t just going to suddenly drop out of nowhere and be useless with their information.

So, in writing stories, this is most useful because we can develop plots around trust development of two characters, and from then on, rely on that past experience to carry that trust until it is eroded past it’s worth, usually through A not saving B or B not saving A when they would have before. To regain this trust is harder than to form it originally because trust can break a lot easier than it can form.