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CAPITALIZATIONS IN POETRY: TO CAPITALIZE OR NOT TO CAPITALIZE?

To capitalize or not to capitalize? That is one question facing modern poets.
Are poets expected to capitalize words in their poems – whether at the beginning or within their verses? Should they just write everything in lowercase? Can they alternate? What happens to proper nouns? How do you know line ends? Where….

“Capitalizing the first letter of each beginning word in a line of poetry is traditional, if not contemporary and common. Historically, this is how poetry has been distinguished from other art forms when rendered on the page, and writing it this way is still often taught in elementary and secondary schools.”
— Alberto Rios, A CAPITAL IDEA: SHOULD FIRST WORDS IN LINES OF POEMS BE CAPITALIZED? 

Poetry traditionally took the rules, including capitalization, very rigid and most poets we studied capitalized the first words of every line, especially where there is no enjambment (run on of meaning). Take for example poets Niyi Osundare, William Shakespeare, Leopold Sedar Senghor and Wole Soyinka:

They came one night
Booted the whole house awake
And dragged Danladi out,
Then off to a lengthy absence.
— Niyi Osundare, NOT MY BUSINESS

When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defac’d
The rich-proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed
And brass eternal, slave to mortal rage
— William Shakespeare, SONNET 64

I will pronounce your name, Naett, I will declaim you, Naett!
Naett, your name is mild like cinnamon, it is the fragrance in which the lemon grove sleeps
Naett, your name is the sugared clarity of blooming coffee trees
— Leopold Sedar Senghor, I WILL PRONOUNCE YOUR NAME

In vain your bangles cast
Charmed circles at my feet
I am Abiku, calling for the first
And repeated time.
— Wole Soyinka, ABIKU

Others limited the use capitalization to the beginnings of stanza, names of persons and places (other proper nouns) and left run-in lines (enjambment) in the lower case. Example:

Africa I have long away from you
wandering like a Fulani cow
but every night
amidst the horrors of highway deaths
and the menace of neon-eyed gods
— Sly Cheney Coker, FREETOWN

“Poetry has since undergone a lot of changes. These changes could be attributed to what can be called ‘demystification of poetry’ – it seems that the more poetry is adopted by the general populace, or the ‘commoners’ if you wish, the more the rules are bent. Modern poetry has given more power to the poet over the rules or the form.

“The beauty in modern poetry is its subjectivity. No one Rule Rings them all and the modern poet has more freedom of creativity. Writing a poem, there is a freedom to disregard almost all the rules – punctuation, form, capitalization, stanza form, rhyme scheme, enjambment, and just about anything to bring out your idea.”
Kukogho Iruesiri Samson Samson

“Poetry has undergone a transformation in its known existence, and this can be said of the poetry in cultures world-wide, which more than any other art form encapsulates and epitomizes the metamorphosis of human creativity. This encompasses a lot, (like the entire history of humanity) however with regard to this article, it is enough to realize poetry has gone from a rigid and socially-managed use of language (in terms of authority), to a melee of words confined only by the imaginations of the poets themselves.”
— Stephen Willhite, CAPITALIZATION IN POETRY 

And here is what one of the modern poets Aremu Adams Adebisi says:

“Talks surrounding capitalization are dynamic and optional. Capitalization is used to begin each line of poetry; this is one function among its numerous. The aim behind this is to decipher which line is to which stanza and the numbers of lines in a poem especially as we have free and blank verses poetry forms. Since poetry is now of competitions and contests, hardly will a prompt be given without a required line-length that having a concept of capitalization per line would be more than handy for the judges in the dissection of the line-length.

“A talk rings around the typicality of poetry. This will connotatively say capitalization to be as functional and typical as every other formal writing guided by the rule of grammar. That means, capitalization effects primarily: at the beginning of a sentence, after a full stop, to begin a proper noun, to separate abbreviations, among others. An exception to poetry which is taken to be less formal and its function thereof is an extension. Another mystery this helped to solve is enjambment, for with this will enjambed lines certainly be known.

“A third will say capitalization is unnecessary in poetry. The implication of which is that all words remain in lower-case. This theory (who says poetry is not a science?) is valid inasmuch as punctuation is a paramount tool of English grammar and also a mechanism open to different yet accepted interpretations as long as it is a figure among literary figures. Of the reasons of lower-casing a poem are: for humility, for easy reads, for creativity, for rhetorics, for simplicity etc as these reasons differ from a poet to another.”

The modern poem is free to take these into consideration or not. So you see modern poets like David Ishaya Osu, Goodness Olanrewaju Ayoola, Kukogho Iruesiri Samson and the not so modern Jared Angira write beautiful poems with no word capitalized:

watermarks, let no
one wash away my shadows
away from my under
wear, she wrote
as a will
— David Ishaya Osu, WATERMARKS (JUKED, 2016 pg. 30)

last night…

i was an ear
punctured
by the holes of filthiness
severed
by the teeth of saw-ants…
— Goodness Olanrewaju Ayoola, an ear (TESTAMENTS, 2016)

i am a poet
what can i offer
but my beady words
strung on the rope of time?
Kukogho Iruesiri Samson, STRUNG WORDS

stuttering rifles put up
the gun salute of the day
that was a state burial anyway
the car knelt
the red plate wept, wrapped itself in blood its master’s
— Jared Angira, NO COFFIN, NO GRAVE

These might have ben considered aberrations if strict ruled of traditional poetry are followed. But, as noted above, poetry is creativity and its beauty is in its subjectivity and freedom of the poet to explore.
It is important to note however that many poets are still punctuating their poems as was, abiding by strict grammar rules:

For their feminism is the kola of elders
Their virginity is the bone marrow of God
When men wither with leaves of earth
They are the home in the heavens above.
— Micheal Ace, TIME FOR SACRIFICE

The lady down the lane
Loves to tell the moon of her lipsticks
Wearing her perfume to innocent stars
Every returning vehicle her Range Rover.
— Akinbode Israel, A PETTY TRADER

And a few do the partial capitalization – first lines of stanzas or beginning of new thoughts as done by Eriata Oribhabor and Erah Oalind in the excerpts below:

Am far away nearby
consuming scented whirlwind
of coffees and teas around the world
commingling in aromatic suffocation
at the middle of the centre
of continents.
— Eriata Oribhabor, NEARBY

Life is mystery
of a thousand
and a million
unanswered questions
A labyrinth of never
ending discoveries
and endless possibilities!
— Erah Oalind, WHERE I’VE BEEN?

For those who want to remain with capitalizations, let us look at the NORMAL CAPITALIZATION RULES and the situations where one is expected to capitalize words:

  1. the first word of a sentence
  2. proper nouns
    – names of relatives (to indicate family relationship) when used with name
    – names of relatives when used as proper name
  3. Titles
    – preceding a name (but not those that follow names) and titles used as general words.
    – when used in direct address
    – titled of specific very high ranking government officials’ (even when not followed by a name or used – in direct address) but do not capitalize the titles of even very high ranking government officials if no specific individual is referred to
  4. major words in titles of books, articles, and songs
    names of God, specific deities, religious figures, and holy books(except the non-specific use of the word “god”)
  5. directions that are names, such as North, South, East, and West when used as sections of the country (except when used as compass directions)
  6. days of the week, months of the year, and holidays
  7. seasons, when used in a title (except they are used generally)
  8. countries, nationalities, and specific languages
  9. periods and events
  10. names of national, political, racial, social, civic, and athletic groups
  11. trademarks
  12. the first word in a sentence that is a direct quote, even if the direct quote comes in the middle of a sentence
  13. the first word of a sentence following a colon
  14. following a colon if the list is not a complete sentence
  15. The first word in each line of most poetry
  16. the single-letter word, first person pronoun ‘I’
  17. initials, initialisms, and acronyms
  18. names of the planets

In conclusion, it is important to note that Capitalization is not compulsory, bit when you use them, make sure you do it right! Creativity is organized anarchy.

Written with help from CAPITALIZATION RULES; Capitalization in poetry; A CAPITAL IDEA: SHOULD FIRST WORDS IN LINES OF POEMS BE CAPITALIZED?  with additional commentary by Kukogho Iruesiri Samson.

Author: Kukogho Iruesiri Samson

KIS, author of two poetry collections, ‘WHAT CAN WORDS DO?’ and ‘I SAID THESE WORDS’, is an award-winning Nigerian writer, photographer, and media professional with experience in journalism, PR, publishing and media management. In 2016, he was listed in Nigerian Writers Awards’ list of 100 MOST INFLUENTIAL NIGERIAN WRITERS UNDER 40. The same year 2016, he won the Nigerian Writer’s Award for ‘Best Poet In Nigeria 2015.’ he had also won the Orange Crush 1st Prize for Poetry in 2012.
He is the CEO of Words Rhymes & Rhythm LTD.

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