Punctuation in poetry is similar to punctuation in prose and serves almost the same purpose as bar lines in music without which the words and notes won’t flow altogether. In order words, punctuation assists in organizing your words into discernible verses:
- encapsulates thoughts and ideas
- aids in coherence and the presentation of meaning
- signals when and where to breathe (very important)
Interestingly, many poets use punctuation marks without knowing why they used them; others just write their verses without using any marks at all, not deliberately, just because they do not know how and where to use them. A third group of poets place punctuation arbitrarily, without realizing that punctuation actually aid the readers’ interpretation and also determines his/her breathe pauses.
The fact is that the punctuation marks thrown in affect the reader’s pace, understanding, eye movement and perception.
Before we go too far, let’s talk about the TYPES OF VERSES, determined by the POSITION of the punctuation they contain:
- End-stopped line – when punctuation occurs at the end of a line/verse, allowing the reader to pause before moving on to the next verse
- Run-on line/Enjambment – when there is no punctuation at the end of the line and/or the idea expressed in the verse is continued in the next
- Caesura – when a punctuation mark comes within the line itself
Once and again on running track [Enjambment] Bolt beat them all, a tall man black [Caesura] And did you not all clap with glee [Enjambment] For all the watching world to see? [End-stopped]
WHICH PUNCTUATION MARKS SHOULD A POET USE?
There are several punctuation marks you can use in your poem. In this lecture, I will focus on the ones I have used:
PERIOD (.) – the period is used to show a final end to the thought/sentence and indeed verse; after an abbreviation. The reader will most likely stop to think about what has been read so far.
Life is not a joke. Those who live know
QUESTION MARK (?) – the question mark is used to indicate a direct question at the end of a verse. When it is being read, the reader asks himself the question, and pauses:
Is life a joke?
Does it not make you cry?
EXCLAMATION POINT/MARK (!) – the exclamation point/mark is used to express a sudden outcry, excitement, finality or just add emphasis. It affects how the reader will view the verse or poem:
Life is not a joke!
Those who live know.
It is sometimes a yoke!”
COMMA (,) – the comma is used to show a separation of ideas or elements within the verse. In a poem, you can also use it to eliminate excess words. Eg “The sun, rain, road flogged him to death” eliminating ‘and the’ twice. It is also used to separate two or more complete, independent clauses in a verse:
Life is a slaver,
life is a beast
he came, he saw, he conquered
but life took his debt, his loan
SEMICOLON (;) – the semicolon is used to connect two independent clauses in a verse or at the end of a verse (linking two verses):
Life is a slaver; it has no pity
man is killing himself;
his hands strangle mother earth
COLON (:) – the colon is used after a word introducing a quotation, an explanation, an example, or a series:
Each life is a script:
we are born, we rehearse
we act and we die
You can also use it when indicating time in your verse:
Life left him at 2:03pm
DASH (– /-) – the dash is of two types, endash (short) and the emdash (long/double dash).
- The endash (-) is used to connect numbers or elements of a compound adjective:
he ruled 6 years, 1990 – 1996
feared Lord of Lagos – Abuja power play
- The emdash (–) is a little more complicated. It is used, within a verse or at the end, to indicate a break in thought or verse structure; introduce a phrase added for emphasis, definition, or explanation; separate two clauses (like the semicolon):
Life is not a joke –
though the living sometimes laughs
it is a heavy yoke – many gladly bear it
HYPHEN (-) – the hyphen is the same symbol as the endash but it is used creating compound words, particularly modifiers before nouns, name or syllables of a word:
Life is a power-hungry slaver
Treating the six-year-old girl
Like a hell-doomed grandpa
PARENTHESES ( () ) – the Parenthesis is a curved notations used to contain further thoughts or qualifying remarks
Life is not a joke
(Though it sometimes makes us laugh)
It is a heavy yoke”
Life is a heavy yoke
(Oftentimes gladly borne)
That all men must bear
APOSTROPHE (‘) – the apostrophe is used to show the omission of a letters from a word, possessive case:
Buhari’s pow’r was nation’l
GEJ’s clout was region’l
QUOTATIONS MARKS ( “ ” ) – the quotation mark is used to separate the part of a verse that is directly spoken by a persona in the poem or quote attributed to another source and presented word for word.
The son of man said “I am the way”
but men needed freedom, not a way
ELLIPSES (…) – the ellipses mark is used to show an omission of letters or words (especially in a quote) that do not interfere with the meaning. It can also show a transition or time lapse:
Life dealt me a bitter blow
Stole my heart, my wealth…
Now I am a corpse walking
“I am the way… life”
The son of man said
Punctuation gives the reader a brief release in tension, allowing him/her to pause for a moment and consider what has been read so far.
This is why you must be thoughtful in where you break the line because your choices will affect the reader’s experience of the flow and motion of the poem.
See the poem below:
WHY DOES LOVE STEAL OUR TONGUES by Kukogho Iruesiri Samson
he was a little boy reaching for manhood
she, little girl arching for womanhood [comma]
his was mixed tale of tears and hope
hers, a life upwards Life’s slope [apostrophe]
two stories crossed: one scene, one act [colon, comma]
pretty lass, scrawny lad lacking tact [comma]
him a sapling uprooted, replanted [comma]
her the rose everyone wanted
her heart was loud, but lips were mute [comma]
while he was lost in voiceless youth
tho’ Cupid’s bow a shot released [apostrophe]
time wept for two lips deceased
a week, a month… wore out Time’s soles [comma, ellipsis, apostrophe]
a glance, a smile, two whispering souls; [comma, comma, semi-colon]
and still no telling word was risked
until away the lad was whisked
she grieved, he mourned (but time heals all) [comma, parenthesis]
… one decade plus, the lad stands tall [ellipsis]
once little lass, now jewelled queen: [colon]
a wife serving her king’s whim [apostrophe]
two stories crossed: same scene, same act [colon, comma]
a bejewelled queen, fine man with tact [comma]
he an oak – deep-rooted. she wanted [emdash, endash, full stop]
but silver ring on a finger taunted! [exclamation]
why does love steal our tongues?!
The poem above used detailed internal punctuations but does not follow the norm of using uppercase letters as the beginning of each verse as is done by most traditional poets. In this case, the poet deliberately broke rules.
WHEN MY LOVE SWEARS THAT SHE IS MADE OF TRUTH (Sonnet 138) by William Shakespeare
When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies, [comma, comma]
That she might think me some untutored youth, [comma]
Unlearnèd in the world’s false subtleties. [full stop]
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young, [comma]
Although she knows my days are past the best, [comma]
Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue; [semi colon]
On both sides thus is simple truth suppressed. [full stop]
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O, love’s best habit is in seeming trust, [comma, apostrophe, comma]
And age in love, loves not to have years told. [comma, full stop]
Therefore I lie with her, and she with me, [comma, comma]
And in our faults by lies we flattered be. [full stop]
CAN YOU DO WITHOUT PUNCTUATION MARKS?
The answer is ‘yes’ with a huge caveat.
The poet E.E. Cummings is well known as a grammar rebel that cared not a little about rules of grammar, especially punctuation, in his poetry. He successfully altered basic sentence structures to suit his purpose in his famous poems. His style broke the rules but his poetry is accepted. Below is one of his poems:
anyone lived in a pretty how town by ee cummings
anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did.
Women and men (both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain
children guessed (but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
autumn winter spring summer)
that noone loved him more by more
when by now and tree by leaf
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone’s any was all to her
someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake hope and then)they
said their nevers they slept their dream
stars rain sun moon
(and only the snow can begin to explain
how children are apt to forget to remember
with up so floating many bells down)
one day anyone died i guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was
all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
with by spirit and if by yes.
Women and men (both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain
NOTE: he removed the capital letters and almost doesn’t use punctuation at all. It is rebellious and may not be accepted in some quarters, put to the test of grammar, it may fail woefully. But it still accomplishes a lot as a poem, earning accolades in his time.
In conclusion, I would like to state the following:
- learn the rules before you attempt to break them
- when you break them, be purposeful, know why
- don’t be afraid to experiment (rules are meant to be broken)
- Every verse with more than 1 CLAUSE needs INTERNAL PUNCTUATIONS
- END punctuations like FULL STOP, and COMMA can be done away with, if you so desire
- Punctuations within the verses of the poem are VERY important
- Even where the poem has no punctuation, EXCLAMATION marks, at the end or within a verse, are needed to show the intensity of a verse. Same with QUESTION marks where a question is asked
- Placing the right punctuation marks within your poem not only aids the reader, it also ensures that your emotions are conveyed
BREAKING GRAMMAR RULES IN POETRY WRITING by Melissa Donovan
TO PUNCTUATE OR NOT TO PUNCTUATE, THEREIN LIES THE QUESTION by Terrie Relf
SHOULD ALL POETRY LINES END WITH A COMMA OR PERIOD? by Brandi Reissenweber
PUNCTUATION AND LINE BREAKS IN POETRY by Ann L. Camy
when i was younger, i never asked who happy people are. i knew them. there was a tycoon who lived on our crescent. who threw parties that fed our entire town to stupor thrice every year. there was my old classmate… A-costumed academic reports from elementary school through college. i never had to ask. i knew what happy people are like. but. few years later, i read in a local paper, that the valedictorian of a prestigious university had – two days after his graduation ceremony – prepared poison like beverage and mailed it to his intestines. i heard that before cockcrow one day, a powerful monarch had gone to seek solace at seabed… to rinse the burden of breath off his lungs. and that a popular comedian had suspended his own body on a wire tethered to a cashew tree in his courtyard. leaving his brand, his edifice, and a piece of paper… "i hope i find happiness outside this world… away from this place." who are happy people? what makes happiness? every night, when i drive past the slums, i see a family of emaciated orphans. who have their bedrooms on tarpaulins and cartons under the old bridge. i see them. everyday. always smiling… tossing their alms-bowls with relish. what makes happiness? who are happy people?
Kukogho Iruesiri Samson is an award-winning writer, communications professional, publisher and entrepreneur. Kukogho has authored four books including ‘Devil’s Pawn‘, winner of the Dusty Manuscript Prize 2018. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Cọ́n-scìò Magazine and CEO of Authorpedia Publishers.