So I want to talk about punctuation – and how we use it in poetry. Can something as small as a dot – and its placement, or the lack of it – shape our poem? How?

For example, end-stopped versus enjambment. Shakespeare uses end-stopped sonnets all the time; it heightens our understanding of the rhyme scheme; it establishes the meter in our minds. Enjambment can create variety in structure, call attention to words that might not necessarily fall at the end of the line, and can create interest in continuing on to the next line.

So following are my (untutored) thoughts on some kinds of punctuation. I’d really love others’ opinions and experiences as well.

. – The period totally stops us. It can disconnect two lines from one another, or halt us in the middle. It can jarr us awake and out of a poem entirely. For such a tiny dot, periods do a lot of work.

– gives us some time to think, but doesn’t remove us at all from the line. It pauses us, but not in the same way as a blank space, which fills us with empty silence. The dash still makes visual noise on the page.

: v. ; One gives us the same feeling as a period: a full throttle stop before we continue reading. It compares the thing before to the things after, sometimes offering a definition. To me, the semicolon rolls us a long a bit more; it’s when you want a period, but without necessarily completely strangling the end of your line sentence. It also works to give more connection to the two lines connected with the semicolon; the comma at the bottom seems to lessen the harshness, and draw the ideas closer together.

() – whispers to us; gives the things inside the () more connection to one another whilst lessening the connection to things outside the (). It’s as though the () lives outside the reality of the poem. Of course, I’m actually not sure this is always true – sometimes () can give us information about things within the poem (almost as though these things contradict the reality the rest of the poem presents?).

, – slow down, pause. Take a breath here. The lack of these can build speed, as if therewerenospaces when we know we’re supposed to breathe. Finding them where they are unnecessary slows   us    down, without bringing us to the full halt of a period.

! – excitement, or surprise. Gives emphasis to whatever came before – generally, I think, happy emphasis or sarcastic emphasis. ! look to happy to be anything but.

& vs + – the ampersand is so much more pretentious than the + sign. While both of them speed us through the ‘and’ and bring the two things on either side into more immediate connection, the + sign is casual in a way the ampersand is not. & is more formal than +, but I actually think it’s also softer – the curves beat out the straight lines of the + sign, so that a + probably can’t be used in a soft, sweet, and gentle poem. It’s harsh like a ‘k’ or a ‘t’ can be, while the & is more of an ‘m’ or ‘s’. (I feel like I totally overanalyzed that one. Woah)

? – questions in poems always seem melancholy to me; maybe it’s in the curve of the hook.

What are your thoughts on the above and more?

6 Replies to “Punctuation”

  1. I love colons.
    Mostly because I don’t view them as a complete stop, working like a period. To me, they provide the biggest sense of emphasis between connecting two ideas, more than line breaks and enjambment ever could. That small white space between the colon and the following word fills me with so much tension: it’s the answer to the original thought.
    But I’ve noticed that poets are using colons more extraneously. It’s becoming more of an art form, taking on different meanings. And I honestly don’t know why. It kind of makes me angry.

    Also, I have never seen a + sign used in a poem to signify “and” and now I’m deadset on using it. Time to write.

    1. Love the ‘answer to the original thought’ for your colon description. That is such a perfect way of describing it.

      If you like the +, you should consider looking at/watching Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. He revolutionized my view on +, as more than just a piece of punctuation (though not necessarily in a good way). It does go to show how MUCH we have to work with as poets, and how versatile and changing these marks can be!

  2. My favorite punctuation is the semi-colon, because it allows you to explore the same idea or image in two different ways. This becomes especially handy when we’re a huge fan of an abstract image and want to use it in poetry regardless of how much it might confuse readers, because we can then clarify the image with the use of a semi-colon! It’s the easy way out, but sometimes it’s a relief to have that option.

  3. Punctuation, especially in poetry, is a funny thing. In fiction, nonfiction, and sometimes even prose poetry (prose poetry being a tricky one), punctuation is simple to understand. For example a period ends a sentence. Just like it ended the sentence before, will end this one, and the next one. But in poetry, punctuation becomes more complicated. Take the comma as an example, you said that it indicates a “slow down, pause. Take a breath,” but I believe that a comma means to go faster, or to go over the comma because the sentence is not yet ready to end. Another example is the parenthesis, you said that it “whispers to us,” but I believe that the parenthesis screams at us as if its saying that what’s inside it is important and that you should look at it.

    But anyway, my favorite punctuation mark is the period because everything ends one way or another.

  4. I really appreciate your ideas about parentheses, because that’s exactly what I’ve been thinking about them for this past year, but couldn’t put into words. I love the use of parentheses over the use of italics for whispered words, especially because I tend to emphasize italicized words and make them louder, rather than make them quiet. That also stems from a hatred for all-caps, but that’s another story for another day.
    I also think it’s really cool that Diego and I have the absolute opposite ideas about parentheses, and I specifically mentioned italics where he would use parentheses. It shows just how objective punctuation can be in a poem and how little authorial intent can translate into the work.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.