“Sit down. Take a deep breath. Let’s talk punctuation in poetry.”

There is nothing better than chatting about poetry—that is until we get to “grammar.” In hushed tones, “Do poems NEED grammar? Is it required? What about semi-colons? What about…?”

Hush. This is a very common question. I’m not saying it’s easy to know which punctuation mark, if any you want for your line—but let me explain the options.

First. No, you do not need punctuation. Second. Maybe you want punctuation? This is the traditional and most chosen option.

“But what does it DO?” It all depends on sound. Poems are meant to be read out loud. For thousands of years, longer, we have spoken in rhyme, sung melodies and stories, OUT LOUD. Yes, before there was written language, but also, because of the sound of words. So, punctuation, or lack of it, is all about when to breathe and how a word gets accented at the end of the line.

So—no punctuation and perhaps no capitalization creates a mad rush of sound. A WHOOSH. I would sail right down the page no pausing even if punctuation might be grammatically correct and you would hear passion and lack of air. And if that mad dash and fast pace is what you want terrific! Lucille Clifton is an amazing example. In “the garden of delight” she does not use punctuation or capitalization. Her first stanza:

for some
it is stone
bare smooth
as a buttock
rounding
into the crevasse
of the world

When I read it is a passionate downward rush. There is nothing wrong with lingering from word to word—but that varies by individual. Usually, punctuation shows someone else how to read your poem.

Punctuation in poetry comes down to three techniques. One: no punctuation and no pause. Two: Slight pause and continuation to the next line. Three: End-Stop which halts the line and creates a complete pause.

So, Scenario One, we basically covered. No pause. That means the line is enjambed and the first line is read without breath to the next line. This builds speed. You still want to end an enjambed line on a strong word though. Our minds are tricky and they will pick up if you end on a weak word like “a” or “an.” If it is vital for your poem do it! If it is not—refrain.

An example of enjambment would be several lines in Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Love Song.” This is a translation from German, but the enjambment is fairly accurate from the German

How shall I hold my soul, that it may not
be touching yours? How shall I lift it then
above you to where other things are waiting?
Ah, gladly would I lodge it, all forgot,
with some lost thing the dark is isolating
on some remote and silent spot that, when
your depths vibrate, is not itself vibrating.
After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?


Where there is no punctuation, it is enjambed. Having lines that alternate create a mild tone and cadence.

Scenario Two—the slight pause. This is slightly dramatic, gives a breath. I would say that the punctation to do this (and there will be some discussion and disagreement) is the m-dash. That is the double—line that is two hyphens. It works beautifully to merge end-stop and no punctuation. When reading, there is a lingering on the word and then a quick enjambment. This is the true in-between. The other, which I feel would be more controversial in-between is the ellipses. That’s the dramatic… Yes—it can be end-stop. But I think in the middle of the poem in provides a slight pause that leads into the next line, much like the m-dash. The colon and semi-colon are also argued about. They create a larger pause—but cause a continuation. Emily Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes – (372)” is a terrific example. The dashes can be read as end-stops or as I read them, slight pauses.

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

Scenario Three: The End-Stop. Okay then—what does that do? It stops your line. Of course, right? But, when you read out loud, it creates a place to breathe. A real pause. The comma is arguably end-stop. There is a breath—a long one, but not as long as if a period or question mark was there. So, before we get confused, these are the end-stop punctuations: the period, the question mark, arguably as mentioned the semi-colon and colon, the ampersand sign, parenthesis (arguably), slashes, brackets []. and what seem to be also called brackets or less and greater signs < >. Of course, there are more, but these are the main ones. All these punctation marks create a huge LINE ENDING pause.

So, you want to end on a very, very strong word. It will resonate and be emphasized. “Are you the new person drawn toward me?” by Walt Whitman is made up of entirely end-stop lines.

Are you the new person drawn toward me?
To begin with, take warning, I am surely far different from what you suppose;
Do you suppose you will find in me your ideal?

Try reading a poem you’ve written out loud. You’ll hear natural breaks and rhythms. You can choose to go with these, or you can break the sound with any of the scenarios above. Make sure you are CHOOSING though—there are happy accidents, but it’s best to know why you are breaking or not breaking your line.

Now go forth! To enjamb or not enjamb—that is no longer the question!

“Pull up a seat. Take a sip. You can write.”

Whenever I give writing advice, I acknowledge the other writer’s anxieties and insecurities. We all have them. So, for advice and conversation—let’s set them aside. Pretend we are sipping lattes—or if you prefer, a bottle of your favorite brew. The first question—what about writer’s block? The second question—I can’t concentrate what should I do? The third question—how do I get inspired? The fourth—the almost, but not quite secret one—I have a disability, but I want to write—can I? Well, take a swig, because my answer is mostly, passionately, the same for every question.

First, writer’s block doesn’t exist. It exists in the mind of the writer—paralyzed by fear, by “I’m not good enough?”—negative thoughts. Throw those out and write with colored ink for five minutes. Throw in a peppy sticker. Doodle your character, maybe sit in the grass and daydream. That counts as writing! So, then you write. Question two and three—concentration and inspiration. Colored pens or fonts, colored paper, fancy journals, stickers, music. Everyone is unique and you have to find your individual blend. Recently, I had problems keeping a regular journal—I have kept a journal for over twenty years, so this was a profound problem. I found that I could use a “junk journal” and write daily. A “junk journal” can be made or bought—but I write on scraps, old bookmarks, coffee filters—all intended to break up that blank white page. I suggest breaking up the blank page for inspiration, concentration, and writer’s block! Beware, as we change, our needs change too. So maybe you’ll need a different cushion, different pen, new drink… I guarantee anyone can make it work and find their blend.

Now, fourth, the definitely not secret question—yes, if you have a disability, you can most assuredly write. I am Bipolar, have pretty much the whole gamut of anxiety disorders/attributes, and I still write. So, for everyone that confesses they have a hard time with grammar, reading slowly, concentrating because they are manic, ADHD, or are simply too energetic, get out your notebook. I couldn’t read for four and a half years because of a medication I was taking—it saved my life, but it took away a lot of what made me “me.” I couldn’t write or watch TV. But I could absorb what went on around me, got plenty of material, and listened to music. This means that there are ideas even in woe. I was taken off the medication, my literacy came back, but I was slower, had trouble with words, sometimes, I still do. But, I write.

We overcomplicate and belittle ourselves. My answer to this—as by now you figured out—is colored pens, magnetic poetry boards, grammar books, the thesaurus, the dictionary, sleep, and giving myself permission to write. Take another swig of that imaginary drink, look me in the eyes—be gentle with yourself. If you cannot write a page, write a sentence. If you cannot write or read a sentence, write or read a word. Congratulate yourself. Congratulate and reward yourself for every victory. You are a writer if you can pick up a pen or pencil, or speak into a computer program—if you love words.

Now, finish your drink. Pick up your pen—you’ve got this. Go lay in daises, listen to music, and write like the galaxy needs the hum of your verses—because it does. Write.