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:
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
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.
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.
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.