Puzzled by full stops? Traumatized by commas? Why not do away with punctuation in poetry altogether? This article wants to show you why you can’t run away from punctuation, really – not even in the most creative poems.
Punctuation For Poets
Lots of poets are puzzled by punctuation. Some throw these dots and dashes altogether. After all, that’s artistic freedom. But is that smart? Let’s look at the pros and cons of punctuation in poetry first.
4 Reasons Why Poets Don’t Punctuate
- You hate punctuation.
- You don’t know the rules.
- It’s your trademark. Many famous poets didn’t punctuate either.
- Your poetry comes straight from your heart, and you don’t want punctuation to hinder the flow.
Let’s look at this more closely. If you hate punctuation and don’t know the rules anyway, then you’re in big trouble as a writer, not just as a poet. You must know the basics of your language. Otherwise, you’ll be like a carpenter that hates nails and screws. If you need a recap of the basics, please read Punctuation For Beginners.
The lack of punctuation is your trademark? Grammar says trademarks still need to follow rules. Those famous poems without punctuation still follow the basic rules of language. They just obscure this very cleverly. I call this ‘invisible punctuation.’ Further down, I will show you famous examples of this.
When poems ‘come straight from the heart,’ they’re not punctuated. True, but that usually makes it hard for a stranger to read the poem exactly as your heart has dictated it. The sense these poets pour into their lines is often not what the readers come up with. Why? It’s because these poets often forget why punctuation exists.
4 Reasons Why Poets Should Punctuate
Our series on The Powerhouse Of Writing shows that punctuation is more than a random set of marks to decorate your texts. It has many functions:
- Punctuation steers the breathing of the reader and paces your text.
- Punctuation creates comprehension.
- Punctuation creates meaning.
- Punctuation even exists as ‘invisible punctuation’ (see below).
It’s a powerful tool. Of course, you can still ignore it. But then at least know about the dangers.
What Happens If You Ignore Punctuation In Poetry
If you choose to ignore punctuation altogether in poetry, these things can happen:
- Readers might give your poem a rhythm you didn’t intend. Your poem will sound different each time somebody reads it.
- Readers might create meaning completely different from what you intended, even wrong.
- Readers might be so puzzled that they don’t even finish reading.
- Readers might never read another one of your poems again because you make them work too hard.
A poem without punctuation ultimately makes readers work very hard at comprehending what you mean. If it’s too hard, you lose readers. Is that your intention?
But why were poets like e.e.cummings or W.S. Merwin able to pull it off? Because they knew what I call the rules of ‘invisible punctuation.’ Follow me, please.
You can’t escape punctuation. Never. Why is that? Because punctuation is ultimately connected to how much breath we need to speak a phrase or a sentence.
Whenever the words get too many, you place a comma. That’ll give you a quick breath. Whenever you finish a thought and you need a longer and deeper breath, you simply end the sentence. This is a pattern deeply ingrained in our language (if you want more information, please read The Powerhouse Of Writing, parts 1-6).
4 Rules Of Invisible Punctuation
1. New line, new breath. If you omit punctuation marks, readers will tend to think each line deserves a new breath.
Example: W.S. Merwin, After The Alphabets:
I am trying to decipher the language of insects
they are the tongues of the future
their vocabularies describe buildings as food
they can instruct of dark water and the veins of trees […]
The danger here lies in a staccato-like rhythm. To avoid this, you need to vary the length and the construction of your sentences. It certainly makes the poem sound almost like prose.
2. Know your enjambments. The enjambment is the number one tool to make the reader go on to the next line. In a punctuated poem, the reader will know it’s an enjambment simply because there’s no punctuation mark at the end of the line. If you decide not to use punctuation at all, then the enjambment must be very strong and obvious to make the reader hold his breath and continue reading.
How do you do that? For example, place your line breaks in such a way that the end of the first line makes it unmistakably clear that you need to read on. In these examples, this works with breaks after articles and possessive pronouns:
Each time he went to the
beach to get more seashells […]
Each time he forsook his
dangerous drug habits […]
Accomplished poets like e.e. cummings did it with more daring by splitting the words themselves. The word ‘diminutive’ then looks like this from e.e. cummings, Seven Poems, 1.:
So just because e.e. cummings doesn’t use punctuation here, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t know the rules. Quite the contrary!
3. Questions are tricky. Questions are great in poems because they engage readers. They also create a lively sound lively by making readers modulate their voices. The pitch goes up at the end of the question, right before the question mark.
To do this, readers need three signals: the question word at the beginning, a verb construction with to do, and the question mark at the end. It’s the question mark at the end that causes the modulation of the voice. What do you do if that’s missing? The only sensible way to do it is with a question tag, isn’t it?
4. Respect the invisible full stop. You must plan breaks for your readers. If you don’t, they will become breathless. Your poem will become a never-ending chain of thoughts. It’ll all end up in a big pile of mush inside your reader’s brain. How to avoid this? Place the end of one thought at the end of a line. That’s where the invisible full stop is. Do your readers a favour.
The Last Word
Yes, some poets have done away with punctuation. They can pull this off because they know the rules so well that they can choose to break them like a master.
As a beginner poet, please don’t think omitting punctuation marks will make things easier for you. You’ll just make reading your poem more difficult.
Most poetry editors will see the lack of punctuation as laziness or incompetence (here’s one editor, for example). This won’t help your submission make it into a magazine.
Fellow poets, please see punctuation as a tool to enhance the meaning of your poem. Befriend punctuation, and help your readers enjoy your work even better.
By Susanne Bennett.
Susanne is a German-American writer who is a journalist by trade and a writer by heart. After years of working at German public radio and an online news portal, she has decided to accept challenges by Deadlines for Writers. Currently she is writing her first novel with them. She is known for overweight purses and carrying a novel everywhere. Follow her on Facebook.
More Posts From Susanne
- The Powerhouse Of Writing 6: Colons, Semicolons, & Dashes
- The Powerhouse Of Writing 5: Quotation Marks
- The Powerhouse Of Writing 4: The Question Mark
- The Powerhouse of Writing 3: The Exclamation Mark
- The Powerhouse of Writing 2: The Comma
- The Powerhouse Of Writing 1: The Full Stop
- How To Play Surrealist Word Games
- How To Write Surrealist Poetry
- What Is Automatic Writing?
- Surrealism – What Every Writer Should Know