Today I want you to talk about a subject that might give rise to the same sense of dread as calculus. You will probably, like me, remember lessons back in school where your gaze wanders to the small glimpse of sky you can see through the grimy windows of your school.
Indeed the subject today is punctuation.
It took me many years and a course in creative writing to appreciate the importance of punctuation. I have grown to love the fact that it gives the reader a clear guideline not only to meaning but also to rhythm and intonation.
Before diving into the subject of punctuation let me mention something about enjambment and end-stop lines in poetry. Enjambment is when the poet lets a sentence continue past a line break or a stanza into the next. Endstop is when every line break also ends a sentence (or at least a full part of a sentence).
Punctuation can be used in combination with enjambment to tell where the original parts of the sentences exist. Just remember that poetry can never be like normal prose you break apart with line-breaks. To me punctuation adds a dimension to line-breaks and enjambment, making it clearer and can add a “backbeat” to the line-break rhythm.
Poetry often starts each line with capital letter which is consistent with end-stop writing but in many cases it is kept also when doing enjambment. The reason for starting each line with a capital letter originally comes from typography rather than a real rule. Personally I prefer to only use capital letters when it comes directly after a full stop. Many softwares enforce capital letter after a carriage return, but this can be bypassed (eg. by using shift- instead of ). Test around and find your own style …
There are several good guides about punctuation, and besides I’m very far from an expert.
Find a good source and use it and remember that some of the rules are quite ambiguous and you have to find your own style.
For the challenge today I want you to use a few of the following:
Try to use different ways to end your sentences, using full stop (or period), question mark and exclamation mark.
Try to separate the different parts of your sentences using comma, semicolon and colon. Hyphenate words to create enjambment within single words.
Try to use apostrophes and quotation marks. Use parentheses to separate those parts that are less important.
You do not have to use every single one of them, find your style and see how it changes the way the poem looks and how it may help a reader to get the meaning and the flow of your poem. Read it aloud for yourself and note how punctuation changes they you read it.
But there are two punctuation marks that has a special place in my heart when it comes to poetry.
The em-dash, which is twice as long as the normal dash/hyphen (—) which is very useful to give emphasis to a text or sometimes cut separate parts of a poem into pieces. Some haiku poets love to use instead of a cutting word.
Emily Dickinson is a great example of using the em-dash (no it’s not named from Emily but from the fact that it’s width is comparable to an m, rather than the shorter dash that has the same width as an n)
I heard a Fly Buzz
by Emily Dickinson
I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –
The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –
I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portions of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –
With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –
The second one is the ellipsis … which tells you that something has been omitted, which can be a great way for the reader to pour their thoughts into your poem. Ellipses is often used as a device in dialogues. In natural speech we often omit part of a sentence. In some cases ellipses and dashes can be interchanged.
An ellipsis can of course also be used to allege or hint something that you cannot say in an action of self-censorship.
Some of the more rare punctuation marks does not exist on the keyboard, but they can always be copied as a last resort. Personally I have done some changes to my settings so I get it automatically. For instance two consecutive dashes becomes an em-dash.
To conclude this little feature I would like to talk about breaking the rules, and here comes the most important lesson. If you want to break a rule, you have to know the rule and have a clear intention. If you want to engage in rule breaking today, please include a note on the rules you are breaking.
For this prompt you can either punctuate an existing poem or write something entirely new poem.
When you are ready link up below, leave a comment and/or take part in the discussion below. Then visit and comment on other people’s poetry and focus on how punctuation works for you as a reader.