Punctuation and its use in poetry

Punctuation is an indispensable component of written language. Whether we are aware, it aids in comprehension. It signals to the reader how the sentence is to be read so that the meaning becomes apparent. For instance, a period signals that the sentence is a statement, and therefore generally read with a neutral tone or even in a falling intonation; whereas a question mark indicates a question, signaling that it should be spoken with a rising intonation. Punctuation also tells the readers the emotion, for instance through the exclamation point. Punctuation has many uses in language, both oral and written, which is why it should not be taken for granted, especially in complicated written forms like poetry

People who are new at poetry are often confused with the role of punctuation in poetry. Some have accused others of using line breaks as punctuation and dismiss the work immediately. The thing is, poetry has been around for a long, long time, even preceding writing, and so it often experiments with the rules of language. Some poets adhere to the rules of grammar, while others, like the infamous E.E. Cummings, deliberately break them. Surely, the idea of breaking the rules is attractive, however, it is advantageous for new poets to first master the rules before thinking about playing around with or breaking them.

Punctuation marks and their uses

The most commonly used punctuation marks.

Full stop / Period 

A full stop or a period is used at the end of the sentence. It indicates the end of a thought or statement.

Comma

Commas are used for various purposes:

  • To indicate a pause
  • To add a phrase or clause about the same subject
  • When using more than one adjective
  • To separate items on a list

Question mark

Question marks are used to indicate that the sentence asks a question.

Exclamation point

An exclamation point indicates strong feelings, be it anger, glee, or fear.

Semi-colon

  • Semi-colons are used for the following:
  • To join two connected sentences
  • To separate more detailed lists (in combination with commas)

Colon

Colons are usually used to introduce a list, and less commonly, to introduce an explanation or definition of something.

Punctuation marks to remember.

Quotation marks

Quotation or speech marks are used simply to mark someone else’s speech.

Ellipsis

Ellipses are used to signal that a part of the sentence was left out, usually because it is irrelevant to the text.

Apostrophe

An apostrophe is used to form the possessive form, which indicates ownership. In poetry, it is used to indicate omitted letters. 

Hyphen

Hyphens are used to link words together.

Emdash

The emdash indicates a break in thought, to emphasize or explain something.

Parenthesis

A parenthesis is used to insert a point that is not part of the sentence. This is used to avoid breaking the flow of the sentence. 

Punctuation in poetry

Poetry is a form that places equal emphasis on form and meaning. Form is not just a vessel through which the reader discerns the meaning of a poem. Often, the meaning also interacts with and affects the form. Poets often explore, even stretch, the limits of language in their works. Still, punctuation marks are not completely dispensable in poetry as it affects the reader’s pace, understanding, and eye movement—all of which contribute to the entire quality of a poem. In addition to their grammatical significance, punctuation has other uses in poetry:

  • Organizes thoughts and ideas 
  • Maintains coherence
  • Signals pauses, or when and where to breathe


The placement of punctuation marks also determines the types of verses:

  • End-stopped line – when punctuation appears at the end of the line

First having read the book of myths,

  • Enjambment – where there is no punctuation at the end of the line; usually, the thought continues to the next line

I put on

the body-armor

of black rubber

the absurd flippers

the grave and awkward mask.

  • Caesura – when a punctuation mark appears within the line

And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair

These lines are from Adrienne Rich's "Diving into the Wreck":

Here is another example of a poem: "April 30, 1945."

Breaking the rules

Oscar Wilde once said that “a poet can survive anything but a misprint.” Poets take extra care when writing poems. Every line break, every punctuation, and word is chosen with great attention. Every thing they use in their poems is nothing but creative tools or techniques, even punctuation. So, whenever a poet breaks any convention in grammar, it is always for a good reason.

Thus, for anyone thinking of breaking the rules in their poetry, it is imperative to first know the ins and outs of the grammatical rules. It is always better to know what you are breaking so that you use it as a creative technique—a deliberate choice—rather than as a mistake.

Writing a poem takes more than talent. It requires skill and dedication to get the perfect combination of words, punctuation, and line break. As a beginner, you will not get everything right immediately. There are things that someone with an eye for detail and an ear for rhythm can guide you with. With Custom Essay Meister, you can create a poem worth reading.