7 Tips on How to Punctuate a Poem

Experienced poets have the confidence they need to use grammar and punctuation in their writings in any way they see fit.

But, for the new poet, finding a way to use punctuation without losing your textual artistry can be a challenge. Starting slow and utilizing the basic rule of punctuation that you already know is a great place to start, and once you are comfortable, you more effectively pick and choose what you need to bring your words to life.

Learn how to add punctuation to your poems to create emotional and rhythmic effects, and feel more confident in your creations.

Which Rules are Correct for Punctuating Poems?

Do poems even need punctuation rules? Technically, no, they do not. However, until you have enough practice to create the cadence your audience can recognize when reading your material out loud, you may want to utilize some of the following suggestions.

Poem Punctuation Rule Suggestions

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These suggestions can help ensure your reader catches every meaningful detail. Understanding basic punctuation within your lines of poetry works with stanza breaks to emphasize your tone and overall message.

As a new poet, utilize these tips and suggestions and, with experience, work to integrate your punctuation style. These poem punctuation examples can help you determine which style may work best for you.

Capitalization

Even though e.e. cummings cut all capitalization from his poetry, it is traditional to capitalize each line in a poem. You should follow this rule until you find your own way to bring meaning to separate lines of work in other ways.

Capitalization can also be used within sentences to create a degree of emphasis concerning the words the poet wishes to have stand out. 

For example, the beginning of The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot highlights this practice well:

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

End Marks

Periods are the most common end marks, but poetry also can take advantage of question marks and exclamation marks. Unlike questions and exclamations that create tone and emotion, periods are somewhat dull and should be used sparingly for emphatic pauses and breaks in the reading.

For example, Sylvia Plath’s poem Daddy uses periods to create an audible pause and to focus emphasis on certain lines:

In the German tongue, in the Polish town

Scraped flat by the roller

Of wars, wars, wars.

But the name of the town is common.

My Polack friend

In contrast, Maya Angelou takes advantage of question marks in Still I Rise to rhetorically question her audience and focus on her confidence and strength:

Does my sassiness upset you?

Why are you beset with gloom?

’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells

Pumping in my living room.

Commas

Can poems have commas, or do line breaks replace them?

Commas are used to emphasize a slight pause, separate items in a list, and eliminate the use of coordinating conjunctions. They are weak punctuation marks and should be used in a manner that creates tone and focus.

For example, Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself integrates commas to create descriptive lists and provide dramatic pauses between lines:

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,

Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,

I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,

Hoping to cease not till death.

Semicolons

Semicolons are used to create an extended pause. Its use links together two shared ideas and allows the reader to understand the words that follow are tied directly to what comes before.

For example, If- by Rudyard Kipling uses multiple semicolons in each stanza to tie together his thoughts concerning the narrator’s advice about what it takes to be a man:

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

Dashes

Dashes are dramatic to look at and, when integrated into a poem, create an emphatic, definite pause. They can be used within or at the end of a line of poetry to force the reader to consider the words that precede it. They are usually used with just a few words or simple sentences.

For example, Emily Dickenson’s poem Because I could not stop for Death uses dashes to emphasize simple single syllables and compound words to create a lighthearted tone despite the serious message:

Because I could not stop for Death –

He kindly stopped for me –

The Carriage held but just Ourselves –

And Immortality.

Apostrophe Use

Apostrophes are used to create ownership and contractions in writing. It also is used to replace letters removed from a word to shorten them for poetic use. Use the English language rules of apostrophes the same way in a poem as you would in any other writing format.

For example, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 liberally uses apostrophes to integrate the traditional rhyming scheme of an English Sonnet for flow and focus:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;

Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:

     So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

    So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Compound Sentences

Compound sentences have little use in poetry due to their long sentence format. However, with proper line breaks and punctuation use, they can help create meaningful flow. They can even run from one stanza to another to continue an idea.

For example, Marianne Moore’s poem Poetry combines punctuation in compound sentences along with line breaks to create meaning and flow. Take a look at her first two stanzas to see how she carries forward her thoughts and respect for poetry in general:

I too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.

   Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers that there is in

   it after all, a place for the genuine.

      Hands that can grasp, eyes

      that can dilate, hair that can rise

         if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are

   useful; when they become so derivative as to become unintelligible, the

   same thing may be said for all of us—that we

      do not admire what

      we cannot understand. The bat,

         holding on upside down or in quest of something to…

Let’s Review

Do poems need rules of punctuation? No, they do not.

Poems do not follow the rules of traditional English grammar or strict punctuation rules. Poetry is created using words that follow a rhyme scheme or a certain cadence in its reading. Symbolism, metaphors, and line structure are more important than proper prose punctuation, although basic grammar rules can help emphasize meaning.

These seven punctuation in poetry tips and examples should show you how their use can bring meaning and flow to the author’s poetry.

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