One of the challenges of writing poetry is the myriad of creative ways a poet can drift from the conventional rules of writing while maintaining a coherent narrative for the reader. This is a delicate balance a poet constantly battles. One of the stylistic tools available for creative interpretation in poetry is punctuation. Unlike narrative writing where the rules for punctuation are steadfast, poetry does not necessarily adhere to the same rules of punctuation usage. So, what are the rules when it comes to punctuating a poem? The short answer: it depends on the poet’s intention of its usage (or lack thereof).
Punctuation for Pacing
Oftentimes, punctuation is used in poetry as it is used in narrative writing: to set the pace for the reader. In this instance, commas indicate pauses, periods indicate full stops, em dashes are an interruption, a colon marks an introduction, a semicolon marks a separate thought related to the one preceding it, etc. An example of this kind of poem is “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas. Here’s an excerpt:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
As you can see, the punctuation does not stand out in this poem, meaning it is being used “properly.” There are commas that offer pauses to certain phrases, and a semicolon to show the end of a complete thought but that a related one is following. This is your safest option when punctuating a poem if you want to convey a specific message to your reader, as it allows you the most control.
Punctuation for Emphasis
If you want to experiment with opening your poem to various interpretations, tweak your punctuation usage. While I would not recommend switching a comma for a period (this would confuse the reader), you may try limiting your punctuation usage. While this may remove the pacing for your reader, it will emphasize the punctuation you do choose to use. For example, this is a poem I personally wrote a few years back only using em dashes for punctuation:
“O Captain My Captain”
he lives in death as he was dying in life—
trapped within a transparent reality
living a dual existence is the easy part
keeping them separate is where he stumbled
some say that’s what made him brilliant
like a home that’s faded out of existence
he left a vacant space in the dirt
the problem is we’re terrified of emptiness
and hasten to fill it like an open grave
like a ghost haunted by life
he leaves the rest of us haunted by—
In this case, I used the dashes only twice, as bookends to the poem, and to add emphasis to those lines, particularly the last one that is very much incomplete, something I wanted the dash to highlight even further. The lack of other punctuation or capitalization leaves much up to interpretation for the reader as to which phrases stand alone and which run together, something that appealed to me.
Punctuation for Meaning
Another option is to omit the use of punctuation completely. This is a technique I would recommend if you want to convey meaning in the punctuation’s absence, and not something to do just for the heck of it.
An example of this kind of poem is “The Red Wheelbarrow,” by William Carlos Williams:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
While we could devote another blog post to unpacking the meaning of this poem, one of the simplest observations is the effect the lack of punctuation has on the poem’s meaning. The lack of punctuation creates a lack of emphasis, leading each stanza to carry the same amount of meaning. In turn, while the wheelbarrow is the main subject, the rain water and white chickens carry just as much importance. Inversely, because it has been stripped of all punctuation, the picture of this wheelbarrow is stark, uninterrupted by anything else. This is a technique I would choose with care, and be open to multiple interpretations of your end product.
Just like with rhyming, the key takeaway is consistency. If you are going to punctuate your poem, follow through until its end; you risk losing your reader otherwise as he/she suddenly focuses on your change of usage rather than the poem itself.