To Punctuate or Not to Punctuate, therein
lies the Question…
About a month ago, someone asked if I could address the
subject of punctuation in my Q&A section.
I felt that it deserved an entire, although hardly exhaustive, column.
What is punctuation?
There’s the comma, the semicolon, the colon, the dash,
the ellipsis, the exclamation mark, the question mark, and some would add the
parentheses, the bracket, and so forth.
What purposes do they serve?
Or perhaps a better question would be, why, if they’re so important in
organizing thoughts, thus meaning, can-- or should they-- be eliminated?
Punctuation in poetry is similar to punctuation in prose.
In many ways, it serves the same purpose as bar lines in music:
without them, the words and notes flow all together. Punctuation assists
in organizing the written word into discernable packages or units. Punctuation
in poetry serves the same function as in prose:
1. to encapsulate thoughts and ideas; to aid in coherence and the
presentation of meaning (i.e., to avoid confusion); and especially to signal
when and where to breathe.
Many poetic forms require punctuation (unless, of course,
you’re a rebel-in-training). Consider
the following: the acrostic, the ballade, the sonnet, the epic, the cinquain,
the ode, the villanelle, the terzanelle, the triolet, the rondeau, the pantoum,
the ghazal, and blank verse.
Speaking generally, what forms don’t? Western adaptations
of traditional Asian forms such as haiku, senryu, sijo, and tanka to name but a
few. Experimental forms, such as
John Carley’s zip, use caesura, or line breaks, to denote pauses, while other
experimental forms, such as Denis Garrison’s crystalline, do follow
traditional stanzaic punctuation rules. Consider
Hip-hop, Rap, SLAM, and rant, as well.
With “experimental” poetry, space is often used to serve the same
purpose as punctuation (e.g., tabbing over on the same line; the dropping and
centering of lines; running adjacent columns; creating shapes with words; and so
forth). Bold-faced type and other
devices are often used to provide accents or other forms of emphasis.
Since poetry is spoken aloud (i.e., performed), read
silently and aloud to oneself, it is “heard” on many levels.
I often find myself longing to hear a poet read their work rather than
“just listening” to it in my own mind or hearing it uttered by my own
tongue. Why? Because we
enter into that poet’s realm of interpretation.
The result (hopefully) is that we can hear their emphasis.
We are then part of the poetic experience; it’s a social contract, a
Sartrean “gift exchange.”
When I was in high school, Liz Frank-Green, one of my
favorite English teachers of all time, introduced me to e.e. cummings. Needless
to say, I loved his work, and yes, partly because he broke the rules.
He was a rebel. I like rebels. So, if you’re inclined to be a rebel,
too, consider the possibility that if “all” poetry is devoid of punctuation,
then it beomes “mainstream.” At
that point, utilizing punctuation and traditional forms becomes rebellious…
In addition to introducing me to e. e. cummings, Ms.
Frank-Green taught me three important adages that I do my best never to forget:
1) learn the rules before you break them; 2) when you break them, know why; and
3) don’t be afraid to experiment.
Thank you, Liz!
It would take more space than I have here to address each
punctuation mark and how it would—or could—be used. So, to illustrate an
absence of commas, semicolons, periods, and such, I’ve included two poems.
Check out this piece by local poet Don Snider (Thank you
for courage in the face of potential fire!).
Callin' Mr. Bojangles
Mr. Bojangles, Mr. Bojangles
If Don had added in “standard
punctuation,” this hip-hop poem would probably still “work,” but the flow
would be interrupted. Usually
performed live, or recorded, this style of poetry is highly musical.
He uses line breaks to point to where he might take a breath, line
beginnings for emphasis, and no doubt, when he does perform this piece, he’ll
add his own special something.
Local SLAMM Team member, poet and publisher, Chris Vannoy,
says this on punctuation (see him soon in our Featured Poet section):
punctuation is based on the lines themselves. I split them the way that I read
them. Commas are not necessary if you do that. Once in a while, I will use one
if I want to continue the thought on one line...but rarely. A comma
represents a pause in breath, which can also be created by a line break. Words
running together, also called “enjambment”
(see the Q&A section for more on this), can create an effect, often
emotional, of speed, of flow, that following strict rules of punctuation would
eliminate, thus hampering the poem’s flow, and perhaps meaning.
So, as I always say: read and listen to the work of other
people, create or join a poetry workshop or take a poetry class.
The point is to keep writing and learning about the craft of writing!
Thank you for the comments you’ve been sending in.
I really appreciate the feedback. Keep
Visit these sites for poetry, information, and for the
sheer joy of things poetic:
Poetry journals and zines:
The Poetry Webzine Review: http://www.photoaspects.com/poetry/zine/index.html
On e.e. cummings:
For Spring, the Journal of the e.e. cummings
Poetry Exhibits, The Academy of Poets, showcasing e.e.
Here’s a source loaded with information on forms.
Some of the terminology links may be temporarily down, though: http://thewordshop.tripod.com/forms.html
Contains “Punctuation Poetry” composed using
punctuation which is then translated into “English”:
While part of an elementary school curriculum project, this
site shows the relationship between geometry and poetry:
A superb site of historical information (source of medieval
While conducting research for this column, I came across
this informative site with the “essay” “Punctuation and Capitalization in
Poetry,” available at: http://www.cambio.net/forum/page2.html
The Academy of American Poets at http://www.poetry.org
is an invaluable site! Visit this
Q & A
Q: What is
or “enjambment,” is from the French “enjamber”, which means “to
straddle” ( “en” = “in,” and “jambe” = “leg”).
Basically, it translates as: “the
continuation of a sentence beyond the end of a poetic line which is not
end-stopped (i.e., sans period). A “caesura,” often seen as “caesurae”
as well, is a related term from the Latin “caedere,” which means “cut off.”
In poetry, it relates to the “cutting off” of breath, or a pause, to
create a rhythmic break or division.
How does this translate into poetry?
I hope that these two versions from “Metro Madness”
(one of my poems-in-process), both of which utilize caesura and enjambement,
sufficiently illustrate this device. (NOTE:
Just before sending this column off, I resisted the temptation to revise
yet again. What do you think did or didn’t work for YT?)
She hated escalators
She clung to their slick, slippery rails
“Green Tara—oh please protect me,” she prayed
She hated escalators.
Once upon a time, however, she visited a city where they
to Green Tara: “Oh please protect me,” she prayed,
“from the insect-like hoards of hustling humans, from the poisonous shriek of
metro wheels, from the creatures that surely hide within these domes, rubbing
their hind legs in glee, preparing to feed.”
I still plan to continue the revision process.
I’d like to see what you would do with it, though--then send it to email@example.com.
We’ll post the “best” one!
For other examples of caesura and enjambement, see what
this poetic geniuses have done:
Shakespeare’s sonnets with commentary: http://www.shakespeares-sonnets.com/
The Beat Generation Resource Page:
This article originally appeared on www.writersmonthly.us. Reprinted with permission.
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