How to read punctuation in poetry

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Reading poetry is a totally different experience from reading prose. You finally have a feel for different forms and how line breaks work, and you’ve opened the book Homie by Danez Smith or OBIT Victoria Chang. You dive into a poem, but then you see a comma somewhere that doesn’t follow any grammar rules you know. How, exactly, do you read punctuation in poetry?

Vocabulary

Before we get into different punctuation, let’s get on the same page about the vocabulary of poetic punctuation, shall we?

Terminus — This is punctuation that appears at the very end of a line.

Twinkling twinkling little star,

spanning – This is when a line jumps, but does not end with a punctuation mark.

twinkles twinkles little

Star,

hyphenation – This is when punctuation occurs inside a line, anywhere except at the end of the line.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star

To slow down

Most punctuation in poetry is used to control timing and provide space. The two most used punctuations in poetry are commas and periods.

Commas

There’s a common misconception in prose writing that you use a comma every time you breathe. This is absolutely wrong and any professional editor will tell you that. In poetry, however, this is actually quite close to the truth. A comma represents a pause, just a small space between words or lines. Some poets even read commas as small breaths. Commas can also be used more conventionally to separate lists or clauses, but poets are free to use as many commas as they need to slow down a poem.

Periods

In prose, a period marks the end of a declamatory sentence. In poetry, a period is more like a stop, a comma, but longer. Take a deep breath when you see a period. When a line breaks on a span, you naturally leave some space between the end of one line and the start of the next. When you see a dot at the end of this line, give it even more breath and space.

Semicolons

Ah, that most misused prose punctuation, the strange hybrid of the colon and the comma, the semicolon. In prose, it is used to connect two complete and closely related clauses. In poetry, it is somewhere between a comma and a period. A little more breath than a comma and a little less than a period. In fact, they can be misused in poetry as well as prose.

Dashes

If you’re not a fan of punctuation, I’m sorry to tell you, but there are actually three different types of hyphens: the hyphen (-), the en-dash (–) and em dash (—). Luckily, in poetry, you don’t really need to know how they each work in prose. If you already know that, throw that information out the window. May be. In fact, it really depends on the poet. Okay. Fine. Here’s how they are different.

Hyphens are used to connect compound words.

  • Double click
  • Record

En dashes are the width of the letter n and are used to connect a range of numbers, express a conflict or create a compound from an adjective made up of several words.

  • 2–6
  • North South
  • Post-graduate school life

em dashes are the width of the letter m and are used to separate clauses, to call attention to them, and to signify breaks.

  • I had walked – run, really – before I found him.
  • “Wait, where are you…?” »

In poetry, all of these things might be true, but like commas and periods, they serve to create space. While the hyphen is used to connect or combine words, the hyphen en and especially em requires time and breathing between words or lines.

Ellipses

Sometimes known as three dots, triple periods, or a one-legged duck leaping from the end of a sentence, ellipses are widely overused in text and perfectly at home in poetry. While their function in prose is to indicate truncation, poets use them to ask for maximum space. Really slow down like it’s three periods. Take a deep breath, maybe two when you see ellipses in a poem.

Other punctuation

And the parenthesis? Asterisks? Ampersands? Settlers? Tildas and umlauts and accent marks? Really, these are used the same way they are in prose. Parentheses are asides. The asterisks usually mean there’s a footnote somewhere. The ampersands mean “and”. You get the picture. Nothing to see here.

Where is he?

With poetry, just about anything goes as long as the poet works within a set of rules for that poem. They can make up the rules as they go, which means punctuation can mean just about anything. Read it as I described it here. Ignore it. See how these readings change the poem’s meaning, phrase, cadence, and sound. It’s poetry! What it means to you means MUCH more than it ever meant to the poet.

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