From The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare  winter

I am not prone to weeping, as our sex

Commonly are; the want of which vain dew

Perchance shall dry your pities; but I have

That honourable grief lodged here which burns

Worse than tears drown.

Commas, periods, question marks, semi-colons, dashes… if used incorrectly, they fly every which way and can wreak havoc on your writing. In prose, standard rules of grammar apply. Most of the time. When it comes to poetry, though, many poets think that the rules of punctuation go right out the window.

For many aspiring poets, punctuation is thrown helter skelter throughout out a piece, leaving the reader wondering if the writer even knows what he’s doing. For some, no punctuation rules the roost. And yet others adhere to strict rules of prose (at least non-fiction prose) when constructing lines of verse. So let me just announce it here and now: Poetic Punctuation is Nietzschean Metaphor. There really is no right and no wrong. Everything is as it is and as it should be. But… bad writing is still bad writing. Although rules are often thrown out in poetry, punctuation can still make or break your verse.

A wise teacher (and one heck of a good poet) once told me that punctuation in poetry is “all or none, baby.” By that, he meant that you can either have punctuation in your poetry follow a set structure or you should just leave it out altogether. Don’t force a comma at the end of a line. But if you do, don’t forget it on the next one. Throwing in the random comma or semi-colon at a break is confusing to the reader. Letting your punctuation flow similar to prose helps to keep those oddball commas in check. On the other hand, it often works out just as well to leave out all punctuation. In these situations, let your word choices make the breaks and pauses for the reader instead of the comma or period.

In the lines of Shakespeare’s above, punctuation moves in and out with the rules of prose, but it does not hinder the flow of the words. As seen below, the “punctuation” is formed by the words and line breaks alone.

I am not prone to weeping

as our sex commonly are

the want of which vain dew

perchance shall dry your pities

but I have that honourable grief

lodged here which burns

worse than tears drown

Sans punctuation, it doesn’t stick to the classical rules of meter, but it carries itself gracefully all the same. As a poet, it’s your choice. To punctuate or not to punctuate may be the question, but let your answers be clear and unencumbered. Good writing is still good writing.

Punctuation in Poetry
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