Punctuation in Poetry: Rules and Examples

Unlike other students, poets are free to break the rules for expressing their creativity. So, don’t be surprised if a poem misses a comma or any other punctuation mark. Every author and every poem can have their own poetry punctuation rules.

Poem punctuation deserves careful attention. Besides each work can be unique, there still are several featuring rules and principles you should know.

In this article, you will learn about:

  • Types of punctuation in poems
  • Why do you need punctuation in poetry?
  • Effects of different punctuation in poetry
  • Which punctuation marks are better to use in which situations?

And how not to write something like this 👇

‘My three favorite things are eating
my family and not using commas.’

🧱 Punctuation in Poetry. Basics

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When we read, we hear speech in our minds. Without this, the text turns into a set of words. We need punctuation marks to hear speech mentally. They bring vocal meaning to the writing; they serve intonation.
Punctuation plays a significant role when it comes to poetic monotonicity. Punctuation marks give a poetic meaning to the natural prosaic speech’s phrasal intonation.

Let’s look at some fundamental principles of poem punctuation.

How to Punctuate a Poem?

  • It is possible to use any punctuation marks almost anywhere in the text. Do it to convey an emotion or to give your reader a chance to hold a breath.
  • There is no need to put every punctuation mark in its place. The rhythm (or even a poet’s aesthetic taste) can be an excuse for breaking the rules.
  • There is no need to start every line with a capital letter. It was an old tradition; contemporary poets can choose whether to follow it or not.
  • Punctuation marks help readers go through the text as intended by the author. What is more important, they understand what the author says, in fact.
  • If a line doesn’t end with a punctuation mark, readers should not make a pause. The author sets the rules of the poem: its speed, tone, and direction.

📑 Types of Poetry Punctuation

There are four main types of possible punctuation in poems. Don’t be afraid of their complicated names. Everything is pretty simple:

TypeMeaningExample
End Stopped LineA punctuation
mark at the end
of a line.
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten loreβ€”
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber doorβ€”
Only this and nothing more.”
(“The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe)

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:
(“Sonnet 18” by William Shakespeare)
Enjambment
(run-on lines)
No punctuation
mark at the end
of a line. The
reader
continues
reading without
making a pause
because the
same idea
continues in the
next line.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
(“Macbeth” by William Shakespeare)

I can hear little clicks inside my dream.
Night drips its silver tap
down the back.
At 4 A.M. I wake. Thinking
of the man who
left in September.
His name was Law.
(“The Glass Essay” by Ann Carson)
CaesuraA line has a
punctuation
mark causing a
pause in the
middle of the line.
I’m nobody! || Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us || – don’t tell!
They’d banish || – you know!
(“I’m Nobody! Who Are You?” by Emily Dickinson

Who saidβ€”” Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert … || Near them, || on the sand …
My name is Ozymandias, || King of Kings; ||
Look on my Works, || ye Mighty, || and despair!
Nothing beside remains. || Round the decay …
(“Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley)
No PunctuationModern poets
can decide not
to use
punctuation
at all.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
(“Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou)

Poem Punctuation Marks and Their Uses

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In the above paragraph, you can see how each mark can change the whole sense and vibe. Hopefully, it’s not a question anymore – what role does the punctuation play in poetry.

Now.

It might seem ridiculous.

But.

Let’s quickly go through the main punctuation marks and their possible meanings.

PERIOD (.) – full stop; use a period to mark the end of the thought

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.

“Darkness” by Lord Byron (George Gordon)

COMMA (,) – commas help to make a pause, separate elements, use many adjectives, and eliminate “and”

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light […]

“In Memoriam A. H. H. OBIIT MDCCCXXXIII: 106” By Alfred Tennyson

QUESTION MARK (?) – needless to say, with a question mark, you indicate a question (sometimes rhetorical); as well as give the reader a chance to take a breath

Would you like to throw a stone at me?

“Peach” by D. H. Lawrence

Who can sing the House of the Sun?
Who shall frame its dreadful art?

“The House of the Sun” by Donald (Grady) Davidson

EXCLAMATION POINT (!) – use exclamation marks to specify some protest, excitement, appeal, completeness, or just emphasize a thought.

Earth, ocean, air, belovèd brotherhood!

“Alastor; or, The Spirit of Solitude” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!

“Sympathy” by Paul Laurence Dunbar

SEMICOLON (;) – semicolons are for connecting two separate parts of the sentence and to separate lists.

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing; […]

“Sympathy” by Paul Laurence Dunbar

COLON (:) – use a colon before introducing a list, explanation, or definition.

They wander and are exiled, they live in exile through long ages
Like drawn blades never sheathed, hacked and gone black,
The alien trees in alien lands: and yet
The heart of blossom,
The unquenchable heart of blossom!

“Almond Blossom” by D. H. Lawrence

QUOTATION MARKS (“) – like in prose punctuation, quotation marks in poems serve to mark words of another source.

[…]. The light there, but
what’s it for? For eyes.
He called me “Four Eyes”
now I have billions.[…]

“My Sea” by Alice Notley

ELLIPSIS (…) – this mysterious mark says about the omitted part of the sentence (sometimes word) and indicates a transition.

I’m going to lead you
into a you you don’t know … Most people want
to go.

“My Sea” by Alice Notley

APOSTROPHE (‘) – besides pointing to the possessive form, apostrophes can also be used to omit letters from the word.

‘Tis true, ’tis day, what though it be?
O wilt thou therefore rise from me?
Why should we rise because ’tis light?
Did we lie down because ’twas night?

Break of Day” by John Donne

HYPHEN (-) – use a hyphen to connect compound words (or add some modifiers)

Throughout the afternoon I watched them there,
Snow-fairies falling, falling from the sky […]

“The Snow Fairy” by Claude McKay

[…]
With blood-hot eyes and cane-lipped scented mouth,
Surprised in making folk-songs from soul sounds.

Georgia Dusk” by Jean Toomer

EM-DASH (–) – with this punctuation mark, you can introduce an explanation or specification, make a break in thought, or separate two parts of the sentence.

[…]

All water from the streams; dead birds were found
In wells a hundred feet below the ground
Such was the season when the flower bloomed.

“November Cotton Flower” by Jean Toomer

PARENTHESIS (( )) – use parenthesis to add a text that is not a part of the sentence (for example, qualifying notes or developed thoughts

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling) […]

“[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]” by E. E. Cummings

This was a quick revising on how different punctuation marks work in different situations in poetry. The list is not limited, and you might meet unique usages of punctuation in some cases. Let the creativity work for you!

💬 How to Quote Poetry Punctuation Correctly

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If you want to include a direct quote from a poem in your academic paper, you should preserve the author’s style and punctuation.

  • Use capital letters where the author uses them!
  • Use punctuation marks exactly where the author puts them!

If you cite a single line from a poem, use the standard format of an in-text citation:

You may shoot me with your words

Angelou

If you cite several lines from a poem, write all of them in one line and include slashes at the places of line breaks:

Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines / Diggin’ in my own back yard

Angelou

If you cite several lines with a stanza break in between, use a double slash.

It seemed such waste that long white hands / Should touch my hands and let them go. // And once when we were parting there, / Unseen of anything but trees

Tate

If you cite more than three lines, use a blockquote. In this case, you need to start citation from a new line. There is no need to put quotation marks; however, it is crucial to reproduce the original formatting.

I’ve often wondered why she laughed
On thinking why I wondered so;
It seemed such waste that long white hands
Should touch my hands and let them go.

Allen Tate

So, now you understand the actual value of punctuation in poetry. You know the simple principles of not only writing but also citing poems in your academic papers.

Operate this knowledge as an additional tool for your creativity.
Make them work for you and not vice versa 😊

That’s it. Good luck with your work!

🔗 References

  1. UNDERSTANDING POETRY: THE PLACE OF PUNCTUATION IN A POEM
  2. How to Punctuate Poetry: A Quick Guide to Sculpting Language
  3. Writing Projects : How to Do Punctuation in Poetry Manuscripts for Publishing
  4. Writing Tips – How to punctuate a poem, 5 tips (podcast)
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