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Punctuation and Poetry

By: Angelique Caffrey - Updated: 1 Oct 2012 | comments*Discuss
Poetry; Punctuation; Poems;

The world-renowned poet ee cummings wasn't the first to fool around with conventional punctuation in his works but he might just be the most well-known. By eschewing capital letters and standard, expected punctuation marks, cummings ensured that his poetry would be remembered and studied by many generations of poetry lovers and scholars.

Though you might not be ready to entirely throw off the veil of traditionalism and fully embrace your reckless side when it comes to writing poems, you may still be tempted to play with punctuation in your poetry a la cummings. If so, you're in for a treat, because a well-placed comma (or, conversely, a glaringly absent period), can change the cadence, implication, and intonation of your poem in a heartbeat. Fiddling around with punctuation can also make the act of writing poetry more wondrous than you had ever imagined as your simple words transform into new images and thoughts.

For example, say you are writing about a cat sitting in the garden. Your first attempt might look a little like this very straightforward two-line poem:

Posing pussy in the grass,
Chases butterflies for breakfast.

It's a pretty clear picture of a feline as a typical princess and huntress. But what if you play around with the punctuation a bit, as below?

posing pussy in the grass
chases butterflies… for breakfast?

Though you haven't changed the words, you've changed the meaning of the poem by adding a hint of humour and perhaps even irony through the use of an ellipsis and the removal of capital letters and the comma that separated the first and second line. You have also actively engaged the reader to interpret the cat's actions by agreeing or disagreeing with your suggestion that the feline might be hunting bugs in order to eat them for her first meal of the day.

Let's try another variation on the poem:

"Posing Pussy"
In the grass.
Chases butterflies
For breakfast!

Now, you have turned one sentence into two. You've also given the cat a moniker rather than simply describing her ("Posing Pussy" versus posing pussy.) With the insertion of the exclamation point at the end of the poem, you share your surprise at her silly antics with the poem's audience and encourage them to take part in the delightful scene.

Every poem you write has the possibility of being a new poem with the addition (or deletion) of just a few punctuation marks. Thus, should you ever become bored by your poetry, you needn't discard your writings and start fresh. Instead, spice up old pieces a bit by experimenting with various punctuation marks, such as dashes, quotes, and semi-colons.

Incidentally, this is also an excellent technique to combat the age-old struggle with "writer's block" that most poets have experienced. By allowing oneself to freely change the meaning and rhythm of a piece, the poet can rid him- or herself of any mental cobwebs and stir up a new batch of personal inspiration.

Remember - poetry should be enjoyable and interesting for both the poet and the reader. By mixing up the punctuation, you can ensure that you'll keep your reader rapt from beginning to end.

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