Punctuation Rules Your Serendipity @ Thursday Thoughts

06 Sep
Punctuation Cookies For National Punctuation Day

Punctuation Cookies For National Punctuation Day (Photo credit: DavidErickson)

9:36 a.m. — Atlanta

listening to Yellow River by The Tremeloes

Oof! My whole day is off-track. I started with a dentist appointment… hang on… phone rang: My son with the latest update on their move to Vermont. Now, it’s 10:21 and Me and You and a Dog Named Blue is playing. This post might take a while.

Punctuation. Where do I even start? It’s a pet peeve of mine, poems that are not punctuated and need to be. I don’t have a problem with minimal punctuation. Heck, I don’t have a problem with poems where the poet is so good at line-breaks that I don’t notice the lack of punctuation. I have even read a couple of poems with no punctuation whatsoever and thought to myself, That’s how it should be. But those are rarities.

Why is punctuation important? This is our, us writers, chance to talk with our readers: Pause here, but only for a 1/4 of a beat. This is an aside — pause longer — see these dashes, they mean you can read one thing jumping over the content between the dashes, another richer way, with what’s between. Pause here; breathe a 1/2 beat.

I came across several good sites while pulling my thoughts together and seeing what others are saying:

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 discernible packages or units. Punctuation in poetry serves the same function as in prose:   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. [Poet’s Workshop]

I would argue that, even in drafts, punctuation is important as a guide to ourselves through our own thinking regarding what we write. However, that’s a personal thing with each writer. Our poems become less creations of our persons once we post, or publish, poems. By posting, or publishing, we invite a whole world to join in the creation. There are few writers whose thoughts are so crystal clear on paper they do not require the aid of punctuation in interpreting those thoughts. Most readers require some guidance, so that their part in experiencing the poem is enjoyable.

How many of you have found yourself reading a poem and your brain says, Huh? What? and you have to go back and reread, maybe a couple of times, until the sense of the poem is clear to you? As a reader I am irritated if that happens. I want to read a poem as a whole and then choose to reread it because the content has made me think, Wow!, not, Huh? What? I want to grapple with, or enjoy, the form and content of the poem without obstruction.

If I leave the paragraphs in this post unstopped, or just missed the full-stop at the end, how many of you would think, Oops! She missed some punctuation. The same thing should hold for poetry. It drives me nuts to arrive at the end of a poem, but the writer has not told me to stop. The writer has left the poem unfinished, but the thought is clearly finished. The punctuation should match what is happening in the poem.

While I am generally more relaxed, more fluid now, on the topic [in that I will admit .01% of poems might work without punctuation], the lack of an end stop still rattles my bones, as does the out-dated convention of capitalising the first words of each line. I can hear feathers ruffling, but, it is a convention and it is out-dated. Almost every single reader of poetry, these days, has a brain that says, Capital letter = new sentence. They do not just read through. They go back to see what they missed, before they realise the writer is writing old-style, rather than the way most poetry is written now, with a capital letter only when a word begins a sentence.

Let me give you the links to two posts I wrote on this topic, one at the beginning of this blog experience, where I talk about what the most common punctuation marks do; the second, a slightly more recent one on the topic of enjambment [several of you will remember this one].

A thought from a writer of an article ‘Punctuating Poetry Part 1‘: In order to punctuate with purpose, however, a poet must understand two things: what she wants to achieve with the poem and what a piece of punctuation can achieve in a poem. This means a poet must understand more than the common rules of punctuation; she must know the effect that certain punctuation points can have on a reader or in a text.

Are there rules? Yes. Do we have to follow them? No. But, if we are going to put our poetry out in the world and expect people to read it, then we need to be aware of the effect of having, and not having, punctuation. We had also, better be very good at line breaks.

Can you tell this is my soap-box? Thank you for bearing with me. I shall see you tomorrow for the prompt roundup; Tuesday for a prompt on how strong memories feed our creativity [and a question about a possible future prompt]; and next Thursday for links, or announcements, if you have some to send me, or a topic, like today’s, that you would like me to take on.

Happy writing, all. I really need some coffee.



Posted by on 06/09/2012 in exercises, poetry, writing


Tags: , , , ,

62 responses to “Punctuation Rules Your Serendipity @ Thursday Thoughts

  1. Yousei Hime

    06/09/2012 at 11:44 am

    Thank you for the Poet’s Workshop link. The question of punctuation has been a slow-growing concern of mine over the last year. Glad to have some thought and direction on it. I’m also looking forward to all the opinions on it that may spill out here. 😉

    • margo roby

      06/09/2012 at 11:46 am

      That was quick! And, yes, this should be interesting 🙂

  2. Annette Mickelson

    06/09/2012 at 11:45 am

    I hear you on this! I hate it when I’m reading a poem and can’t tell where I’m supposed pause and what word goes with what. It’s can be exhausting… and I usually check out before I lose all my steam. I suppose we share that soap box. And, yes, there are some exceptions out there — but they are exceptions.

    • margo roby

      06/09/2012 at 11:48 am

      Absolutely, Annette. I figure if a writer does not use punctuation it’s a signal they don’t care enough, or they are unaware of the effect of their own writing, both not good.

      • Mary

        06/09/2012 at 12:48 pm

        I don’t think it is always that they don’t care enough. I do believe sometimes it is just a person’s style. (And we may or may not LIKE that style.)

        • margo roby

          06/09/2012 at 3:18 pm

          Mary, I guess, then, that the question is why does the poet publish it if she’s more interested in her style than in readers enjoying and understanding the poem. I have no problem with style.

          • Mary

            07/09/2012 at 9:37 am

            I think that a poet should strive to write his/her poems so that others can understand them. ( I still come upon poems in the blogosphere that I cannot comprehend no matter how hard I try.) However, what I was trying to say is that there are many STYLES of writing that people could choose to write in and still be understood…including a style that uses lack of punctuation. However one uses punctuation, the goal should be that the punctuation used should HELP the poem be understood.

            • margo roby

              07/09/2012 at 9:43 am

              Got it this time. Thank you, Mary. I agree with you wholeheartedly.

  3. Mary

    06/09/2012 at 12:46 pm

    I enjoyed your article, Margo, and I will keep it to reread. What I like is consistency within a poem in regard to punctuation. I do not mind if some commas are eliminated if pauses fall at the end of a line, where there is a natural pause. I don’t put as many commas in poetry as I do in prose for that reason. Too many commas sometimes seem to ‘clutter up’ a poem. However, it bothers me if there is no end punctuation; and it bothers me if I cannot figure out where to pause or where a new thought begins. I will check back and see what others have to say.

    • margo roby

      06/09/2012 at 3:20 pm

      Hi, Mary. It’s good to see you. With my lack of wordling, I miss seeing people. I agree with you about the consistency and I agree with you about commas. I put in far fewer, now. As you say, it comes down to whether we can figure out how the thought works.

    • vivinfrance

      06/09/2012 at 4:36 pm

      Mary, like Margo, you have hit several nails on the head. While I am often dependent on punctuation to make meaning clear, I do agree that too many commas can be a hindrance, particularly in short poems.

  4. carolisle

    06/09/2012 at 1:31 pm

    Are you in my head or what?
    I debate punctuating or not .
    Sometimes I fee like I throw punctuation marks up in the air and see where they land. I am sure I am one of those folks that drive you crazy.
    Sometimes I use line breaks to give double meaning to a word that starts on the next line.
    The best way I have found to punctuate is to read the poem out loud and see where I pause.
    Above all thank you for raising my consciousness about the necessity of those small dots and tittles.

    • margo roby

      06/09/2012 at 3:21 pm

      I’m right there, Carolisle.
      ‘The best way I have found to punctuate is to read the poem out loud and see where I pause.’ This works fine. Keep reading aloud.

      • vivinfrance

        06/09/2012 at 4:44 pm

        This is the crux point. I often find that I will stumble on reading a poem aloud because the punctuation is either absent, or what is there is unhelpful.

        I have to read a French poem at a wedding (the translation I made of a poem written by the bride to her groom). I have been practising, and as a consequence, have re-jigged both layout and punctuation so that I can give emphasis where needed, and build to a climax at the end. I have even invented some punctuation to aid enjambment – I use an underline at the end of an enjambed line. Where I want an extra pause, I use double slashes //.

        • margo roby

          06/09/2012 at 4:49 pm

          That’s a whole other topic! When I have a poem I am going to read to an audience [the three times I have done it now] I have to come up with a whole set of marks that tell me, as the reader-aloud, what to do. I also find that double-spacing the lines helps me. I am more challenged than you, ViV. I have to write the word ‘pause” and tell myself how long.

  5. markwindham

    06/09/2012 at 3:16 pm

    Wow, you could be like a teacher or something. 🙂 (does a period go after a smiley face?)

    I do need a refresher on this subject. High school english was a long time ago. I have tried experiments with punctuation and the lack thereof. A couple have worked, more have not. If it is obviously intentional and consistent within the piece I think leaving it out can work, but it is the exception. and as you said, perfect line breaks are essential.

    Twitter and blog comments have killed grammar, much like remote keyless entry on cars has killed chivalry.

    • Misky

      06/09/2012 at 5:44 pm

      Chivalry’s not dead; doors still need closing — just like a sentence. 🙂

  6. margo roby

    06/09/2012 at 3:24 pm

    Do I know you? Since you ask, yes. Didn’t think there was an answer did you?
    There are plenty of good places online. I keep a couple at my fingertips to double-check stuff. Yes, even moi.
    Nice analogy :-D.

  7. vivinfrance

    06/09/2012 at 4:50 pm

    One other point you make had me cheering: capitalisation of the first letter of every line regardless of sense. It drives me bonkers! I had the temerity to challenge an established poet, whose work I love, on this very subject. She was not offended – simply said “I’ve always done it, it was what I learned in school.” She is the same age as me, and so did I, but that doesn’t stop me learning and changing!

    • margo roby

      06/09/2012 at 4:52 pm

      Exactly, ViV! How funny that someone who is creative does something because she always has.

  8. pmwanken

    06/09/2012 at 8:59 pm

    Hmm…I probably drive you nuts with some of my poems that have no punctuation. Just for you, I went back and added punctuation to my poem from today (“Music Box Memories”). 😉

    • margo roby

      07/09/2012 at 7:21 am

      I’ll have to go look, but no, unless you don’t endstop a poem, you’re fine. I have told you from the first poem of yours I read, that you have a gift for line-breaks. So, don’t worry about it, just be aware that punctuation can be a useful tool.


      • pmwanken

        07/09/2012 at 10:26 am

        If I am sparse with punctuation throughout I always feel like an endstop in my writing stands out like a sore thumb — and then I feel obligated to use other punctuation. And if I’m using punctuation, then I feel obligated to capitalize — which I also do not always do. And I agree with others — I cannot stand when every line is capitalized, so perhaps I go the other end of the spectrum with not capitalizing. Yet — I do believe I use punctuation when warranted/needed if simply using line breaks and enjambment aren’t enough.

        Hmm…. 😉

        • margo roby

          07/09/2012 at 10:37 am

          Hmmm, indeed. Take yourself in hand, woman! The endstop does not do anything other than signal the end. I promise you it does not stand out. You have good instincts. trust them.

  9. barbara_

    07/09/2012 at 7:51 am

    As a punctuation slacker, I’m a little leary of showing up today. I will say, in response: It is not *always* from lack of caring that unreadable texts are public. Sometimes, maybe.
    I have a bad comma habit. Tried to cut back and wound up overshooting on the other direction. As has been pointed out, reading aloud helps to discover these things. Unfortunately for me, reading aloud is right back there with Form on the list of poetry MUSTS that I am late getting around to. I don’t talk much, even to myself.

    • margo roby

      07/09/2012 at 8:08 am

      I also said the writer might not be aware of the effect, rather than not caring. That’s my own problem sometimes. Barbara, I have never had a problem reading your poetry, but, like Paula, you know where to break lines. Punctuation is merely a tool to enhance. I am working on cutting back commas, as I use a lot for clarification. I do have a good sense of where pauses should be and am using other pieces of punctuation, or line breaks to indicate them. If you have a good inner ear, you don’t need to read aloud aloud. I rarely need to. It’s only the poems where I’m not quite sure.

      • barbara_

        07/09/2012 at 9:50 am

        sigh. My inner ear works just fine while the writing is going on. I know, then, exactly how things sound. Unfortunately, I seem to use a lot of those today-you’re-a-noun/tomorrow-a-verb, compact constructions. Come back a month later, Even I can’t make heads or tails of them. Good habits of punctuation would save me a lot of headscratching, but damned if they didn’t seem transparent when I wrote them.

  10. Mary

    07/09/2012 at 9:48 am

    Let’s think for a moment about e.e. cummings. Most of his poems were written without punctuation or capital letters; and they were very understandable. I don’t think anyone would ever say of him that he didn’t care about these things. Here is one of his poems, if anyone is not familiar with his style:

    I don’t think there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ with punctuation in poetry. Isn’t that what poetic license is all about? We cannot assume that a poet who does not choose to use a particular comma doesn’t know the rules or does not care about the rules.

    But I do think a poet should know the rules and know when he/she is breaking them! As e.e.cummings did. I am enjoying others’ thoughts and will check back again.

    • barbara_

      07/09/2012 at 9:55 am

      I love cummings. God alone knows how much work he put into making those things seem artless, but that–maybe not the root cause–probably has encouraged a lot of us in folly.

      • margo roby

        07/09/2012 at 10:15 am

        Hello. I am running on adrenaline. A bathroom pipe burst. The flat and I are wet, but I am staying out of the way of the maintenance guys and their water suckers.

        Barbara, you make a good point that cummings probably spent days to arrive at a punctuated poem that conveyed what he wanted it to.

        Mary, I sort of disagree with the right or wrong. It’s not about using or not using. It’s about effect and understanding. One of my favourite poems that I came across recently has no punctuation and it is so right, but it works clearly because the writer knows what he is doing. So, the right and wrong don’t have to do with the use or non-use of punctuation but whether the poem is clear.

        Why do I feel like you and I are saying the same thing and agreeing with each other!? The discussion is interesting.

        • Mary

          07/09/2012 at 10:18 am

          ” Mary, I sort of disagree with the right or wrong. It’s not about using or not using. It’s about effect and understanding. One of my favourite poems that I came across recently has no punctuation and it is so right, but it works clearly because the writer knows what he is doing. So, the right and wrong don’t have to do with the use or non-use of punctuation but whether the poem is clear ”

          I agree with you 100%. LOL. I do think somehow we are trying to make the same point in different ways. LOL. Deal with your pipe…yikes.

          • margo roby

            07/09/2012 at 10:25 am

            I know. I laughed when I read over our responses.

            I’m just waiting for the guys to leave so I can get changed and dry off! They are going to leave a giant fan. I know the kind of noise that thing makes. I had better put away all sharp objects.

    • JulesPaige

      07/09/2012 at 11:03 am

      An interesting note about Mr. Cummings… I read somewhere that it was a fluke that started his name not being capitalized. I think he even commented that it was not of his invention or intention.

      Name and capitalization
      Cummings’s publishers and others have sometimes echoed the unconventional orthography in his poetry by writing his name in lowercase and without periods (full stops), but normal orthography (uppercase and full stops) is supported by scholarship, and preferred by publishers today.[32] Cummings himself used both the lowercase and capitalized versions, though he most often signed his name with capitals.[32]
      The use of lowercase for his initials was popularized in part by the title of some books, particularly in the 1960s, printing his name in lower case on the cover and spine. In the preface to E. E. Cummings: the growth of a writer critic Harry T. Moore notes ” He [Cummings] had his name put legally into lower case, and in his later books the titles and his name were always in lower case.”[33] According to his widow, this is incorrect.[32] She wrote of Friedman “you should not have allowed H. Moore to make such a stupid & childish statement about Cummings & his signature.” On February 27, 1951, Cummings wrote to his French translator D. Jon Grossman that he preferred the use of upper case for the particular edition they were working on.[34] One Cummings scholar believes that on the rare occasions that Cummings signed his name in all lowercase, he may have intended it as a gesture of humility, not as an indication that it was the preferred orthography for others to use.[32]
      Critic Edmund Wilson commented “Mr. Cummings’s eccentric punctuation is, also, I believe, a symptom of his immaturity as an artist. It is not merely a question of an unconventional usage: unconventional punctuation may very well gain its effect… the really serious case against Mr. Cummings’s punctuation is that the results which it yields are ugly. His poems on the page are hideous.”[35]


  11. Mary

    07/09/2012 at 10:22 am

    I am also remembering how much I loved the archy and mehitabel series (Don Marquis). So many good short poems with deep meaning. No capitalization or punctuation either. I was always struck by the one with the moth and the light bulb; but I cannot find it easily on the internet. I wonder if this stuff is still under copyright. Was anyone else a fan of archy?

    Perhaps it was e.e. cummings and Don Marquis who started the trend of eliminating punctuation and capitalization? Margo, do you have any theories on that? Or does anyone else?

    • barbara_

      07/09/2012 at 11:33 am

      toujours gai toujours gai
      i was talking to a moth
      the other evening
      he was trying to break into
      an electric light bulb
      and fry himself on the wires

      If you can’t find it online, I can copy out the rest

      • barbara_

        07/09/2012 at 11:34 am

        Notice that line break: hanging “into” out there like a flag?

        • Mary

          07/09/2012 at 5:44 pm

          Hi Barbara, are you saying that the ‘into’ should go on the next line instead?

          (No, you don’t have to write out the entire poem, I do remember…and enjoy…the gist of it. But thank you.))

      • margo roby

        07/09/2012 at 12:17 pm

        How can anyone not love that? I want a whole workshop on line breaks; so much to learn.
        Thanks, Barbara!

    • barbara_

      07/09/2012 at 11:39 am

      A friend of ours edited an edition for Penguin a few years back, so, yes it’s under copywrite now.

      • Mary

        07/09/2012 at 5:45 pm

        Very interesting, Barbara. I thought there was some kind of rule that after a certain number of years writings became ‘public domain.’

        • margo roby

          08/09/2012 at 9:39 am

          That’s correct, Mary, unless someone reestablishes the copyright.

  12. margo roby

    07/09/2012 at 10:35 am

    My husband and I both love that series. Your mention of it sent me scurrying to Google just to see what they do have. Don Marquis did live within the time frame of cummings, but perhaps a bigger clue, for him, is that he considered his archy and metitabel stuff throwaways, fillers. He may not have bothered. I’m thinking also, that he may have wanted the lower case to fit the insect-ness of it all.

    cummings is a whole ‘nother thing. Apparently, he was playing with syntax as early as 6! He was fascinated with its possibilities. Although we see his capitaless poems with original uses for punctuation, he has more and better poems that are straightforward, except for syntax. It’s the syntax which fascinated him and caused whatever else he played with.

    This is fun!

    • Mary

      07/09/2012 at 5:54 pm

      Yes, theoretically archy, the cockroach, could only jump on the typewriter keys. Thus, he could not capitalize. But still, even to come up with the all lower case and no punctuation was quite creative. A lesser person than Marquis probably would have written using caps and not worried about how archy accomplished it.

      I am really enjoying this discussion.

  13. PJF Sayers

    07/09/2012 at 1:16 pm

    Fascinating discussion here, Ladies. When I first started writing I used little to no punctuation, I knew better, but I wanted to get the words out of me and onto paper. Now, often I feel like I may over punctuate. There is so much to learn. Oy vey!

    As for capitalizing every line at the beginning, well, that makes me crazy! It stops the flow and makes the reading of the piece almost impossible.

    e.e. cummings was a genius, truly one of a kind.


    • Mary

      07/09/2012 at 6:03 pm

      I am thinking of a topic for another Thursday Thoughts. Feel free to ignore it. I think that e.e. cummings and Don Marquis were a kind of ‘game changer’ when it came to poetry. They changed the rules.

      I’d like a discussion of (1) other poets who were ‘game changers’ in one way or another. Who, for example, were the first poets who stopped capitalizing the first word of every line?

      (2) the most current trends in writing poetry today. Are there any new things happening? New styles? (Any poets who are examples?) Or does anything and everything go?

      Maybe these topics would be for two different weeks. Anyway, Margo, just a thought…for someday. (or never)

      • margo roby

        08/09/2012 at 9:29 am

        Good Morning Mary! I like your idea. I’ll start working on a list of topics to set out [or have people add to yours] and then maybe we can have a ‘look what I found out’ discussion. That would be fun.

    • margo roby

      08/09/2012 at 9:36 am

      Hi, Pamela. I think the punctuation question will always be around, but I also think it boils down to what is best for the poem. I spend a lot of time putting punctuation in… taking it out… I think we need to remember it is a tool, an aid to clarity. If what we write is clear without it, then it’s not needed, but if we want a reader to read something in a particular way then we need to show her how.

      • PJF Sayers

        08/09/2012 at 9:45 am

        I rarely use full stops, or periods (as we Yanks call them). However, I am a great lover of commas, semi-colons, and of course the occasional ellipses. The biggest problem I am having lately is closing a piece of writing. I believe if it is closed properly you don’t need a period. Am I wrong about this?

        • margo roby

          08/09/2012 at 9:51 am

          Pamela, I don’t know what editors think [and I would be curious to hear], but if I were looking at a poem to decide whether or not to accept it, I would query the writer. No end stop looks like the writer forgot. It looks as if the poem is unfinished, that another thought is coming along, especially if there is other punctuation in the poem. I have only read two poems that could pull it off, but I don’t think they used any punctuation. I have been trying to find them, but my files are so huge!

          • PJF Sayers

            08/09/2012 at 10:01 am

            Hmm … I wonder what editors think as well. If, you find them please do share them with us. Now, I am feeling all the more confused, not a particularly difficult feat. 🙂

          • PJF Sayers

            08/09/2012 at 10:01 am

            Hmm … I wonder what editors think as well. If, you find them please do share them with us. Now, I am feeling all the more confused, not a particularly difficult feat. 🙂

          • PJF Sayers

            08/09/2012 at 10:07 am

            Sorry about the double post here, Margo. My computer is quite finicky.

            • margo roby

              08/09/2012 at 10:10 am

              No problem, Pamela. I get to see you doubled 😉

  14. val dering rojas

    07/09/2012 at 8:44 pm

    I soooo agree!!! In my humble opinion, even if there are no periods (which works fine for me if there are stanzas) there absolutely needs to be other punctuation, especially commas!!! I know some say either complete punctuation or no punctuation at all, but a stanza ending without a period doesn’t mess me up as much as sentences that run together in the same line without even a comma! It’s just confusing, there are very few poets who can pull it off well, and even they utilize line breaks for that purpose. I may not always use periods when my stanzas are separate, (I mean as opposed to one long stanza, which I would use periods with) but I definitely can not convey what it is that I want to say without some other form of punctuation.

    • margo roby

      08/09/2012 at 9:31 am

      So long as at the very end there is an end stop. To me, a poem looks silly if it has punctuation then nothing at the very end. It looks as thought the writer forgot. I enjoy jumping stanza breaks.

  15. barbara_

    08/09/2012 at 2:46 pm

    I have something like an anxiety attack when, in a poem, I try to put a period after a sentence fragment. Silly problem.

    • margo roby

      08/09/2012 at 2:56 pm

      Grin. Barbara, it took me until last year[58] to be able to do that. Once in a while.

  16. Jo Woolf

    13/09/2012 at 2:19 am

    Glad to see there are still some people left who care about punctuation! Thanks for following my blog, by the way.

    • margo roby

      13/09/2012 at 2:50 pm

      Jo, I live and breathe punctuation, but I had a proper British education back when schools taught it.

      I have been getting your newsletter for some time and wandering over to your blog, as history and archaeology and anything in Britain are passions of mine. This time, it occurred to me I could follow.

      • Jo Woolf

        13/09/2012 at 4:43 pm

        That’s great – thank you!


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