by Reese Leyva ǀ @reese.leyva

Let’s talk about punctuation in poetry. We all learned “proper” punctuation in school, but in the world of poetry those rules become hazy and less urgent.

However, punctuation is still important in poetry. It has its time and place, and can be quite effective when used with purpose.

Let’s take a look at one of my recent poems where a small bit of punctuation was, I felt, crucial.

Have mercy
on these bones, I
didn’t mean to wake you, I
just thought you should know I
don’t deserve to
be here…
better let me go.
Don’t you dare
love me anymore. 

When I first wrote this poem it had no punctuation at all, but when reading the final version you can see how important those three commas are. Not only do they help clarify the phrasing; they give you the feeling of breathlessness as you read it.

Hopefully, it’s a kind of breathlessness that reminds you of someone who’s very nervous, someone who’s trying to say something difficult. Maybe even someone who’s trying to speak through sobs and gasps while they’re crying.

As for the ellipsis, I felt I really needed a pause there. The speaker needed a moment to consider her next words, and I wanted the reader to pause and feel that moment with her.

It’s a complex moment of sadness and resignation, even hopelessness. I used the ellipsis where a comma, or even a period, just wasn’t enough to let both the speaker and the reader breathe it all in.

In your poetry, consider how your punctuation, or lack thereof, is affecting your reader. Consider how the poem flows with our without the punctuation. And be thoughtful about the effects different types of punctuation can have.

  • A comma suggests a slight pause.
  • A period, especially at the end of a line, suggests a longer pause or a definite end.
  • A colon encourages your reader to pause and consider what they just read before moving on to the next words.
  • A semicolon has a similar effect as a colon, but the pause is shorter/softer.
  • An ellipsis, as used above, is a slow and thoughtful approach to the upcoming words/line of the poem.
  • A dash (or em-dash) also encourages a pause but it tends towards a speedier flow and may imply more emphasis on the words that follow than a colon or semicolon might.
  • An exclamation mark adds energy and intensity!
  • A question mark adds energy to a question asked within the piece.

Keep in mind, the above descriptions are just generalities. It’s up to you to decide what a specific punctuation mark means to you and your piece of poetry.

If you tend towards using punctuation only at the end of your lines, or you use no punctuation at all, try something new! Use them within the lines!

If you tend towards lots of punctuation, try your hand at a free-flowing piece with zero punctuation marks.

Ultimately, you’ll get a feel for how much more meaning your poems can carry with the slight alterations punctuation marks have to offer.

Most of all, keep writing!

Reese Leyva ǀ @reese.leyva

Reese  is a poet and writer based in the PNW, U.S.A. Her shorter works can be found on Instagram (direct messages welcome!) and longer poems are available on her website

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