LESSON IV. On Grammar

LESSON IV. On Grammar

A Lesson by Richard🖌

Is there a right time to break punctuation and grammar rules in poetry?


( An Original Litany )

by: Richard W. Jenkins, Poet Laureate, The International Poets' Workshop 


    Here, I am probably going to wear some of you out on the topic of grammar (punctuation, spelling, word usage, capitalization, etc). I may even agitate some, anger others, or leave them thinking, “What a nut!”
   Any educated, conscientious, and experienced writer knows that proper grammar and punctuation are the soul of writing, because they convey an author’s desired expression in meaning, emotion, intent, mood, feeling, etc; even the speed and cadence in which each and every part of their composition is meant to be interpreted and understood.

   A reader, not well-versed in grammar and punctuation, is akin to a guitarist sitting down to play a song from a sheet of music; yet, they do not know what each note, pause, tempo, means, or where they are on the neck, frets, and strings; nor, can they share their own written music with others to play, anymore than a writer can properly and clearly convey their own poetical music adequately and properly to others.

“Guilty as charged!”

  In other words, I’ve done it and still do.
   However, when a poet says, “I write my words, and it is up to others to interpret them in their own way, to make them their own, to infer from them whatever they will,” it is purely a cop-out that they do not know proper punctuation, and I say this because I cannot conceive of any reason a conscientious poet would compose a poem, share it with others, and not care how they take, understand, or interpret it.
   This is not only ludicrous and ambiguous to my discernment, it seems terribly irresponsible. Still, having said all that, there are certainly more sides to this highly controversial, often debated, disagreed-on, and divisive topic amongst and between poets, than merely my own point of view; thus, in this spirit, please, read on.
  Then, perhaps, it is all best left to the discernment of each author … you decide:

Punctuation: Cadence or Pace

  Cadence or pace in poetry is influenced by the rhythm of the words, but it is, also, influenced by the amount and kind of punctuation.
  As a general rule: The more punctuation, the slower the poem will read. Punctuation is not the only factor influencing a reader’s pace, but it is an important influence.
  When punctuation occurs at the end of a line, it is called an end-stopped, slowed, or paused line. A run-on line (also, called enjambment) occurs if there is no punctuation at the end of the line, or if the idea expressed in one line is continued on in the next. Enjambment urges the reader to move to the next line without pausing. It lessens the sing-song effect of a regular end-rhyme pattern.
  A mark of punctuation that comes within the line itself is called a caesura. Caesuras cause the reader to pause or stop in the middle of a line, providing a clear break in thought or slowing the pace of the poem.
  Some poets omit punctuation or use it minimally. If you decide not to use punctuation, or if you decide to use it sparsely, perhaps, you will have to give even more thought to leading the reader to a correct reading of your poem.
  You may subscribe to the philosophy that multiple readings are possible and legitimate. In fact, you may encourage it by using deliberate ambiguity, but be sure this is truly what you intend.
  You then might want to consider line length and appropriate spacing (or stanza structure) between passages, realizing that space slows the reader somewhat, and also that word placements on the page will affect a particular reading of your poem.
  Primarily, most all issues regarding punctuation in writing arise from those who do not use it or use it improperly, whether in prose, stories, or poetry, it is most often because they are not well-versed in its punctuation’s proper usage.
  A very useful book on punctuation, written in layman’s terms, is "The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation" from Abe Books at:  
(used, in the $3 to $5 range).

  Many poets feel very differently about the use, or non-use, of punctuation in poetry. Some feel it should be used to emphasize, as signposts to breathing and pausing, or to merely maintain correct grammar. Others may feel that line breaks are enough to convey an intended pause. 
  Many may be simply bewildered and don’t know where to start. Punctuation has the unique role of being able to significantly alter the way we read a written work; it can hinder some poems while enhancing others, and may do both in various places in a single work. 
  The simple answer is, "There is no simple answer."
  Really, it is a question of deciding how you feel about your own poetry and what suits your style best. To this end, experimenting with different punctuations may lead to the feedback you desire on what really seems to work best for you.
  As a teacher and editor, I am a stickler for punctuation in prose, but over the years I have noticed much of the long-winded writing that required multitudes of commas, semicolons, and colons is no longer fashionable, and most writers seem to have lost the art of punctuation.
  Some fashionable writers these days seem to think it's de rigueur to leave punctuation out altogether.
  For me, apart from a few wasteful or over-used commas, most punctuation is still necessary for correctness in reading poetry in the manner its author mean it when they wrote it … that is, assuming the reader understands the art of punctuation.
  So, why might I use very little punctuation in short poetry?
  Primarily, it's a visual thing. In a page of prose, punctuation is not particularly obtrusive, but in a brief poem of short lines, punctuation can (sometimes) impinge on the visual, like flies at a picnic.
  As poetry is often a collection of impressive phrases neatly strung together, punctuation may be guesswork, at best. In single word lines, it can become mostly unnecessary, if not intrusive.

  One school of thought says that line ends are automatic pauses. That is mostly true, and can be used to great effect. However, enjambment can argue against that.
  Mostly, I let the poem decide. If I have a poem with dialogue in it, I use quote marks without too many of the usual concomitant commas. If I need to emphasize pauses within lines, then a judicious dash, or a suggestive ellipsis, often seems to do the trick.
  The ways in which we read punctuation may differ significantly from reader to reader; typically, because few are educated and adept at properly understanding the art of punctuation. When I am reading a poem, I read the punctuation as a part of the words, inseparable when used well to the benefit of the piece (and highly irritating when it serves to impede the poem, when wrongly used). 

   For this next section, I’d like to run through my take on using the different punctuation marks in poetry:
  This section is highly subjective to my own experiences, but finding the right punctuation is imperative if you plan to use it in your poetry. Each and every individual punctuation mark brings its own value to a poem, and should be addressed according to how you want to convey your words – beyond the words themselves.

The Period.

  This is easily the most understandable punctuation mark. It creates a full-stop wherever it is used in a work of poetry, and should be used to the effect of separating thoughts that are meant to be digested one at a time. 
  I’ve seen it commonly used at the end of a given stanza to wrap up that stanza’s central thought. 
  Periods can also be the most distracting punctuation mark when used improperly. 

The Comma,

 Stands as, in my observation, the most used punctuation mark in poetical writing. Commas are often used at the ends of lines, and even then not always well. 
 When a comma is used at the end of a line, it should be due to the fact that the reader is not meant to directly continue on to the following line. In essence, the comma provides a very brief pause, a yield sign, if you will, so the reader will check their speed and not proceed too quickly and miss the essence of a line’s power, emotion, memento, or allow it to run-on into the next line, etc. 
 Commas should serve to separate thoughts that may be related, but aren’t directly so, and to pause for a brief instant of realization, or to keep a line of thought or feeling or its essence from rushing-on too quickly, effectively allowing it to be missed or watered down. 

The Exclamation Mark or Point!

  Exclamatory punctuation can be tricky to master. If you use too long a line (or a stanza devoid of any punctuation, until a final exclamation point), you may force the reader to re-read the line with the proper emotion in check. Exclamation marks should be used sparingly, as well. It would quickly become highly irritating if every single line in a poem ended with an exclamation mark (although there are a few poems that may get away with this), especially if the lines were short.
  My favorite use of exclamation points are typically in the middle of a line after an “Oh!” or other brief emotional outburst. They do signify a pause of sorts but the pause is so fleeting, due to the emotion in-tow, that the reader progresses on with nary a thought to the impediment. 
 Especially, when used effectively, exclamations can add a deeper level of significance to a line than previously would have been present. They may, also, add merriment or amplify a statement intended to hold its key meaning through irony or sarcasm. 
  Sparingly, is one of the best uses for the Exclamation Mark!

The Semicolon;

  The semicolon is one of those weird bits of punctuation whose purpose is a bit obscure. In prose, the semicolon traditionally separates two related sentences (which may share a single subject) in order to prevent a run-on or extended sentence. In poetry, this issue is not as common, and this punctuation mark is the awkward teenager of the bunch. 
  When reading poetry, I think of the semi-colon as a cautionary pause. Not a full-stop but something that signifies a distinct separation with thoughts or lines to follow in the same vein, thought, or feeling, etc.

The Colon:

The colon has a more definitive role in poetry. This punctuation mark should be used in a narrative sense, such that if the narrator of the poem is about to list something, recount dialogue said by another, or tell an account of something that has happened, “And, it went a little something like this:”
  The colon doesn’t announce a pause or the need for a reader to stop, but rather announces that, “Hey! There’s something important or pivotal coming up, so pay attention:”

The Question Mark?

  The Question mark is another piece of punctuation that should either be used very sparingly, and only in a given piece. 
  I’ve both written and read entire poems that were a single question, with the single question mark at the very end. This is an effective use. I have, also, seen poems that are composed of many little questions, where each couplet of lines has a question mark. This can work if the subject matter lends well to such a format, but it will not always work.
  My personal favorite use of the question mark is for a single line, usually the last of the poem. I feel it can add tremendous significance to the line in question. 
  Using the question mark is a judgment call, and one that can either pay huge dividends, or distract and disinterest your readers.

”Quotation Marks”

  Should normally only be used for a direct quote or dialogue, such as: She said, “I never realized how important quotation marks can be in emphasizing what someone said.” 
  Sometimes, and I want to stress that word, quotation marks work around a single word to emphasize the questionable legitimacy of that word or thought in a given line. It is often better, in my opinion (when possible), to simply use italics or bold in place of quotation marks around a single or small collection of words, but this is a discretionary punctuation usage.

The ellipsis “…”

  An ellipsis is used where a thought is interrupted with a pause that continues on, but leaves out that which would normally join the ending and beginning of the thought, such as:
  When fate called unto my voice to sing, walking around, I wondered why … but, my heart knew this thing.

The hyphen -

  A hyphen is used to join words to indicate that they have a combined meaning or that they are linked in the grammar of a sentence (as in pick-me-up, rock-forming), to indicate the division of a word at the end of a line, or to indicate a missing or implied element (as in short-term and long-term). A favorite use of the hyphen is to differentiate the differences when defining the term or condition, in love, or expressing the emotional state-of-being in-love … on and on, when speaking in poetic voice the hyphen can be a very useful tool, indeed, for adding emphasis and employing poetic-license when the mood, ambience, nuance, etc; warrants its power.

The dash –

  An n-dash is wider than a hyphen, and as wide as a capital N.
   An em-dask is wider than an n-dash, and as wide as a capital M.
   Dashes (in poetry) are used to express a continuance from one thought to another, and extended pauses longer than a comma’s, each used according to the author’s intent.

The tilde ~

  A tilde is actually a mathematical symbol I adopted by poetic license to allow a sense of softness, a touch of wispiness (if you will) to invoke a feeling of gentleness or tenderness in the correct moment. The tilde replaces the dash.

No Punctuation

  Not using punctuation on a line end or in an entire poem often speaks to me of a fast pace and limited pauses. Sometimes, a different tempo emerges via word choice, but overall, if you don’t have punctuation on a line or in a poem, I will generally assume you want me to read each line straight through without pause or stopping for breath; I think this is the best use of no punctuation.
   Sometimes, a piece benefits from having very little or no punctuation, and most times they suffer. The context, word choice, and presentation (the syntax) matter greatly to the effect of how punctuation will enhance or hinder a given poem. Use “punctuation” wisely.
  Punctuation use in poetry should be the same as in prose. It should add to and compliment the piece.
  Given that poetry is dependent on the style of the author, they may deem that punctuation is not necessarily to be a part of their work.
  Highly accomplished and skilled authors can often successfully omit the punctuations entirely, and effectively depend on line ends and breaks to signify needed and appropriate pauses.
  Some authors find it cumbersome to bother punctuating their work, while others can pepper them with far too much seasoning, let’s say.
  I have encountered poems with commas after each word. There was even one with nothing on it but just one word "I" and a comma.
  There are authors who depend on the spoken piece. Their rhyme scheme and meter is dominantly dependent on how they hear their poem spoken; especially, in Free Verse.
  Nevertheless, I think they should have some punctuation, because not only should they be heard, they should also be read. Reading poetry without punctuation, sometimes, is very difficult, creating confusion, stopping that breaks flow and moment/mood/ambiance/nuance/the spell, etc; having to go back and reread lines to understand or interpret them.
  Many writers don’t want to learn proper grammar, so they look for excuses. If you want your writing to shine, you’re going to have to work at it, and that means learning proper grammar (punctuation, spelling, word usage, capitalization, etc) until you’ve developed a firm and complete understanding of it; then, and only then, will you be able to know where the limits on breaking proper grammar rules are. Otherwise, your poetical and writing efforts will undoubtedly be mediocre … and, don’t shoot the messenger!


   This is a subject that can be interpreted widely, and one on which I will expect much criticism, response, and opinionated reasoning.

   As is commonly known, the poetic art form started out as an oral tradition, ie: reciting poetic lines.

   This created a catch twenty-two, as nothing is capitalized in the spoken word. This may send shudders through the spines of grammar gods, but never fear, because capitalization stems from the necessity to emphasize particular words or phrases on paper that were accented by the speaker the stories were taken from. All of the thought, timing, and organization in stories was done in singer's or rich speaker voice; the full stop of the period, the pause of the comma, the excitement of the exclamation point, and the emphasis of the capital were only audibly conveyed.

   Based on the establishment of the poetic form as noted above, it is inherent that punctuation and capitalization in poetry varied as much as the poet that wrote or sung it. Because of these varieties, it is commonplace for editors and publishers not to look for the following as specific guidelines, but that they look for a standard formatting within the artist’s works they were editing.

   Once again, not to dash the spirits of the grammar-loving, it is necessary to point out that there has been a recent movement amongst publishers to bring about a standard for poetry known as "modern or contemporary usage."

   Modern usage can be set to seven standards for capitalization:

   Capitalize the first word of sentence (this applies even if the start of the sentence is in the middle of the line).

   Capitalize the first letter in every line of a poem (this applies even if the first letter is not the start of a new sentence or a proper noun), often causes confusion of where one thought, feeling, inference, etc; ends and another begins from one line to the next, prompting the reader to stop, go back and figure it out, which interrupts the natural flow, enjoyment, spell, emotional mood, etc; in other words, it can not only cause confusion, but interrupt enjoyment and prompt the reader to stumble on awkward, unnecessary pauses. Did the classical poet begin each line capitalized? Yes, but they were all too often terrible grammarians.

   Capitalize only the major words in a title.

   Capitalize proper nouns (days of the week, months, places, or things, etc), including adjectives derived from proper nouns).

   Capitalize only personal titles (President, Reverend, Captain, Mr., and Mrs.) only when they refer to the person.

   Capitalize major words in abbreviations.

Bending, breaking, even throwing out the rules.

   Having said all that, there is a point where one becomes so skilled at the craft of writing that word usage is where true depth is and what pulls the reader in; that which makes one want to understand each and every line. 

   I think … when/after a true, accomplished, proficient, and highly skilled artist understands their chosen field, they should/will have earned the freedom and ability to bend, break, or even throw out the rules when needed, because great art comes from somewhere much deeper than where rules and regulations reside. Although, I do think rules in poetry are what eventually gets us to that deeper place where freedom in composing great poetry is possible, with or without them.

   Writers and poets should first learn to handle grammar proficiently (capitalization, spelling, proper word usage, and punctuation) in poetry and prose.

   When writing poetry, we have quite a bit more freedom than when we’re writing prose. We can go ahead and break rules of grammar – but, do so for a reason.

   Some writers will break all sorts of rules of grammar, punctuation, and spelling, either because they are poor grammarians, punctuators, or bad spellers … or, because they want to be different … merely for the sake of being different.

   My take on breaking rules is that one should do so purposely and with knowledgeable forethought.

——— • ———

   Needless to say, I’ve written a lot of terrible poems, but I learned from my mistakes and kept trying, learning the rules of poetry and grammar, and it eventually has made me a better writer, in general, and a far better teacher of poetry for the benefit of those who have come, and continue to come, seeking to reach their highest potential as serious writers and composers of great poetry … those who truly have the hearts, minds, and souls of a poet.

   I sincerely hope what I’ve offered has afforded some further light to see by.

   Do you have ideas on the aspects of grammar in poetry or writing you’d like to share, I may not have covered? If so, we’d all love to hear them, to consider them openly with everyone, even learn from them; but surely, to discuss them and not leave anything on the table … so to say.

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Posted 3 Months Ago

That was an emotional lesson on the emotion of punctuation. I could sense your own feelings on the subject are strong, yet compromising as you understand that a poets personal feelings about their poetry are equally as important as 'rules' being adhered to. I learned so many things in this lesson. What certain punctuation is called and its specific use in grammer was so helpful. Terms I've never heard defining punctuation I've used with no idea what they were called. Ellipsis and tilde. I was hoping for some examples but will read a few of your poems to help illustrate this as well as your rewrite of me. And the term enjambment. I'll be thinking long and hard on this as I write in the future. I definitely learned that punctuation can make or break a beautiful poem and is complex. Thank you. Your lessons are so helpful!
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