23 April 2008

So You Think You're a Poet? Part Three: Punctuation

As you're probably learning, there are many aspects of poetry that make it what it is.

Imagery creates vividness, and helps readers draw a connection between themselves and the poet.

Line breaks/structure help certain images or phrases or lines stick out to the reader, since the mind pauses, even for a split second, at the end of a line.

Punctuation is important in a similar way to line breaks/structure. Punctuation also causes the reader to pause, but it is a heavier pause than a line break.

For the purposes of example, I point you to my magnetic poem, "confess, dead!"

This is how it appears in the picture of the magnets:

confess dead
break her ideal manacle
voice cliches & plant success
would you do a white naked girl
perfect in sweet thought
howling aching burning memory
dig out the strange precious vacuum of old curses

This is how it appears after I added punctuation:
confess, dead!
break her ideal manacle!
voice cliches & plant success.
would you do a white naked girl--
perfect in sweet thought?
howling, aching, burning memory
dig out the strange, precious vacuum of old curses.

To quote Dana:

It's really awesome how punctuation changed the entire feel. When I first read confess, dead! it fell flat because I wasn't looking at the punctuation: confess dead just doesn't have the same oomph as confess, dead! So you're not just a wizard with magnetic words, but with punctuation as well!

I agree. Thank you. In the first version, the ideas sort of run together due to the lack of punctuation. But in the second, the reader pauses for breath, for reflection, at every comma, period, question mark, and dash.

Just as you should carefully consider where to give the reader pause in line breaks, you should equally as carefully consider where to give the reader pause through punctuation. After all, it works both ways.

In E. E. Cummings's poem "Chansons Innocentes: I," punctuation is used to slow the reader down a bit. In the first line, for example, there is a dash. It reads:
in Just-

And immediately, the reader stops to think about what that means.

Before you start putting commas and dashes everywhere, though, remember that punctuation can also have the opposite effect (whether intended or not). In William Carlos Williams's "The Red Wheelbarrow," a lack of punctuation is used to keep the reader moving through the line breaks to reach the end of the thought.
so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with

beside the white

It's true the line breaks create a bit of pause as the eye moves to the beginning of the next line, but these pauses are not nearly as significant as those created by punctuation.

There is a story I heard quite some time ago about a poet who worked hard all morning in his office. At lunch, a friend asked him, "What did you do all morning?"

"I added a comma," he answered.

That afternoon, he worked just as hard, and at supper, the same friend asked, "So what did you do all afternoon? Add another comma?"
"No, of course not!" the poet said. "I took it out."

1 comment:

  1. LOL, fantastic!

    The writer in the story you quote at the end was Oscar Wilde. I first came across it in an article about science fiction writing by Isaac Asimov, and I had that tacked to my wall for ages. The coup d'etat in Asimov's retelling was the dry British wit on the last line: "No, I removed the one I inserted this morning."


    My favorite e e cummings poem has to be Buffalo Bill's
    . Line breaks, punctuation, mashed-together words, line position... the whole thing's a masterpiece.
    Just an amazing poet.

    Excellent post again!


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