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Punctuation in Poetry by Adelere Adesina


One of the most defining parts of any writing is punctuation. In English particularly, punctuation is a very fundamental aspect of representing speech in written form. Poetry is, however, different from other forms of writing where punctuation must be carefully used, and is very mature than others in its application of punctuation. However, it seems young poets, critics and editors ー I use, without repentance, the word 'young', for they act very new and funny ー have issues with the right application of punctuation in poetry. Emily Dickinson would have had disappointment in some of her published works when, by the supposed 'editing' and 'modification' of editors, they were removed from their pure, pristine and concentrated state to have such implications she never would have given them if she was alive in the time of their vast discovery. It happens that poesy handles punctuation maturely, as I have said earlier, and radically ー which these young poets, critics and editors fail to realise.

Punctuation is a part of the language, not a part of words. The poet uses the words of the language, not the language itself. Therefore, poetry borrows features of the language, not lend itself to the strict characteristics of the language. Hence, punctuation has its limits in poetry ー in fact, it can be totally neglected in a poem.

Division of Poetry Based on Punctuation

As a result of the ways in which poetry can use punctuation, it is proper to identify all poetry, on the basis of punctuation, to three major categories:

1. Monopunctuatio Verse: This is poetry in which punctuation is heavily used. It is a poetry type where the poet is 'conscious' of the punctuation of the poetry. Here, the punctuation is used to define the meaning of the poem. In this case, if a punctuation mark is wrongly used, the critic can easily identify and the poet can simply correct it, if it suits not his mind ー for mistakes at times can fit the poet's, writer's, mind. This type of poetry puts away ambiguity that can be made by punctuation ー although the poet can use ambiguity in other ways, especially by the arrangement of words in the poem. The audience for this type of poetry ranges from children to others who are not versed in the use of a language and are not particularly very skilled in literature.

2. Semipunctuatio Verse: This is poetry in which punctuation is sparse. The poet uses punctuation only when he thinks he needs it, not where the language thinks it should be. Such verse is given partial ambiguityーwhich is one of the reasons a poet intentionally creates his poem without full punctuation. The poet dictates a higher audience for himself. Such poetry is characterized by a little difficult diction for non-skilled users of the language. Its message is not for children; and, its comprehensibility depends on the ability of the reader to identify which 'invisible' marks are used and where.

3. Apunctuatio Verse: This is poetry in which punctuation is absolutely absent, or present with only one or two marks. Such poetry holds highest ambiguity and only very versed users of a language can understand the poet. Such poetry does not have any audience in children, laypersons or others who are not practised in the language and literature. In fact, the expert must be very careful ー for this form holds the highest form of ambiguity, and the writer goes as far as making each line compact such that symbols dominate.

Wrong Use of Punctuation

When the writer fails to use the right approach, the reader gets the wrong message. Punctuation is very powerful that it manipulates you if you cannot manipulate it. There was a story I came across months back where a professor of English wrote the expression, 'A woman without her man is nothing'. He asked his students to punctuate it. The males punctuated thus: 'A woman, without her man, is nothing.' However, the females went: 'A woman: without her, man is nothing.' It is evident punctuation matters a lot in writing.

Therefore, monopunctuatios should be given appropriate care when it comes to punctuation. It is wrong to use semi-colon where there should be colon, for the wrong message is emitted. The poet should be careful not to use a comma where a full stop is rather proper ー else, the wise reader and critic will be confused.

I strongly advise poets who are not very versed in a language not to write semipunctuatios and apunctuatios. There are two reasons to this.

First, the writer learns more when he endeavours to use the right punctuation. If he, when not an expert in the language, writes these other forms, he may not be able to attain the peak of professionalism which he should.

In addition, the poet tends to put aside other features of semipunctuatios and apunctuatios; therefore, he weakens the effect of the removal of punctuation, partial or absolute, in the piece he has written.

It is hoped that you learn a thing or two from here. Thank you.


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