I don’t know about other folks here, but sometimes I have have trouble following along in a poem like I should. This mostly goes for poems that don’t have enough capitalization, line/stanza breaks or punctuation or poems that use these too much. I also don’t know if other writers intend the same pauses as I do when using the same punctuation, line/stanza breaks, etc.
Without cues (or with misused cues), I can’t discern where one thought begins or ends. This is especially true when two thoughts share a line (enjambment) or multiple thoughts span one stanza. I inevitably end up pausing at weird spots because I misjudge where I should be pausing.
I can remember this being a prevalent issue when reading poetry aloud in school as a child. Us shy types would would rush through the poem as quick as we could, never stopping between stanzas or between thoughts, regardless of the inclusion of aforementioned cues. Those who couldn’t read as well would stumble through the poem like it was the thickest mud you’ve ever had the displeasure of trekking through. If there had been cues that would normally signal a pause, full stop or other form of emphasis, they wouldn’t have noticed it, if they knew what it meant or not.
I see poems lacking poems lacking the cues readers need everywhere from school to Neopoet to Emily Dickinson to Shakespeare’s sonnets. For some, it’s overdoing the signals. You might come across a poem with capitalization on every line, using punctuation as if the poem consists of complete sentences, lines long enough to make the stanzas look like paragraphs, extraneous punctuation (a period and a question mark together, ten periods in an ellipsis etc. For readers who notice every capitalization and every punctuation mark and try to use it the way it’s intended, it can make the poem very difficult to get through.
The poet. May not intend. For readers. To. Read the poem. Like this but. Capitalizing. Every line might. But sometimes, not, because. Some readers are used to this traditional style. on the other hand no punctuation or capitals means that the thoughts go on and on without any pauses or stops at all so that the reader just keeps going this is not so good because the reader will not be able to make heads or tails of the beginning and end of each thought they will miss out on important details they also won’t be able to savor the language use.
My suggestion is for poets to find a balance between their signals. Pick and chose. Use a combination of line/stanza breaks, punctuation and capitals. If you want to put more emphasis on one or two of those, limit your use of the others.
You can have multiple thoughts on one line or multiple thoughts spanning a single stanza, but use something that will tell the reader to pause between the two different ideas.
Punctuation like commas, semicolons, em dashes, parentheses, and periods can all provide different kinds of pauses in your writing. Commas are a brief pause that tell the reader that more relevant information is to follow. A period is a full stop that means a totally new idea is coming. Semicolons are a pause longer than a comma but shorter than a period that means related information is coming, but the information is it’s own complete thought or complete sentence (or for long lists). You typically see a period used when you have a new subject or you are explicitly restating the subject in the sentence. Semicolons are used when a previously mentioned topic, subject or action is not being explicitly restated.
Sentences are made up of clauses. An independent clause is a complete sentence with a subject and action. A dependent cause is not a complete sentence because it relies on another clause to establish subject or action. Use a comma to separate an independent and dependent clause. Typically, a sentence with an independent and dependent clause will still be a complete sentence if you removed the dependent clause (remove “Typically,” from the beginning of this sentence and the rest still makes sense). A sentence that follows a semicolon is like a dependent clause, but is a complete sentence; the statement needs the previous sentence to establish the subject or action, but it’s a complete thought and using a comma would have created a run-on sentence or comma splice. Do you see how I used the semicolon above? I needed it because my subject was “the statement”. Well, which statement? The previous line gives me the answer: the sentence that follows a semicolon.
Em dashes (the long dash, like this —) are similar in usage to parentheses or commas in that they usually denote appositives. An appositive is “added information” that can be taken away from a sentence without making it an incomplete sentence (it’s a dependent clause of useful information). The en dash (the short dash like this -), or hyphen, (the part “or hyphen” is an appositive, marked by commas) is used to hyphenate words (if you removed all the appositives from this sentence you would have “The en dash is used to hyphenate words.”). You hyphenate words (like-this) when two (or more) words together creates one adjective (age-old story, fire-red eyes, low-budget film, ten-year-old brat).
Does that all make sense (especially the period and semicolon part)? It’s a lot to take in, but I thought it worthy of explaining since I’m talking about punctuation!
If used, capitalization should occur where it would normally be if there were complete sentences and proper punctuation. Basically, use a capital to note a new thought and for proper nouns. You may not want to use this method if you plan to have multiple thoughts on one line (a capital would be odd in the middle of a line).
Lastly, lines and stanzas can also be used in various ways to distinguish thoughts. A poem that is one stanza with multiple thoughts (or could have multiple complete sentences) can use punctuation or capitalization to separate thoughts so that the reader pauses or stops when they should. Lines and stanzas can be used to separate ideas as well (new thought = new line or new stanza). However, if you would like to use the “new thought = new stanza” concept, you may not want to be writing a very long piece. Aim for a few haiku-like stanzas and express your ideas as concisely as possible.
Remember, find a balance between the various cues that are available for signalling pauses and stops. Under-doing it or overdoing will make the poem difficult for many readers to get through. You want to guide your readers. And for readers and critics, make note of how the poet uses these cues. There should be purpose for every signal that is used. If the poem does not appear to have selectively and intentionally chosen cues, let the poet know. They should be carefully placing each one.
Learn more about punctuation here: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/section/1/6/
Have any questions about using pauses and other cues in your poetry and other writing? Feel free to leave a comment on this blog or contact me in the contact form on my "About Me" page.
See this blog post on Neopoet: https://www.neopoet.com/swamp-witch/blog/tue-2018-06-05-1327
I'm just your average fictional creature, living in a swampland by the sea.