More than Words: How Grammar Can Change Your Poetry
Whether you’re writing a haiku, a sonnet, or an epic, the rules of grammar and punctuation in poetry can be a bit cloudy—but that’s for a good reason. Rather than taking a prescriptive approach to grammar and punctuation, many poets like to bend and even break the rules to take their poems to new heights. But those same rules provide structure and clarity, so it’s important to understand them well before we break them.
Punctuation marks often slow readers down, so be conscious of whether they’re working for or against you. For example, commas can indicate brief pauses or breaths, while periods can add a sense of finality. On the other hand, an absence of punctuation can help a poem pick up speed or indicate the speaker’s state of mind.
- Commas are considered to be the weakest form of punctuation, but in poetry, they may also be the most flexible. Because line breaks help to create natural pauses in poems, many poets will forego the comma altogether. However, commas can still be incredibly useful to indicate a slight pause within a line.
- Em dashes are a great choice when you need a comma with more drama, but you’re not ready for a full stop. The em dash can help you place more emphasis on the clause that follows.
- Semicolons can be tricky in any genre, but especially in poetry. Semicolons are a great tool to use when you want to join two ideas, and you’d like the reader to take a brief pause in between them. They can also be used to create a caesura, or an extended pause.
- Periods mark a full stop. In poetry, a period at the end of a line is called an end-stop. This indicates a definite pause or full breath before the reader continues to the next line. If a period is used in the middle of a line, it creates a caesura.
- Exclamation points and question marks are pretty specific use cases. While exclamation points are some of the least used punctuation marks in poetry, there are plenty of odes that sprinkle them in generously. And question marks, well, belong to questions.
- Line breaks cannot be overlooked as a form of punctuation in poetry. It’s important to remember that line breaks aren’t just the end of the sentence or the end of the physical page. Line breaks help create rhythm in a poem, they help separate ideas, and they create dynamic tension. And, of course, we can’t talk about line breaks without talking about enjambment, which is when a sentence spills into the next line without punctuation. Enjambment is the polar opposite of an end stop. Rather than indicating a pause, enjambment can intensify the relationship between the last word in one line and the first word of the next.
The traditional rules of grammar in poetry require capitalization of the first word of each line (in addition to proper nouns). While plenty of successful poets follow this rule, there are many who break them—especially in contemporary poetry. Some poets choose to forego capital letters altogether, while others strictly adhere to tradition. The key to using capitalization to your advantage is to remember that it draws the reader’s attention. A capital letter may indicate the start of a new sentence or idea, or it can signify importance when applied to a certain noun or pronoun. Meanwhile, the absence of capitalization can create a more relaxed or subdued tone.
In English, we generally expect sentences to follow a basic word order: subject-verb-object. However, poets have the opportunity to play with this structure to create a sense of abstraction, or even chaos, in their work. This is difficult territory, but E. E. Cummings might be one of the most famous poets who’s pulled it off. See “anyone lived in a pretty how town,” for example. While Cummings largely flouts traditional rules of grammar, he creates structure through literary devices like alliteration, imagery, and enjambment.
Check your consistency
While it can be fun to play with the rules of grammar, consistency is usually a different story. When you’ve been swept away in the throes of creativity, it’s common to overlook elements of consistency like subject-verb agreement, verb tense, numbers or colors of items, and so on. Be sure to check for these types of inconsistencies when you’re ready to proofread your work. And if chaos is your game, still check that you’ve stayed committed to a certain aesthetic of chaos throughout your poem.
No matter what tools and tricks you choose to employ in your poems, the most important thing to remember is to be intentional. We can’t simply ignore the rules of grammar just because we don’t like or understand them. We must be using them to our advantage. Every single comma, period, and asterisk must be pulling its weight. Before you settle on an unconventional grammar choice, ask yourself, “How does this create or support the poem’s meaning?”