punctuation angst

I can so relate to this post from Stick Poet Super Hero. Some days I’ll want a piece all punctuated and nicely capped — totally strict and very prim with its shoelaces tied and hair parted – and other days, I’ll want the same piece in muddy bare feet running up a hillside and singing a raucous song – with no caps and just maybe a vagrant comma or two.

I’m not very good at perceiving personal trends, but it seems to me that the more I move away from work-shopping, the barer and raucouser things seem to be getting.

Which may or may not be a good thing.

Published by

Nic Sebastian

Nic is the author of Forever Will End On Thursday and Dark And Like A Web. She founded the now-archived Whale Sound site and is co-founder of The Poetry Storehouse. Nic blogs at Very Like A Whale and Voice Alpha.

2 thoughts on “punctuation angst”

  1. Here’s a brief essay I wrote for students on punctuation; don’t know if it is of any use, as I, too, vacillate–but the principles aren’t bad.

    On Punctuation

    Here is an area of great variation over which there has been very little critical guidance. If poetic license has been granted to all practitioners, certainly punctuation must be the first of ill-advised freedoms tyros exploit.

    Some poets do not punctuate at all, others punctuate sparsely, others punctuate in way roughly equivalent to prose, while some punctuate obsessively to rigidly define the substance, but often in a sacrifice of style.

    So how does one go about determining the best punctuation for a given poem or the general level of punctuation best for a given poet? Is there any advice I can offer without devaluing good poets who do not exemplify my guidance? I cannot honestly say; certainly e. e. cummings and Ginsberg would not endorse my guidelines, but because they are only guidelines, exceptions can always be allowed, provided they are not dumb-ass exceptions. So here go Dr. Chaffin’s general points on punctuation:

    1) Whenever possible, a line break should be the equivalent of a comma.

    2) The above guideline, like any guideline, can be broken for the sake of sense.

    3) Any punctuation necessary to make the sense of a poem more immediately accessible is certainly justified, but to seek an effect through a lack of punctuation in order to abandon the reader to their own editing is a sign of disrespect.

    4) Use as little punctuation as possible.

    5) Use as much punctuation as necessary.

    6) Try to avoid punctuation that stops the flow of a poem unnaturally. Better to re-write a line than hobble it with awkward stops.

    7) Dashes are usually a sign of laziness, but are, in general, better than parentheses, which effectively divide a phrase within a poem from the poem itself.

    8) Dashes can act as bookends for an intruding thought the poet deems dramatically valuable in the progress of a poem if they introduce a relevant interjection.

    9) Semicolons separate phrases that are connected in substance but can also stand alone. Use periods as much as possible as a substitute for them. Better an end to a line than an unnecessary pause followed by a continuation.

    10) Internal commas are preferable to commas at line breaks, though the latter cannot be entirely avoided in the interest of sense.

    11) Colons set up a new sentence and should only be used for maximum impact, that is, the new sentence gains power when launched by the preceding sentence.

    12) You cannot use enough periods.

    13) Exclamation marks are generally overkill best reserved for teenage diaries or the Romantics, and should be avoided except in the hands of a master at modulation.

    14) The best punctuation is that which is hardly noticed, which supports the poem without interrupting, but also does not fail the poem by leaving substance unintentionally in doubt.

    15) Whatever you decide about punctuation, try to be consistent. Never punctuate on a whim. Punctuate for clarity’s sake. If one phrase requires a comma so does the next similar phrase. If one complete sentence is ended by a period, best that the next sentence is also. Ill-considered and inconsistent punctuation is the sign of an unsure hand.

    16) An author may always change punctuation habits in a particular poem for effect if it suits the substance, as form is an extension of substance and punctuation belongs to form.

    17) Question marks are often underutilized for effect. They are essentially humble when not rhetorical, a good way of including the reader in the poet’s deliberations. Used rhetorically they more often tend to alienate the reader. Why ask a question if one already knows the answer?

  2. Hey, very cool indeed! These are some very useful rules of thumb.

    5) Use as much punctuation as necessary

    Aye, there’s the rub. Necessary for what?

    I’m a big fan of No. 1.

    I’m not such a big fan of No. 15, being consistent. Heh.

    Many thanks!

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