How to Punctuate Poetry

A quick guide to sculpting language.

Zach J. Payne
5 min readNov 2, 2019

Today in Poets on Medium, Laura Manipura asked about punctuation and poetry. So I thought that I would give my own quick primer.

Punctuating poetry is not the same as punctuating prose.

There are a lot of rules about how to use standard English punctuation. Most of it is fairly wonky and relatively annoying, but it all serves the purpose of making things clear. There are some obvious examples of how punctuation aids in that:

  • Let’s eat grandma.
  • Let’s eat, grandma.

I could go full-on English teacher and explain all of this in technical language, but you understand the difference between these two sentences, right? The first sentence implies that it’s the grandmother being eaten, while the second is inviting the grandmother to eat.

All of that hangs on a simple comma. The entire meaning of a sentences hinges on a little smudge of ink. This has come up in arguments over the United States Constitution which is, you know, not a document where you want a great deal of ambiguity.

You all are going to think that I’m bat-shit crazy, but one of the things that really helped me understand this was sentence diagramming. It’s difficult as hell, but it really helps you see how all of the words connect to each other, how they all play off of each other.

Anyway, all of this is to say that the first rule of punctuating poetry is clarity: you want the meaning of your words to be clear.

Punctuation can also be used to regulate how poems flow.

Once you get beyond the issue of clarity, however, poetry can play fast and loose with the technical rules of punctuation in order to regulate where pauses are taken while reading, and how long and complete they are.

Think of it in terms of driving speed.

A comma is a speed bump in the middle of a thought. It tells you to slow down, to give a little pause in your speech because you’re transitioning to a new clause. It’s not a completely new idea, but it’s a transition of sorts.

Zach J. Payne

(He/They) Poet. Thespian. YA Novelist.