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Poetry and Punctuation

Writing.ie | Guest Bloggers | Poetic Licence

Kate Dempsey

I had no idea that punctuation in poetry was such a controversial area.

I am currently working with my editor on my new book of poems, “Some Poems” by me, Kate Dempsey, to be published Moth Editions (You can see details and buy one here) on October 7th.

Yes, you are all invited to the launch 7.30pm Second Floor Studios, The Former See House, Kilmore, Cavan. Actually, please come. I don’t know many people in and around Cavan.

One thing that we discussed was punctuation. I hadn’t realised how grey an area it is.

There are two extremes.

1. Punctuate as you would prose.


It’s very clear what you mean.

It’s obvious where to pause when reading aloud


There’s less opportunity to play with double meanings

Over punctuation can look like the page has been pepper-shot or sprinkled with hundreds and thousands

2. Have no punctuation.


You don’t have to consider each piece of punctuation

More pleasing to the eye


Lists may be confusing

meaning may be too confusing

harder to read aloud

So I have from my poem Lump

For now it’s just a lump
a like it or lump it
a one lump or two, a lump sum
the size of a two euro coin, a heads or tails
an is she or isn’t she, all lumped in together
except it’s only me, on my own, with my lump
and everywhere I go, my lump goes too

And punctuated.

For now it’s just a lump,
a like it or lump it,
a one lump or two, a lump sum,
the size of a two euro coin, a heads or tails,
an is she or isn’t she, all lumped in together,
except it’s only me, on my own, with my lump,
and everywhere I go, my lump goes too.

In the end I decided that in a poem about lumps, so much punctuation was too lumpy. I’m still in two minds about the need for a full stop at the end of a stanza or at the end of a poem. Is it implied? There are poems whose sentences run across two stanzas (enjambment) so maybe not. And let’s not start on shape poems where the line ending is determined not so much by the meaning, as by the shape.

I also had from my poem Developing Shadows the line

hands clenched little man

where I have deliberately left out any commas so the reader can become a more active reader and decide for themselves what exactly is clenched and what is little.

Quoted speech is a little more tricky. Quotes scattered across the page can look very messy and usually the meaning can be made clear using the more delicate comma. But not always.

And there’s the bugbear, do you start each line with a capital, the way Microsoft Word does as default. My gut says NO, NO, NO! there but that’s a personal choice!

So first.

1. Learn the rules before you break them

2. When you break them, know why

3. Don’t be afraid to experiment

There’s the 3rd option, best left to experienced poets which is punctuation that messes with your head. I’m thinking here particularly of one of my favourite poets, e e cummings from anyone lived in a pretty how town

someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake hope and then)they
said their nevers they slept their dream


You can hear him read it, very sing song, here

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