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How to Punctuate a Poem — All You Need to Know

How to Punctuate a Poem — All You Need to Know

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A poem is just like a song. It is guided by beautifully crafted rhythmic progressions and powerful words that make us respond emotionally and even reminisce nostalgic events.

Poems, as well as music, are central in the lives of humans because they have the ability to shape how we make sense of life and attach meaning to it.

But, how do poets make poems so lovely and effective?

Can anybody as ordinary as you and me learn how to sow the seeds of poetry?

The answer is yes.

All we have to do is understand its anatomy and the systems that govern the use of the ever-whimsical entity that makes it up — language.

Luckily, that’s what we will do today.


How are poems punctuated?

Poets punctuate poems with commas, semicolons, exclamation marks, and periods to create some emotional and melodic effects toward their readers. Lines or verses in a poem can be punctuated at the end, somewhere in the middle, or even bear no punctuation marks at all.


What makes up a poem: The basic anatomy of poetry

Poems kind of defy Hans Christian Andersen’s adage “Where words end, music speaks” because poetry is basically the interplay of music and language.

Poetry is a form of art that converges music and language, making life less monotonous and mechanical since it inspires people to access their emotional bank every once in a while.

Although some cringe at the idea of writing, or at least reading, poems because they sound “woo-woo,” this literary genre has proven its worth nonetheless because it still exists to date.

If it were not valuable enough, it would have been six feet under together with Shakespeare back in the early 1600s.

Since poetry has risen to the challenges of time, many scholars have also been interested in dealing with its nuances so that it would be understood better.

That said, a poem is made up of several parts that are either meticulously or sporadically arranged by its creator — a poet — in contrast with “authors,” “playwrights” and “screenwriters.”

The first thing you would notice in a poem is its title, which is a fundamental building block that is inherently evocative and thought-provoking.

Then, you have the lines or verses that make up a poem’s stanzas — often composed of four lines called “quatrains” — that may or may not be separated with spaces in between.

You would also observe the rhyme scheme, if and when a poet uses it, which is the product of cleverly playing with words that sound alike and strategically placing them within the stanzas.

These are just the basics. Now, we will proceed with some of the basic linguistic devices that are responsible for making a poem successful — punctuation marks.


Punctuating poems effectively

Unlike in prose, poets do not necessarily need to apply strict punctuation rules in literary works like poetry. But when they do, it is often to achieve some sort of soul-stirring effects.

Punctuation may determine the types of verses that poets use. For example, a punctuation mark may be added at the end of a line or verse to prompt readers to stop before proceeding to the next one.

In the example below, a question mark is used to create an end-stopped line, but, of course, other punctuation marks like commas, periods, or semicolons may also be used instead.


Will you crumble in the darkness?

A poet may also drop the end-line punctuation mark to realize the process of “enjambment” or incomplete syntax to induce a tension-building effect.

Also called a run-on line, poetic enjambment is simply “the continuation” or “the striding over” of an incomplete idea from one line to the next.


She finds herself craving for something
More than she could ever imagine

Alternatively, long metrical breaks or “caesuras” (traditionally represented by two parallel vertical lines) may also be applied to deliberately cut a line off to destroy a monotonous cadence.

At present, caesuras are already widely represented by either an em dash, a semicolon, an exclamation mark, or even a period.


I think therefore I am — Descartes insisted

Now that we already have a grasp of the basic verse types according to punctuation, let’s also look into some ways where we can use punctuation marks in ample detail.


Commas in poems

Commas can be used to indicate short breaks within verses to create rhythmic progressions, such as the one in the example below.


He lied, he cried, he died

A comma can also be playfully used by the poet to separate words that appear in a series or a list to achieve a humorous effect.


His mother likes cooking,
dogs, and children

Or, a comma may be used to deliberately break an idea contained in a verse midway to create some degree of emphasis in each of the broken parts of the verse.


The deafening silence, distracts the amputated writer

Remember that the line above must be avoided in prose and academic writing because the subject and the verb must not be separated with a comma in such contexts.

You may also refer to our comma cheat sheet for a more detailed discussion on how commas help in making language use more organized and persuasive.


Semicolons in poems

Knowing how and when to use semicolons is also a prerequisite in being able to use them effectively in poetry. As they say, you can only bend the rules once you fully master them.

Semicolons also create breaks as commas do; however, the pause that semicolons create is much longer than commas but meanwhile shorter than periods.

These punctuation marks may also be used to create caesuras and end-stopped lines, particularly in joining two independent clauses to replace coordinating conjunctions.

Here’s an example of the semicolon used to mark a caesura:


Chase money; sacrifice time

And here’s an example of using a semicolon in an end-stopped line:


Stepping into the dark zones;
Forgetting all the reasons


Exclamation marks in poems

Exclamation marks are used to heighten the emotional response of the reader, making him or her feel some degree of excitement, annoyance, or even anger.


Alas! A missed opportunity

An exclamation mark may also be typically used after onomatopoeic expressions like “tick-tock,” “pff,” and “whoosh.” 


Tick-tock! The end is near


Dashes in poems

M-dashes, the longer ones, are used to create an “audible pause or break,” especially within verses to create caesuras.

On the other hand, the n-dash, which is the shorter one, may be used to create compound nouns or adjectives.


One by one — bone-tired enemies attack


Periods in poems

Periods are used to mark terminal statements to make the reader think more about the idea that the poet wants to convey. This can be done in the opening line of a poem.


Death is inescapable.

But a period is most likely observable at the end of a poem. 


But life is so unpredictable.

You may also refer to these ten of the best poems of all time to be able to see more examples created by great poets.


Poems and the poetic meter

If you play any musical instrument or at least a bit into music, you would likely understand this section better.

Punctuation marks do help in regulating rhythm and emphasis in a poem, but, apart from them, other important poetic elements that are not visible to the naked eye also exist.

The “poetic meter,” which is an element as equally important as rhyme and punctuation, is the basic unit of measure in poetry. 

While a poem becomes more enchanting because of rhymes and strategic use of punctuation, the meter is also responsible for producing its appropriate length and emphasis.

Many poems do not necessarily contain a rhyme, but not as many don’t follow measurements because the poetic meter is the key in creating melodic undertones.

We can simply think of the poetic meter as the “beat” or “cadence” in music — the steady pulse that governs music throughout the end.

The poem’s meter or beat must not be confused with the rhythm because although they need to work together, they are actually distinct elements.

In playing the guitar, for example, rhythm is created by the strumming of your fingers on the string, while the beat can be represented by the steady nodding of your head.

Or, when you’re just listening to a song, imagine how you would sometimes tap your fingers on a desk or wave your arms steadily in a live concert.

Your even, unwavering movement in these scenarios represents the beat. So, you can simply think of these contexts in recognizing the meter of a poem.


By this point, you should be able to conclude that punctuation marks, albeit important, are not the only elements that govern poems.

That said, rhyme, meter, rhythm, as well as words and syllables, need to interact all together to make poetry happen.


Frequently Asked Questions in “How to punctuate a poem”


How can I punctuate a poem’s title?

If you are using a poem’s title in a sentence, you can enclose the title in open and close quotation marks, which are otherwise known as the inverted commas.


Why do some poems lack punctuation marks?

Some poems may lack punctuation marks because some poets may deliberately want to distort the language to create multiple interpretations of meaning.


Is punctuation necessary in writing poetry?

Punctuation is optional and not essential in writing poetry. Punctuation marks can be used to help in creating melodic patterns, but they can also be left out if and when the poet wants to create ambiguity.