How to Punctuate a Poem

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Although a poem's punctuation can take any form desired by the author, there are a few guidelines to help along those who are unsure. There are six basic forms of punctuation used in a poem: period, semicolon, comma, question mark, exclamation point and dash. With each different form of punctuation comes differing signals to the reader; being aware of the signals you as the author are giving the audience is key for conveying the desired tone and flow of the overall poem.

  • Use a period for a full stop. In poetic terms, a period that occurs at the end of the line is referred to as an end-stop. An end-stopped line calls for a definite pause in the recitation of the poem, a place to take a full breath before continuing to the next line. A period is the most complete stop afforded a poet; if used in the middle of a line, it creates a caesura, or an extended pause.

  • Create an extended, but not complete, stop with a semicolon. A semicolon links two shared ideas; in poetry, a semicolon means the reader should pause, but not take a complete breath, because the next line is directly tied to the one just read. Caesura can also be created with a semicolon.

  • Make a slight pause in the poem's forward movement with a comma. Commas are the weakest form of punctuation since a comma is not strong enough to hold a complete sentence.

  • Use a question mark or exclamation point for major emphasis. In poetry, these are some of the least often used punctuation marks, meaning they should be used only for special occasions.

  • Insert a dash when you need a pause that requires more emphasis than a comma but does not require a full stop.

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