I’ll Interrobang You!
You wouldn’t think people need punctuation in poetry, in fact most people seem to ignore it completely – except for the capitalisation of every line (what’s with that?! [That interrobang is for you all]). Poetry is an entirely new medium to a lot of people, and it’s very much different in structure to prose, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore the conventions of good writing. Well, mostly.
The thing I find most useful to remember is that punctuation will help guide your reader. When we don’t have punctuation, each line seems either very run on or awkwardly choppy, your reader has no idea about the rhythm of your poem. So when we read a poem we pause slightly at the end of a line, this should be regardless of the punctuation because poetry needs that weight. We still need the comma, period, dash or whatever else you choose to place there, because it will inform the length of the pause. You can also choose not to have any punctuation, and to punctuate in the middle of lines, this isn’t a problem! We have a problem when there is too little or too much, you have to be able to defend your use of punctuation. Not to your reader – who cares about that bloke? – but to yourself. Your personal justification will add some invisible context to your punctuation that your reader can sometimes pick up on. Try not to over do your punctuation, like the use of ellipses, which are difficult to use even in prose.
Don’t forget that poetry is also a visual medium. We’re reading poetry on the page, looking at the structure and commenting on line lengths and the manner of stanza. When we punctuate we give visual clues, we use brackets not only because they indicate an aside but because they’re often visually appealing, and something new. I advocate experimenting with the appearance and meaning of your punctuation, though I recommend that you begin with an appropriately punctuated piece first. One trick to punctuation is to make your poem into a paragraph and punctuate as you would prose, then let your lines back out. This will give you some natural punctuation and rhythm without being too much trouble over all.
On the subject of capitalising every line start; you can do this if you wish. Certainly Word programs will demand you capitalise the beginning of your sentences, which it takes each line to be. You could also choose not to capitalise anything at all, this is about style and experimentation. It’s also about intent, the removal of capitals says something about power and the meaning in titles, names and important phrases which some poets are very interested in, just as the inclusion of capitals does the same. Consider what you’re trying to say, and in what kind of voice, and then punctuate accordingly.
If anyone reading this is experimenting, or wants to experiment with some punctuation, please show us! I’d love to see what you’re working on and coming up with.