Author Topic: Punctuation in poems  (Read 49188 times)

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reeny

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Punctuation in poems
« on: March 08, 2008, 05:06 AM »
I don't really know how to punctuate my poem. At first I just did what felt natural. I put commas at the ends of the lines that would have commas if it was prose, which means that some lines end with punctuation and others don't. I have exclamation points and question marks at the end of the lines that need them, even if they are in the middle of the stanza. But I only put periods at the end of stanzas, even if lines in the middle of the stanza could use one. Should I punctuate the entire poem as if it were prose? It looks strange to have have periods hanging out in the middle of a stanza. Or should I leave it as I have it? Should all lines end with some sort of punctuation, comma or end mark?

Thank for any help you can give me.

Offline rjschechter

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Re: Punctuation in poems
« Reply #1 on: March 08, 2008, 05:47 AM »
90% of the time it's best to go with normal punctuation, the same as you'd use in writing prose.  If you google yourself up examples of your favorite poets, from Lewis Carrol to Jack Prelutsky, you'll find that this is what they tend to do.  A period in the middle of a line is just fine, provided that the meter of your poem sounds good with the pause that such a period often implies -- and, if it doesn't, changing the punctuation is unlikely to help.

Personally, I am annoyed by missing punctuation, particularly when it causes me to have to go back a line or two to figure out where a sentence was supposed to end and where the line was supposed to continue on to the next line with the sentence resuming.

So, if you are writing in complete sentences (as most poets try to do most of the time) with clauses, etc., then punctuate them properly unless you have a specific reason not to.

The one area of some "controversy"  --well, calll it differing opinions-- is whether to make the beginning of each line a capital letter, something that was done in days of yore almost routinely but which, at least in adult poetry, has grown less common and somewhat out of favor.  I generally don't like doing it.  The origin of the capital line beginning was mostly to make sure that the reader could clearly see where lines began, especially in written correspondence.  People wrote poems to each other in letters, but it was a waste of paper to start a new line if there was white space left, so they'd keep writing across the page and they would capitalize the next "line" beginning to indicate where the line would break if paper were abundant and free.  Sometimes books were printed in the same way.

With modern typesetting, though, I think the initiail cap is a distraction because it generally serves no function because the lines are visually distinct and clear.  And sometimes it makes a reader stumble, not knowing if a new sentence is beginning (a problem that would be especially acute if the poem does not use periods to end sentences!).

Still, there are fine poets today who use initial caps, and fine ones who omit some punctuation.  I can only tell you the mainstream, "default" view, which is to use punctuation and lower case and omit the obligatory capital letter for each line.  But if you feel that you have written something that is clear and more effective with a different approach, then go for it.


Online Verla Kay

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Re: Punctuation in poems
« Reply #2 on: March 08, 2008, 06:37 AM »
Something that will probably make a big difference is whether or not the poem is to be published as poetry in a magazine or anthology or book of poems, or as a story in a picture book.  There's a big difference, since a poem normally is printed on just one page, while a picture book needs to be broken up into small pieces in order to fill all the "story" pages (normally around 28 pages of a 32 page book.)

Personally, I don't worry too much about the punctuation of lines in my picture book stories, other than trying to make sure whatever pattern I use is consistent all the way through, because it seems no matter how I punctuate my stories-in-rhyme, my editors (and the copy editing people at the publishers) always seem to decide to do something different with some of it, anyhow. 

I've always been amazed at how much discussion goes on in the editorial editing process over the punctuation.  "Should we put a comma at the end of this line, or a period like the rest of the verses? Do you think we need a dash after this word instead of a comma?"  No matter how minor, my editors have always been terrific about allowing me to approve (or challenge) all of their desired changes to my stories -- down to every last comma and period in the punctuation. All editors aren't this accommodating, though, so adding the right to approve all changes to your text (including punctuation) is something you might want to request in your contract before you sign it IF you feel changes in the punctuation would make a difference in your poem or story-in-rhyme.  If you feel punctuation changes won't make a big difference in the story, then don't worry about trying to get this clause put into your contract.  Just relax and let the editors do their jobs.

Something else to consider is that different houses have different ways of punctuating their books, and each house likes things their way.  Some publish picture books without capitalizing each new line of a story-in-rhyme, others like them to all begin with a capital. So my advice is to punctuate it the way *you* feel it should be, then don't worry about it.  Your editor and copy editor will tear into it and make it consistent with their house when they are getting it ready to go to print -- with, or without your approval or assistance.

« Last Edit: March 08, 2008, 06:42 AM by Verla Kay »
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Offline Donna J. Shepherd

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Re: Punctuation in poems
« Reply #3 on: March 08, 2008, 09:50 AM »
I agree, Verlakay. The editor changed the punctuation in my last picture book. I was surprised at some of the changes, but in the end, it turned out much better. With a magazine publication, it seems like standard punctuation rules are more apt to apply, but your last sentence says it all! Write the best poetry you can, and leave the final punctuation to the editors.

Offline Ev

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Re: Punctuation in poems
« Reply #4 on: March 08, 2008, 10:57 AM »
Speaking of punctuation in poetry, when I did my Venn Perplexors Level B book which consists of math problems based on nursery rhymes, I remember consulting a lot of different people and checking lots of different nursery rhyme books concerning the punctuation in Wee Willie Winkie and there was no consensus.

I'd be interested to hear what blue boarders have to say about the correct punctuation for this rhyme--

Wee Willie Winkie
   Runs through the town
Upstairs and downstairs
   In his nightgown
Rapping at the windows
   Crying through the locks
Are all the children in their beds
   For now it's eight o'clock

What should the punctuation be for the last 2 lines?  (I've deliberately left out all end-line punctuation in the rhyme and capitalized all beginning lines so as not to influence your decision.)
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Offline Cindyb

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Re: Punctuation in poems
« Reply #5 on: March 08, 2008, 11:18 AM »
Wee Willie Winkie
   Runs through the town,
Upstairs and downstairs
   In his nightgown.
Rapping at the windows,
   Crying through the locks,
Are all the children in their beds?
   For now it's eight o'clock.

That's how I would, if I had written it. Then I'd let the editors correct it.

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Re: Punctuation in poems
« Reply #6 on: March 08, 2008, 12:21 PM »
I would have added quotes around the last two lines, like this:

 
   Crying through the locks,
"Are all the children in their beds?
   For now it's eight o'clock."
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Offline Cindyb

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Re: Punctuation in poems
« Reply #7 on: March 08, 2008, 04:08 PM »
Okay, I'll let Verla correct it!  (I agree- it should have the quotes.)

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Re: Punctuation in poems
« Reply #8 on: March 08, 2008, 08:25 PM »
Interesting.

Okay, if it were prose and the word "because" were substituted for the word "for" would you still put the question mark after the 7th line instead of after the 8th?  It seems to me the two words have equivalent meaning here.

To me, "For now it's eight o'clock," is not a complete sentence, so the question mark should go after the last line.

But--when it came down to deciding how it would be printed in the book (and I did get to make the decision), Verla and Cindy, you'll be glad to know it got printed the way you thought was correct.  There were just too many grammar experts in our extended family who agreed with you.

As for nursery rhyme books already in print, they aren't consistent--some have the question mark after the 7th line and some after the 8th.

Regarding the quotation marks--yes, they're needed for prose and probably for modern poetry, but I'd be surprised if you can find any books of nursery rhymes which use them (for this poem or any other).  I couldn't find any.  So, I went with the traditional formatting, and my Venn book does not use quotation marks.
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Offline Cindyb

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Re: Punctuation in poems
« Reply #9 on: March 09, 2008, 07:43 AM »
I was using "poetic license" in putting the ? where I did- because that was the inflection you'd use saying the line. If I was writing it in prose, I'd probably reword it because then I'd feel as you- that the ? goes at the very end, but you don't say that part with a rising inflection like a question.

Offline Bill

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Re: Punctuation in poems
« Reply #10 on: March 09, 2008, 09:02 PM »
Reeny,

To answer your last question first, absolutely not.  Not every line needs end punctuation.

It's perfectly okay to have periods that don't fall at the end of a stanza.

I would recommend punctuating as you would prose.  The reason for punctuation in prose is clarity.  Poems need clarity, too!  I've read numerous poems that haven't been punctuated and often it's hard to make heads or tails what the author is saying.

Bill

Offline rjschechter

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Re: Punctuation in poems
« Reply #11 on: March 10, 2008, 04:43 AM »
I agree with Verla that rhyming picture books present different considerations from poems.  If a line is interrupted in the middle by an illustration and then by a turn of the page, for example, this obviously will have an effect both on the pacing of the meter and the way a reader organizes the text in his or her mind in the process of reading.  Since punctuation functions to assist in such organization, and to help provide clarity, I can easily see altering some of the "rules" of punctuation if there are pictures and lay-out considerations at play.  If a clause is already set off by being contained on its own two-page spread, it may not be necessary to set it off in commas.  Lay-out can function as punctuation. 

The original question, though, wasn't about picture books, but specifically about "poems," and Verla on a recent thread made clear that she draws a big distinction between writing rhyming children's books and being a "poet.  Although I'm not sure I draw the distinction quite as starkly, I do think there is a distinction in the context of the punctuation question.  For "poems" I stand by what I said and what Bill is now saying.  I'd even say that it's discourteous to the reader to omit punctuation and expect the reader to go to the extra and unnecessary work of mentally filling it in, and that a lack of punctuation is particularly discourteous if all lines begin with capital letters.  If sentences do not end in a period, and a capital letter doesn't mean that a new sentence is beginning, then the reader must constantly read past the end of a sentence, then sense that something is off grammatically or syntactically, then say "Oh, I see, that's the end of a sentence," and go back a few words and read it again having figured out where the sentence ends. 

Ultimately, it's a question of clarity.  Break a "rule" if there's a real reason to do so and if it does not interfere with clarity.   But try to be consistent, so the reader at least doesn't feel that any particular instance is a "mistake."  It's important to convey the idea that you really and truly know what you are doing, since any perceived sloppiness can undermine the way the whole poem goes over.  I know it does for me when I'm the reader, and I'm sure it does for many other people, too.