Punctuation and Poetry

I have never considered myself to be especially adept in my use of punctuation. I would certainly not consider myself to be a very creative punctuation user; I have a tendency to use a generic mixture of periods, commas, and semicolons to hold my writing together and create flow. I have noticed the same tendency amongst most of my fellow writers, and few seem to devote a great deal of time to making noticeable alterations in punctuation usage. The main exception to this observation has been my relatively limited experiences with poetry. Poetry seems to be a genre in which a great deal of thought centers around how punctuation will be used. I think pauses and the establishment of tone are even more vital in poetry when compared to prose because of the concentrated and compacted nature of poems. Every word and every punctuation mark must count or be eliminated. The poetry of Emily Dickinson can provide an excellent example of how punctuation influences poetry.

Emily Dickinson’s use of dashes where a vast majority of other writers would use commas, periods, and exclamation points is easily observed. The following examples are two forms of the same poem referred to alternately as “Title Divine – is mine!” or “Title Divine, is mine.” depending on the version discussed. The first was written by Dickinson in 1861.

Title Divine – is mine!

The Wife – without the Sign!

Acute Degree – conferred on me –

Empress of Calvary!

Royal – all but the Crown!

Betrothed – without the swoon

God sends us Women –

When you – hold – Garnet to

Garnet –

Gold – to Gold –

Born – Bridalled – Shrouded –

In a Day –

“My Husband” – women say –

Stroking the Melody –

Is this – the way? (Dickinson)

The second form of the poem above was rewritten by Dickinson In 1865. Pay attention to the differences in punctuation between the two poems.

Title divine, is mine.

The Wife without the Sign –

Acute Degree conferred on me –

Empress of Calvary –

Royal, all but the Crown –

Betrothed, without the Swoon

God gives us Women –

When You hold Garnet to

Garnet –

Gold – to Gold –

Born – Bridalled – Shrouded –

In a Day –

Tri Victory –

“My Husband” – Women say

Stroking the Melody –

Is this the way – (Dickinson)

One of the first differences I notice between the two versions of Dickinson’s poem is that the exclamation points and question mark present in the first version of the poem are omitted by Dickinson in the second. She must have thought the punctuation of her piece was pertinent enough to warrant revision, and I think the results of the change show why. The first version of her poem is brimming with emotion and eccentricity. I want to read the poem quickly like I would speak if I were responding emotionally and without great contemplation. The second poem seems more deeply contemplative because Dickinson is no longer exclaiming about a highly emotional encounter; she is now pondering it. When I read the second version of the poem, my subconscious signals to me that I should slow down. Instead of rushing through the poem, I stop to consider each fragment of the poem to find meaning to contemplate. This large difference in how I interpret the poem all stems from the exchange of a few punctuation marks.

Dickinson also removes a number of dashes from within the lines between the first and section version of the poem. Once again, I think the impact of this decision is exceptional. I have more of a propensity to evaluate as a whole unit the lines from which punctuation has been removed or altered to eliminate the dash. Once again, a seemingly small modification in punctuation instigates a change in perspective and the way I read. Like Martin Solomon says in “The Power of Punctuation,” “Punctuation directs tempo, pitch, volume, and the separation of words” (282). Changes in punctuation between the two editions of Dickinson’s poem were chosen for specific reasons, and I think the reasons gravitate around the elements mentioned by Solomon.  For more examples of how a dash can affect your reading, you can check out some more Dickinson poems.

The way that Dickinson uses punctuation to alter her poems makes me wonder how much writers should experiment with punctuation and when. Is an academic paper a place where punctuation should be varied, or would such alterations be distracting and unhelpful? Should radical punctuation experiments be left for the poets, or do we all have the responsibility to try to make our writing better by exploring the different rhetorical effects that punctuation can produce?





One thought on “Punctuation and Poetry

  1. Levi says:

    This comparison of punctuation is an excellent way to discuss Solomon’s topic. I, like you, have had questions about when it is appropriate to use punctuation rhetorically. An academic paper is a risky place to experiment in, and I came to college punctuation illiterate. To answer your question: yes; I believe we should always push our use of punctuation. I started writing with a heavy fear of incorrectly using punctuation, but I realized that the only way to learn and get better was to cast my fear aside. Do I use punctuation wrong? Absolutely, I do; however, I learn from my mistakes. I think we should always go for it. I believe we may develop extremely unique styles and abilities by pushing ourselves in our punctuation.

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