Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Never Mind the Full Stops...

Not long ago my writers’ group had a hearty debate about the place of punctuation in poetry. To punctuate or not to punctuate – that was the question! The group was divided into two camps. One lot were saying "Forget punctuation – do what you want." Poetry is a free medium, and poets are artists. We are free to put words anywhere we choose, so we can do the same with punctuation marks. Sprinkle them liberally or leave them out altogether, it doesn't really matter to the sense of the poem. They are the shackles of a formalism that poetry has long since left behind.

If you're going to break the rules of grammar, then poetry is the place to do it. Poets have a long history in the creative use of punctuation – as e.e. cummings, Edwin Morgan or (more recently) Patrick Jones have proven. To write good poetry, you don’t have to have every full stop or comma in exactly the place that the rules demand. Many poets I know are dyslexic, and have difficulty putting their punctuation in the conventionally correct places. It doesn't stop them writing excellent poetry. In fact, for most of them, their lifelong struggle with words is what makes them such powerful poets.

But I have to admit that I side with the other camp, by and large. This group contended that a free-for-all approach to punctuation can be harmful to the meaning of a poem. If you're going to use punctuation, you have to think about the job it is doing – and how to make it do its job most effectively.

A full stop doesn't appear just anywhere. It brings a sentence to an end – and by doing so, it creates a weightiness that wouldn't be there otherwise. That weightiness guides a reader. It shows where the emphasis is intended, how the rhythm is meant to fall, and where to place the key dramatic pauses that enliven the poem. Poetry gets its power from what isn't said, as much as what is. Punctuation is a guide to understanding that subtext.

Poets are told to take the greatest possible care over where we place our words. It seems silly, therefore, to give no care to the unspoken clues which show a reader how to read our poems. So treasure those full stops (and commas, semicolons and dashes). Place them as carefully as you place the words in your poems. By all means break the grammatical rules – but only if it's your choice to break them, to give the poem dramatic impact. Don't just do it because you can't be bothered to try and get it right.

(A version of this article was first published in the August 2011 issue of NAWG Link)