Articles: Poetic Devices-- Punctuate the End
Punctuation, or the lack thereof, can change meaning and add depth to your poetry; choose your endings well.
When it comes to poetry, punctuation works differently than most other forms of writing. A poet uses punctuation not so much for grammatical correctness but rather for effect. In a poem, the use of a comma or a period or even using neither can change the meaning completely.
To this end, I will discuss some of the punctuation often found in poetry as well as choices for ending each line. This includes periods, commas, semicolons, question marks, exclamation marks, ellipses, and dashes.
When dealing with punctuation in a poem, the poet has to ask themselves what purpose the punctuation is serving. Does the poet want a full stop or do they want a short pause? A short pause or full stop at a critical moment can cause the poem to turn in a different direction than it would have without it.
Looking at our choices of punctuation, periods, question marks, and exclamation marks are placed under the category of full stops. Commas, semi colons, ellipses and dashes are placed under the category of short pauses.
Pauses can occur at the end of or within a line of poetry. A pause within a line of poetry is referred to as a caesura and is often, but not always, caused by punctuation. We can see two caesuras in this line from Poe's "The Raven"
"Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary."
A pause placed at the end of a line is referred to as an end stop. The line above from Poe also contains an end stop.
Using punctuation to create a caesura or end stop often results in the reader pausing briefly while reading to take note. However, there are also ways of making a reader take note without using punctuation. When a poet writes a sentence in a poem that runs two or more lines without stop, this is referred to as an enjambment. Enjambment should be read as a complete sentence without pause. and can be seen in the following lines by Wordsworth:
"My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky."
Enjambment can be used to create double meaning. Most people are introduced to poetry through nursery rhymes: singsong poetry that contains rhyming couplets and tends to pause at each rhyme. Because of this, most people learn to read poetry in such a way where they naturally pause at the end of each line. This natural pause is what enables enjambment to create a double meaning. This is aptly seen in the poem "Porphyria's Lover" by Robert Browning.
"The rain set early in tonight,
The sullen wind was soon awake,
It tore the elm-tops down for spite,
And did its worst to vex the lake:
I listened with heart fit to break.
When glided in Porphyria; straight
She shut the cold out and the storm,."
Looking at these first seven lines of the poem note that the first five all have some sort of end stop, on the sixth line we find the enjambment, the enjambment is preceded by a caesura which draws attention to the next word "straight". As the first five lines paused at the end of each line the reader naturally expects to pause at the end of this line as well, causing the reading of the line to be that Porphyria came directly into the room, if we follow the enjambment though we discover that the actual meaning is that she came into the room and right away closed out the cold and storm.
To see another double meaning caused by an enjambment let us look at the next two lines in the poem:
"And kneeled and made the cheerless grate
Blaze up, and all the cottage warm;"
Again we see an enjambment coupled with a caesura, this time though the caesura follows the enjambment. In the first line we can read it three different ways. An initial reading can be that Porphyria created the grate, a play on the word though has her grating on the cheerlessness of the place, by reading through the enjambment we discover though that she actually caused the fire to blaze up. The enjambment draws attention to this triple meaning as well as drawing attention to the activity. The caesura clinches this by keeping our notice on the words "cheerless grate blaze up" just a little longer.
As previously mentioned, choosing the end of each line in your poem depends on what kind of a pause you want your reader to experience. A full stop, such as the ones created by a period or question mark, gives you a long pause; a caesura such as a comma or a dash gives you a short pause; and an enjambment gives you a brief pause to no pause at all. The best way to determine which line ending you want is to think about the meaning and feeling you are trying to convey, then read your poem aloud and determine how long of a pause you will need to convey the correct meaning.
To show the difference enjambments, caesuras and end stops can make let us look at the poem "The Red Wheelbarrow" by William Carlos Williams:
"so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
This poem is full of enjambment if we change things with punctuation we discover that the impact of the poem changes. Consider if the poem had been written as follows:
"So much depends upon a red
wheelbarrow, glazed with rainwater,
beside the white chickens."
The emphasis is now upon the words "red", "rainwater", and "chickens". However the original version puts emphasis upon the words, "depends", "upon", "wheel", "barrow", "rain", "water", "white", "chickens". This does not even take into account the wheelbarrow images that are created by the placement of the words in each couplet. Both the placement of the words and the choice on how the poet uses enjambment creates the strong imagery that this poem so simply evokes.
Through the examples above we see how using end stops, caesuras and enjambments can change and enhance the meaning and impact of our poems. We also have seen how these poetic devices can also create a double meaning that can bring added meaning to our poetry as well. Remember to consider all your choices when ending your lines and if necessary play around with your endings. By making careful choices when it comes to the end of each line we can find ways of creating a strong impact in our reader.