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How to Read Punctuation in Poetry

How to Read Punctuation in Poetry
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Reading poetry is a very different experience than reading prose. I finally got to grips with some of the variations and how line breaks work, and I opened the Homie book by Danez Smith or OBIT Victoria Chang. You dive into a poem, but then you see a comma in a place that doesn’t follow any grammar rules you know. How exactly do you read punctuation in poetry?


Before we get into the different punctuation, let’s go over the same page regarding the vocabulary of poetic punctuation, shall we?

stop end – This is a punctuation mark that appears at the end of a line.

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,

Enjambment – This is when the line breaks, but does not end with punctuation.

flicker flicker a little


interruption – This occurs when punctuation occurs within a line, anywhere except at the end of a line.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star

slow it down

Most punctuation marks are used in poetry to control timing and save space. The most common punctuation marks in poetry are commas and periods.


A common misconception in prose writing is that you use the comma every time you take a breath. This is completely wrong and any professional editor will tell you that. But in poetry, this is very close to the truth. A comma represents a separator, just a small space between words or lines. Some poets even read commas as small breaths. Commas can also be used in more traditional ways to separate lists or sentences, but poets are free to use as many commas as they need to slow down the poem.


In prose, the period indicates the end of the rhetorical sentence. In poetry, the dot is more like a stop, like a comma, but it is longer. Take a full breath when you see your period. When a line breaks in a command, you naturally give a small space between the end of the line and the beginning of the next line. When you see a period at the end of this line, give it some more breath and space.


Ah, that’s the most unfortunate prose punctuation, the weird hybrid of colon and comma, semicolon. In prose, it is used to connect two complete and intricately linked sentences. In poetry, it is located somewhere between a comma and a period. Breaths a little more than a comma and a little less than a period. Indeed, their use may be as bad in poetry as in prose.


If you’re not obsessed with punctuation, I’m sorry to break it for you, but there are actually three different types of dashes: the hyphen (-), the dash (-), and the long dash (-). Fortunately, in poetry, you don’t actually need to know how both work in prose. If you already know, throw this information out the window. maybe. In fact, it really depends on the poet. OK. Fine. Here’s how they are different.

Hyphens Used to connect compound words.

  • Double click
  • Recording mode

and dashes It is the width of the letter n and is used to connect a range of numbers, express opposition, or form a compound from a multi-word adjective.

  • 2-6
  • North and South
  • School life after graduation

in a dash It is the width of the letter m and is used to separate sentences, to draw attention to them, and to indicate interruptions.

  • I was walking – really running – before I found him.
  • “Wait, where are you-?”

In poetry, all of these things can be true, but like commas and periods, they serve to create space. While using the hyphen to connect or combine words, the en dash and especially the em hyphen require time and breath between words or lines.


Sometimes known as the three dots, triples, or the one-legged duck as it jumps away from the end of a sentence, it is used excessively in texts and ideally in poetry. While their function in prose is to indicate truncation, poets use them to demand maximum space. Really slow down like those are three periods. Take a deep breath, maybe two when you see ellipses in a poem.

Other punctuation marks

What about braces? star? sympathy? Colonies? Tildas, umlauts and diacritics? Truly, those are used as in prose. The parents are two sides. Asterisks usually mean that there is a footnote somewhere. Conjunctions mean “and”. You can get the picture. Nothing to see here.

Or is there?

With poetry, almost anything goes as long as the poet operates within a set of rules for that poem. They can make rules as they go, which means punctuation can mean just about anything. Read it as I described it here. ignore him. Watch how these readings change the poem’s meaning, expression, rhythm, and sound. This is hair! What it means to you more than it means to the poet.

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