There is an aspect of poetry that seems such a minor matter, but to which poets must give attention, and sometimes do not I think it is not a minor matter, at all. The subject is, simply put, punctuation.
As young poets, and by this I mean any “young poet,” whether aged 10 (William Blake) and making their first line break on a page, or aged 50 (Amy Clampitt), and just picking up the pen, we often find ourselves struggling with how to punctuate a poem. What do we do with it? We read poets who came before us and wonder whether our poems should include any at all, then read others and wonder whether each syntactical unit must be punctuated as sentences broken into lines.
There are many ways to punctuate a poem, ranging from “correct” punctuation throughout to including not a jot of added ink in a single foot. All of them have been done but, when we get down to it, it is not really a question of whether to punctuate but, rather, how to “mess with it.”
There are a number of reasons poems are made with certain punctuation. Sometimes, punctuation is tinkered with (or not) because the poet is trying to be “different,” “creative,” “me”; in sum, it is a matter of the poet, young or old, trying to discover, refine, re-discover, and/or alter their “voice.” All of these reasons are perfectly reasonable; after all, we poets are the vanguard in the battle for “poetic license.”
Another point on which most poets pride themselves is, forgive the cliche, “pushing the envelope.” As poets, it’s what we do. Whitman has us loosing our barbaric yawps, O’Hara has us writing about the seemingly mundane task of buying Strega on our way to a dinner party, and Hall has us, not just reading about swinging on Frost’s birches, but actually going out and doing it. Fighting, fucking, or farting, poets have always suggested we do it all, and with gusto. We’re sort of the anti-parent, and that pleases me. And I applaud all of it. However...
One must learn the rules one intends to break. Urinating in a restroom is hardly exciting because that’s what is expected. Doing so in the fountain at a mall takes spirit, and the awareness of its being taboo. That’s what makes it “fresh.” A poor grasp of punctuation (how to use it, and how to recognize its being used) inhibits the poet’s ability to get an idea across the street, and inhibits the reader’s getting across the street to the idea, without both being run over by endless streams of gas-guzzling, inefficient prose. The poet must break those rules. It is in our natures to do so. What is sometimes not in our natures is controlling it, and knowing when and how to do so. And it matters. 150 years later, we continue to discuss Dickinson’s dashes. We continue to marvel at Whitman’s semi-colons and lists in “Song of Myself,” and his conscious alteration of punctuation in his introduction to Leaves of Grass. Both knew what they was doing, and their styles serve a purpose.
My favorite moment in punctuation (which I’ve begun to think of as an “event in punctuation”) is from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and appears in “Frost at Midnight":
“‘Tis calm indeed! So calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood,
This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood,
With all the numberless goings on of life,”
There are a couple of interesting things happening, here. First, we find two exclamation points in a mere five lines. We can see the speaker is roused at his realization, and at the realizations coming to him as the poem proceeds, but these exclamation points are muted, almost to whispers, by the tone Coleridge creates in the first seven lines, and are rendered helpless further by the tone he pursues through the rest of the poem. Second, and perhaps more dramatic, is the addition of one comma and one conjunction to the repetition we find in lines 10 and 11. This comma and the word “and,” together, slow what is already a slowly paced, strolling meditation to an almost literal crawl (which makes sense, if for no other reason, because there is an infant in the room with the speaker).
As a whole, the poem creates a sense of security and comfort and, simultaneously, encourages us to be greater than those who came before us, as the speaker in this poem is encouraging his infant son. But those little additions, and the alteration of the meter, pace, tone they create, is of enormous importance, and fails if Coleridge writes without truly understanding punctuation.
I often issue a dare with “Frost at Midnight,” and I issue that dare now. I dare you to read this poem, silently or aloud to yourself, around 12:00, on a cold night (preferably with frost or a bit of snow on the ground), when you’re warm, snug, comfortable near a fireplace or in a similarly cozy environment, and finish the poem without dozing or, at least, finding yourself drowsy at the end. This will not happen because the poem is boring, but because Coleridge is such a master of punctuation, controls it so well, so completely that, by the end, he compels his audience to believe everything he has said to us. Coleridge knew how to do it. Thus, we come again to the point: know the rules, first. Break them when you know how they work. He knew the rules so well that he yells at us in lines eight and 11, yet does not rouse us from the meditation in which we willingly join him.