Similar to prose, punctuation in poetry affects both meaning and tone—but it also has a huge impact on delivery
. Punctuation controls the speed of a poem. A comma or slash are similar to a speed bump, just a brief delay in speed. A period, or full stop, is like a stop sign; dashes, semi-colons, and line breaks have a similar slowing effect. Stanza breaks? A whole long traffic light! These marks and breaks are spots where the reader can take a breath. On the other hand, a poem with no punctuation and long lines will flow rapidly and breathlessly.
American poet E. E. Cummings is the master of playing with punctuation, line breaks, and even spaces. He combines multiple words without spaces (“eddieandbill”), builds new words with dashes (like “mud-luscious” and “puddle-wonderful”), breaks words across lines (splitting “loneliness” into “l,” “one,” “l,” and “iness”
), and throws in parentheses and brackets with frequency
Read Cummings’s poem below, and then try your hand at thoughtful punctuation tweaks. How can you use parentheses, commas, and dashes to play with the meaning and speed of your poem? And remember: don’t mistake Cummings’s playfulness with carelessness. Each of his oddly-placed brackets and seemingly-random line breaks have been placed there to affect the way the reader receives the piece. During this exercise, keep in mind: Why
am I breaking this rule? How will it change my poem?
Bonus points if you incorporate “puddle-wonderful” into your daily vocabulary this week!
spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little
whistles far and wee
and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it's
when the world is puddle-wonderful
old balloonman whistles
far and wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing
from hop-scotch and jump-rope and