Multimedia Journalist, Author of 'What Can Words Do?' Founder/CEO Words Rhymes & Rhythm (Ltd)

When I started writing poetry consciously in 2002, it was not unusual to see me reading a poem by the greats – like Shakespeare, Yeats, Frost, Clark, Leopold and their contemporaries – and then writing a mirror poem.

Then, I could work on a poem for days trying to master the existing styles (mostly sonnets and other metered poems). As a result, my poems were mostly with rhyme, rhythm and regular meter for years, until around 2009.

A decade into poetry, I had developed my own rules. I change them as I grow.
These days however, new ‘poets’ simply gather expressions, break them into verses and group them into stanzas (or just flow) – then you have a poem.

There is nothing wrong in that, especially with poets whose verses are rich in metaphors, imagery and all other ingredients of poetry. But it must be also noted that following poetry rules gives our poems structure and clarity – common ground rules that help the poet communicate clearly and effectively to the reader.

In this lecture, our main concern in PUNCTUATION.

Punctuation in poetry is similar to punctuation in prose and serves almost the same purpose as bar lines in music without which the words and notes won’t flow all together. In order words, punctuation assists in organizing your words into discernible verses:

  1. encapsulates thoughts and ideas
  2. aids in coherence and the presentation of meaning
  3. signals when and where to breathe (very important)
Interestingly, many poets use punctuation marks without knowing why they used them; others just write their verses without using any marks at all, not deliberately, just because they do not know how and where to use them. A third group of poets place punctuation arbitrarily, without realizing that punctuation actually aid the readers’ interpretation and also determines his/her breathe pauses.

The fact is that the punctuation marks thrown in affect the reader’s pace, understanding, eye movement and perception.

Before we go too far, let’s talk about the TYPES OF VERSES, determined by the POSITION of the punctuation they contain:

  1. End-stopped line – when punctuation occurs at the end of a line/verse, allowing the reader to pause before moving on to the next verse
  2. Run-on line/Enjambment – when there is no punctuation at the end of the line and/or the idea expressed in the verse is continued in the next
  3. Caesura – when a punctuation mark comes within the line itself

Once and again on running track [Enjambment]
Bolt beat them all, a tall man black [Caesura]
And did you not all clap with glee [Enjambment]
For all the watching world to see? [End-stopped]


There are several punctuation marks you can use in your poem. In this lecture, I will focus on the ones I have used:

PERIOD (.) - the period is used to show a final end to the thought/sentence and indeed verse; after an abbreviation. The reader will most likely stop to think about what has been read so far.
Life is not a joke.
Those who live know

QUESTION MARK (?) - the question mark is used to indicate a direct question at the end of a verse. When it is being read, the reader asks himself the question, and pauses:
Is life a joke?
Does it not make you cry?

EXCLAMATION POINT/MARK (!) - the exclamation point/mark is used to express a sudden outcry, excitement, finality or just add emphasis. It affects how the reader will view the verse or poem:

Life is not a joke!
Those who live know.
It is sometimes a yoke!"

COMMA (,) - the comma is used to show a separation of ideas or elements within the verse. In a poem, you can also use it to eliminate excess words. Eg "The sun, rain, road flogged him to death" eliminating 'and the' twice. It is also used to separate two or more complete, independent clauses in a verse:

Life is a slaver,
life is a beast
he came, he saw, he conquered
but life took his debt, his loan

SEMICOLON (;) - the semicolon is used to connect two independent clauses in a verse or at the end of a verse (linking two verses):

Life is a slaver; it has no pity
man is killing himself;
his hands strangle mother earth

COLON (:) - the colon is used after a word introducing a quotation, an explanation, an example, or a series:

Each life is a script:
we are born, we rehearse
we act and we die
You can also use it when indicating time in your verse:
Life left him at 2:03pm

DASH (– /-) - the dash is of two types, endash (short) and the emdash (long/double dash).
  • The endash (-) is used to connect numbers or elements of a compound adjective:
he ruled 6 years, 1990 - 1996
feared Lord of Lagos - Abuja power play

  • The emdash (–) is a little more complicated. It is used, within a verse or at the end, to indicate a break in thought or verse structure; introduce a phrase added for emphasis, definition, or explanation; separate two clauses (like the semicolon):
Life is not a joke –
though the living sometimes laughs
it is a heavy yoke - many gladly bear it

HYPHEN (-) - the hyphen is the same symbol as the endash but it is used creating compound words, particularly modifiers before nouns, name or syllables of a word:
Life is a power-hungry slaver
Treating the six-year-old girl
Like a hell-doomed grandpa

PARENTHESES ( () ) - the Parenthesis is a curved notations used to contain further thoughts or qualifying remarks
Life is not a joke
(Though it sometimes makes us laugh)
It is a heavy yoke"
Life is a heavy yoke
(Oftentimes gladly borne)
That all men must bear

APOSTROPHE (') - the apostrophe is used to show the omission of a letters from a word, possessive case:
Buhari's pow’r was nation'l
GEJ’s clout was region'l

QUOTATIONS MARKS ( “ ” ) - the quotation mark is used to separate the part of a verse that is directly spoken by a persona in the poem or quote attributed to another source and presented word for word.

The son of man said "I am the way"
but men needed freedom, not a way

ELLIPSES (...) - the ellipses mark is used to show an omission of letters or words (especially in a quote) that do not interfere with the meaning. It can also show a transition or time lapse:

Life dealt me a bitter blow
Stole my heart, my wealth…
Now I am a corpse walking

"I am the way… life"
The son of man said
Punctuation gives the reader a brief release in tension, allowing him/her to pause for a moment and consider what has been read so far.

This is why you must be thoughtful in where you break the line because your choices will affect the reader’s experience of the flow and motion of the poem.

See the poem below:

WHY DOES LOVE STEAL OUR TONGUES by Kukogho Iruesiri Samson
he was a little boy reaching for manhood
she, little girl arching for womanhood [comma]
his was mixed tale of tears and hope
hers, a life upwards Life’s slope [apostrophe]
two stories crossed: one scene, one act [colon, comma]
pretty lass, scrawny lad lacking tact [comma]
him a sapling uprooted, replanted [comma]
her the rose everyone wanted
her heart was loud, but lips were mute [comma]
while he was lost in voiceless youth
tho’ Cupid’s bow a shot released [apostrophe]
time wept for two lips deceased
a week, a month… wore out Time’s soles [comma, ellipsis, apostrophe]
a glance, a smile, two whispering souls; [comma, comma, semi-colon]
and still no telling word was risked
until away the lad was whisked
she grieved, he mourned (but time heals all) [comma, parenthesis]
… one decade plus, the lad stands tall [ellipsis]
once little lass, now jewelled queen: [colon]
a wife serving her king’s whim [apostrophe]
two stories crossed: same scene, same act [colon, comma]
a bejewelled queen, fine man with tact [comma]
he an oak – deep-rooted. she wanted [emdash, endash, full stop]
but silver ring on a finger taunted! [exclamation]
why does love steal our tongues?! [question mark, exclamation]

The poem above used detailed internal punctuations but does not follow the norm of using uppercase letters as the beginning of each verse as is done by most traditional poets. In this case, the poet deliberately broke rules.

WHEN MY LOVE SWEARS THAT SHE IS MADE OF TRUTH (Sonnet 138) byWilliam Shakespeare

When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies, [comma, comma]
That she might think me some untutored youth, [comma]
Unlearnèd in the world's false subtleties. [full stop]
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young, [comma]
Although she knows my days are past the best, [comma]
Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue; [semi colon]
On both sides thus is simple truth suppressed. [full stop]
But wherefore says she not she is unjust? [question mark]
And wherefore say not I that I am old? [question mark]
O, love's best habit is in seeming trust, [comma, apostrophe, comma]
And age in love, loves not to have years told. [comma, full stop]
Therefore I lie with her, and she with me, [comma, comma]
And in our faults by lies we flattered be. [full stop]


The answer is ‘yes’ with a huge caveat.
The poet E.E. Cummings is well known as a grammar rebel that care not a little about rules of grammar, especially punctuation, and he successfully alters basic sentence structure.
Now many poets would however accept his style as seen in the poem below:

anyone lived in a pretty how town by ee cummings
anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did.
Women and men (both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain
children guessed (but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
autumn winter spring summer)
that noone loved him more by more
when by now and tree by leaf
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone’s any was all to her
someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake hope and then)they
said their nevers they slept their dream
stars rain sun moon
(and only the snow can begin to explain
how children are apt to forget to remember
with up so floating many bells down)
one day anyone died i guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was
all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
with by spirit and if by yes.
Women and men (both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain

NOTE: he removed the capital letters and almost doesn’t use punctuation at all. It is rebellious and may not be accepted in some quarters, put to the test of grammar, it may fail woefully. But it still accomplishes a lot as a poem, earning accolades in his time.

In conclusion, I would like to state the following:

  1. learn the rules before you attempt to break them
  2. when you break them, be purposeful, know why
  3. don’t be afraid to experiment (rules are meant to be broken)
  1. Every verse with more than 1 CLAUSE needs INTERNAL PUNCTUATIONS
  2. END punctuations like FULL STOP, and COMMA can be done away with, if you so desire
  3. Punctuations within the verses of the poem are VERY important
  4. Even where the poem has no punctuation, EXCLAMATION marks, at the end or within a verse, are needed to show the intensity of a verse. Same with QUESTION marks where a question is asked
  5. Placing the right punctuation marks within your poem not only aids the reader, it also ensures that your emotions are conveyed


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