Updated: Feb 2, 2022
Analysing punctuation in poetry.
You already know that when you analyse poetry you should analyse language, structure and form. To understand the difference between these, it can be helpful to define what to consider in each one:
Language - look for figurative language devices (for example, simile, metaphor, personification, extended metaphor, analogy, idiom) and sound language devices (for example, alliteration, plosives, sibilance, consonance, assonance, fricatives).
Structure - look for the way in which the ideas are organised in the poem. Look for shifts in seasons - for example, does the poem move from spring to winter (a shift to death?)? Or in speaker - for example, from a male speaker to a female (has there been a power transfer?)? Or in time - for example, has the poem been set at night and now ends in daybreak (a shift to enlightenment or a realisation?)?
Form - think about the way the poem looks on the page. Are there short stand alone sentences? Are there short, equal stanzas? Is there a refrain? What is the rhyme scheme of the poem? Is it regular (suggesting childhood, innocence and a comfortable atmosphere)? Or is it irregular, awkward, jarred (suggesting a disjointed or awkward atmosphere)?
It is in form that we should also look at analysing punctuation.
Analysing punctuation can be tricky, and it can even seem overwhelming, but it opens up new areas of thinking, and may help you produce deeper, and more original analysis.
To begin, let’s consider the different types of punctuation you can look for, and the effect that we can say these have in poetry:
A dash - Dashes create longer pauses in text, and mean that the reader unconsciously places more emphasis on the information either just before, or just after the dash (you decide which one it is based on which one you would like to talk about).
Many dashes - - - - Dashes are used in a row when the frame of mind of the speaker is disturbed or fragmented for some reason. Perhaps they are anxious, or speaking quickly, or in a choppy way. Punctuation like this is likely to show an unstable situation or speaker.
Colon : A colon is used to show a list in text (for example, ‘the area was beautiful: trees resplendent in their final summer glow; the river glimmering as it danced across the rocky brook; the wind moving softly through the leaves at their feet’) but it also used to create a longer and more dramatic pause than a comma would when giving further information in a sentence. For example, ‘there was something there: something evil’. A colon holds two parts of a sentence in balance, and the slow pace it creates directs the reader’s attention to either part of the sentence (you can choose, depending on what you would like to talk about). It is used for dramatic effect, and for impact.
Caesura . ? ! ; A caesura is the use of a stop in the middle of a line of poetry. If you see any punctuation that would be used to create a pause the length of a full stop in the middle of a line of poetry (for example, ‘Dead! One of them shot by sea in the east’) then you have found a caesura. Caesura are used to create a dramatic impact. They isolate and highlight words and phrases and illuminate them to the reader. For example, in ‘Dead! One of them shot by sea in the east’ the caesura isolates ‘Dead!’ and this reinforces the threatening tone of the poem.
End stopped line . ; An end stopped line is one that has a pause the length of a full stop at the end of it, though if the line also contained a complete thought, it would be considered end stopped even if it had a comma at the end. End stopped lines are also used for dramatic impact - they isolate the information in that sentence and hold it separately form the rest of the poem. Perhaps there will be a change of event or speaker following an end stopped line. Repeated end stopped lines can also create a regular, rhythmic feel to a poem, and this could be argued to create a gentle or comforting atmosphere, or to highlight themes of childhood, routine or linear narrative structure.
Lack of punctuation For this consider those poems that have little or few punctuation markers in. These poems may also contain enjambment (run-over lines in poetry). Where there is no punctuation, the pace speeds up. It tends to be reflective of disorganised or fractured thinking. Perhaps the speaker is undergoing a particular trauma, or thinking in a way that is rushed and illogical. Perhaps events in the poem are speeding up or chaotic (is there a conflict going on? An argument?).
Use the above to put punctuation analysis into practice and make a big deal out of tiny punctuation marks. For example, we’ll use this from ‘War Photographer’ (Carol Ann Duffy) as a practice piece:
‘The only light is red and softly glows, as though this were a church and he a priest preparing to intone a Mass. Belfast. Beirut. Phnom Penh. All flesh is grass.’
Our analysis might be:
The end stopped line, ‘intone a Mass’ creates an abrupt pause after the quick, breathless start of the stanza, and highlights the elevation of the speaker to status of priest - a role traditionally associated with those that usher life in and out of the world. The end stopped line here also separates the world of religion with the war zones listed afterwards, intimating a deliberate disconnect between the religious world with the events of war.
The caesura that follows each war zone, ‘Belfast. Beirut. Phnom Penh’ creates a poignant pause between each, emphasising the speaker’s weariness with the extent of the conflict in his travels; the caesura also holds the reader’s attention, as if Duffy insists that they absorb the gravity of the extent of the conflict in our world.
The caesura in ‘Phnom Penh. All flesh is grass’ holds the war zone and the biblical reference apart, once again serving as a buffer that segregates the reality of the conflict with religion, again suggesting that religion does not face the realties of the world. Here, the significance of the fragility of existence ‘all flesh is grass’ is made more impactful by its isolation - the phrase stands alone, ironically holding the conflict of all humanity in a single, lonely clause at the end of a stanza.
Punctuation in poetry, then - make a big deal of the little things. Have a go and let us know how you get on.
Do you analyse punctuation in poetry? Let us know about any strategies or ideas that you have that we didn’t think of. Also, if you feel we have missed out any punctuation that you would like to know about here, let us know and we’ll tell you what it means!