Poetry Knowledge Zone > Class 5

Punctuation and Line Breaks

Today we move a little away from the words of a poem and explore the technical aspects of arranging the lines of a poetry with proper adherence to punctuation. Many people often tell me that punctuation is not really important in a poem, it is the words that count. Sure I agree that words are the soul of a poem, but badly spelled or punctuated poetry not only show a lackadaisical attitude on part of a poet but detract from the very essence of a poem. A poem should hold a reader glued to it but seriously it is tough to do so with incorrect punctuation and grammar. Language is a powerful tool in the hands of a poet. We should use it to achieve wonders and give it due respect. Most of the word processors have a spell check facility. Use it, I am amazed at how often I get badly written and misspelled mails from people who claim they are or want to be writers.

Today we are going to examine poetry at a micro level. At the level of each line of poetry to be precise I will start with punctuation, move to line breaks and enjambments and wrap up with caesuras.

What exactly is punctuation?

Punctuations are written symbols in a language which neither correspond to the phonetics of a language nor to the words and phrases of a language. They are used to organize and clarify the thought process of a language. 

The rules of a punctuation vary from language to language and usage to usage. There is no universal set of rules governing all the languages. More over the rules keep evolving and modifying. Further the use of punctuation is also to a certain extent an author's style.

Some poets always write in this style

Line 1,
Line 2,
Line 3,
Line 4,

Line 5,
Line 6,
Line 7,
Line 8.

While for some writers each line of a poem is line stopped.

How you use it is up to you but use it you must. 

Punctuation is the tool you use to talk to the reader and draw him into your mood. While talking we pause, raise our voice, lower our voice, increase our pace, decrease our pace ' in short modulate our voice. Well punctuation is the modulation of a written thought. When you use exclamation point at the end of a sentence, it means it surprises or shocks you.

Take for example this line

They were the trademarks of a great warrior

What does this line convey to you of the writers feelings. Except the content of the line, nothing much. But look at this

They were the trademarks of a great warrior!

It shows surprise and a degree of admiration. You would inject this into your voice when reading it aloud. Similarly punctuation mark clarifies the thought process of a writer and effectively conveys it to his readers. With proper use it is a very powerful tool indeed!


What purpose do line breaks serve? Line breaks are devices used to separate one line of the poetry from another. It may or may not deal with different lines of thoughts. Each line of poetry should seamlessly blend into next line of poetry like the waves meet together at the shore yet each holds on to its identity.

Note that line breaks are distinct from punctuation marks. Line breaks compliment, contradict, confound, and compete with real or implied punctuation. Unlike punctuation line breaks have no set of rules governing their use, however loosely defined, they are not theorized but on the contrary popularized by practical use. 

Line breaks can be loosely classified into end stopped line, enjambments and caesuras. Lets briefly examine each of them. 

End-stopped lines 

End-stopped lines put a clear rhythmic break at the end of each line, often reinforced by a comma or period.  Look at these lines from William Wordsworth's 

"She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways"

She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!

Each line of the poem is an individual sentence or fragment of thought and is independent of rest of the poem to make a meaning. 


Enjambments conversely run into each other and make meaning in conjunction with each other rather than independent units like end stopped lines. 

Consider the opening lines of 

Milton's 'Paradise Lost'

Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that that forbidden tree ...

Enjambments are also called run on lines as they 'run into' each other. "Run on lines" run forward in sense and punctuation into the next line, like the opening line of Milton's "Paradise Lost:" shown above. 

Enjambment is the breaking of a linguistic unit (phrase or sentence) by the end of line between two verses. It is in contrast with end stopping, where each linguistic unit corresponds with the line length. As stated in Class 1

Consider this 

Shakespeare Sonnet number 11

As fast as thou shalt wane, so fast thou grow'st
In one of thine, from that which thou departest;
And that fresh blood which youngly thou bestow'st,
Thou mayst call thine when thou from youth convertest.
Herein lives wisdom, beauty, and increase;
Without this folly, age, and cold decay:
If all were minded so, the times should cease
And threescore year would make the world away.
Let those whom nature hath not made for store,
Harsh, featureless, and rude, barrenly perish:
Look whom she best endow'd, she gave the more;
Which bounteous gift thou shouldst in bounty cherish:
She carv'd thee for her seal, and meant thereby,
Thou shouldst print more, not let that copy die.

This sonnet uses heavy enjambment. Usually an enjambment is marked by the use of a comma, colon or semi-colon. As you can see Lines 1, 2, 3, 4 are all enjambed while line 4 is an end stopped line. 

Enjambments can be cleverly used in a poem to make it more interesting and even create a feeling of suspense which prompts the user to go and read the next line to see what happens. It also stops a poem from being just a sequence of related sentences.
Meaning flows from line to line, and the reader's eye is pulled forward. Enjambment creates a feeling of acceleration, as the reader is forced to continue reading after the line has ended.

Enjambments are used to smoothen the edges of a poem and make it flow more fluidly. Also when a line of thought is too large to fit into a single line, enjambment is used to split it into more than one line. 


Caesura is a natural pause or break. Caesura is Latin word for 'cut' A caesura occurs in the middle of a verse literally cutting it into two. More than one caesura can occur in the same line or verse.


England - how I long for thee

Caesura is a natural pause in middle of a verse or a sentence, usually reinforced by a punctuation. When it is accompanied by a punctuation mark it is called a strong caesura else it a weak caesura, both kinds being used in poetry. 

Caesuras may be 

Initial caesura - when a caesura cuts the verse into two unequal parts, the first part being noticeable shorter than the second.
Alas! For the days and months wasted 

Medial caesuras - occurs when a caesura cuts the line into two almost equal parts
Alas if I had but known then! The trials and tribulations of life

Terminal caesura - occurs near the end of the verses
Alas if I but known the trials of life : a little earlier.

Classic poets kept their poems interesting by varying the positions of caesura. Like Pope does here-

Alas how changed! || What sudden horrors rise!
A naked lover || bound and bleeding lies!
Where, where was Eloise? || her voice, her hand,
Her poniard, || had opposed the dire command.

|| shows where the caesuras are.

It is not necessary that all types of caesuras compulsorily occur in a poem, it is all in the pen of the poet. 

I hope that I have stressed the importance of technical tools enough.  

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Smitha Chakravarthula


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