Sometimes, a poet uses punctuation in a poem and sometimes he or she does not. To examine the possibilities, I've brought together four poems without punctuation written by respected poets. In this first vividly realized poem by Lucille Clifton, the line seems to follow the philosophy of "the line is a breath." The line break can be used in a way that gives the reader a chance to breathe between phrases.
by Lucille Clifton
when i watch you
wrapped up like garbage
sitting, surrounded by the smell
of too old potato peels
when i watch you
in your old man's shoes
with the little toe cut out
sitting, waiting for your mind
like next week's grocery
when i watch you
you wet brown bag of a woman
who used to be the best looking gal in georgia
used to be called the Georgia Rose
i stand up
through your destruction
i stand up
She has used two commas inside two lines, each occurs after the same word, "sitting." It seems to help Clifton create a parallel structure, although what follows after the word is not exactly parallel. Another poet might be tempted to use commas after the phrases. However, a comma at the end of a line seems to make a harder "end stop." Some poets who do use punctuation avoid a comma at line end because there is already an inherent pause. A line break without a comma adds a level of ambiguity, a slight pause between words that can add extra meanings.
Other things besides a lack of punctuation are noticeable. Clifton does not capitalize any words except Georgia Rose. She does not capitalize the subject, miss rosie. Neither does she follow the convention of capitalizing the personal pronoun I. One might speculate that she wanted to minimize the "I," downplay the personal narrator in order to indicate that "I" is no more important than "you." The "i" occurs five times however. In such a short poem, five is a lot. One line is just one short syllable: "or" makes an interesting hinge or pivot point in the poem.
The repeated phrases serve to provide a structure for the narrative: "...when i watch you..." "i stand up" clearly communicates respect and honor for the subject of the poem, miss rosie.
So, why then is Georgia Rose capitalized? Is a flower, a state flower, more important than the individuals? The phrase does provide a geographic location for the narrative; the phrase also highlights that the subject's name is rose, miss rosie. It provides an enduring image of beauty, the ultimate ideal, contrasting with subject's apparent destruction. Clifton makes very good use of the senses. The smell of too old potato peelings is such a deft use of detail. The line, "...in old man's shoes with the little toe cut out" is another good detail. She grounds the poem firmly in the body.
The lack of punctuation seems to present a fragment, or a breathless utterance. It might indicate the narrator is placing herself equal to miss rosie; perhaps both the narrator and the subject exist outside convention. Perhaps they don't follow the rules, or live beyond them. Punctuation or the lack of it can provide meaning in this way.
In the following poem by Wisconsin poet Lorine Niedecker, the poet also avoids punctuation. She does however use capitalization as if beginning a new sentence. Perhaps she meant to signal a new breath or new idea, but not a hard end stop. Not all the lines start with a capitalized word. Niedecker generally used a short line with a tight sound play in the stanzas. It's a shorter rhythm, almost syncopated. She was born in 1903 and died in 1970; she was known as an avant garde poet. She was connected to a group of poets called 'objectivists' (the word was first used by Louis Zukovsky). William Carlos Williams and Kenneth Rexroth are both considered to be part of this group.
Paean to Place
I grew in green
slide and slant
of shore and shade
Maples to swing from
Grew riding the river
Shelley could steer
as he read
I was the solitary plover
for a wing-gone
From the secret notes
I must tilt
upon the pressure
execute and adjust
In us sea-air rhythm
"We live by the urgent wave
of the verse"
Her poems have beauty and strength in the choice of word and sound. Alliteration and assonance cause a pleasurable sound play along with rhyme and near rhyme. The rhymes are in words close to each other and not at the ends of phrases. With her short lines and tight turns, punctuation may have caused the reader to stop in ways she preferred not to have happen. Her stanzas that are similar in size and line breaks. The use of a capitalized letter is an interesting detail, perhaps a technique that helps the reader find the beginning of a new thought.
In the following poem by the current U.S. Poet Laureate, the reader encounters a capitalized beginning of each line with no punctuation. Without punctuation, all line breaks have roughly the same weight or pause. One continues reading at the same pace throughout the poem. Without punctuation, the line seems to end in space, without landing. It is as if broken off in mid-breath.
For the Anniversary of My Death
Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Like the beam of a lightless star
Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what
This poem also has the development of consonant vowel sounds that make for a pleasing experience. The poem arrests the reader with its speculation; one always marks the anniversary of one's birth, but the opposite of that, the anniversary of one's death, exists unbeknownst to us. It is a bare shadow that Merwin finds and names.
In the following poem by e.e. cummings, there is no punctuation except for the apostrophe mark and a hyphen. The hyphen is not used in a standard way. Here, he hyphenates words not usually hyphenated.
Buffalo Bill 's
who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
he was a handsome man
and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
He does use conventional capitalization for names but not for the personal pronoun I. e.e. cummings is known for his creative arrangements of the words, spacing or not spacing, stringing together or breaking words apart on a line or across lines. Many poets use the lines and spaces as a form of musical score; the reader can run the words together, read words fast, and then have a long pause for the next line, "Jesus' is far indented, as if hung on the end of the line before it. cummings also avoids using the question mark at the end. I think this adds an ambiguity. It begins as a question, but perhaps offers an acerbic comment instead. By avoiding the punctuation mark, the poet is able to create more ambiguity and therefore more possible meanings.
Each of these poems would be much different with conventional punctuation. Each poet had internal consistency with his or her approach. Each used other unusual methods with capitalization or no capitalization; they used spacing in a way that also would affect the breath.
When writing or reading poems, consider the uses that punctuation has. Many poets use punctuation just as it is used in conventional sentences. Done this way, the writer can guide the reader toward meaning and rhythm. If the writer chooses not to punctuate, then I think it's important to have or to develop an internal consistency. Without punctuation, one must consider line breaks and other use of white space in the development of structure and rhythm.
It does seem that an unpunctuated poem is closer to a fragment. In my own poems, a series of unpunctuated poems serve as a fragments of a longer arc that usually is marked off in sections. Initially I used it because some poems arrived in dreams, as a stanza. I wrote them down just 'as is.' Later, I began other series that seemed to work better without the conventional stops of punctuation. This added a breathlessness or a speed to the poem that would not exist otherwise. I would never swear off punctuation; like other elements in poetry, it's best to use or not use this element deliberately.