Punctuation & Capitalization in Poetry: Rules & Examples

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  • 0:04 Poetry & Prose
  • 1:12 Rules for Poets
  • 2:11 Bending the Rules
  • 4:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kelly Beaty

Kelly has taught fifth grade language arts and adult ESL. She has a master's degree in education and a graduate certificate in TESOL.

This lesson is about punctuation and capitalization in poetry. You will learn about and compare the different ways poets use (and don't use) capital letters and punctuation marks to enhance the meaning of their words.

Poetry & Prose

A few years ago, a friend asked me to edit some of her poetry. I jumped right in, completing sentences, capitalizing words, and adding periods, commas, and question marks where they were supposed to go. But something didn't seem right. The meaning behind her writing was lost due to all of the proper capitalization and punctuation. So, I did a little research and learned that poetry and prose follow different rules when it comes to capitalization and punctuation.

We all know that writing comes in different forms and has different purposes. Prose, or regular writing, includes stories, magazine articles, and text books. Prose follows certain rules for punctuation and capitalization. For example, you wouldn't read this sentence in a typical paragraph:

  • My sister and i attend the university of georgia

We expect proper nouns to be capitalized and sentences to end with a punctuation mark.

Poetry is different from prose. Poems often use incomplete sentences, rhythm patterns, rhyming words, and figurative language to help readers feel a certain way or get a picture in their minds. Proper punctuation and capitalization are not always needed to achieve these goals.

Rules for Poets

Many years ago, poetry and prose followed similar rules for punctation and capitalization. ''The Road Not Taken'' by Robert Frost is a good example. See if you can pick out some of the rules for capitalization and punctuation:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The punctuation marks - comma, hyphen, colon, and period - are used the way they would be used in a paragraph. Rules for capitalization are also followed. The first word in every sentence is capitalized, and so is the pronoun I. Traditionally, in poetry, the first word of each line of the poem is also capitalized. In this way, the rules for classical poetry differ from those for prose. These traditional rules are consistently found in older, classical poetry. In contrast, many modern poets choose not to follow these rules.

Bending the Rules

We could say that many modern poets bend the rules to suit their own individual writing style. This is sometimes referred to as using poetic license, as if poets have an official license that allows them to change the rules of writing.

Look at this excerpt from ''Hunch'' by Jay Parini:

I follow it, the snail of thought
I leave the track, turn off this trail
I crouch in shadows, under ferns
I refuse to answer every bird
I see the liquid glister in its shell
I taste the wind
I smell the smoke of fire in the woods

Here, there is no punctuation at the end of each line. This works particularly well because each line begins a new sentence with the pronoun ''I.'' Readers can easily tell when one sentence stops and another begins, even without a period at the end.

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