The full stop (that’s ‘period’, on the far side of the Atlantic) is quite easy. Even poets tend to start sentences with capital letters and end them with full stops. In a sense, one of these signs is totally redundant, because, with the exception of the very first and very last sentences in a piece, the end of one sentence will always be followed by a start of another. Every rose has its thorn, and every full stop has its following capital. Remove all the full stops and we’d still know when sentences ended, because there’d be a capital letter to tell us so.

However, redundancy is useful in communication. It cuts down noise, limits miscommunication. This is useful for everyday communication, and complex areas like technical writing. Poets, however, are less keen on having redundant meaning in their work. As a full stop also acts as a pause, a poet may be perfectly happy with using pauses alone, omiting full stops. The pause might itself be shown by a line break or a stanza break. So it’s not unusual for a poet to agonise about whether they “need” a full stop at the end of a line or stanza, as the full stop seems to add weight to the pause, making it longer or heavier than otherwise it would be.

This suggests that poets operate with a sensitivity to the relative lengths of pauses (or space on the page) and punctuation, perhaps with a sort of working hierarchy of relative length. Obviously, the smallest pause on a page is the space between words (unless we want to consider the space between letters, which seems a step too far for most). In normal speech, there’s often no pause between words: the phrase “pause on a page” in speech is closer to the one word “porzonerpaij”. However, in poetry readings, the space between words is often articulated, sometimes so noticeably that one gets the “poetry reading tone” which artificially emphasises particular words and phrases. 

If we read like this mentally, then we may find we don’t need, or want, punctuation. If we can “hear” the page’s visual space, then no other punctuation may be necessary. The poet can simply lengthen spaces to signal longer and longer pauses. We reviewed Kate Ruse’s Corridors in Issue 3 of Antiphon. She creates rhythmic effects and dislocation by variable spacing within her lines. Hariet Tarlo is another poet who creates timing effects through page space.

The problem with this is that readers don’t generally know how to read such gaps. Most of us have a sense that a full stop is “longer” than a colon, which is longer than a semi-colon, which is longer than a comma, in a way that’s something like musical rests. But in speech, how long should this pause be “        compared with this                  “? Of course, there’s no standard for this, and there probably shouldn’t be, but it does mean that readers may take particular lines quite differently. Whereas punctuation, being a little more regular and more familiar, is closer to an agreed approach.

But punctuation itself is a problem, I think. Oscar Wilde is reputed to have said: “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.” This will be familiar to many poets. The comma is used to organised information (in lists, for example) but does so by offering a suggestion of a pause, longer than the implied space between words.

The common poetry problem with all punctuation is to measure the impact of placing one pause on top of another. Given that we’re not certain of the weight (or wait) of any of them, how can we safely add them together? Should a comma be placed at the end of the line or not?

Worse than the comma is the semi-colon. Colons, in general, seem comfortable, well understood punctuation. They find homes readily, carefully nurturing their lists and long pauses, something like three quarters of the pause of a full stop, and signalling the beginning of a sub-structure in the syntax, such as a list about to come. But semi-colons are less clear about their behaviour. Often they end up pretending to be long commas, or even mistakenly standing at the head of a list as if it was its big brother. What is the purpose of the semi-colon, and how is it best used in poetry?

I know one editor whose view, essentially, is “don’t use semi-colons”. Because their use is not well understood by readers, and some writers, they tend to be offered effectively as a form of comma. In which case, use the comma. But what if you want a pause longer than the comma seems to suggest? A more emphatic pause, within a sentence, within a list: not the end of sentence, but contrasting with the pauses of word break, comma, line break?

Should we simply ignore the semi-colon, and use commas instead, with dashes in those instances where a longer pause is needed? But the dash itself can be a hateful device, suggesting that the poet might have missed something, or given us a shorthand, or simply used dashes as a trendy brackets.

I like the semi-colon. The comma may be more delicate and the colon more syntactically secure, but the semi-colon can help compress a list, give us pacing that is a little more sedate than the comma, and can offer syntactic complexity which, though hated by those whose watchwords are accessibility and readability, enables more thoughtful expression than might otherwise be possible. Okay, it needs care and consideration, it needs to be handled deftly, and not overused, but it has a purpose beyond merely winking from smileys in text messages.


Noel Williams


long stairs