Saturday, September 13, 2014

To the Lighthouse: Strategic Placement of Punctuation Marks

In writing, punctuation plays the role of body language. It helps readers hear you the way you want to be heard. -- Russell Baker

Generically speaking, haiku and tanka use minimal punctuation to clarify meaning or make them easier to understand, and they normally are not considered full sentences. The first word is not capitalized, and the last line is not end-stopped with a period, which keeps the poem open or incomplete to invite readers to fill the gaps between the lines.

Aesthetically speaking, one can use punctuation to greater stylistic effect, maximum rhetorical advantage, or to deepen the impact, thematic and emotional/psychological, of the poem. Below are some good examples:

Throughout the history of English poetry, there seldom is a poem like Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” (hereafter referred to as “metro poem”) that has been endlessly researched by scholars, literary critics, and poets alike. 1 Most of his readers are familiar with at least two versions of his metro poem: the original version published in the April 1913 issue of Poetry as follows:

The apparition    of these face    in the crowd:
Petals      on a wet, black bough.

and one of the revised versions published in his 1916 book entitled Lustra as follows:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

... From the perspective of a haiku poet, Higginson singles out the most important change Pound made: that is the one from the colon at the end of the first line to a semicolon. In his view, a colon tells the reader that the statement made in the first line introduces the statement made in the second, making one a metaphor for the other. Conversely, a semicolon shows that two statements are independent of each other, though maybe related, and that both images -- “faces” and “petals” -- portrayed in the poem are real and stand out against its own background. 6 As Higginson stresses, “by revising the poem Pound turned an otherwise sentimental metaphor into a genuine haiku… This is a haiku that Shiki would have been proud to write.” 7
-- excerpted from my Magnapoets essay, "Three Readings of Ezra Pound’s 'Metro Haiku"



wondering for years
what would be
my life's defining moment:
an egret staring at me
me staring back


wondering for years
what would be
my life's defining moment
      an egret staring at me
      me staring back

 Jeanne Emrich

... Internal punctuation, while adding clarification, can stop the pivot line from working both up and down.... I decided to use indentation instead ....
-- excerpted from "A Quick Start Guide to Writing Tanka" by Jeanne Emrich



a stone woman
gives birth to a child
in the night
my book falls open
to the words I need


a stone woman
gives birth to a child
in the night
my book falls open
to the words, I need ...

Jenny Angyal

In the original, L5 leaves a little room for the reader's imagination; it's because the words the speaker needs are clearly stated in Ls 1-3. Conversely, in the revision, the use of punctuation marks, thematically speaking, leaves more room for the reader's reflection. Now, the new L5 is open-ended.


is life more
than the sum of its parts?
s/he stands
between the doors of
male and female restrooms
(for  Bree, protagonist of Transamerica)
Bright Stars, IV, 2014

a man's heart in her chest
and hers gone ...
alone at twilight
she listens to his/her heartbeat

Chen-ou Liu

In the first tanka, the "/" in s/he indicates a splitting between his/her biological sex and gender identity while in the second one, the "/" in his/her is intended to provoke the reader's reflection on one's identity in relation to one's body.


for too long
I ask a fly
to fly silently

Johannes S. H. Bjerg

shame on us
thousands of aboriginals
in nutritional experiments
and residential schools

the opening tanka of O (No) Canada, Bright Stars 3, June 2014

Debbie Strange

The "( )" in Johannes' tanka creates the whispering effect while in Debbie's tanka, the "()" in (ab)used, thematically speaking, exposes the shameful difference between rhetoric and reality.

Updated, September 15


at four p.m.
my spirit drops down
like the sun
but then an old friend calls

red lights, January 2014

Neal Whitman

Neal cleverly uses the placement of "-"s to mimic the sounds of a chickadee and create an onomatopoeic effect. The thematic and tonal shift makes this poem work emotionally effectively.

Updated, September 27


I open windows
(another day no poem
written down,
only blocks of dead words)
and let the spring breeze in

Gusts, 20, Fall/Winter 2014

Chen-ou Liu

The parenthesized lines is the internal dialogue used to indicate what the speaker is thinking.

Updated, January 5 2023


for my father who passed away on Jan. 5 2022

anniversary ...
old tear stains in my journal
b l  u r ry 

Chen-ou Liu

White/blank spaces in L3 show the visual and emotional effects of the new tear stains (created by L1) having blurred the old ones in L2. 


  1. The title, "O (No) Canada," of Debbie's tanka sequence makes an antithetic allusion to that of the Canadian national anthem:

    O Canada!
    Our home and native land!
    True patriot love in all thy sons command.
    With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
    The True North strong and free!
    From far and wide,
    O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
    God keep our land glorious and free!
    O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
    O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

  2. Hi Chen-ou, this is a helpful&concise write, thanks for sharing


  3. in my writers' groups, i'm known for harping on punctuation issues :) currently, i'm finalizing a book with and about haiku, and i've found, to my consternation, that a few haiku actually look/feel better when they have a period at the end. it pains me to see them together and notice the period at the end of some but not others but IF punctuation is a device of voice or, as you say, body language, then the dropped and definitive tone implied by a period is just the right thing sometimes. of course one could argue that it's not a haiku anymore then but that would make haiku too tightly defined. what do you think?

    1. Haiku is a poetry of suggestion, of understatement -- what's left unsaid is more thematically significant and emotionally important than what's stated in the poem. Therefore, it's better to avoid ending a haiku with a period, a punctuation mark that implies a definitive tone or indicates the completion of a thought.


  4. Thank you Chen-ou
    This is very helpful to study. I never gave punctation much thought, but your writing here and examples provide reflection. Now to see what you have written about the metro.