Eschewing Punctuation and Capitalization in Poetry

A poet friend recently asked me why I do not use capital letters or punctuation in my poetry. While I have different reasons for both choices, there are two overarching philosophies that answer to both. Balance and ambiguity.

First, I’ll address the idea of balance, and by balance, I mean giving every word, every line an equal opportunity to affect the experience and meaning of the poem. When we emphasize certain words by capitalization we overshadow the agency of other words. And when we cut up our lines with punctuation, we cut off avenues of meaning.

That brings me to the idea of ambiguity in poetry. While I write with purpose, I also believe it is critical for the poet to open themselves up to the subconscious, to be wholly open to receiving new direction, images and ideas. One of the things poetry does better than any other art form is to connect ideas usually not connected. We open ourselves up to possibility. By letting a poem breathe and flow with little to no punctuation, and without capitalization, we increase the chances that those connections will occur.

I assure you, I still believe in pauses. Just as we pause in our natural speech, which is often controlled by the breath, or “breath-stops” as Alan Ginsberg called them, the rhythm that poetry craves demands we pause. For me, this is most often the end of a line. Every so often, I will add a simple punctuation mark in the middle of a line if I feel that meaning will dissolve without it. But generally, I try to avoid this. I also find that we can have pauses in the middle of a line simply because of the natural flow of speech, without need for a signifying punctuation mark.

A common poetic practice, a traditional one, is to capitalize the first letter of a line. I see no absolutely no reason for this, and in fact, find it quite distracting. Why would that word have more emphasis than another? And it most certainly fights against enjambment. Should those two words be together? The capital in between them argues, “Certainly not!”

Writing poetry is not like writing prose, of course. And part of that difference, I think, is trying to find ways to weave multiple meanings through the work that could not exist as easily with the blockages that capital letters and punctuation set up.

A poem is a breathing creature which can create meaning from the subconscious of both its author and its reader. A poem reaches its fullest potential in that moment when the experiences and perspectives of its author meet those of the reader. It’s best to not get in the way of the poem’s need to connect itself in surprising ways.