Sculpting Breath – Punctuation in Poetry

Have you heard of the Antikythera mechanism? It is an archaeological find of a clockwork device originating from Antiquity [1]. Pictures of it show a compact mechanism of cogs and gears. Sometimes, I think, a sonnet may be such a concise mechanism too, with every word playing a part. When writing a sonnet, which may only contain about a hundred words, you should make every word count and use every device that can pack in meaning or aid its performance.

Punctuation helps to convey meaning and nuance. Other poetic devices such as line ends, caesura, and stanza breaks further govern the flow and provide the tools to sculpt breathing during the reading of a poem. Together, these are the gearing and ratcheting of this poetic form.


In sonnets, punctuation is very important in illuminating and modulating meaning. Semi-colons can show apposition. Colons can introduce lists or elaboration. Commas are very useful for subordinating or coordinating ideas (the en-dash character is sometimes a better solution than a comma – and can add visual impact). The comma is also a cue to take a breath.


Other poetic devices than the comma also allow you to mark pauses and rests in the reading of your work. Poetry foregrounds this tension between punctuated phrases and lines. These devices include: the slight hesitation of a line end; the mid-line pauses from a caesura; the use of white space such as in-line gaps; line indents for emphasis; and the larger rest between stanzas. All these play a role in sculpting breathing. It all requires careful consideration. As with any other craft tool, white space should be used carefully. Where you have used a gap of white space within a line, perhaps, what you should have used was a comma?

When you are on the final draft, check the way you want your poem read matches the punctuation and other markings made, just as a composer would mark up a score with rests of different value. Read your poem out aloud the way you wish it to be read, while checking that the punctuation and devices above actually represent what you read out. Or, conversely, read it out in conformance with each marking and decide if that is that way you want it to be read.

Although it is fashionable in some works to abandon punctuation altogether, resulting sometimes in a legalese density, I believe this should not be done within the confines of sonnet form without the risk of losing meaning.

In the same way that diction or choice of words should be precise; meaning, too, should be precise – although that doesn’t preclude the author deliberately introducing ambiguity, multiple meanings, or connotations in a controlled manner.

One way to precision in meaning is through correct punctuation. You control how your poem is sculpted in breath.

20211123 Sculpting Breath - with title

One thought on “Sculpting Breath – Punctuation in Poetry

  1. Hello Master Liles,
    Thanks for putting into words what I’ve been experiencing in my poetry “transcription” of thought for most of my life, since I was a child first putting thoughts down on paper. I wasn’t much good at grammar and punctuation was utterly confusing for me. Ha, Ha, take my opening sentence for example: would putting parenthesis around the word poetry and remove the quote marks from transcription improve / change my comment? BTW, how did you find me on your email list?


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