Punctuation Without Punctuation: How to Write a Poem Using Empty Space
Why Are Poets Drawn to Poetry?
To understand the nuances of poetry, it's important to understand what drives poets to write in the first place. If your knowledge of poetry and poets comes from TV, you may think that all poets wear berets, chain-smoke, and speak in lofty accents. Believe it or not, poets are just like you. We hate feeling stuck and are irritated by abstract rules. We are drawn to write poetry because a poem represents infinite possibilities. Poetry is freedom. It's not that all poems are written in free-verse or exist without definable structure, but rather that the poet gets to define the rules for him/herself. The blank page is your universe and you decide what lives in that universe. Where else do you get to have that kind of power?
We are drawn to poetry because it allows us to redirect our gaze, or elevate a sense of awareness that's often lacking in this world of grocery lines, gas station lines, coffee shop lines... you get the point.
Poems are like Van Gogh paintings; they see motion in stillness and hear voices in silence. A poem bears witness to what is invisible or exists in plain sight, but goes unnoticed or underappreciated. Poems bring the dead back to life and give new energy to the objects we overlook. Poetry dismantles the wall between the self and the world. Each word is the ghost of a moment that demanded remembrance. When I write, I project light outward from my turbulent imagination through the infinite expanse of time. Why wouldn't you want to be a poet?
Why Is Poetry Allowed to Break the Rules?
A teacher once told me, "In a poem, everything is permissible but not everything works." It's not that poets are allowed to break the rules, but rather that poetry does not have strict rules. There are, of course, poetic forms that follow strict guidelines, but if breaking away from those guidelines makes the poem better, then break the structure. Everything is permissible but not everything works.
Writing a Poem Without Punctuation
Here's an example of a poem I wrote recently that combines screenwriting format and free-verse poetry. No one said I couldn't, so I did. In this poem, I decided to remove all punctuation and rely on white space to emphasize specific words, phrases, and lines. First, read the poem to yourself, then I will describe my thought process below.
Mom’s High School Reunion
INT: LADIES ROOM ACROSS FROM THE GYMNASIUM
She knots her hair
debris stuck in her curls
and fragments of glass
from her raven-pitched crown
the objects she carries
as the burden of her birth
show the cracks of labor
the dried river bed
bifurcating across her palms
serration of stained glass
clenches the brush
as she covers the potholes of youth
years of advertising campaigns
tainted her image
lead in the lipstick
in her blush
a flock of ravens in her eyeliner
stuffed in her crows feet
picking at her cuticles
as she enters the gym
no one will recognize her
The Writer's Thought Process
In this semi-narrative poem, the story is purposely vague. Details are withheld intentionally. The music of the poem is slow. Specific words stand alone to call attention to the character's mood, and little else. The objects and setting have been chosen to give insight into her personality without having to tell the reader anything specific about her past. The character remains nameless, the school is nameless, the products are nameless. Vagueness is an invitation for multiple interpretations. By leaving out details, I'm attempting to give the reader the opportunity to imagine him/herself as the main character. Sometimes a sense of mystery can draw a reader in closer.
Why Is There so Much White Space?
Commas, semicolons, colons, and periods are all great tools for slowing down a poem, but empty space will slow down the music of a poem even more. The longer the reader has to linger on a word or phrase, the more attention is called to the imagery. Given that some of the imagery is surreal and clearly out-of-place in reality, having time to linger on the image is necessary. Just as the character lingers, so too does the reader. Even though the poem was written to be open-ended, I do have a specific purpose for writing it: compassion. Hopefully, if I've done my job, you felt some compassion for the character. I wanted to slow the poem so much that, when reading it aloud, it is almost a meditation. You get to decide what it is a meditation on. For me it is a meditation on how the past lingers, and what we do to try to conceal bad memories.
Rather than giving specific details about the character's past, I decided that structuring the poem around open space and vagueness could provide the reader an opportunity to fill in the blank space. I wonder what popped into your mind during those moments of blankness. In a sense, your interpretation of the character is a part of you. Just as she stares into the mirror with intense focus, you stare into the poem, trying to interpret its purpose and value. The attention that you give to the poem creates another kind of mirror.
How Can You Use White Space in Your Poetry?
First, you need to decide the tone and mood of your poem. If the speaker of your poem is hyper-aggressive, then slowing the poem down is probably not the way to go. You need to think of how the speed of your poem's music relates to the emotions you are trying to convey. For example, if the speaker of your poem is having a manic episode, then a plodding meditation is probably not the best way to demonstrate that emotion.
Next, think about the imagery in the poem. For example, if your speaker is under fire in a crowded war zone, then large open spaces and slow transitions are probably not the best tools for pulling the reader into that setting. If your speaker is floating on a river and fears that there is evil lurking in the undercurrent, then blank space could heighten the suspense.
Remember, there isn't one correct way to use any poetic technique. No one's standing behind you with a checklist. Your poem is your universe. Just remember, "In a poem, everything is permissible but not everything works."