To use the comma, the semi-colon, the em-dash, or colon-ize, even the period at times is not always clear in modern poetry. So when do we know that the ‘em’ dash is the right tool and when it is the equivalent of a sledgehammer? Although the subject of punctuation does come up in the context of discussions about rhythm, line breaks, and the like, even John Ciardi and Miller Williams classic text about how poems mean (How Does a Poem Mean?) doesn’t have a separate entry for ‘punctuation’ in the topic/subject index@! For a working explanation, the website “Grammarist” (and others) explains the main distinction between the two dashes (excluding the hyphen which has very particular uses) as related to subtle emphasis:
Em dashes set apart parenthetical phrases or clauses in a sentence. In this use, em dashes are similar to commas and parentheses, but there are subtle differences. For example, em dashes are used when a parenthetical remark contains an internal comma or would otherwise sound awkward if enclosed by commas. Perhaps a useful way to think of the em dash is as a pause or parenthesis with somewhat more emphasis than a comma and somewhat less than parentheses.
Useful examples are provided on the Grammarist webpage [http://grammarist.com/]. Mary Oliver’s commonsense reminder that “the language of a poem is a living material; it is not rigid” and is “far more complex than a list of instructions,” is both useful and excellent caution against hard-line ‘rules’ which change over time at any rate. The key is to develop a keen ear and a keen sense of the rhythms the poem is intended to have, and to use punctuation accordingly. It’s also probably useful to have a hefty dose of courage and to know why you are so attached to a particular use of the em dash or your choice to eliminate punctuation altogether when the critiques arrive! I’m not saying anything goes, but I am saying the decision is often an intuitive response to creating a desired overall meaning as well as the specific one wherever several options might apply.
So if you haven’t felt the confidence to experiment with punctuation, take the plunge and ‘test’ its effect by reading the segment of the poem aloud as if you were reading it to an audience at an open mic or some other context. The performance-level reading aloud of a poem will reveal where the punctuation works or doesn’t far more effectively than any rule book. And, have someone else read it aloud to help you discover how the ‘signal’ (it is, after all, a kind of traffic signal – e.g., give way, stop, slow, turn, exit, etc.) works for them. If they feel that they’re tumbling over a cliff it might be worth taking a second look ☺
Till next month…. Enjoy the end of summer, the coming of the fall, while I enjoy the end of winter and the coming of Spring! Cheers, Anna