A web search on poetry punctuation reveals a large number of references to the topic with all kinds of information, tips, and opinions, so it appears to be a hot topic.
Many writers believe that poetry should be punctuated according to standard English grammar and that (nearly) each line of a poem should end with some punctuation, usually a comma, question mark, or period. There certainly exists an enormous body of work that uses that form.
The question of punctuation in poetry is, in my opinion, well answered, or, perhaps better said, well described in one of Gertrude Stein's lectures (1935), available online(1)(2), wherein she addresses the question of what is english literature and then goes on to poetry and grammar. I recommend reading the complete lecture. The quotes I give are from this lecture as printed in the text of the talk. Note that the lecture is not easy reading, but interesting nonetheless.
Question Mark, Exclamation Mark, and Quotes
It is evident that if you ask a question you ask a question but anybody who can read at all knows when a question is a question as it is written in writing. ... Exclamation marks have the same difficulty and also quotation marks, they are unnecessary, they are ugly, they spoil the line of the writing or the printing and anyway what is the use, if you do not know that a question is a question what is the use of its being a question. The same thing is true of an exclamation. And the same thing is true of a quotation.
I reviewed 30 of my poems, randomly chosen and found that I use question marks 16 times in four poems, exclamation marks twice in two poems, and quotes not at all. I agree with Stein regarding question marks and no longer use them. In the two cases where I had included an exclamation mark, I found that I could remove them and use my standard typography for emphasizing a word or phrase by indentation.
Dashes, Dots, and Spaces
There are besides dashes and dots, [by which, I assume Stein refers to an ellipsis] and spaces [by which, I assume Stein refers to multiple spaces] might be interesting. They might if one felt that way about them.
I do not use any of these and never found them necessary. However, E. E. Cummings, in his works shortly after World War I, does use them. For instance, in an untitled poem(3) from 1918, he writes:
let us suspect,chérie,this not very
big box completely mysterious, on whose shut
lid in large letters but neatly is
inscribed "Immortality". And not
go too near it,however people brag of
the wonderful things inside
which are altogether too good to miss----
but we'll go,by,together,giving it a wide
berth. Silently. Making our feet
think. Holding our breath----
if we look at it we will want to touch it.
And we mustn't because(something tells me)
ever so very carefully if we
begin to handle it
out jumps Jack Death
E. E. Cummings (ca. 1918)
Notice, that in addition to Cummings' use of spaces and dashes, he omits the single space following each comma and preceding the opening paren.
Inevitably no matter how completely I had to have writing go on, physically one had to again and again stop sometime and if one had to again and again stop some time then periods had to exist. Beside I had always liked the look of periods and I liked what they did. Stopping sometime did not really keep one from going on, it was nothing that interfered, it was only something that happened, and as it happened as a perfectly natural happening, I did believe in periods and I used them. I really never stopped using them.
Beside that periods might later come to have a life of their own to commence breaking up things in arbitrary ways, that has happened lately with me in a poem I have written called Winning His way....
Once again, I reviewed my 30 poems and found 56 instances in 12 works. So clearly I use periods often, but not everywhere. I found that most periods that I used are not necessary since they were at the end of a stanza, and I always leave white space between stanzas. For instance, I wrote
The Infernal Serpent
coiled ’round the soul of man
strangles the love and understanding
imbued by the Creator
supplanting it with hatred and distrust.
There is clearly (in my opinion) no need for the period in the last line of the verse. The observant reader will notice that in my work, I do not start each line with a capital. Instead, I choose to use an initial capital only when beginning a new thought (sentence were I writing prose) or, on occasion, to start a new verse.
Colons and Semi-colons
There are two different ways of thinking about colons and semi-colons you can think of them as commas and as such they are purely servile or you can think of them as periods and then using them can make you feel adventurous. I can see that one might feel about them as periods.... I began unfortunately to feel them as a comma and commas are servile they have no life of their own... they are put there just for practical purposes.
Here I agree with Gertrude Stein and I never use them in poetry.
...commas are servile and they have no life of their own, and their use is not a use, it is a way of replacing one’s own interest and I do decidedly like to like my own interest my own interest in what I am doing. A comma by helping you along holding your coat for you and putting on your shoes keeps you from living your life as actively as you should lead it...
Wow! I don't think I have ever read anything so condemning of commas as Stein's remark. When I scanned my sample of 30 poems, I discovered 64 commas in 10 poems. For instance in the third verse of Fighting for Peace I wrote
1 Even between friends,
2 when disagreement escalates to argument,
3 what happens to kindness, patience, understanding?
4 Out, out, damn spot!
5 A friend lost, possibly forever.
which has traditional punctuation. Each line has some form of end of line punctuation: two commas (lines 1 and 2), one question mark (line 3, one exclamation mark (line 4), and a period (line 5). I wrote the poem almost two years ago at a time when I was still uncertain about how I wanted to punctuate. Were I to write the same stanza today, I would write it like this
1 Even between friends
2 when disagreement escalates to argument
3 what happens
4 to kindness
5 to patience
6 to understanding
7 Out out damn spot
8 A friend lost
9 possibly forever
Allow me to explain. I removed all punctuation. In the new version, each (quasi) sentence begins with a capital (lines 1, 7, and 8) indicating a new thought (sentence.) Continuations of a sentence on a new line to not start with a capital. Lines 4, 5, and 6 are a list, as you can see by comparing with line 3 in the first version. I do not find an ending question mark in line 6 necessary, as it clearly is a question. Similarly, no exclamation mark is required at the end of line 6 (which is a paraphrase of Lady MacBeth's remark.) Line 9 is indented for extra emphasis.
In a future essay, I will discuss in more detail the interplay of typography with punctuation.
(1) search gertrude stein lectures in america livejournal
(2) search gertrude stein lectures in america smithsonianmag
(3) E. E. Cummings Complete Poems 1904 - 1962; ed. George J. Firmage; p1013