Saturday, 31 December 2011

Why Not Capitalise?

Poetry is ART. Poets have every right to do whatever we like with the poems you write. Adhere to the rules of grammar or discard them; it's our choice. What makes a great poem is the inspiration that goes into it, the originality of imagery and the beauty of the language used. Punctuation is really the icing on the cake.

But it's better to have beautifully presented icing if you can.

In Never Mind the Full Stops I looked at what happens at the end of a sentence. Here I want to consider the full stop's natural partner – the capital letter.

When I give critiques of poems I'm often asked about capital letters. Should there be one at the start of each new line of verse, or not?

The convention of capitalising each line of poetry is one that goes back hundreds of years. In the 18th and 19th centuries, when formal poetry ruled, it was pretty much obligatory. The contemporary convention is exactly the opposite. Even Carol Ann Duffy's Rapture, which contains traditional Shakespearian sonnets as well as free verse, avoids capital letters everywhere except straight after a full stop.

The change is a surprisingly recent one. Most 20th-century poetry appears to follow the 19th-century convention. You even find capitalisation in some of the most ground-breaking pieces of free verse, like T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land!

It was only as experimental verse took hold, under the influence of the Beat poets, that the capitals seemed to disappear. Penguin Modern Poets 10: The Mersey Sound, which showcased the ground-breaking 1960s verse of Adrian Henri, Brian Patten, and Roger McGough, illustrates the convention in transition. A lot of the more regular-looking poems in the anthology follow the conventional pattern, with a capital letter for each new line of verse. The more irregular or experimental poems abandon the convention.

Even after the 1960s, plenty of poets continued to capitalise. John Betjeman is a good example. But Betjeman's poems rely very heavily on rhyme and regularity of rhythm. Poets who gravitated towards more experimental free verse dropped the convention.

Clearly there is no right or wrong answer to the question of whether each line of poetry needs to start with a capital letter. It's a matter of the poet's preference. But as with everything in poetry, it's important that poets don't do things purely out of habit.

A capital letter does a special job. Its function is to suggest a new sentence or a new idea beginning, or to draw attention to a name or title. We give capital letters an unconscious emphasis.

In metrical verse forms it's normal for there to be a tiny pause at the end of a line (even when the line is enjambed). The first word of the line that follows has a special weight. In these circumstances it isn't surprising to find a capital letter at the start of the line. It's doing the job it was designed to do.

In free verse, line breaks often have a very different role. Enjambement is much more frequent. Here, I would argue that it is a distraction to place a capital letter at the start of the line. It implies a breaking up of the sentence into discrete phrases when this might be contrary to the sense of the sentence. It also gives undue prominence to the first word of the line. In free verse the emphasis is nearly always on the last word of the previous line instead.

My advice is that it's best not to capitalise the first letters of lines in free verse poems. When I write rhyming verse, I generally dispense with capitals too, but that's just me. Whether or not you do is your choice. But choose thoughtfully.

If in doubt, look at a copy of the poetry journal where you'd most like to see your poem in print. See what the editor prefers. It's a pretty mercenary reason for a stylistic decision. But getting published is hard enough at the best of times. Don't make it harder for yourself by ignoring what the editor likes!

(A version of this article was first published in the December 2011 issue of NAWG LINK)