Dashing through poetry

So in continuing with celebrating National Poetry Month I wanted to take the chance to discuss one of my favorite devices in poetry. The dash. Emily Dickinson is one of the poets who is most remembered for use of dashes though they are making a return in more contemporary poetry.

So what does a dash do? Technically speaking the dash serves to indicate an aburpt stop or introduce an after thought. So why use a dash and not say, a period, or a comma? Well, that’s where answers start to get a little trickier. The general rule of thumb is that you use a dash “when a period is too strong and a comma is too weak.” That’s not vague at all, right?

dududududududu

So how do you use a dash in poetry? The answer is still in twilight zone vague terms: carefully. Alright, let’s have a quick look at one of my favorite Dickinson poems.

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there ‘s a pair of us — don’t tell!
They ‘d banish us, you know.

So, here we see the dash on the third line seperating ‘don’t tell!’ The dash creates a moment of silence within the poem. It’s stronger than a comma would be, but not quite the full stop of a period. Instead it creates this moment of silence and then this burst of sound. It puts energy into the phrase and makes this request to not tell even more powerful.

The dash is not a simple to use tool and a lot of knowing when to use it falls a lot to intuition and instincts. The best thing to remember is that the dash sets off what follows it and puts more emphasis on it. Don’t use it just because it ‘seems cool’ it needs to serve a mechanical purpose to the poem. Read it aloud and really pay attention to the way you natural pause at that line. Is it a comma, a period or something else?

What are your experiences with using dashes in poetry and fiction?

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4 Comments »

  1. Laura Said:

    I am a fan of dashes in prose, in poetry, and sometimes—if I’m feeling very daring—in analytical papers. 🙂

  2. randallweiss Said:

    Kudos to Laura for–boldly–using dashes in her comment.

    I often use too many dashes in my first drafts then try to cut out the useless ones in my editing. And you’re right–vagueness abounds.

    • Vagueness seems to be a rule for poetry though. What works for one poem fails in another poem. There’s no concrete rules there.


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