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Why Capitalize the First Letter of Every Line in Poetry? (1 Viewer)

PiP

Staff member
Co-Owner
I understand that punctuation, capitalizing letters, white space, line and stanza breaks, short or long lines, etc can be used to regulate how poems flow, but what I don't understand is why in 2020 we are still capitalizing the first letter of EVERY line regardless of intent. I feel it is a distraction and interrupts the flow.

ETA I am not referring to poetry where each line is a complete thought and ends with a period/full stop

Example: https://www.writingforums.com/threads/190840-December-Cygnets-(3)

Thoughts please?
 
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I sometimes capitalize first letters; sometimes don't. It depends on what degree of separation between lines I want the reader to feel. For a more structured poem, I tend to like capitalized first words. Or, if I'm writing a poem to be read aloud, I also like capitalized first words, because it helps me scan the poem without getting lost. I used to hate how non-capitalized lines looked at all, but now I've gotten used to it, at least for free verse. Not capitalizing can help with enjambment, or if you want a poem to be read faster (capitalizing first words slows down the reading, to me, which can be a good or bad thing depending on what effect you want).

I don't understand how the current year is relevant to the discussion, though (???).
 

TL Murphy

Met3 Member
Staff member
Chief Mentor
I don't get it either. Many still do it just because it is the default setting on there Word program, or whatever they use and they can't be bothered to correct it each time. I've tried change the default on my i-pad but it doesn't work so I have to manually backspace each time and change the first letter to lower case. I think the habit is just a hold over from the olden days when people wrote everything by hand and the capital letter was a way to embellish the look of the page and distinguish it from prose.
 
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Darkkin

WF Veterans
Autocorrect and lackluster editing. If it isn't a complete thought (sentence) or a proper noun it should not be capitalised. When in doubt, leave it out. It is the most common, dated assumption about poetry many writers make. Classic poems we read in school amd elsewhere, all have the surfeit capital letters as a default setting established by the printing industry. Readers see it and assume that because it is present in a majority of classic, published works it is correct.
 

Darren White

co-owner and admin
Staff member
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It's one of the most annoying things to read for me. It makes incomplete thoughts that run over several lines almost incomprehensible. I wish poets would leave it out. You can set your Word settings to stop capitalizing every new line.
 
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Okay, I'll fight for it. Just to be clear, I'm not saying always capitalize first letters -- just when it works. Here are some good reasons:

1) When you want the poem to read more slowly
2) When you want to evoke a classic style
3) When you have some lines starting as sentences and some not, but want it to appear consistent (esp. for metered poetry)
4) The only time I can see it working well in free verse is when you want the poem to feel very fragmented

That being said, as others have mentioned, poems with heavy use of enjambment are probably not the best for this style. Some enjambment is ok in the capitalized style, I think, but not the level of enjambment common in most free verse. That's why I don't think it really works for free verse, usually. BUT I almost always do it in metered poetry. To me, at least, a poem of mine like "The War God" would look so weird with lowercased first letters.
 
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Phil Istine

WF Veterans
I have done it before, but that was when I didn't realise it was okay not to. I have occasionally done it since, but only when I was trying to give an old classical feel to the poem. As it's gradually dawned on me my that poetry doesn't merit the "old classical" tag and never will, I've dropped that way of writing.

Word tends to default to a capital letter after a forced line break, but that's only because it sees it as a new paragraph. You can tell it not to.
 
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Bloggsworth

WF Veterans
The joy of anachronism - Got to be seen to be doing things properly old chap. I'm all for thatched cottages with roses round the door, but they are not a pre-requisite of country living, so capitalise if you wish, but is no longer neccessary and, quite frankly, looks a bit odd in a modern, non-formally structured, poem.
 
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Pulse

Staff member
Senior Mentor
This is a debate between the poem and the poet. A reader's prejudices may not be relevant.
 
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Darren White

co-owner and admin
Staff member
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I don't agree Katrina. The reader in me (and I read a lot of poetry) skips poems with capitalization at the start of every line. It honestly annoys me so much that I choose not to read that kind of poetry anymore.
Of course, an exception made for older poetry :) I love Shakespeare's sonnets for example.
 
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Gumby

Staff member
Co-Owner
Okay, I'll fight for it. Just to be clear, I'm not saying always capitalize first letters -- just when it works. Here are some good reasons:

1) When you want the poem to read more slowly
2) When you want to evoke a classic style
3) When you have some lines starting as sentences and some not, but want it to appear consistent (esp. for metered poetry)
4) The only time I can see it working well in free verse is when you want the poem to feel very fragmented

That being said, as others have mentioned, poems with heavy use of enjambment are probably not the best for this style. Some enjambment is ok in the capitalized style, I think, but not the level of enjambment common in most free verse. That's why I don't think it really works for free verse, usually. BUT I almost always do it in metered poetry. To me, at least, a poem of mine like "The War God" would look so weird with lowercased first letters.


I think that you have stated a 'reason' for capitalization and that is fine with me. There should be a reason for doing it and not just a default way that is carried over from an earlier time. I find that I don't mind it in the older stuff because it is expected. In the newer work that I read I find myself asking why it is there and if there doesn't seem to be a reason, it is annoying. If there is a reason that is discernible, I'm good with it.
 

clark

Met3 Member
Staff member
Chief Mentor
Good grief! A dozen posts on this tired old saw! Must be a slowwwwww day at the office. Would anyone care to count the individual panels in a roll of toilet paper? But we're poets, dammit! . . .we can do anything we want. I think I'll start a post re-introducing "zounds!" and "forsooth!" as expletives . . . .
 

PiP

Staff member
Co-Owner
Okay, I'll fight for it. Just to be clear, I'm not saying always capitalize first letters -- just when it works. Here are some good reasons

1) When you want the poem to read more slowly

But aren't there other pacing devices when writing poetry to achieve that effect? Maybe it only applies to free verse but when I see a a capital letter at the beinning of a line I assume it's a new thought not a continuation of the previous line. So I stop. Reread the previous line to check I've understood the meaning correctly. It doesn't slow me as a reader it actually takes me out of the poem. I don't find this so much with more traditional, rhyming and metered forms because the brain has probably been conditioned to scan the poem in a different way


This is a debate between the poem and the poet. A reader's prejudices may not be relevant.

True. Do we write poetry to try and engage a reader or our own pleasure?
 

Pulse

Staff member
Senior Mentor
It would be futile to generalise. Some people write to explore, others to demonstrate skill; trends in presentation change.

I find it useful to read eclectically; so although I prefer poems to start lines with lower case letters, I read a variety of styles and would not dismiss a poem I have glanced at without reading.
 
I think I'll start a post re-introducing "zounds!" and "forsooth!" as expletives . . . .

And why not? If they work for the poem, they work for the poem. I occasionally use 'ne'er' in metered poetry even though it's a bit archaic, because sometimes you need it for proper syllable count.

But aren't there other pacing devices when writing poetry to achieve that effect? Maybe it only applies to free verse but when I see a a capital letter at the beinning of a line I assume it's a new thought not a continuation of the previous line. So I stop. Reread the previous line to check I've understood the meaning correctly. It doesn't slow me as a reader it actually takes me out of the poem. I don't find this so much with more traditional, rhyming and metered forms because the brain has probably been conditioned to scan the poem in a different way

It's really good for me to be aware of this kind of thing because it's different from how I read poetry. Capitalization doesn't take me out of a poem, usually. But since I write to be read, I'm willing to bend on this relatively minor point, unless the poem looks very wrong lowercased. I've slowly adopted lowercasing, at least in free verse, simply because it throws people off less.
 

PiP

Staff member
Co-Owner
It's really good for me to be aware of this kind of thing because it's different from how I read poetry. Capitalization doesn't take me out of a poem, usually. But since I write to be read, I'm willing to bend on this relatively minor point, unless the poem looks very wrong lowercased. I've slowly adopted lowercasing, at least in free verse, simply because it throws people off less.

Thoughts by Walt Whitman offers an interesting selection of punctuation

but then you have great poets like Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath who capitalize the first letter of every line. Then we have talented young poets such as Ocean Vuong
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/56769/aubade-with-burning-city
who has a completely different style

and The Water Replies by Luke Kennard


Maybe the poet crafts the words and formatting and the reader decides which style they prefer when its printed on a the page?

Ponderous

Good grief! A dozen posts on this tired old saw! . .

and Clark the teeth of your circular saw may be blunt and well worn but to those of us still exploring poetry we look at the discussion with fresh eyes and a new set of teeth :)

We learn through discussion and, while capitalization annoys me, I find it interesting to explore other POVs :)
 
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clark

Met3 Member
Staff member
Chief Mentor
Arrow-- Touche (how d'ya do an acute accent?), my young marksman/woman! Touche! Your more forgiving shaft hit my calcified gut with unerring accuracy:icon_cheesygrin:. Actually, I meant not so much the practice as the overtalking ABOUT the practice.
 

ritudimrinautiyal

Senior Member
I sometimes capitalize first letters; sometimes don't. It depends on what degree of separation between lines I want the reader to feel. For a more structured poem, I tend to like capitalized first words. Or, if I'm writing a poem to be read aloud, I also like capitalized first words, because it helps me scan the poem without getting lost. I used to hate how non-capitalized lines looked at all, but now I've gotten used to it, at least for free verse. Not capitalizing can help with enjambment, or if you want a poem to be read faster (capitalizing first words slows down the reading, to me, which can be a good or bad thing depending on what effect you want).

I don't understand how the current year is relevant to the discussion, though (???).
I too agree with you totally, actually I too capitalise the first alphabet of the line, for the same reason.

Thanks for writing it here.

Ritu
 
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