Pause notation, or “the Music of Pauses”

Pauses in writing are personal. Or should be for the poet, at least.

Pauses in writing are personal. Or should be for the poet, at least.

In my opinion a poem should be read as it is written, and thus  — with all the many different lengths of pause, which punctuation and line breaks really are  — written as it should be read and spoken. I call it “pause notation”.

See it as indication of rhythm  —  a control of breathing and presence, which adds up to the poem’s own breathing. Pause notation is an indication of rhythm without indication of speed — as with music, the speed can be increased or lowered by the presenter or reader if only the relationship between the different pauses are observed: The duration of a comma pause maintains a fixed relationship to the duration of a full stop, etc.

A poem, which thus has built-in pause notation, enables contact between the breathing body of the poet and that of the reader, which no mental aesthetic understanding of literary historical context can bring about. As such, a notation of pauses can enable a connection to the NOW, in which the poet completes the poem, and to the person, whom the poet IS at that moment.


PAUSE: A tense stay. Greek paûsis ‘to let something cease, hold something back’.



[Punctuation pauses & grammatical pauses, from shortest to longest]

  • nopauses
  • _ space_btw_words
  • hyphen (connects two or more words to “compound words”; each word is thus its separate information)
  • () brackets (create space for information that really should be given in advance; an “excuse me while I mention this too”-pause; may also indicate whisper or thought, eg. in use with italics)
  • , comma (separating main and subordinate clauses, life hasn’t stopped yet, things are still happening, now it ends.)
  • or dash (separates two sentences and creates a space for reflection of longer duration than brackets)
  • ; semicolon (creates a expounding tension effect without ending)
  • : Colon (concludes and demonstrates, something stops; yet continues)
  • (“Just give this an extra thought, will ya?” or “please read my mind” or “what follows should be obvious!)
  • . Full stop or period (exits and makes room for new). Intonation of leading word normally goes slightly down here. But if nothing follows, eg. end of chapter or poem, or FULL work, the period lingers with a strong tension. A full stop is creational POWER over dying and rebirth.
  • !? Exclamation point / Question mark (creates focus and space for thought)
  • [punctuation on its own line] (underlines both the character in regards to what came before and the function of the pause in regards to what comes next. Like shouting a pause from a rooftop).

You often see poems, where line-beginnings are all in Capitals, even if the preceding line ending is neither full stop nor colon. This is an old way of indicating “new line”, and writing poetry like this has probably been programmed in via high school or the like – but Microsoft as the text editor of choice for many has a default setting: “Start every new line with Capital letter”, which has perpetuated the old habit among those using Office to write poetry, who never knew that it was not necessary. Reading such a poem should ignore the pause length of the Capital letter and only “sound” it following a full stop or colon.

[New line] Tabular Rasa, clearing the deck, making room for new. “Empty” pauses from shortest to longest  — fit them in by personal sense of duration in relations to the (length of) pauses indicated above.

  • new line + tabulation connected to the previous line = shorter than a clean line break
  • tabulation in the previous line + new line + Tab = the same length of pause as above
  • tabulation in the first line of section
  • line break in between words
  • line breaks, single
  • line break after letter w/o punctuation. (Punctuation used at line-end is of longer duration than used in the middle of a line in the poem, because the sign is followed by a line break, of which the most conspicuous are endings and beginnings).
  • new line + hyphen at line breaks
  • line breaks beginning w Capital letter
  • line breaks, double
  • triple- or more line breaks
  • page break (!)


In addition to the length of pauses there is the indication of tension during recital, which is not pitch or emphasis, but the “tension of the pause”. A pause is not just a vacuum, a nothingness, idle waiting. It is a bridge, a connection, between what happened and what is coming.

Maintaining inter-related tension in the whole of the poem  —  giving respective pauses the same duration and tension throughout the text  —  is what is the breath of the poem and thus the breath of the poet at the moment of completion.

Endings and beginnings

  • Leading capital letter after full stop = sounds like “a new beginning”, which is a particular tensional space, a particular pause.
  • lowercase after sentence = is without “initial sound”, which causes lesser tension in the pause.
  • Period means “vocal stop NOW.” If you do not stop at period, but drag out the sound of the preceding word, this should be the same for all periods.
  • No period at line end (in a poem, for example, followed by capital letter on the new line) means “no vocal stop”  —  the voice goes neither up nor down, as if something more would follow (but next line begins with the sound of the Capital letter

Modern indicators

  • Italics and bold are different tension indicators based on the content of the text. They are not stop-overs, nor indicators of specific vocal emphasis.
  • WORDS IN CAPS are often seen in word processing environments, where you cannot indicate italic or bold. If the reader knows that they express inability to “style” the text, for example if the text originates on an old typewriter, they should be considered equal to italic and bold.
  • SENTENCES IN ALL CAPS. In digital (email) communication, in which you can specify emphasis in italic and bold, words and whole sentences in CAPS should probably be perceived as “shouting in writing”. If a poem is clearly varied in the use of words in caps and lowercase, one could consider sentences in UPPERCASE as an expression of less retension  —  which is not the same as speaking louder or shouting; however, if consistent, then consider CAPS as a special font, which does not urge one to speak louder  —  but do note if the the leading letter of such a font is larger than the rest of the text; if so, the use of CAPS could indicate a different and internally coherent meaning and interpretation of such words and sentences. (se also next section on lowercase)
  • singular use of lowercase in a poem is harder to interpret. If there are no capital letters leading ANY new sentence, the text must be considered an “evened out tone”. It can as a whole be considered to be more tense or condensed, with a larger degree of introversion than normal text (which is not the same as whispering the text).

kenneth krabat, 2000

2016 Update: Text messaging (SMS in EU) is changing the concept of punctuation as pauses. In a survey (published in Daily Mail) full stops used in digital text messages among young people were regarded as less sincere and warm than ‘open end’. On paper there was no discernible difference in regards to warmth, spontaneity and sincerity.

How will such perception influence the use of punctuation, indentations etc. as pausation and emphasis in both reading and writing what would then be termed “a controlled text” – as opposed to the ‘openness, warmth and enthusiasm’ of an unpunctuated text (which by no means is UNcontrolled)?

Daily Mail 2015 “Want your texts to appear sincere? DON’T use punctuation: Researchers say full stops make messages appear less trustworthy”

New York Times 2015 “When Your Punctuation Says It All (!)”

Author: krabat

digter, forlægger, oversætter, admin på kunstnerhotellet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Note: Commenter is allowed to use '@User+blank' to automatically notify your reply to other commenter. e.g, if ABC is one of commenter of this post, then write '@ABC '(exclude ') will automatically send your comment to ABC. Using '@all ' to notify all previous commenters. Be sure that the value of User should exactly match with commenter's name (case sensitive).

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.