The Importance of Pauses in Poems
One of the most powerful tools in any reader’s arsenal is the pause. Where do pauses occur in a poem? Wherever you see a powerful moment. Such moments include
Any punctuated pause, including dashes, commas, semicolons, or periods. Poets use punctuation as carefully and meaningfully as they use any other part of language; it’s always powerful.
Any surprise. If you find yourself surprised by a word, phrase, or image when you read, dwell on it just a little bit, long enough to let that word, phrase, or image register in the mind of your audience (real or imagined).
The end of one stanza (or group of lines) and the beginning of another.
The ends of lines.
Pauses create drama, emphasize feelings, and add meaning. See for yourself! First, silently read these four sad lines (by the Greek poet Sappho):
The moon has set
and the Pleiades. Middle of the
night! Time passes,
and I lie here alone.
The speaker is lying alone at night. The speaker can feel time pass, and she isn’t thrilled, apparently, at being up this late.
Now read the lines aloud. Pause a little at the end of each line. Notice how each pause carries a little information, a little jolt of feeling with it.
The moon has set
and the Pleiades.
The Pleiades are a cluster of stars. So maybe the word Pleiades is just a time-reference: The moon goes down, and then this cluster of stars follows. That could take quite a while — it gives you the feeling that a good amount of time has passed.
Now you come to another pause:
Middle of the [pause]
You can almost hear the speaker groan. Pausing helps emphasize how weary and restless the speaker is. You may even begin to wonder why the speaker is staying awake. Is she waiting for someone? You may spot an answer in the last two lines:
Time passes, [pause]
And I lie here alone.
This insomniac speaker is alone. You get a feeling (without being told) that she wishes she weren’t alone. How do you know that? From her wakefulness, maybe, or her awareness of time passing and her solitude. The pauses underscore her despair.