What’s the Most Important Punctuation?

by Dawn Potter

It’s so easy to overlook punctuation. Our eyes are trained to glide past it, automatically registering the marks as pauses or sentence endings but not otherwise lingering over them. As Baron Wormser and David Cappella note in Teaching the Art of Poetry, “punctuation makes necessary distinctions so that things don’t blur and tangle and confuse.” This is why its absence obscurely distresses us. “Punctuation seems ironclad. There had better be a period at the end of each sentence. It’s the law—and poets flout it.” Well, some poets flout it. In an interview for The Paris Review, Philip Larkin grumbled:

A well-known publisher asked me how one punctuated poetry, and looked flabbergasted when I said, The same as prose. By which I mean that I write, or wrote, as everyone did till the mad lads started, using words and syntax in the normal way to describe recognizable experiences as memorably as possible. That doesn’t seem to me a tradition. The other stuff, the mad stuff, is more an aberration.

And it’s true that some poems seem to taunt us with willful misuse. In “th wundrfulness uv th mountees our secret police,” bill bissett not only ignores punctuation and capitalization but misspells words, creating a narrative that is also a sort of manipulative graffiti:

they opn our mail petulantly
they burn down barns they cant
bug they listn to our politikul
ledrs phone conversashuns what
cud b less inspiring to ovrheer

Sonia Sanchez takes a different tack in her “Song No. 3 (for 2nd and 3rd grade sisters).” Though she, too, ignores capitalization, she does make use of traditional punctuation. Nonetheless, she doesn’t end every sentence with a period, only the last line of the stanza. Her choice affects how we imagine the speaker’s voice and supports our absorption of the poem’s blunt, childish, yet very clear pain.

cain’t nobody tell me any different
i’m ugly and you know it too
you just smiling to make me feel better
but i see how you stare when nobody’s watching you.

Even as many poets experiment with deleting punctuation, others put traditional marks to new uses. For instance, rather than linking images with grammar, Melissa Stein’s “So deeply that it is not heard at all, but” links them with punctuation:

sister: the violin is blue. it plays stars, there was a field—
sister: that swelling in your belly will be a milkweed, a duty, a friend—
sister: goldenrod blossom: stippled ancillary: nonplussed bird—

Russell Edson, on the other hand, gives us long grammatically complex sentences filled with traditional punctuation that, instead of clarifying the situation, contribute to the poem’s ambiguity, as in this dense line from “Out of Whack”:

Too late, too late, because I am wearing the king’s crown: and, in that we are married, and, in that the wearer of the king’s crown is automatically the king, you are now my queen, who broke her crown like a typically silly woman, who doesn’t quite realize the value of things, screamed the queen.

But even when a poet follows less raucous patterns of punctuation, she chooses each comma, each period, each dash, precisely and deliberately. Punctuation marks, as Wormser and Cappella have said, add clarity; but they also are important elements of sound, affecting a line’s cadence and tonality. The silence implied by a dash is longer than the silence implied by a comma. A question mark indicates a lift in tonal pitch, whereas a period indicates a drop. Even a hyphen or its absence has a subtle influence: the pacing of fire truck is different from fire-truck is different from firetruck.

Punctuation marks can also be stylistic tics, as the dash was for Emily Dickinson. They can even be stylistic anathemas. Richard Hugo, for instance, hated semicolons. In his essay “Nuts and Bolts,” he flatly declared, “No semicolons. Semicolons indicate relationships that only idiots need defined by punctuation. Besides, they are ugly.” Derek Walcott, among many other poets, would disagree passionately with that pronouncement. He uses semicolons throughout his book-length poem The Prodigal, often inserting them at line endings to indicate a pause of recognition or comprehension:

Then through the thinned trees I saw a wraith
of smoke, which I believed came from the house,
but every smoker carries his own wreath;
then I saw that this moving wreath was yours.

In short, punctuation is both a flexible tool for experimentation and a formal structural element with rules and predictable patterns. Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose sonnet “The Soldier” will be the centerpiece of this chapter under construction, was well aware of this duality, and he took advantage of both tradition and strangeness in the way in which he handled punctuation in his poems.

[Draft excerpt from my forthcoming book The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014).]


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