Thursday, 13 January 2011

Poetry Punctuation

In Feb 2010's "The HappenStance Story Ch 4" Helena Nelson wrote "Anne Stevenson ... told me that semi-colons and colons were prose punctuation, not poetry". She then asked for consistency, and asked "when can a line or stanza break serve instead of a comma?" Here I attempt some answers.

Punctuation has several uses - grammatical-logical, rhythmical-oratorical, to report speech, or for visual effect. According to Franke Verlag "there was a movement away from rhythmical-oratorical punctuation to grammatical-logical usage between about 1580 and 1680 ... It was only in the decade of the 1840's that the grammatical-logical theories finally triumphed." There was also around that time (and not by coincidence) a shift from oral to written poetry, which accommodated more complex sentence structures.

In poetry new ideas don't wipe out the old, they co-exist. Nowadays Punctuation can be oratorical or grammatical, sentences can be short or long. The amount of punctuation in the text can reveal "how writers view the balance between spoken and written language". In addition, page-based poetry compensated for the lack of a performer by exploiting layouts, so the appearance of the poem can be significant or irrelevant. Multiple styles of usage in a single poem can look like inconsistency.

Let's look at a few examples. Here's Stanza 2 of "anyone lived in a pretty how town" by ee cummings.

  Women and men(both little and small)
  cared for anyone not at all
  they sowed their isn't they reaped their same
  sun moon stars rain

Lack of punctuation may create ambiguities and encourage the passive reader to become active, but this piece creates few problems - the structures are simple and most of the missing punctuation is at line-endings. Short punchy paratactic phrases can survive a lack of punctuation as can a list of single words. Here, in contrast, is part of "Requiem for the Plantagenet Kings" by Geoffrey Hill

  Relieved of soul, the dropping-back of dust,
  Their usage, pride, admitted within doors;
  At home, under caved chantries, set in trust,
  With well-dressed alabaster and proved spurs

The grammatical-logical punctuation here is needed to reduce the readers' confusion when parsing the long constructions.

It's a shame in a way that we have so few punctuation characters. Back in 1941 Frost wrote that "Poets have lamented the lack in poetry of any such notation as music has for suggesting sound." Some attempts have been made

  • Hopkins used stress-accents
  • Dickinson's dashes may have lengths that correspond to the intended length of pauses
  • Olson used fixed-width fonts - "It is the advantage of the typewriter that, due to its rigidity and its space precisions, it can, for a poet, indicate exactly the breath, the pauses, the suspensions even of syllables, the juxtapositions even of parts of phrases, which he intends. For the first time the poet has the stave and the bar a musician has had."
  • Cummings - In The Deviated Use of Punctuation Marks in Poetry: A Stylistic Study Saleema Abdul-Zahra points out that ee cummings exploited parentheses in particular. Following Tratakovsby, Abdul-Zahra classifies the usages, amongst them Iconicity (their shape), Protection and intimacy, Plural layers and Framed poem, Hetero-glossia and Interpolation, Subverting Formal Expectations, Temporality, simultaneity, Tmesis (suspending narrative even in the middle of a word) and exposing a word within a word.

More advanced notations exist, used by linguists transcribing soundtracks, and by poetry theorists. Apart from these, line-breaks are the only non-prose way to indicate stress and pauses (which in the past was indicated with the aid of meter and missing beats). Colors, font-changes and animation could be used, but experimental poets often shy away from such methods. Consequently line-breaks have become rather over-burdened with significance.

If poets want their printed poems to be like a musical score rather than a visual feast they might sprinkle punctuation, italics and bold face around and use line-breaks like an auto-cue script does. At the other extreme, there are poets for whom the page is the master version of the poem and for whom grammatical correctness is paramount. Then there are those - perhaps the majority - who are in between, who sometimes use a line-break to denote a pause, and sometimes use a comma (depending perhaps on the visual effect). As usual, the issue ends up being a flexible negotiation between reader and writer, between expectations and intentions.

I think punctuation will tend to be used by those who

  • optimize the use of paper (on expensive parchment line-breaks were sometimes replaced by a mark)
  • wish to minimize reader processing time and misreadings
  • follow the principle that deviations from the norm are conspicuous, adopting prose punctuation on the assumption that this will be unobtrusive whereas missed punctuation would be distracting.

Punctuation-free poetry isn't uncommon. "Physical" by Andrew McMillan (Cape Poetry, 2015) has no punctuation. Tom Paulin's later work uses no punctuation except dashes. I think line-breaks will be preferred by those who

  • follow the aesthetics of Puritan economy of ink
  • don't want to use a fussy range of punctuation symbols when line-breaks can replace them all, albeit at the possible cost of readability
  • use line-breaks because they think that the more poetic their work looks, the more poetic it is
  • want to destablize language
  • write shape poems or other poems where the position of words on the page matters significantly

The reader response will depend on

  • what type of punctuation the reader will assume is "normal" in the context (why shouldn't poetry have its own norms?)
  • the complexity of the sentence structure
  • the assistance that the line-breaks offer
  • the willingness to accept ambiguities and back-track after mis-parsings

I prefer using grammatical-logical punctuation on the grounds that it's conventional hence invisible. It gives me the freedom to use sophisticated sentence structures and I don't want to make the reader's life any harder than necessary. I give the poem's visual appearance a low priority. But in some short-lined, end-stopped poetry I ditch punctuation entirely.

See Also

  • Notation in Poetry and Music.
  • Debra San's "Literary Punctuation: A Test" in Literary Imagination 8.2 (2006) spends a page on the difference between
     I formed them free, and free they must remain
    Till they enthrall themselves


     I formed them free, and free they must remain,
    Till they enthrall themselves

    from Paradise Lost, then tackles Pound, Shelley, Whitman and Dickinson with similar thoroughness.

  • "Poets' Punctuation": a talk by Charles Lock | Boston | 2015

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