How Poets Use Punctuation as a Superpower and a Secret Weapon

A poet I know, reluctant to define what poetry can or can’t be, once suggested (somewhat facetiously) that a bag of dirt could be a poem if the poet deemed it so — calling to mind Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, the urinal turned into art by contextual/conceptual gesture alone. This got me thinking about what my own bare-minimum criteria for poetry might be. A bag of dirt in a gallery might be an installation, but I wasn’t quite willing to concede it could also be a poem — a poem must at least, on some level, I thought, be verbal. But was that quite right? What about Aram Saroyan’s famous visual poems, in particular the lowercase m with an extra hump — not even a word or part of a word; an unletter. Maybe poetry only requires typography — but doesn’t it also require sound, the sense that at least in theory you could hear the poem? I do feel I can “read” that long m — it has a sonic quality — and the Saroyan poem “lighght.” An ampersand alone on a page would represent a pronounceable word. But what about a parenthesis, or a semicolon?

I’ve always loved when a poet makes a punctuation mark her own — take Emily Dickinson’s dashes, typically standardized as em-dashes in print, though in her handwritten originals, the marks were more ambiguous, some appearing more like sloppy periods or commas, some lines slanted like slashes or even vertical, suggesting an idiosyncratic diacritical system. Alice Fulton invented a punctuation mark, a double equal sign she called “the bride” (a name for the background threads that give structure to lace) or “the sign of immersion.” In a 2010 interview that I’ve returned to many times, Fulton relates these to Dickinson’s dashes (the bride is a “dash to the max”) and to A. R. Ammons’s colons, glyphs that are “both present and silent,” “reticent yet visible.” Perhaps the most insistent example of foregrounded punctuation is the quotation marks in Alice Notley’s “The Descent of Alette” (1990), which appear around every phrase and some single words, such that no word in the book is not encased in quotations. It begins:

“One day, I awoke” “& found myself on” “a subway, endlessly”

“I didn’t know” “how I’d arrived there or” “who I was” “exactly”

As such we perceive all the language as a series of discrete utterances, communicated haltingly, with difficulty, which has a mesmerizing effect, as if the poem were not the message itself but the medium, the channeling. In all of these instances, I do start to hear the punctuation, much more than I usually hear it. Punctuation often serves to force a pause, but the pause isn’t silence.

In several new books I read over the past year, poets use punctuation and extra-linguistic symbols, like asterisks and other section markers (such a marker may be called an asterism or fleuron or dinkus, depending on its styling), to conjure nonverbal meaning and nonverbal sound. THRESHOLES (Coffee House, 112 pp., paper, $16.95), by Lara Mimosa Montes, makes use of a novel glyph, known in book design as an ornament: a little outline of a circle that appears between fragments, some of which are verse, usually an isolated line or two; some of which are prose, an essayistic paragraph or a few in a row; and some of which are attributed quotes, as in a commonplace book. In some cases, Montes uses a single circle as a divider; in others, a series of three, like a vertical ellipsis. These ornaments function like punctuation at the level of the full text, rather than the phrase or the sentence.

The circles underline the book’s central question: Is absence a presence, is no place a place? (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes that holes are “an interesting case study for ontologists and epistemologists,” in that “we often appeal to holes to account for causal interactions,” and yet holes are not strictly speaking material objects.) “Nowhere is not a place,” Montes writes, in verse; “It is a modulation.” Later, in prose: “Sometimes living in two places at once (Minnesota and New York) caused me to feel as though I did not live anywhere because no one ever knew where I was.” And in verse again: “What if the nothing is not a place where one can live”; “What if there’s nothing? What if there’s not.” The circles, the titular “thresholes,” mark the thresholds between fragments (fragments which interrelate and accrue but by definition do not quite cohere), putting a sign that says “HOLE” on what was already a hole, thereby making the hole less empty. It’s like a page in a legal document that is printed with “This page intentionally left blank,” which is then no longer blank. In Montes’s work, these labels seem to say, don’t skip the white space — the gaps between language are part of the language.

If you read many poetry reviews, you may have noticed the convention of representing a line break with a forward slash, and a stanza break with two forward slashes. In his debut collection, THROWN IN THE THROAT (Milkweed, 80 pp., paper, $16), Benjamin Garcia employs a double slash midline, a way of creating a line within the line, short lines within long lines. Here, for example, in one of several poems called “The Language in Question,” the slashes are Garcia’s, not mine:

The language in question is criminal // like a shark it ate a license plate // and it

ate the shark // well the fins it poached anyway // it gorges like a gorge // the river

flowing like a scarf some magician just keeps pulling // it ate away the deposits

Denise Levertov, who regarded the line break as “a form of punctuation additional to the punctuation that forms part of the logic of completed thoughts,” once wrote that the “line-end pause” is “equal to half a comma.” But Garcia’s intra-line breaks feel more pronounced than commas; I hear them almost the way I hear Notley’s quotation marks, a mental glottal stop; a visual fake punch to make you flinch. This “sound” is important for both meaning and rhythm; take this line, from “Heroin With an E”: “when all of what had to have happened // happened.” This pause feels loud, loud and more sudden than the pause of an ellipsis, not a trailing off or a vague omission but a slam, decisive, like a palm on a table.

In another poem, “Conversations With My Father // A Poem in Closet Verse,” Garcia uses these same double slashes to set off couplets in dialogue, to shift between voices, the father’s on the left and the son’s on the right:

God wants us to know the joy

of being a father.


Maybe God doesn’t want me

to be a father.

Now the slashes enact generational separation — a little wall, a barrier to understanding. Poets use typography, arrangement and space on the page to make you hear the language the way they would say it. It’s a trick that never stops feeling like magic, the intimacy of nothing but black marks on white paper.

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