The Punctuation of Full Expression
As a poet, I’m intrigued by the tension between the clarity of standard grammar and the innovation that can emerge when grammatical conventions are elided or subverted. I spend an inordinate amount of time on social media defending the Oxford comma, yet when I put my own pen to poem, I treat each comma as a choice. When I read poems, grammatical mistakes irritate me, unless they don’t. Poetry’s punctuation follows what I’d like to call the principle of full expression.
In The Sounds of Poetry, Robert Pinsky opens, “There are no rules.” Ellen Bryant Voigt, in The Art of Syntax, goes further: “Conventions are tyrannical, and none more so than those regarding form.” No writing, however, is done without constraints. Voigt writes, “But the mirrors in the ballet studio have a purpose: neither a first-position plié nor skillful iambic pentameter occurs spontaneously in the human animal.” And Pinsky goes on to say, “However, principles can be discerned in actual practice: for example, in the way people actually speak, or in the lines poets have written.”
In her essay “On the Function of the Line,” Denise Levertov writes:
Regular punctuation is part of regular sentence structure, that is, of the expression of completed thoughts; and this expression is typical of prose, even though prose is not at all times bound by its logic. But in poems one has the opportunity not only, as in expressive prose, to depart from the syntactic norm, but to make manifest, by an intrinsic structural means, the interplay or counterpoint of process and completion — in other words, to present the dynamics of perception along with its arrival at full expression.
Levertov punctuates the two sentence of this excerpt deftly, using commas and an m-dash to weave distinct points and build toward full expression as if bringing thoughts into being. Punctuation suggests what a sentence says and also reveals how a sentence says what it says.
With this in mind, consider the opening lines of Levertov’s “The Ache of Marriage”:
The ache of marriage:
thigh and tongue, beloved,
are heavy with it,
it throbs in the teeth
We look for communion
and are turned away, beloved,
each and each
The colon introduces an explanation so that it’s possible to read what follows as a definition of marriage’s ache. Colons can also be used to connect two complete sentences, when the second elucidates the first. Indeed, the second stanza contains two complete and elucidating sentence joined with a comma or, rather, a run-on sentence.
In this second stanza, thigh and tongue are heavy with ache, suggesting that the effort of marriage is borne especially by these body parts. This ache throbs in the teeth, too. And what of “beloved” set off by commas? Is “beloved” a noun and therefore a direct address? Or is “beloved” an adjective that describes thigh and tongue? In the next stanza, are the “we” who are turned away beloved, or is the beloved being addressed? Levertov’s use of punctuation allows the poem to hold both meanings on the page at once. The commas holding the word “beloved” create meaningful confusion, fuller expression.
In addition to the lack of grammatically correct punctuation between complete sentences in the second stanza, its terminal period is missing. No period appears until the poem’s end, as if stanza and line breaks substitute for periods. Indeed, Levertov claims, “The line-break is a form of punctuation additional to the punctuation that forms part of the logic of completed thoughts.” Ditching conventions of punctuation can force a limited range for line breaks, but that’s not happening here. Absent punctuation may distract but doesn’t lead to misreading because sentences have initial capital letters. Longenbach writes, “In prose poetry, the persistence of punctuation is an acknowledgment of the power of line. And in unpunctuated poetry, line is an acknowledgment of the power of punctuation, which is to say syntax.” The absence of is also a reference to.
Let’s consider a more contemporary poem that doesn’t use the line break as punctuation. Victoria Chang’s Obit poems begin with a point of departure — “The Blue Dress” for this discussion — followed by “died on” with a date. Here’s an excerpt from the first half of this twenty-line poem:
Now small pieces of dust. I wonder
whether they they burned the dress or just
the body? I wonder who lifted her up
into the fire? I wonder if her hair
brushed his cheek before it grew into a
bonfire? I wonder what sound the body
made as it burned? […]
“I wonder” is the repeated main clause; the speaker wonders four times. The phrase is anaphora of sentence but not line. The main clause in each case is followed by an indirect question. The word “whether” in the first sentence signals the indirect question. An indirect question should not get a question mark, but this one does.
The next “I wonder” sentence could use a comma after the main clause to recast that question as direct. But the earlier “whether” sentence taught us to read the “I wonder” questions as indirect. Again, though, question marks as if they’re direct questions. The word direct comes from Latin meaning to keep things lined up where they belong. The distinction between direct and indirect questions has blurred, a manifestation of grief and its disorderliness. The questions cannot be answered.
Let’s turn to an excerpt from Layli Long Soldier’s book Whereas (available at the Poetry Foundation). The excerpt is a series of statements that begin with the word “whereas,” a legalese that precedes and provides rationale for decisions or policies in formal documents. Each section ends with a semicolon; there’s always another “whereas” coming, as if the structure is waiting to be filled. This repetition is another kind of anaphora. Here’s what Long Soldier told Kaveh Akbar in an interview at Divedapper:
Sometimes form comes first. Sometimes a shape comes first. There is no content; the content is yet to come. I’ll wake up and I’ll see a shape or I’ll feel a shape. I feel pulled toward a kind of form. I’ll think, “Oh, this is something that I’d like to make on the page.” I’ll sit and work on it, and there’s no language yet.
In this poem, the borrowed structure of whereas statements and semicolons — a shape and also a language — reveals the content. We know what’s coming, and yet we don’t.
In one section, italics signal “there” as a foreign term as opposed to “here.” Then, the two words appear in the same sentence, both in italics.: “And by there I mean here all around us I remind them.” I would punctuation that sentence with commas or line breaks, visually separating units of syntax to make clear that the opening clause (“I mean”) is indirect — the main clause is “I remind them.” However, commas would elide lived experience. Reminding someone is dependent on a priori experience or knowledge.
The last section of the excerpt examines the term “whereas” itself, beginning with definitions and then personification of Whereas. The word serves more than one syntactical function. Because “whereas” means “it being the case,” what is thought to be the case is challenged by what is actually the case — by full expression of lived experience.
Though I’ve focused on the page, these observations are supported by reading aloud, at least in the cases of Chang and Long Soldier. Longenbach claims, “Reading a poem out loud helps us to hear that relationship, but poetry does not literally need to be be spoken in order to exist primarily as a sonic work of art.” Levertov compares a poem’s line breaks to a musical score, but punctuation isn’t stage direction. Punctuation builds the complexity of full expression. Pinsky, too, echoes Levertov’s idea of “full expression” when he says (about a poem by Ben Johnson), “the unit of syntax (that is, grammatical phrases) coincides with the unit of rhythm (that is, the lines) or does not coincide” and goes further to explain that syntax or the grammatical structures work with other decisions by the poet to “create an expressive, flamboyant whole.”
One of my favorite class sessions is when I pick a few grammar issues to discuss from the Chicago Manual of Style. As I wrote in Pedagogy years ago, grammatical choices have consequences, but many students haven’t thought about punctuation as a choice. In an epistolary essay in The Normal School, Chang writes, “Dearest Linda, you were the first teacher to uncover my grammatical mistakes. Until then, I had no idea. How slanted my words may have seemed to you. Each misplaced modifier, a hot poker in your eye.” This excerpt has layers of meaning, but my knee-jerk professorial response is, Oh, how many grammatical pokers to the eye for those of us who teach poetry! Yet, even grammatical irritants are opportunities for deeper understanding of full poetic expression.
The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide by Robert Pinsky (MacMillan, 1999)
The Art of Syntax by Ellen Bryant Voigt (Graywolf, 2009)
The Art of the Poetic Line by James Longenbach (Graywolf, 2007)
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