Shedding punctuation

I’m reading about Shakespeare’s sonnets and I’m rethinking the value of modern punctuation. Actually I’m beginning to doubt the very philosophy of it. Punctuation in Shakespeare’s day, especially when used by poets and playwrights, indicated pauses for out-loud reading without much regard to syntax. Modern punctuation however is “logically and semantically directive” (Booth ix). Notice I successfully deleted two commas around an adverb in the previous sentence. You didn’t need the direction did you? There went another one. You may want that one back. This is prose and I’m keeping all the periods.

Because poetry’s richness and density depends on the reader’s simultaneous perception of overlapping layers of meaning, overpunctuation (or maybe any punctuation) can deflect the modern reader’s attention into conventional paths dictated by the sentence structure, the expressive complexity of which is to the entire sense of a poem what choreographic notation is to ballet. More than that, the power of Shakespeare’s sonnets seems to come partly from his cleverness in tripping the syntax several times in a sentence, keeping the reader off balance. Read aloud, one of his sonnets tends to smash either Shakespeare’s or any contemporary or modern editor’s punctuation scheme and drag the reader outdoors naked and barefoot into a storm of alternatives. A good example is Sonnet 33, in which “Flatter” (line 2), “Anon” (line 5), and “Stealing” (line 8) “cancel a conceptual completeness temporarily achieved at the ends of lines [1,] 4 and 7” (Booth 186). All in one loose-jointed sentence.

I’m happy if one of my poems just invites a reader to step outside the fence and play. The fence is the punctuation, and for grownups it’s often unnecessary.

Consider these two editions of my haiku #18. What is lost by the deletion of the dash at the end of line 1, really, that the context doesn’t supply?

cold spring day—
fiddle-dee-dee, says the meadowlark
fiddle-dee-dee indeed


cold spring day
fiddle-dee-dee, says the meadowlark
fiddle-dee-dee indeed

To me the dash seems like an insult, as if the reader would envision a “cold spring day fiddle-dee-dee,” whatever that would be. If he did, wouldn’t “says the meadowlark” correct it immediately? And considering the entire meaning of the poem, what’s wrong with the initial impression? Myself, I don’t give a cold spring day fiddle-dee-dee for the long dash and I’m removing it.

You want to know what made me start thinking about this? Not Booth, he only confirmed it. Yesterday (or at fourteen minutes after midnight this morning, actually, with that awareness that only sleepiness can supply) I was flipping through my blog and making tiny edits here and there, and I momentarily changed this one, haiku #14:

pale sunlight
on the dry grass
a scattering of sparrows

…by adding this dash:

pale sunlight
on the dry grass—
a scattering of sparrows

I looked at it and before the clock ticked fifteen minutes after midnight I deleted it, and I knew I was right to delete it. The dash semantically restricted the reader to less than half of my real-life experience when I looked out the window that day: both the sunlight and the sparrows were on the dry grass. What’s more, the sunlight was on the sparrows, too, an image not denied and maybe even suggested by the entire poem. With the dash, the sparrows could have been in the trees, or in the sky with the sunlight, but in reality they scattered across the lawn for some reason.

Another part of the image the dash seemed to destroy for me was the sense of a “scattering” as a “sprinkling,” a certain uncounted number, more of an amount, the quantity of sparrows you’d shake out of a container or a handful of them you might fling out onto the grass. “On the dry grass a scattering of” something works that way, but “a scattering” alone only suggests movement to me.

Try it for yourself on haiku #16:

mockingbird sings
on the highest bare twig—
warm January wind


mockingbird sings
on the highest bare twig
warm January wind

What do you think?

Works Cited

Booth, Stephen. Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Edited with Analytic Commentary. New Haven: Yale U. Press, 1977.

© 2011 Greg Bryant under the Creative Commons

About Greg Bryant

I teach writing and literature at Highland Community College in northeast Kansas.
This entry was posted in essays, literary criticism. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Shedding punctuation

  1. bryon says:

    I’ve spent my sentient life putting commas in the logically and semantically correct places, whether for myself or for other people, so I’m not giving in to freedom of punctuation in prose. In poetry is another matter, and it may perhaps be required if the poet is to fully transmit his meaning. Poets are excused much.

    The matter of the em dash in haiku is an interesting one. That dash — its placement or its absence — fairly controls the haiku. Sometimes I want that break. I want to signal that now I’ve set the scene with an introduction and here comes the meat of the haiku. Or I want to announce a sudden turn in the road, so buckle up. Other times, I want the reader to flow from one line into the next, so I omit the dash.

    I prefer your sparrow haiku without the dash; it’s fluid and all the words read together and back into each other. I pretty much read the mockingbird haiku the same with or without the dash; there’s a natural pause for me at the end of the second line.

    • Greg Bryant says:

      I agree with you about the prose, but I’d add that some people, like me, sometimes overpunctuate. My mother, an English teacher too, sometimes told me to try removing the comma or commas and hear how the sentence read. In my case, it was a good lesson.

      I’m torn about semicolons. Vonnegut thought they had no excuse to live and once used a phrase to describe them which, to me, revealed a momentary break in his usual perfect control over the emotional tone of his writing:

      Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.
           —Kurt Vonnegut, A Man without a Country

      In one of his novels, I can’t remember which, the narrator remarked that he never used semicolons. This resonates with some of my own impressions and I’ve stopped using semicolons altogether except by accident. I don’t miss them any more than I do cigarettes, which is never. The jury is out on that, though, and I can see the other side.

      Otherwise, I’m not about to advocate dropping semantically directive prose punctuation. It’s part of modern English.

      I like emdashes too, because they do express some things well for me. One is the sudden shift of thought—or should I say abrupt? Another is the sudden shift of address —No, I said coffee. Thanks. —Where was I? Emdashes. They’re like ellipses but quicker, more breathless, less pensive.

      I suspect after I get finished reading this commentary on Shakespeare’s sonnets I’ll go back and put some of the dashes and ellipses back into some of the haiku I’ve just taken them out of. It’s just that I’m presently enchanted by Shakespeare’s ability to shatter the expected syntax of a long sentence by periodically introducing an unexpected word that cannot fit the expected structure, so the reader must re-read the sentence from the beginning, advancing a little farther on each pass, like brushing paint. Each misperception survives its own correction and colors the entire poem, especially as Shakespeare (apparently) deliberately retains elements of the “mistaken” imagery or syntax or diction throughout the rest of the poem to keep tickling it alive, to keep assuring the reader she wasn’t mistaken after all, and even sometimes wraps the poem up with a deceptively tidy couplet that seems to echo that lost sense as firmly as it does the newer ones, leaving the reader with the sense of having teetered across a creek on a very wobbly board and standing, at last, thank god, on pretty firm earth. He does all this with skillfully controlled ambiguity, and it worked exceptionally well in a language culture that used punctuation as theatrical, not semantic direction.

      But the key words are “skillfully controlled.” In a poetry writing course at KSU I heard one too many students say “I like the ambiguity in this poem.” It started to sound like “I like the flow,” and suggested to me that they didn’t know what to say because they didn’t understand the poem at all. This was often pardonable in that class. One day I tuned out of the discussion and started furiously formulating the conditions for ambiguity in poetry:

      1. The number of reasonably inferable meanings of a word or phrase must be limited.
      2. Each of the inferable meanings should be intended, or at least contemplated after discovery, by the author (with reasonable allowance for the contributions of the unconscious mind and of sheer luck).
      3. Each of the inferable meanings must contribute to the intended meaning of the poem and not against it.

      You can imagine how delighted the class was, next session, to receive my helpful instruction. And I admit it’s a little pedantic; (←!) I added the parenthetic qualification in the second item just now. Still, I think I’m right. Ambiguity under control is powerful. Ambiguity broke loose works in exactly the opposite direction of the purpose of any kind of writing, which is communication.

  2. bryon says:

    I don’t think I could write without the semicolon; I use it quite frequently. Although when I was in newspapers, I added one to tie a couple of sentences together and my boss asked me not to. The concern was that the reporter would delude himself into thinking he knew how to use semicolons correctly. I wonder what made Vonnegut wax so vehemently against them.

    I like your rules for ambiguity. I agree it has to be planned and controlled or it’s just sloppy.

    • Elizabeth says:

      How much planning? How much control?

      • Greg says:

        Good question. My answer would be, only enough to make it good. It’s not the deliberation that’s important, but the communication. Some people can write beautifully and powerfully without planning or deliberation, or at least not consciously. Once in a while I’ve found that kind of quality in something I penned. Normally, though, some revision can improve a work, and ambiguity seems to need artistic control so as not to be at odds with the message, unless the idea is to let the reader determine the message, in which case, the author needn’t be too heavy-handed and should trust the reader.

        This kind of discussion is better over an example. Any come to mind?

  3. Pingback: Pen to Paper: Writing by the Rules |

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s