Side View of a Hand Writing With a Pen

PUNCTUATION IN POETRY by Jack Cooper

wired-cropedEmily Dickinson’s use of the dash was unique to the poetry of her time and became a mark of distinction, so to speak. It was as if she avoided ending certain key lines with standard periods and ellipses in order to give typographical recognition to a pause for thought. W.S. Merwin once said that he abandoned punctuation entirely after realizing it “seemed to staple the poem to the page.”* Edward Estlin Cummings famously signed his name without capital letters and used punctuation, syntax and symbols in novel ways specific to each poem, making tiny diacritical and punctuation elements almost as important as the words themselves.  Thus, parentheses were left unclosed or printed backwards, the pronoun “I” almost always appeared in lower case, and colons and quotation marks were given new meaning. Early reviewers and publishers sometimes “corrected” his work, infuriating him. It’s not difficult to imagine what he would have done with today’s autocorrect.

For several years, I hung on to traditional punctuation in my poetry in an effort to achieve clarity. Eventually, I realized that clarity might be an important goal for the professional writer, by which I earned my living for over 30 years, but was often anathema to the best lyrical poetry, which can benefit from a certain degree of conscious ambiguity and enigma (not to be confused with muddled thinking). For me, the further I separated my poetry from my rational, expository writing, the more heart-centered, musical and transcendental my mind became. Except for prose poems (and blogs), I've largely discarded routine punctuation at this point, at the risk of occasional confusion. I’ve concluded that punctuation, and common grammatical conventions in poetry, can become a type of control, not unlike form, meter, rhyme scheme and line length. The more control, the less blood to my heart.

In “All of the Above: A Personality Test,” a James Hearst Poetry Prize finalist a few years ago, I added the novel element of the check box (□) to separate the lines and to mimic the questionnaire form. I felt that the absurdity of making certain choices was crucial to the poem, and the check box emphasized the point for me. Here are a few stanzas:

You usually prefer

Old things

Chopin

Children in fairy tales

It makes you happy to know that

Whales are sometimes born with legs

Men can lactate

There are two million flowers in a jar of honey

You have difficulty with

Blood on faces

Finding meaning for others

The notion that sponges are inferior

In the following poem, recently published in Trajectory, line and stanza breaks make punctuation redundant, while capital letters serve as a clue that a new sentence has begun.

 

KINDER

I could have been kinder

like a tree is kind

like a rainbow

like a spoon

Kind is not the same as nice

Nice is how you act

Kind is how you help

I could have been kinder

to Melissa

who only wanted

to be looked forward to

I could have been kinder

to Steve

who didn’t understand

that friendship

isn’t asked for

love isn’t earned

I could have been kinder

the way time can be kind

to strangers

to youth

to the wounded

I concede that most poets will feel the need for an occasional question mark or comma, for example, or Emily Dickinson’s em dashes, to avoid misunderstanding or to underscore intent.  But in the end, the use of punctuation is mostly a visual one, since typographical marks are usually unpronounced elements of the poem that only appear in written form; it matters little to the oral tradition, which for me is always the final test. In my case, the absence of punctuation has the additional advantage of liberating my mind during the writing process, unstapling it from my past, so to speak.

*American Poetry Observed, Joe David Bellany, ed., Illini Books, 1988

Jack Cooper

Jack Cooper: Jack Cooper's first poetry collection, Across My Silence, was published by World Audience, Inc., 2007. His work has been nominated three times for a Pushcart Prize, and chosen as a finalist in North American Review's 2012 James Hearst Poetry Prize and in the 2014 Eco Arts Award in Creative Excellence, and winner, Annual Flash Contest, Flash Fiction Chronicles, April 2015.  His poetry and/or flash and mini-plays have also appeared in Slant, Bryant Literary Review, Santa Fe Literary Review, and many other publications. He is a contributing editor at KYSOflash.com Jack Cooper was last featured in Issue 297.2, Spring 2012 of the North American Review.


Illustrations by: Anthony Tremmaglia. Anthony Tremmaglia is an Ottawa-based illustrator, artist, and educator. His clients include WIRED, Scientific American, Smart Money, HOW, and San Francisco Weekly.