Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Whether To Punctuate Is The Question

I guess it is obvious I’m a bit of a rebel. I first started writing poetry in the 60’s and that was definitely a rebellious time. I now am writing poetry that has no punctuation in it at all. That seems pretty radical when it appears in print. Actually, however, it is a venerable tradition that goes way back in the history of poetry, so maybe I’m not as much of a rebel as I appear.

What I’ve found is that the poem often reads like we speak when recited out loud (I mean we don’t actually include the punctuation per se when we read out loud). You, of course realize that we use no punctuation when we speak and tone, inflection, context are relied upon to do all the work that punctuation has to do in the printed format of our language. I believe much poetry carries tone, inflection and context in it so I reasoned that it might possibly be relied upon for the entire task that printed punctuation does. Thus I started experimenting with this about ten years ago and now I often write poems that contain no punctuation at all. For a long time I was afraid to leave the punctuation out of contractions and possessives but I finally realized that that was just me being silly. I now assume that people will be forced to read my poems out loud to understand them fully and that is a wonderful side benefit to the style of writing that I do.

Here, a few words are going to be necessary about the more complex form of the basic unit of meaning in any printed language – the sentence. Poets have been trying to understand what makes or doesn’t make a sentence syntactically for hundreds of years at the very least. Perhaps we have always had that question lurking somewhere in the back of our thoughts. After all, how can one even write poetry without considering how that form carries your thoughts and is able to transmit them effectively into the minds of one’s readers?

Just how does a sentence transcend the unit of the phrase and become a carrier for truly complex ideas? I’m not sure I can answer that question easily (if at all) when we are talking about poetry. The linguists inform us that they believe the sentence to be capable of infinite variation therefore the subject becomes too large for discussing outside the possibility of generalities. If the sentence is indeed infinite, we may not yet know all the generalities that it is capable of producing. We do, however know a lot of the mechanisms that have been in use for thousands of years and we employ them over and over again. I’m now talking about metaphor, simile, form, comparison, contrast and such things that can be made useful to understand things which might otherwise be too complex to express.

Okay, enough dry talk about theoretical things! I’ve selected a poem from Book of Aliases that we can use to see how this works in actual practice. Here is the poem OUI which I first published in March of 2007. I hadn’t gone for total consistency yet so I still capitalized my I’s.


starving on the apricot cross
I believe in the mysteries
starving in your gaze
fondly returned
I also believe in the obvious
you play like a kitten in my lap
yet you are trying to kill me
you need no absolution
it is your act of grace
that like a serial killer
you stalk salvation

come to me trembling with
the rage that is love
bend back the limbs
that gave you no freedom
there is only one moment left
between the future and the past
and it is ours

That first stanza is really a lot of contradictory things all lined up and made to try to have some comprehendible relationships to one another. I believe that is one of the ways love expresses itself and no discussion of the idea that love causes us to exhibit different personalities (aliases) would be complete without looking at a few of these variations. The first five lines could either be two sentences or one sentence joined with a semicolon. The next two lines are a single sentence that pivots on a condition. The next four lines could either be two sentences or one depending on whether you wanted to use another semicolon. So the first stanza might look something like this using traditional punctuation: Starving on the apricot cross, I believe in the mysteries. Starving in your gaze, fondly returned, I also believe in the obvious. You play like a kitten in my lap yet you are trying to kill me. You need no absolution; it is your act of grace that like a serial killer you stalk salvation.

The second stanza only has a couple of strange things about it. The intensity of love is seen ironically as trembling rage. This image kind of speaks to us of the helpless power we feel when we are overwhelmed with passion. Next we get a lot more physical when we talk about limbs that probably are not branches although that is a possibility, depending on what you think is restricting your freedom. If you can’t see the forest for the trees then the problem is the branches but if you feel like you are all knotted up then you need to straighten (another kind of bending back) your arms and legs (limbs) so you can move. The final image in that stanza is that of what it feels like to act on impulse.

If we look at how this would be punctuated, it might look something like this. The first two lines are a complete sentence as are the next two lines. Finally the last three lines make the final sentence. Using traditional punctuation it might look like this: Come to me trembling with the rage that is love. Bend back the limbs that gave you no freedom. There is only one moment left between the future and the past and it is ours.

As you can see, it is easy to re-punctuate a poem like this and, in fact we do this in our minds automatically when we read it in its unpunctuated form. I hope you enjoyed looking at this and hearing why I write this way. Please help me out and buy my book. Go to Book of Alaises and get a copy of your own or one to give as a gift to someone you love. If you already have a copy, I am deeply grateful!


Russell Duffy said...

As someone who recently purchased Russell's book and having said I must finish the other books i am reading before starting I have two things to say.
Firstly, I have been reading bits of "Book of Aliases" today thereby breaking my own oath.
Secondly, it is a blooming good read that begs the question why more of you haven't yet got a copy?
Buy it now. It is even better than The Stones latest offering!

Russell Ragsdale said...

Hey Russell Duffy, what a pleasure to have a visit from the famous proprieter of the Tales of Feckenhan Swarberry. Thanks for that brilliant advert and the testamonial is much appreciated! I'm glad you're enjoying the book!