Friday, July 25, 2008

Punctuate Me

Ah, excess. Let me count the ways. Sometimes excess arrives in the guise of Sunday afternoon, reading in bed until 4pm before sluggishly realizing that Sunday is almost gone. I hate that Sunday-almost-gone feeling. Nothing touches on my mortality anxiety like Sunday afternoon.

This might be a good time to bring up one of my favorite poems by Wallace Stevens, "Sunday Morning."

COMPLACENCIES of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug, mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice. 5
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.
The pungent oranges and bright, green wings
Seem things in some procession of the dead, 10
Winding across wide water, without sound.
The day is like wide water, without sound,
Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet
Over the seas, to silent Palestine,
Dominion of the blood and sepulchre. 15

She hears, upon that water without sound,
A voice that cries: “The tomb in Palestine
Is not the porch of spirits lingering;
It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.”
We live in an old chaos of the sun, 20
Or old dependency of day and night,
Or Island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries; 25
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings. 30

This is but the beginning. If you like the vibe, check out the link. Especially on a Sunday morning, when you are lounging in your favorite peignoir.

Right now some of my favorite lines are:
We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old dependency of night and day,
Or Island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable."
That covers all the bases of Western religious/mystic thought for the past few, oh, millenia. And, at least as of 1917 when this was published (Thank you, Harriet Monroe), we arrive at solitude. But not just any solitude -- solitude bookended by absolute freedom and mortality, basking in the mythic shadow of religious tradition. Now is that poetry or what? (I know, I know, it's that whole Wednesday's child thing again.)

What here is excessive? I suppose it depends who you ask. It might (understandably) be the image of me in a peignoir eating oranges and sighing over my soul's mortality. Some don't like Stevens dated syntax. Some don't like his lush, trip-to-Byzantium-by-way-of-Conneticut imagery. Others just find his work obscure, and (heavens!) difficult. And then, to add insult, there are all the end-stopped lines which comes across as archaic and pent-up today. (Or so I've heard claimed.) For the sake of argument, these are not unfair claims when made by twenty-first-century readers. What life is left in the canon of poetry if we do not continually trot out these questions, after all, and decide (if not for others, then at least for our writing selves) what is useful?

Now, I will throw down my punctuation gauntlet right now. I adore end-stopped (whether comma-stopped, hyphen-blocked and colon-spotted) lines. I adore punctuation in poetry in a way that sometimes makes me afraid for my writing life. I've had knock-down-drag-out debates with other poets about comma-bracketed adjectives that appear mid-line (i.e., "silence, expectant, sings"). I've walked out of poetry readings led by highly-estimable critics and poets because their readings were rife with crimes-against-punctuation. I've suffered goosebumps, imaginary nosebleeds and spiritual seizures while listening to "actors" stumble through recitations of Othello.

Okay, so I'm a serious punctuation-head. That much is established, and I promise not to list my credentials again. Before I end this tangent and come back to my target, though, I'd like to explain why I feel so strongly about punctuation. It isn't (as many likely suspect) that there is a buttoned-up schoolmarm holding court in my brain. Heck, I like contractions such as "ain't" and "ya'll," and fully believe that any word that can be spoken is in fact a word--whether it is "correct" or not. The issue I take with punctuation is that it's purpose is so simple, yet so gravely abused--and nowhere is that abuse more severe than in poetry, a form relying more than most on rhythmic speech.

There are varying theories as to when and how punctuation came to into use. For my concerns here, I will take the emergence of punctuation marks in fifth-century B.C. Greek plays as a start. Euripides and Aristophanes (et. al. and others) employed a simplified system in order to guide actors in how to perform/read their plays. This formula was improved upon by that hot-shot Shakespeare, who used punctuation (and capitalization) to similar ends.

What does this mean to poets? It means that if an adjective is set off in commas, it is MEANT by the writer to be set off in commas, so that when read, it achieves a specific effect or emphasis. If I had meant to write "silence expectant(ly) sings," that's what I would have written. If I had meant, "expectant silence sings," then I'd have written that. But what I meant was "silence, [pause] expectant, [pause] sings."

So too if Stevens, or Eliot, or anyone, had meant to enjamb his lines, then enjamb they would. And if you are reading them, you darn well better stop that line when the lines tells you to. It would be disrespectful not to, and sets a terrible precedence for interpretation. Like with translation, opportunities still abound within poetry for interpretation. With poets like e.e. cummings or W.C. Williams, these opportunities are greater than with Stevens or Marianne Moore. When enjambment is more common than end-stops or purposeful punctuation, then the reader does have choices.

And some are better choosers than others. To date, Philip Levine is still my most favorite reader of other writers' poetry. When I heard him read W.C.W.'s "This is Just to Say," I could have almost been convinced to leave S. in the dust, and offer my long-gone plum to Mr. Levine for the taking. What did he do? How did he do it? Well, he followed the lines and the punctuation, and added enough of his own experience to the intonation to make it come. so. very. alive.

That is a gift. Not everyone has it. When I heard Harold Bloom read Donne's "A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy's Day," I left the reading in tears. I love that poem. Intensely. And that poem provides us with a clear punctuation map. So why did Mr. Bloom read it as though he had taken three Percasets and swallowed a metronome? My main regret for leaving the readings is that I did not get to ask him that question. I have no doubt that Mr. Bloom would have had a clear, cogent, well-researched answer that would have made my feelings feel two-feet small. He probably would have launched into a lengthy explanation of Jacobean rhythm, and how original manuscripts of Donne's didn't even include punctuation. (Sort of doubt that last bit, but who knows.)

I should be most embarrassed to admit that I still don't know the answer to that question. I think the punc poet inside me doesn't want to know, because she loves the poem how it reads in all it's punctuated glory. And that, my friends, is nothing less than a weakness.

On that note, I will end with a poem that first set all of these thoughts on poetry and punctuation into motion, one close to my heart and also one that I find to be maddeningly challenging to read. If you know any good recordings of this, let me know. I'm always on the look out for punc. porn.

since feeling is first

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;

wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don't cry
- the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids' flutter which says

we are for each other; then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life's not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis

e.e. cummings

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