Saturday, October 28, 2006

Punctuation & Pedantry

I've been called on the carpet two or three times this past week, for not using "proper rules" of punctuation and capitalization in some recent poems, including the one just posted here, on the topic of Samhain. Once or twice the objection has been made on the grounds of purism: the purist adherence to grammar, punctuation, and capitalization rules. But, as I've said before: Poetry is not prose, and does not need to strictly follow rules of prose construction.

Another objection to my use of full punctuation without capital letters in the poem for Samhain, is that "it doesn't look right." But this devolves to a matter of taste, as using capital letters in this form I have developed, the five-line fractal poem, looks wrong to my eye. This style now seems natural to this form.

Punctuation is another tool of style, and can be used artfully and with internal logic in support of the poem. (Like all tools of craft, which are in service to the poem.) There are lots of poems I like that use only minimal punctuation: to indicate breaths, or breaks, or pauses, or shifts and turns, as in musical notation. There are plenty of successful poems that use punctuation quite experimentally. If you end with a period, the poem can come to full stop; but if you end with something else, or with no punctuation, sometimes that's how you can get the poem to lift off into flight. It's a way of indicating the story continues, and life goes on, even after the poem is done being read.

I have little use for totally traditional, gramattically-correct punctuation usage—unless the poem seems to call for it. I have little use for a complete lack of punctuation—unless the poem's style calls for it. I write employing both extremes of the punctuation spectrum, depending on what the poem seems to want, and in all variations in between. For me, it's all about matching the poem's form and style to its contents, tone of voice, mood, length of breath. I like to play with punctuation, and see what's appropriate to the poem.

I think the idea that there is one hard and fast rule about punctuation (or other elements of craft) is misleading, and probably harmful as well as false. Again: poetry is not required to follow all the rules of prose grammar. Why? Because is not prose.

Punctuation may be used to indicate pauses in reading a poem out loud. Sam Hamill, poet and co-founder of Copper Canyon Press, has described a sequence of duration of pauses in poetry performance, using punctuation. Essentially this is musical notation. Hamill describes punctuation as marking the duration of breath-pauses, from short to long: comma, semicolon, colon, dash, ellipse, period, line end, stanza break, strophe. This is a potentially useful system, and since it exists in parallel to the traditional rules of grammar, it is complementary rather than contradictory.

The argument is then made: You have to know the rules in order to break them. You have to know what you're doing!

The problem I have with this argument is the constant harping on formal grammatical and syntactical rules that many poet-critics insist that poetry must use. Without excusing sloppiness in craft, I frequently feel as if this insistence on "correct" punctuation is like focusing on the moss on the trees, and ignoring the forest. It seems as if this attitude forgets that poetry is a different, perhaps looser medium, than prose: condensed language; heightened speech; intensified reportage.

This opinion on my part is reinforced by the critiques I get, correcting me as if I was ignorant, whenever I do something unusual with punctuation. I am not a beginner-poet, although I do my best to retain "beginner's mind" when undertaking creative acts. Experimentation is often mistaken for error, even by those who one might nobly expect to know better. For example, I recently posted a poem that ends in a colon, with a specific, intended effect; although one critique seemed to get what I was doing, many other comments focused on that one (innovative?) punctuation element to the point of obsessiveness, ignoring everything else about the poem.

Hence, I restate my original position on this point: how you employ craft elements such as punctuation depends entirely on what you're trying to do with the poem, in the poem, for the poem. Every case is different, so it's hard for me to subscribe to general rules when I see so many valid exceptions. While I agree in principle that it's wise to know the rules before you set about breaking them, I would also point out (an opinion based on experience and observation) that so much emphasis on knowing the rules before one breaks them, almost guarantees that no-one will think to break them. Such over-emphasis can build a barrier in the poet's mind against imagining the very possibility of exploration. I'm all for internalizing the rule-sets that go with various skill-sets, but after they're internalized, I'm all for going for that level of mastery where one doesn't have to think about them all the time, either. The great haiku master Basho said: Abide by the rules, then throw them out!—only then may you achieve true freedom. A wise dictum.

At this point, I find myself thinking again of Thoreau's comments on pedantry. I mislike pedantry about the rules of language, and I mislike the rules themselves whenever they are used as a bludgeon rather than in support of the work. It is all too common to use the rules as a bludgeon on beginnners, who in some cases may choose to rebel out of some anti-authoritarian backlash. I still think it will come down to what the poet wants to do with the language, and to what is appropriate and necessary for any given poem. All languages continue to change and evolve, as long as humans still speak them. Only dead languages are completely fixed. So, the rules will continue to change, possibly even in your own lifetime. To demand that all poems be in the same punctuational style, even from the same poet, would be an example of taking a good idea to an extreme.

I realize that I am spiraling around arguments I've already made, and I risk repeating myself verbatim. The truth is, it keeps coming up, for the reasons I already mentioned: critiques of poetry that assume that experimentation is error, rather than intentional. As long as the pedants argue for purist formalism, the counter-argument needs to be made for exploratory freedom. The tools of writing are themselves neutral: it is what we do with them that matters.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Will said...

It's that frustrating attitude from purists that really gets to me. If you know the 'rules' you have the right to break them (artistically speaking). Otherwise we would never move on.

4:29 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Yeah. What gets me is the superior attitude.

7:43 PM  

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