Leaving Punctuation Out
One of the most innovative sides of modern literature is that many poets have swept all punctuation out of their work. But the question of whether poets should use punctuation is not just about semicolons and dashes. It’s about when punctuation works best in poetry, and when it gets in the way of expressing something very different from prose.
Some of the poets of the U.S.A. best known for unpunctuated verse are e.e. cummings (who also did away with capital letters in some of his writing), William Carlos Williams (but only in some of his poems), and W.S. Merwin.
In modern poetry, not punctuating verse first became a common practice in France in the early twentieth century. Guillaume Apollinaire threw down the gauntlet to traditional poetry and culture in his groundbreaking poem “Zone” from his collection Alcohols, published in 1913.
Apollinaire started “Zone” with these memorable lines: In the end you are weary of this ancient world This morning the bridges are bleating Eiffel Tower oh herd Weary of living in Roman antiquity and Greek (translation by Samuel Beckett) By eliminating punctuation, Apollinaire also allowed words to group themselves in ways that did not conform to grammatical sentences. Even if you wanted to add punctuation to the line “This morning the bridges are bleating Eiffel Tower oh herd,” how would you do it? In his poem “Zone,” not only did Apollinaire throw out the convention of writing with punctuation, he tossed out the conventions of time and space, zooming from the ancient world to the modern, and leap frogging from one country to another: Here you are in Marseilles among the water-melons Here you are in Coblentz at the Giant’s Hostelry Here you are in Rome under a Japanese medlar-tree Unpunctuated poetry can provide a high-speed train for moving among ideas and settings, reflecting both fast-paced technology in the external world, and the fast-paced internal world of stream of consciousness that psychoanalysis opened up in Apollinaire’s time. That is one of the strengths of unpunctuated poetry: it can be really fast. It can grab those moments that happen so spontaneously or rapidly they’re difficult to catch. Here’s part of an unpunctuated poem by the French surrealist André Breton that begins “I dream I see you endlessly superimposed upon yourself.” The writer recreates the quick movements of the unconscious by describing a lover simultaneously at various times in her life: Little girl Caught in a bellows of sparkles You jump rope Long enough so that the one green butterfly that haunts the peaks of Asia Can appear at the top of the invisible stairway I caress everything that was you In everything that’s yet to be you (translated by Bill Zavatsky and Zack Rogow) Without the obstacles of periods, commas, and exclamation marks, Breton’s poetry flows right from the writer’s subconscious onto the paper. It’s as if he’s dreaming onto the page. The result: a hallucinatory cascade of ecstatic images. Interestingly, unpunctuated verse not only allows for a more fluid pouring of words onto the page—it also can create the opposite effect. Unpunctuated verse can involve a more discrete use of language where each phrase vibrates on its own. In unpunctuated poetry, the words can be suspended in a borderless space that makes certain phrases resonate like a final chord played on a piano. Here’s the opening of a poem called “October Thoughts” by the French writer Jean Follain: How one loves this great wine that one drinks all alone when the evening illumines its coppered hills (translated by W.S. Merwin) These words radiate pathos because they are not contained within the sealed lead boxes of punctuation. W.S. Merwin famously wrote, “Punctuation nails the poem down on the page. When you don’t use it the poem becomes more a thing in itself, at once more transparent and more actual.” Imagine if Jean Follain had punctuated those lines: How one loves this great wine, that one drinks all alone, when the evening illumines its coppered hills! How banal and overstated these lines seem with punctuation; without punctuation, how mysterious and filled with awe. One curious side note: we think of unpunctuated verse as an invention of modern poetry, In fact, all poetry was unpunctuated in classical times. All writing was originally unpunctuated in ancient Greek, Latin, Old Persian, Hebrew, Chinese, and other languages that produced some of the earliest bodies of written poetic texts. Putting Punctuation In When e.e. cummings first started not to capitalize letters, it was revolutionary: “next to of course god america i love you By not capitalizing words that readers were used to seeing in majuscule letters, such as “God," "America,” and “I” (not to mention his own name!), cummings prompted a reexamination of those sacrosanct ideas, even the idea of the self. Cummings produced stinging satire even in his use of punctuation and capitalization.
But once unpunctuated verse became almost the norm in modern avant-garde poetry, there was an inevitable reaction against it. Here’s why: art hates norms. When a practice in literature becomes expected, its impact is immediately blunted. As soon as a great many poets were doing the same thing as cummings, leaving out punctuation became an affectation, in some cases. It could easily turn into a cutesy, self-conscious move that was just the opposite of cummings’ unpredictable use of language. There was also something coy about not writing with punctuation and capitalization, as if poets were not willing to declare themselves emphatically enough to end a phrase with a definitive period or exclamation mark. Not to mention that taking out punctuation and capitalization could conceal laziness on the part of a poet who did not want to make choices.
In the 1950s and 60s in North America, poetry split into two different practices with regard to punctuation. There were poets who greatly admired the French- and Spanish-language avant-garde and generally preferred to scrap the formality of punctuation. These poets included Lawrence Ferlinghetti and W.S. Merwin, and quite a number of African American poets, such as Ntozake Shange, and (at times) June Jordan and Ishmael Reed—just to name a few. On the other hand, in the work of the more traditional poets of that period, punctuating poems and using full sentences in poetry made something of a comeback. Those poets included Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath. For those writers, there was a sense that returning to the sentence could add clarity, crispness, and sophistication to poetry. Apparently Lowell was so concerned about the punctuation in his poems that he paid for poet Frank Bidart to fly across the Atlantic to fix the punctuation in one of his book manuscripts. Using traditional punctuation well in a poem can be an art in itself. I’m thinking of Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle, “One Art.” Here are the first and last stanzas: The art of losing isn’t hard to master; so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster. … —Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident the art of losing’s not too hard to master though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster. Bishop pulls out all the stops of punctuation here: semicolon in the first stanza; dash, parentheses, comma, and exclamation mark in the last stanza. She uses short, punchy phrases, intensified by punctuation marks. Bishop made punctuation lively, fun, elegant, and unexpected. Many of the poets of the 1950s and 60s in North America wrote confessional poetry, which by its nature, is somewhat like memoir, a narrative prose form. No surprise then that their verse used punctuation. Under the influence of that generation, unpunctuated poetry has experienced a partial eclipse in North America in the decades since then. If I had to say where we are on that continuum now, between using and not using punctuation in poetry, I’d say the pendulum has swung way to the side of preferring punctuation. At least many editors favor it. My own feeling is that some poems want the sharp edges of punctuation to define their shape. Other poems crave the looseness of unpunctuated text to allow their phrases to float on the page like islands in the sea. The difficulty is that most editors expect consistency from a poet. If you don’t have a set style, which includes the use of punctuation, many editors think your manuscript lacks coherence and a literary brand. But looked at another way, if you’re too set in your style, are you really channeling the emotion that impelled you to write the poem in the first place? If different poems in a series or a book can have different forms, different stanza lengths, why can’t you use punctuation differently, if the poem calls for that?
Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies.
Zack’s most recent book of translations, Bérenice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris.
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