Recently a friend took me to task for not punctuating a poem of mine that he otherwise liked. He didn’t see the aesthetic or political argument for it, he told me, although, in declaring it ‘a fine poem’ he rather undermined the argument that it needed punctuation in the first place.
In this, first of two essays, I’d like to consider this absence of punctuation and in Part 2 I’ll turn my attention to the question of politics.
Why do I not punctuate my poems? It’s a reasonable question. After all, I also write novels and short stories which are (I hope) impeccably punctuated despite the fact that I am an admirer of Jose Saramago whose novels barely contain a handful of full stops and commas.
In fact I’ve been working towards this unpunctuated style for a long time. My first collection, Mathematics & Other Poems used an ampersand in place of the conjunction ‘and’ under the influence of Berryman most probably, though Ginsberg uses it randomly in ‘Howl’. It seemed strangely transgressive to me at the time; now I don’t know why. The style of the book in general is more conventional with many sonnets and substantial stanza forms. I experimented with what I think of as a ‘stripped back style’ in my second collection – Fahrenheit Says Nothing To Me (2004) – which has a bare minimum of full stops and commas, shorter lines, a more colloquial phrasing and a more ironic tone, but it was in Ghost Estate (2011) that I abandoned punctuation entirely. I found it personally liberating in much the same way that I imagine the modernist experimentation with free verse must have been a liberation. Ultimately, I was persuaded to drop the beloved ampersand – friends found it an irritation, though in some ways that irritation was the point of the whole thing. I abandoned it with an irrational regret. They say it was invented by Tiro, Cicero’s slave-secretary.
But it’s not just some whim, or some form of egotism that drives me to dropping those familiar dots and commas. My reasoning was (and remains) as follows:
- The ‘stripped back’, minimalist style that I favour can look cluttered by the whole apparatus of commas, colons, semi-colons, m- and n-dashes, question marks, exclamation marks, full stops and capital letters.
- I subscribe to the view that the reader of poetry expects to have to work a little, and in that regard I believe in making it strange, making demands. In some ways the poems are deceptively simple so the absence of punctuation demands that the reader assess each line and each sentence a little more closely.
- Ambiguity or uncertainty are important values in poetry. They ask the reader to invent meaning and allowing this space of invention is very important to me. The more the meaning of the poem is defined by the writer the less space there is for the creativity of the reader. There are lines in my poems which can be read equally well with the line above or the line after – it’s a matter for the reader which reading she chooses – and the absence of punctuation helps to create that space.
- Ultimately, not punctuating makes demands on the line length and stanza shape. I try to make each line a unit of sense – not necessarily a complete sentence but at least a clause of a sentence. The line break occurs where normally one would pause for breath (a comma or full stop). There are some exceptions to this, and again the aim here is to ‘make it strange’, to challenge the reader to interpret for themselves. But I remember well that first decision to try to do without punctuation, and at the time it was as much as challenge to myself as to anyone else.
My poem ‘In Time Of Quarantine’ (from Smugglers In the Underground Hug Trade, Doire Press 2021) exemplifies many of these points. Here’s the first stanza:
and some of us will be smugglers
in the underground hug trade
black market kissers
purveyors of under-the-counter embraces
solicitors of indulgence
intimacy pushers on the bright side of the street
our only law will be affection
our currency will be love
from which there is no default
In many ways the absence of punctuation has forced me to clarify the ideas I bring to poetry. In particular, many of my poems are inspired by my readings in political philosophy. A poem like ‘We imagine the police’ from Ghost Estate is based on the thinking of some of my favourite political philosophers. It begins…
we imagine the police
cameras catching other people
doing things that irritate us
in their cars
this is the police state
& we are sensible citizens
of the commonsense…
In the first two lines you can see the ‘make it strange’ imperative at work. If you stop at the end of the first line the sense is that we create the police (a classic Marxist concept), but then the word ‘cameras’ forces you to re-read the line and now we’re imagining police cameras catching other people doing things. Then the simple statement that imagining police cameras catching other people doing things that irritate us is ‘the police state of mind’, a phrase which hovers on the ambiguity of ‘police state’ and ‘state of mind’. There are other references – to Gramsci, for example, in the word ‘commonsense’ that I won’t bother to go into because this is not a politics lecture.
It would be easy to argue that the requirement to punctuate is a bourgeois imposition, that regular use of such marks is a relatively recent development in the history of language and the ancients seemed to get along fine with scriptura continua, or that rejecting such norms is itself a political act in a poetry that is frequently political. But, as I have already suggested I have much more personal reasons for choosing it and I make no such grandiose claims. In the end I fall back on Viktor Shklovsky’s declaration that the method of art is to make things strange. Strangely enough, I think that’s enough.
(c) William Wall
Author photography (c) Liz Kirwan
Read Part 2 of this article here.
About Smugglers In The Underground Hug Trade:
Surprised by how few literary references exist for the Spanish ‘Flu pandemic of 1918/19, William Wall made a conscious decision to document the experience of ‘the strangest year we have lived’. In a poetic journal, Wall captures the roller-coaster of emotions from the first terrible days in Italy to the highs and lows of the lockdown in Ireland, culminating in the frightening increase in numbers at Christmas 2020.
But this is not just a book about the plague: the author turns to nature, to love, to his beloved Cork coast and sea-swimming for solace. There are many tender memories, moments of personal inspiration, humour and hopefulness—the whole suffused with an acute awareness of the historical context. There have been other plagues and pandemics, the poems say, and we have survived: we will survive this too.
Order your copy online here.