Anyone reading this will, I hope, be fully aware of the importance of punctuation. As is often noted, it is the difference between sexy and scary:
Or the difference between having a pleasant meal and being a pleasant meal:
But not a lot of people consider how that might interact with literature. As in, what are the artistic implications of punctuation in prose and poetry. I just finished reading Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and that book’s opening paragraph is superlative:
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
The elegance of that opening isn’t entirely in the punctuation, of course. But as Random House copy chief, Benjamin Dreyer, notes in his annotations of that paragraph:
First, let’s hear it for that semicolon, the first of three in this paragraph. Any number of celebrated writers who ought to know better — I’ll name no names — have said any number of foolish, disparaging things about semicolons. Jackson uses them, beautifully, to hold her sentences tightly together. Commas, semicolons, periods: This is how the prose breathes.
If I can riff on Mr. Dreyer: punctuation is how poetry catches its breath.
Here’s an example of the obsession of punctuation in poetry. I’ve been reading William Carlos Williams recently and I came across his poem “The Fool’s Song” in his collection called The Tempers. Here’s a version as it appears in the copy I’m reading; this version is from The Engelwood Review of Books site (http://englewoodreview.org/poem-the-fools-song-william-carlos-williams-vol-3-35/)
Nice, eh? A non-standard intra-stanza refrain with “O fool that I am!” The repetition of each first line, but ending in “cage” breaks the symmetry somewhat, and that emphasizes the route of the third and fourth lines. It’s maybe a bit direct when it comes to the exclamation points, but Williams was a guy thoroughly rooted in American poetry like Whitman, so what else can you expect? His punctuation is going to be on the mark, as it were. Or on the dot for anyone who noted that he ended the last “Truth in a cage” with a period rather than an exclamation mark. Personally, I think he was going for a little finality there by closing the piece off with a sedate period rather than an excitable exclamation mark. It ends with more of a whimper than a bang.
But did you notice the strange inconsistency there? Not in the words or the meter or the rhyme. The tiny thing. The most seemingly insignificant thing….
Here’s a version of that same poem as it appears on (https://cclitmag.wordpress.com/2008/09/13/the-fools-song-by-william-carlos-williams/) See if you can spot the difference:
There are some differences in the spacing, but I’m getting at the punctuation. See it? It’s right there, plain as the nose on your face. Second stanza, fourth line. Look again.
The copy editors and folks with OCD reading this might be cringing right now, but if you haven’t made it out, the difference is that in the first version of the poem, the line is
Sing merrily, Truth; I tried to put
while in the second it is
Sing merrily, Truth: I tried to put
A semi-colon in the first version, and a colon in the second. In the copy I read it appears like the first version, which is why it stood out. He uses a colon in the fourth line of the first and third stanza, but in the second stanza—right there in the middle of the piece—there’s a semi-colon. Is that an error on the part of the publisher? Is it an error on the part of some later publisher? Or was it intentional on Williams’ part? I took to the Internet to find out, and I still don’t know. The appearance of two versions out in the electronic world make me think that there’s been a little confusion about how this poem was written, published, or transcribed over the years.
Now, if you’ve managed to suffer through to this point, you may be thinking that there’s no way this could possibly make a difference. If it doesn’t bother you then it doesn’t bother me that it doesn’t bother you. However, I am going to have to insist that it does make a difference, and not just to the computer coders out there trying to format in JAVA. It makes a difference in the same way that punctuation can determine whether you’re eating or being eaten. Literary authors do that kind of thing very much on purpose, and picking out such nuances is part of why people read them for decades after their have passed. Take, for instance, these 24,000+ words from James Joyce’s Ulysses in which there is a grand total of two periods and comma:
Or take an example from T. S. Eliot (with whom Williams had something of an obsession) in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Wait. What question? What do you mean? What’s the question, T. S.? Don’t leave us hanging, brah! He does. The question left open by that ellipsis isn’t in the poem.
Academics make much of those three little dots. Life-dot-Death-dot-God-dot. Heaven-dot-Hell-dot-Earth-dot. Sin-dot-Doubt-dot-Salvation-dot. It could mean anything, but there it is, so it can’t mean nothing because then it wouldn’t be there at all. So, the question begs the question, and away we go to the grad school thesis. Personally, I find the dashes in “Prufrock” more dramatic, but you should decide (or not) for yourself:
It does make me wonder, though. Was Williams making that second stanza an imperative to Truth itself or a descriptor of it? Both? Did he change his mind at some point and put out two versions of the same poem, or is it simply an error that has been missed by a few copy editors?
I like that I don’t know, but I’d be happy to learn one way or another. And in the long run maybe that’s the point in any good poem.