NIGEL HUMPHREYS POET

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PUNCTUATING POETRY - WHY BOTHER

Posted by Nigel Humphreys on January 8, 2012 at 10:50 AM

PUNCTUATING POETRY – WHY BOTHER

Kick it into touch since punctuation does little else but litter a poem with its pig tails and spots. For me visual impact has the edge on words every time. For instance as much as I enjoy the delicious frisson of ghost stories they never seem to excite on the printed page despite the best efforts of M R James, and more recently, Susan Hill. Go and see her The Woman in Black which I believe is still running in the West End if you have the chance: the eventual appearance of the ghost ‘stops the heart’ in a way the book can never hope to. I’ve seen the film version too which unsurprisingly works even better than the stage production thanks to clever camera work. This is not to say that we writers should cede to other media in this genre. Without the book there would have been no stage play or film. But visual presentation is important I think and this is where we poets have more freedom than prose writers. The novel and short story are generally constrained by the importance of reportage. Where novelists like Anthony Burgess, Martin Amis, Peter Carey and even Laurence Sterne in the eighteenth century tinker with convention, for me these prose styles are distractive and therefore distructive. The narrative is too important and one simply wants the writer to get on with it.

Poetry, once it is brave enough to jettison convention – the clunking rhyme, graunching alliteration, the poseur upper case letter at the start of each line and (but to a much lesser extent) the regimentation of stanzas - can begin to breathe in the wide open spaces it creates for itself. It’s easier on the eye - length of line dictated by its own content rather than that of its neighbours. One-word lines can work well depending on the context, and can comfortably (or to good effect) infill between long lines each of varying length.

Of course the baby which must be retained when the bath water disappears down the plug hole is rhythm but that is far from difficult to achieve. Because rhythm is a common human experience from the nursery onwards (to the tides to the football chant to the popular song and so on) deciding whether the rhythm of a line or lines works is often a question of reading the poem out loud. One very quickly gets a feel for what purrs and what caterwauls especially the more one reads widely.

But to return to the question of visual impact I much prefer the free flowing form generous with its wide open spaces than the straight-jacketed sestina or terza rima for instance. And to that end I have made a conscious decision in stitching together my latest book - Of Moment to remove as much punctuation as possible. For instance, there are well over 50 poems in the collection and not one full stop or question mark within them. To indicate a sentence I merely retain the initial capital letter. Why does the language need two forms of punctuation to signpost one sentence And was it necessary to conclude the previous sentence with a question mark – or this one The sense makes it instantly clear that a question is being asked with abutting it with an insect cypher It’s high risk I know and I accept that it may be distractive for the reader through the first pages until accustomed to it, but to my eye the poems look better on the page

However this is prose so back to the rudiments. In the river of blank verse, or verses with subtle rhyming devices, one can use an empty line to good effect to indicate a change of register, subject or emphasis. In other words the poem is allowed to take over and dictate its own form. Time for an example. My poem AT THE TATE begins

A nubile somebody else came onto the patio

and ate a banana with a knife and fork

made a meal of it

In another room

the banana skin grew fur at break-neck speed

and a grand piano denoted in the ceiling

That done

I sat at a table

on the top floor

with my latte

and read someone’s newspaper

(Nobody had cleared up after Andy Warhol

nor towed away Lichtenstein’s cut-out car)

Sadly the blog format won't allow me to present the poem as in the original where some of the lines are staggered across the page but I hope you will agree that the line breaks, phrase positioning and blank lines are enough to ensure that the sense is abutted by the natural pauses in cadence. Or does this work better -

A nubile somebody else came onto the patio

and ate a banana with a knife and fork;

made a meal of it. In another room

the banana skin grew fur at break-neck speed

and a grand piano denoted in the ceiling.

That done I sat at a table on the top floor

with my latte and read someone’s newspaper.

(Nobody had cleared up after Andy Warhol

nor towed away Lichtenstein’s cut-out car.)

Sadly I can't make the blog show exactly how the poem appears on the page.Another plus is that the form of the first example makes it more obvious that the narrative is intended to be read as a poem. There is ample room for the reader to stretch out and move around in it, to feel comfortable in the reading. Below is a rather extreme example of using space to convey the marrow of a poem. I wrote it some years ago.

HEART TO HEART

. . . and talking of emotion

the bottom line

Again the blog format defeats my intention to present the poem as it should be seen but if you can imagine a huge 25 line gap between its two lines you may understand what it's trying to achieve. The intention is that the poem visually conveys its meaning – an irony that a heart to heart contact between two individuals may be defeated by, or defined by, a total absence of emotion. This is what it has come to. There’s nothing there. Despite the expectation of the first line there is no talking of emotion because perhaps the relationship is dead. The last line clearly has both a literal and a contextual meaning. Does it work. You be the judge.

Apostrophes are another bone of contention and many people are uncertain where to use them. My attitude is to use them only where necessary. The German language simply adds the letter ‘s’ to a noun to indicate possession. No vertical take-off comma for them. If I write – the mans car was red – the sense is clear. After all we cannot express the apostrophe vocally so why do we need to express it visually. Neither can we express the plural version vocally where the apostrophe trails the ‘s’. The context does it for us. But if it’s absolutely necessary to make the distinction then it earns its place in the line. Apostrophes also unnecessarily indicate that letters are missing as in - it’s, that’s or ‘flu’. One might argue that if there is no apostrophe can’t may be confused with cant. Well North Americans say cant anyway when they mean cannot. I would suggest the context will always make the sense clear without that annoying little oick hanging around, dishevelling words. When in doubt leave it out. The same largely applies to colons and semi-colons. Let the line breaks or a judicious use of the comma do the work. Colons usually warn of a consequence to what is expressed or some sort of a list is approaching but the list will come anyway and when it does the reader will know it for what it is. The semi-colon seems to have no clear idea of its own identity or function in the world. It’s something of a gooseberry or wallflower in a sentence as though it would rather not be there, in which case, send it home, I say.

I suspect knowing where to involve punctuation deters many from writing. People say to me, I can’t write poetry perhaps thinking they have to craft sonnets and villanelles. I tell them that anyone who can string words together on a page can write a poem and the more they write the bolder they get in calling on the subs to replace ineffective words. I try and explain that writing poetry is not so much how you write but what you write. Take an old letter you may have kept a copy of for instance in which you have expressed your feelings to someone (or maybe a diary entry). Chop it up into lines so that each takes a breath where the spoken word pauses. Spread it on the page, let the lines find their own position so that you are comfortable with them. Let them swim in all that white space. That’s a start. From that point on you can begin to choose your words carefully and imaginatively, subtracting and adding ideas. It’s as though the brain has to be cranked up first by the very act of creative writing. Once the engine is running synapses form and ideas usually flow. A sudden wonderfully descriptive phrase will leap into your mind from who knows where. But thats quite another blog! Oh dear, I just used an exclamation mark but at least I omitted the redundant apostrophe. Never mind. The exclamation mark can be the only viable devise at times rather like swearing – and it has visual impact.

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