Rant: Punctuation

Posted: September 18, 2010 in Uncategorized

I’ve been reading a lot of poetry on prompt sites and blogs this morning, and I’m going to have a rant about the ee cummings copycat school.  Punctuation was invented to clarify  meaning, to help with reading aloud and generally to give pause for breath.  WHY OH WHY don’t poets read their own  poems aloud, and then punctuate them, even if they’ve originally written the stuff as one long breathless, meaningless sentence. 

There was an excellent example of  a send-up of pseudo-modern poetry on Mrs Trellis’s Living Hell blog but it’s disappeared – I’ve asked her to come back with a link.  PS  Jinksy’s found it and posted it in the comments – see below.
And another thing:

To a Poet

Never use one word where
three would work much better.
Examples of verbosity,
of words such generosity,
ignoring pure simplicity.
Fill the page, I dare you,
with words and words of wisdom,
beauty, sense, all  buried in
a mound of purple phrases. 
Perpetrate absurdity,
assuage my curiosity
to see how far you’ll go
in creating a monstrosity.
To express yourself at length,
is that the right of writers?
No.  Stop.
Try  brevity,
the soul
of –

  1. vivinfrance says:

    Absolutely, FTSE. Thank goodness I also belong to an excellent no-holds-barred critiquing site which has helped to drag me from the unremittingly dire to the occasionally reasonable.

  2. Doctor FTSE says:

    Sharp Little Pencil has his pencil point on one reason why so much BlogPoetry is so irredeemably dire. Commenters keep insisting it’s all brilliant sorry awesome. The poets who annoy me most are the unpunctuaters. They seem to thing that being quasi-meaningless lifts their tripe into the genius category.

  3. Tillybud, your post with the misplaced punctuation cracked me up. I’m a former copy editor – although, to be honest, I still edit all copy. I just don’t get paid for it!

    This is a fascinating conversation. Viv, I would never call you a miserable old bat! I do think you have a certain amount of vinegar – just enough to survive as a woman in this world. It suits you!

    Some of my favorite poets are on this thread, and you know who you are. I’m a free-verse poet and freely admit I know very little of form, although I try different forms on like ill-fitting clothes. After writing jazz and gospel songs for years, I craved the freedom from rhyme and meter, so free verse is my favorite avenue. That’s all I’ll say about that.

    I have read fetid free verse, horrible haiku, and sucky sestinas… you get the idea. I’ve also been encouraged by the progress of certain poets, regardless of form. And I’m with Jinksy – if I don’t like it, I don’t comment. “If you don’t have something nice to say” isn’t the point. If there is a typo, I will offer that critique, but calling someone bad or calling their poem bad is like saying their baby is ugly, and I don’t do ugly!

  4. derrick2 says:

    Hi Viv,

    I’ve just read all the way through this comment trail and now can’t remember why I’m here! Get it off your chest is what I say!

  5. Love it Jinsky. Love it. Love and Light, Sender

  6. amanda says:

    there is so much truth in this, if expressing your self is an art why not be artistic with ones words and let expression flow?Instead of saying this piece is “Wonderful” I would say it is creatively articulate and a fulfilling declaration of how you feel! LOL!
    And punctuation is dying it’s use is being overrun by the dependence on prgrams like Spell Check

    • vivinfrance says:

      Oho! I have to answer this one! It’s possible to be creative and artistic within the discipline of punctuation. But as for SpellCheck, that’s a whole ‘nother can of wriggly things.

      In a page of prose, Spellcheck will put wiggly lines under a whole heap of things, frequently getting totally the wrong end of the stick, needing the judgment of the writer and a good dictionary as to what to accept or reject.

      This is ten times worse with poetry, where poetic phraseology doesn’t always conform to strict grammar. Think of homonyms and the mess you can get into: Someone – who shall be nameless – used the sentence “I am in the throws of composition.” I’m quite sure that spellcheck let that one past – or might I have written passed?

  7. Mary says:

    Viv, no way are you a miserable old bat! My thought is, to use the old adage, variety is the spice of life.

    I think that if a poet chooses to use punctuation in a given poem, he/she should use it with consistency. If he chooses to use capitalization, it should be used with consistency.

    There are some things I strive to achieve but don’t always achieve. One of these things is having stanzas of equal length. I sometimes fail at this before posting my poem, but often later on in the rewrite am able to achieve it. (With some cutting!)

    For me, message is important. I like to be stunned by poems. If a poem stuns me, I will overlook any iinconsistencies, spelling or grammatical errors. For me it is about the WORDS.

    Interesting topic, Viv.

    • vivinfrance says:

      Yes, consistency is important, but so is meaning! And, yes, the words are paramount.

      But I have to confess to extreme irritation about mis-spelling, there for their, to for too, loose for lose, and wrong use of apostrophes – enough irritation in most cases to spoil the poem for me.

      My own children, in the sixties, were taught in the laissez faire school, but I’m so happy that the fashion has come full circle and my grandson (8) learns spellings every night and pays attention to grammar. I’d better look out from now on, if I make the slightest mistake!

  8. vivinfrance says:

    Better late than never, Tilly. I love your way of turning sense into nonsense with extraneous/misplaced punctuation.

  9. Tilly Bud says:

    I’m coming a little late to this party, I’m afraid.

    I often despair at the number of poets who are careless with punctuation marks – as opposed to those who deliberately forego them; that’s quite another matter altogether. I’m talking about lazy and/or arrogant writers who think they don’t need them.

    A well-placed pm can add a wealth of meaning to a poem; I don’t buy the line that the words are more important: if they were that important, it wouldn’t matter if a poem doesn’t make sense because the poet forgot a comma or full stop. Unfortunately, it does: you need to hold on to your reader; and you want them to come back.

    A wellplaced pm can add a wealth of meaning to a poem I don’t buy. the line that the words are more important! if they were that important it wouldn’t matter. if a poem doesn’t make sense; because the poet forgot. a comma or full stop. Unfortunately it does you: need to hold on – to your reader and you want them; to come back.

    Thanks for the plug, darling Viv; but thanks for the sentiment even more.

  10. Susannah says:

    Viv, I totally agree with you on the pickled sheep and unmade bed! and think your observation on what the artist is doing is spot on! lol

    I also agree with what you say about knowing the rules before you break them (though I must admit I don’t really know them that well myself. )

    For me a piece feeling right and reading well as I read it aloud in my mind (as I always do) is what makes or breaks a poem for me.

    It has been good talking to you. 🙂

    PS. I LOVE the title of your blog! 😉

  11. wayne says:

    holeeeeeeeeeeee….where is the poetry here?

  12. Susannah says:

    Just my two penneth 🙂

    Content is more important than rules for me, if I read something and it moves me then that’s good writing as far as I am concerned. There are things that are expertly written and properly punctuated but may be dry and soulless.

    Some people don’t like colouring inside the lines and that itself is part of the charm to those that appreciate it. Horses for courses and all that.

    I would bet you don’t like modern art either. 😉

    Nice post and an interesting subject.

    • vivinfrance says:

      Susannah, as the title of my blog suggestions, I am a miserable old bat, with the emphasis on the old! Some modern art I like, but a lot leaves me cold. It depends on what this silly old bat can understand! When I look at something like a pickled sheep or an unmade bed, I think the artist is cocking a snook at the gullible public!

      I agree with most of what you’ve said, but as Elizabeth said, in her expert comment, you have to know the rules before you can break them. Some modern poetry doesn’t flow for me, simply because the poet hasn’t learned the basics of the craft before inventing their own style.

  13. Sally Hutt says:

    Was the first line of this poem anything to do with your proof reading of my attempts at writing? It is normally more than 3 words you need to remove!

  14. writersisland says:

    I respect your right to your opinion Jinksy, and find you fascinating — but you may be overlooking a poem or two worth reading… 😉


  15. 1sojournal says:

    I almost gave up on writing forever because of the ‘grammaticllly correct” emphasis within the learning process itself. Then someone wisely told me that all I needed was some patience, especially with myself, because mistakes serve a purpose. The zinger came at the end. When you learn all the rules and understand them, then you are free to break them, use them or not, whatever you choose. I hung on to the little gem with a death grip to stay within the field I had chosen because of love. And found it to be true. Thus, although I have been writing for over thirty years, some, if not most of my poetry does contain punctuation, if it makes more sense and clarifies the sound I am seeking. Some, however contains little or none and is based solely on breath line and line break. But again, always at my choice. My personal rule of choice is to do the writing, and only afterward the editing. That means I read it out loud so I can hear it and if I find a space that needs to be marked, I do so.

    I don’t think a lot of the poets here in blogland, understand the marriage between sound and sense that is the bedrock of poetry. They are far more interested in getting their thoughts on the page, wanting to be heard, and forgetting that real hearing means understanding as well. And that’s okay by me. I was there at one point in time. And I remember doing just that. But, I learned, and so will they. So, I usually leave no comment if I’m confused. That is not a statement of disapproval, but rather an action to cover my own ass, lest I make a fool of me. When I do understand, my comments reflect just that. My own understanding. And yes, that can be frustrating, but it’s just one of the costs of having the freedom of being heard by a diverse number of individuals. If we want to retain that freedom and that right, then must we not give it to all others? An empty comments section is a lesson and probably a huge nudge that ones communication skills might not be as wonderful as one thinks they are.

    Okay, she brushes off her palms and steps down from her podium, lol. Just had that urge, you know?


    • vivinfrance says:

      Elizabeth, am I glad that you carried on through thick and thin? Of course I am – you’ve written some marvellous poetry, and contributed a great deal of wisdom to the poets’ community.

  16. vivinfrance says:

    No way is your poetry rubbish, Pamela. It’s just that it’s sometimes difficult to read. I persevere because you have something valuable to say.

  17. pamela says:

    Oh, I feel this. I am guilty. But, much of what I write is rubbish most times.
    Interesting to see everyone’s point of view though.

  18. vivinfrance says:

    Darn it: I’d just typed out a long reply to this and my broadband went down.

    To repeat: I really appreciate your response, Lawrence. My aim was to stimulate a healthy discussion, and it looks as though I’ve achieved it.

    Although a firm believer in grammar, punctuation, rhyme and rhythm, I like to write all kinds of poetry, and that includes the occasional free verse and some with no punctuation – but I have to justify it, to be able to read the poem aloud and it still make sense. I agree entirely that in short poetic forms eg haiku, senryu and tanka, punctuation is frequently intrusive. A good example of an excellent omission is to be found in Rob Kistner’s beautiful tankas for today’s Writers Island.

    As for excess verbiage: I was taught that every word must justify its existence in a poem, and your argument can be held to be that justification. But if you look at, for example, the poems of Tillybud on http://thelaughinghousewife.wordpress.com/ and scroll down to On a Madagascan Dock, she never wastes a word, and her poems shine for me as models!

  19. b_y says:

    I had intended to stop by
    (on the fly, as it were) to leave you a link to my own Beldam blog.
    Whatever I meant it was begun
    (and deserted again)
    Seems to have been lost in one of my fogs.

    Now, though,
    I see that I might be offending
    Your sensibilities,
    I’m inconstant with capitals, and my sentences
    (with ambiguous punctuation when there is any at all) are unending.
    Additionally, although I know that rhyme is iconic
    In my hands it’s comic
    When it isn’t moronic.

    I don’t want you (figuratively, of course) dusting the seat of my pants
    So perhaps I ought not to be irking the old bat who rants.

  20. Lawrence C says:

    for myself, in poetry I prefer avoiding punctuation. as a self-challenge.

    The French-born sur-fictionist Raymond Federman did not use quotation marks to set off speech (which I think is a French thing, but I may be wrong) as he explained, because it was the writer’s admission of her or his deficiency – in decent writing the fact that *this* clause is what someone said, should be obvious.

    I also think punctuation in poetry, especially in the short-line poetry I tend to write, is just visually ugly.

    As for one word where three will do – sometimes extra, or roundabout, verbiage can be used wisely and appropriately to generate a certain air or feeling, or to point out a deficiency in common language or even thought process, giving a sense of the ‘speaker’ or ‘character’.

    (and I realize that I have at least twice used commas here when grammatically none were necessary to mimiic pauses if it were spoken and to avoid confusion)

    But I do like and appreciate what you are saying.

  21. systematicweasel says:

    Wonderful response to the prompt! “Why use one word, where three would work much better.” I think it’s essential to explore language a bit in poetry, and in fiction writing, or else you’re limiting yourself in what you write. Great post! =)


  22. Deborah says:

    Wonderful post and it continues in the comment … brilliant!! :o)

  23. Dick says:

    I’m with Writer’s Island all the way: everything’s in the particular impact. I’m a fan of punctuation and a dreary pedant when it’s misapplied. But poetry should push back the boundaries of language constantly and, whilst pretentious crap abounds, the likes of Carl Sandburg, e.e. cummings, Alan Ginsberg et al were an evolutionary inevitability and thanks to all of them we poets are presented today with a plethora of choice as to what forms and formats we employ. As far as I’m concerned it’s vive la difference!

    • jinksy says:

      I think , as an old bat myself, the problem is with the LACK of form with many of the present day writing termed ‘poetry’. Perhaps the solution would be to coin a new word altogether, and leave poetry to descibe the ‘proper’ sort?

      How about ‘Emotivry’ or perhaps, ‘Emopo’ – though that may be a little too close to Emopoo…LOL .

  24. jinksy says:

    The impossible I do at once- miracles take a little longer…

    ” Mrs. Jinksy . . I had in mind the wannabees who’ll neverbee who write stuff that looks like this and who insist on calling a spade a . . .

    Horticultural implement
    for doing
    various tasks which I’m not going to
    specify because
    I belief being delphic is
    a proper
    part of
    being a poet and nor do I use
    punctuation or
    capitals and



    four or even


    line spaces between each line
    of my drivel
    but which include
    digging up my
    pearls of poetic
    wisdom and casting
    them before

    I think part of the problem is that they don’t know any poetry because they never read any. Not real poetry, I mean. Only the universally awesome stuff in Blogland. And the ENDLESS, POINTLESS CENTERING! Why do they think that’s CLEVER? Give me strength!
    10/9/10 11:20 AM ”

    Just for you, Viv! 🙂

  25. jinksy says:

    Having typed one long comment, then not clicked post before I had to answer the front door, I came back to find it GORN, all gorn. Woe is me, or even, I. However, the capital- lacking, unrhymed twddle to which you refer has long been driving me to distraction. I have yet to receive an answer from one of its perpetrators as to what they see as the attraction of it all.
    I also object to unnecessary obscurity in a poem, and recently wrote this in protest:-

    Hidden Meanings

    Words behind a veil of mist
    swirl in vague allusion
    as comprehension hides beneath
    illusion of intelligence.
    What purpose does this serve?
    Beyond Confusion’s urge
    to cloak a poet’s dreams
    with a secret manifesto, lies
    a creed whose images could birth
    an undisputed presence
    in the world of fact not fiction,
    were they but given clarity of truth.

  26. writersisland says:

    Hi Viv! Love the new look here. Very cool…

    I have a simple litmus I use when encountering poet’s and/or their blogs — I expect NOTHING with regard to form, punctuation, UPPER/lower case, word count, even meaning of the piece… I just read it, and if I understand it and it moves me, I come back and read in the future ///•\\\ if it doesn’t do these things, then I don’t darken the poet’s doorway again = SIMPLE! (and it works for me)


    • vivinfrance says:

      Thanks for visiting, Rob. This is my second string blog, for grumbles and grumblers. I operate more or less on your principle – if I don’t understand a poem or it bores me after the 26th stanza, I don’t comment. I do tend to read all posts, though, as otherwise I’d have missed some gems.

    • jinksy says:

      Hold on a moment- does this mean a piece of writing may be crap, but if you like it, that makes it good? Sheesh! What island are you living on… one for writers ?

      • writersisland says:

        No Jinksy, I meant — if a poet moves me, I come back and read the poet in the future, if the poet doesn’t move me, then I don’t. I choose not to declare things crap, I don’t feel the need to go there — too dark for me. I keep the Island open for those who want to come to write, simply because they enjoy doing so… you’re always welcome… 😉


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