Delete Punctuation

To: The Membership and Interested Parties
From: Chinee, Grand Poobah, NBBPS
Subject: The Birth Of Modern Poetry

APOLLINAIREstmpOne hundred years ago poetry got modern, and all because of the laziness of one poet. That happened when Guillaume Apollinaire picked up the proofs for his book of poems, Alcools, a title that is usually translated as Alcohol, but with a meaning closer to “distillation” or “essence.”  And lazy may not be an accurate description of one of the greatest French poets of the early 20th Century.  Looking over the proof pages provided by the printer, Apollinaire realized that the typesetter had got the punctuation horribly balled up (to put it mildly). To extricate his poems from this mélange of arbitrarily arranged graphical signposts was going to be time consuming and costly.  His only other choice was the nuclear option. Handing the proofs back to the printer, he scrawled “delete punctuation” on the fly leaf.  And thus modern poetry was born.

This familiar anecdote may be apocryphal, but it is also instructive: innovations can come from seemingly inconsequential decisions. And soon enough there was an orgy of unpunctuated poetry. Likely this could be one of the origins of the term “free verse”. Certainly it encouraged a poetry free from the constraints of periods, semicolons, colons, commas, dashes, and exclamation points, and captured the imagination of young poets bent on overthrowing the established order.  Nonetheless, colons stuck around because they act as the muzzles of cannons forcefully discharging the following word or phrase. Nor did the dash go away altogether, as it served the purpose of separating the disjunctive phrases and ambiguous fragments of the newly liberated poetry.  And of course, exclamation points continued to make their necessary point.

Pierre Reverdy, by 1918, had adopted the bare unpunctuated script as well as indented and offset lines in his Les ardoises du toit.  Philippe Soupault, the co-founder, with Andre Breton, of Surrealism, published his first book of poems, Aquarium, in 1917, tout nu.  The one armed vet, Blaise Cendrars, always well aware of the potential for ambiguity and the arbitrary, left off punctuation in his poetry.  Tristan Tzara lent his weight to tipping that punctuated edifice.  And Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia brought their radical modernism and Gallic mocking to Walter Arensberg’s New York City parlor with such fly-by-night reviews as rongwrong and The Blind Man for the presumed edification of young American poets.

Actually, the drumbeat of literary modernism in the U. S. was heralded first in Alfred Steiglitz’s Camera Work, particularly in his championing of Gertrude Stein.  Stein shunned punctuation in her prose save for the period.  The results were sentences of shimmering ambiguity that could be read both forward and backward.  Also in the early years of the new century one hundred years ago, the magazine 291, with its typographically daring designs taking their cue from Cubism, proselytized the unpunctuated creed. This adventuresome spirit was taken up by American little magazines of a literary persuasion such as Broom, Others, Contact, Soil, The Little Review, Secession, and Dial, and whose contributors included Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Alfred Kreymborg, Walter Pach, Mina Loy, Wallace Stevens, Marsden Hartley, and e. e. cummings.  Blast, a magazine published in England by Wyndham Lewis, espoused Vorticism, and included the poets T.S. Eliot and Richard Aldington as well as that literary gadfly, Ezra Pound.  Vorticism can be described as a cross between Cubism and Futurism, and, as an art movement, faded rather quickly, though not for want of trying.

Of all the poets, e. e. cummings was probably the most radical of the American freedom flaunters in the way that he represented the poem on the page. A painter as well as a poet, the potential of unpunctuated poems on the canvas of the page appealed to him.  His canvases were Cubist influenced to begin with, and the radical restructuring of the words of poems on the page followed a similar fragmentation.

Punctuation was a hard habit to quit, however, particularly among the American poets.  The eschewal of the comma and the period was not consistent.  The exclamation point kept popping up.  The period could always be found demarking the end of the poem.  Stevens never really let go of punctuation, and Williams had to work at it.  The poems in Spring And All and The Descent of Winter are blessedly free of punctuation with the exception of an occasional comma, period, dash or exclamation point. As Williams states in a poem from Spring And All: “How easy to slip/ into the old mold, how hard to/cling firmly to the advance”. Yet there’s that pesky comma, like a vestigial flipper, bulwark against uncertainty.

A general overview of poetry anthologies from that era shows that the modernist French poets adopted Apollinaire’s backhand innovation almost without question. The English were not all that keen to cavort in the wide open fields of ambiguity that unpunctuated verse allowed, and for the most part, the American poets were ambivalent in their eschewal of punctuation. There was another factor impacting the way the poem, punctuated or not, appeared on the page, and that is the typewriter.

underwood5smallbw     By the late teens and early twenties of the last century, the typewriter became a personal tool for many writers.  An office fixture long before then, it came into common use once the front-stroke, type-bar ribbon printing, shift-key, and four-bank QWERTY character machine became the standard, a configuration that did not change dramatically until later in the century with the addition of electric power and eventually the typeball of the Selectric typewriter.  As anyone who has transitioned from the typewriter to the word processor knows, technology changes the way you do business. With a few exceptions, writers faced with this new mechanical contrivance were not trained as touch typists, and thus the expression “hunt and peck’ came into use as a mode of writing with the typewriter.

The typewriter provided poets with the ability to control how the poem appeared printed on the page.  Word processors today have removed from the collective memory how unique an experience this quantum leap in writing was for the individual author.  Prior to the personal use of the typewriter, poems and texts were written out by hand.  The poem or text was then brought to a print shop where it would be handset or created as a hot lead facsimile on a linotype machine.  General printing conventions were followed including left-aligned margins and capitalization of the first word of each line.  Punctuation was applied by a copy editor, most often with the approval of the author.  Printers, by dint of their long practice, were meticulous grammarians.  A poet typing his or her poem on a typewriter for the first time regarded the immediate product as an experience close to epiphany.  Of course there would be second thoughts and revisions, but the fact that the writer had produced a poem or text that was a near equivalent of printing, even with the limited typefaces available, was comparable to giving the means of production to the individual worker.

It is not hard to imagine the creative writer cum novice typist forgetting to engage the shift key when starting a new line, and perhaps not returning the carriage fully to its left aligned position with the carriage return lever so that the next line is somewhat offset from the previous.  Or accidentally hitting the tab key.  After all in that new age of the image, thanks to photography and the cinema, not to mention the typographic collages inspired by Cubism, the blank sheet of paper rolled onto the platen was suddenly a canvas upon which the poet could play and create.  A non-capitalized line read just the same as one that was capitalized.  A word or line offset or indented in relation to the others lines might vibrate with numinous meaning.  The potential was seemingly infinite and exciting.

These early experiments by creative writers with their new gadgets changed the way the poem on the page was perceived, and eventually led to concrete poetry and minimalist poems.  Concrete poetry, images made of shaped texts, was presciently foreshadowed in Apollinaire’s Calligrammes.  Minimalist poems owe much to the typewriter and the typographical error.  Aram Saroyan’s award winning one word poem, lighght, is a perfect example of a typo taking on a life of its own.  Typically, typewriters come with punctuation keys, and writers inculcated from a very young age on the importance of punctuation to ensure the clarity of their texts are reluctant to abjure the use of these non-alphabetic graphical indicators.  Predictably, punctuation in poetry, particularly in the Anglosphere, crept back into use after the first few heady decades of unconstrained freedom.

Kenneth Rexroth’s well-known Freudian assessment regarding the difference between the French and the English is worth paraphrasing.  According to the esteemed poet, the French are oral fixative and the English are anal retentive.  Ergo (among other thing), it is easier for the French to embrace the poem sans punctuation than the Anglo whose stiff-necked grip on convention results in sphincter clenched literary constipation.  It is perhaps for this very reason that Apollinaire’s radical example did not make significant inroads in American poetry until well after the half-century mark, and then only in forward thinking poetics such as those of the Black Mountain and New York Schools.

A cursory examination of late century anthologies confirms that poets still adhere to the conventions of punctuation, whether through ignorance (they didn’t get the memo) or because of a particular stodgy intractability. After all, shouldn’t poems require clear and precise meaning and not be floating free associated streams of the unconscious?  In the pages of rival anthologies, on the other hand, are those poets who have assimilated the lessons of literary history and write with an understanding of the unpunctuated poem’s revolutionary implications.

The comma, period, colon, semicolon, exclamation point, and question mark shepherd the poem into a corral of conventional meaning.  Poems free of punctuation continue to make available boundless sense and nonsense, allowing the poem to mean itself as an example of unique sentience framed solely by the open field of the page.  The only punctuation of any use in a poem, beside that of the dash, is the quotation mark, to signify a different vocal source, and the parentheses, to denote an aside.

Looking back over a century, among the changes that affected poetry, the incidental banishment of punctuation from the poem unleashed the pent-up quantum potential of language, and the typewriter allowed the poet to experiment with the way a poem looked on the page.  Since then technology, represented by the typewriter and now the word processor, as well as continued innovation as a consequence of the unpunctuated poem, have reanimated poetry and prepared it to meet the future.  Punctuation is indispensable to prose, and as emoticons. Punctuation in a poem, unless used ironically, is an anachronism.

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3 Responses to Delete Punctuation

  1. robert feuer says:

    Very well researched article. I’m glad you mentioned the difference between poetry and prose in terms of punctuation. I think an important reason why punctuation is much less necessary in poetry is that the poet can just change lines when moving to another thought/feeling.
    I do like poetry that consists of “floating free associated streams of the unconscious.” I think of it as being similar to impressionism in painting.
    Most of the lack of punctuation I’ve seen in prose creates an ambiguity that I find unacceptable or makes reading into a job. The lack of clear paragraphs and breaks in the flow of words is especially unreadable to me.


  2. Yes, but like Maxine Chernoff said, there is a diference between “Let’s eat, granma!” and “Let’s eat granma.” Modern poets eat their granmas like popcorn.

  3. Pingback: Under the Nualláin House Umbrella | Nualláin House, Publishers

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