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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

That Punctual Punctuation (Anyway) How

Ever since e. e. cummings broke into the vault of traditional English poetry stored well into the twentieth century, poets seem to think punctuation does not matter much. Does it? Maybe not to everyone, but poets and writers who want to be understood will find that punctuation helps their readers to keep up and follow the general gist of what's being said.

Used effectively, punctuation directs your readers much like traffic signs provide directions for vehicles and pedestrians. For example, think of using a comma like a yellow caution light to slow down your readers without bringing them to a full stop. A red light halts the movement in one direction, and so does the period at the end of a sentence. Similarly, a colon acts like a four-way intersection where you wait a sec to see what’s coming next.

Interestingly, e. e. cummings was a student of Latin, Greek, and the classics, which apparently trained him well in using grammar, syntax, and punctuation. So it’s not that he misused the rules of English but studied them thoroughly to know when and where he could effectively break which and why and how.

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  1. I agree that one should know the rules before braking them. However, classical Latin/Greek contain no punctuation.
    "The invention of the printing press was the catalyst for the development of punctuation signs. Johann Gutenberg (1397-1468) is credited with the invention of the printing press in 1436 or 1437. Over the next two hundred years printers experimented with many signs and symbols; but, it wasn't until the late 1600's and into the 1700's that standardized punctuation emerged with its requisite signs and rules."
    -- John Oughton

  2. Good point! Lack of punctuation can be instructive too, for example, by allowing additional possibilities for reading and even confusing readers about a writer's intent, but I didn't think to say that until now. Thanks.

  3. Poetry is a noun - that person place or thing you want to talk about but in poetry. Poetry is a personal style, if all poets wrote alike it wouldn't be poetry. The different writer will be noticed, like a different flower growing in the winter. And using punctuation where the listener hears them or the reader, changes drastically.

  4. Exactly! If poets want to guide their readers through the poem, punctuation will help to direct that movement in a certain way, for instance, to assure comprehension. However, using punctuation just to be different seldom has the desired effect. For instance, some poets omit punctuation along each line then suddenly add a period at the end of each verse. Since a number of people seem to be doing the same thing, I'm not sure if it's a trend, or if poets don't know that normal punctuation still works well.

  5. It's just like Oscar Wilde said: "I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again."

    In my everyday poems, I spend at least as much time on punctuation and line breaks as on content and word choice.