Updated: Jul 15, 2022
1. One day in class at Iowa, Donald Justice brought in a poem by a poet he named only as “Anonymous” and asked what we thought of it and whether we could identify the author. The poem had standard punctuation and line breaks and regular stanzas. We thought—I thought—that standard punctuation was an important giveaway, as what is now called the “international style” was all the rage then in some quarters; punctuation eliminated some poets right off the bat. As we started our dissection, one of the group—there’s always one, right?—told us that he recognized the poem and so knew who the poet was, and thus should not participate. For the rest of us the discussion was lively. No one liked the poem much. I don’t remember the poem anymore, and so can only offer what might be a version of the exercise:
All the way north on the train the sun followed me, followed me without moving, still the sun of that other morning when we had gone over. Come on over men at the screen door said to my father. You have to see this. It’s an ape. Bring the little boy. Bring the boy along.
So he brought me along to the field of dry grass hissing behind the houses in the heat that morning, and there was nothing else back there but the empty day above the grass waving as far away as I could see, and the sight burned my eyes. White birds were flying off beyond us,
and a raised floor of boards like a house with no house on it, part way out there, was shining by itself, a color of shadow, and the voices of the men were smaller in the field. As we walked on something was standing out there on the floor. The men kept saying, Come on over,
it’s on a chain, and my father said to me, Don’t get too close. I saw it was staring down at each of our faces, one after the other, as though it might catch sight of something in one of them that it remembered. I stood watching its eyes as they turned away from each of us.
We students would notice that clumsiness in the first stanza, where the poet should have said, “it was the same sun…” and we would have gone on to argue that it was an unnecessary framing for the poem. Why should we care that the poet was on a train heading north? And didn’t the claim that “the sun followed me” raise a controversy, if after all the train was headed north rather than west, which made the sun following an impossibility? And anyway, why a train? The given facts of the circumstance—the train, the sun, the direction—had the same weight in the poem as if the poet had said it was a vegetable cart stuck in a rut, or a unicycle in a bowling alley, since neither sun nor train nor direction would have any further place in this poem. And then, we asked, why should the poem have a title like “Star”? Wasn’t this an example of unearned reaching for a sentimental magniloquence? Star? Really? Why should we grant it? And there at the end, are we supposed to somehow match the poet and the ape, by the claimed parallel to memory, of that triggering sun in the first stanza and the reach back into something remembered by the animal in the end?
We went on at some length in our student deconstruction. It’s fair to say that we didn’t like it much, we thought it had too many logic holes and imagistic vacancies in it, that the construction of the thing was all askew, that none of the resemblances or echoes had been made firm enough to work. It seemed, one of the group said, like a poem written simply to be writing something, not like a poem written to be about something; it seemed arbitrary, an exercise, not meant.
When we had all finished, twenty or thirty minutes later, Justice told us who the poet was: W.S. Merwin, a reveal that knotted most brows. It seemed confusing, as the style was not Merwin’s of the time, but then Justice said that he had added the punctuation as an experiment, to see how we would react. Did knowing that — i.e.,who the author was, and that the punctuation was an add-on—change our minds about the poem? A fair question. What could we say? Of course we had to stand our ground; we had made on our judgments on the piece, we had stated them firmly, and out loud. How could we retract simply at the revelation of a name? I think it fair to say, though, that we all felt a little abashed, a little intellectually clumsy, betrayed by our own bravado. After all—Merwin… I mean, you know, one of the greats, or at least, one on his way to becoming one of the greats… That’s what we all thought, even then (1973).
I think now that the experiment was a somewhat cynical ploy on the part of Justice — a way to at once debunk the mystique of the international style and to at the same time challenge the tendency of students to think that all poems by certain poets must have merit, and therefore to allow them license necessary to establish that authority of virtue in the reading — something we might call the authorial fallacy. But it left me with a question that a half-century later I still have no answer to: whether punctuation, even as it signs to the reader how to read something, doesn’t also repress a poet’s possible scope of vision, forcing neat little enclaves of meaning into verse, possibly even changing its function from enclosure to imprisonment at either the time of presentation or — worse — the time of creation. I suspect that escape from confinement was Merwin’s point in dropping punctuation as he did in the 60’s. Here is the poem as originally printed by the author:
All the way north on the train the sun followed me followed me without moving still the sun of that other morning when we had gone over Come on over men at the screen door said to my father You have to see this it’s an ape bring the little boy bring the boy along
so he brought me along to the field of dry grass hissing behind the houses in the heat that morning and there was nothing else back there but the empty day above the grass waving as far away as I could see and the sight burned my eyes white birds were flying off beyond us
and a raised floor of boards like a house with no house on it part way out there was shining by itself a color of shadow and the voices of the men were smaller in the field as we walked on something was standing out there on the floor the men kept saying Come on over
it’s on a chain and my father said to me Don’t get too close I saw it was staring down at each of our faces one after the other as though it might catch sight of something in one of them that it remembered I stood watching its eyes as they turned away from each of us
Clearly it works better without the punctuation. What had been illogical with punctuation becomes merely whimsical without it, an honest craftsman’s way of explaining where the memory came from, the quick motion of the mind receding into what echoes in the teller’s stance in the telling, exposing along the way his confession of loneliness and otherness, and recognition of his distance from the rest of mankind, which looks at him in wonder, as an exotic but related animal, and all in all is careful not to get too close. So I think that the student criticism was right. The punctuation added by Justice held the poetry in and made the poem lifelessness. We responded negatively to the redaction, and rightly so.
2. But there is a flip side to this. Consider one of the great poems of the last or any century, Yeats “Second Coming.” Much as I love Yeats as a poet and much as I admire the poem, I see it as a poem of forced elisions — of segments that exist in relation only because they happen to be placed in an incredibly powerful poem, and are now bound here by syntax and punctuation. Consider whether, aside from the images of his philosophy as stated in A Vision, there is any logic to the images as they stream into the poem, or even any logical bridge from one line to the next: gyre to falcon to a blood-dimmed tide, to Spiritus Mundi, to desert sands, Sphinx, etc., and then to what we might consider an arrogant claim, that “now I know…” something huge about teleological narratives of history. Despite all this (certainly not because of all this), it is a stunning poem, and has haunted me since first reading. But now look at it without punctuation:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer Things fall apart the centre cannot hold Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world The blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned The best lack all conviction while the worst Are full of passionate intensity
Surely some revelation is at hand Surely the Second Coming is at hand The Second Coming Hardly are those words out When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi Troubles my sight somewhere in sands of the desert A shape with lion body and the head of a man A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun Is moving its slow thighs while all about it Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds The darkness drops again but now I know That twenty centuries of stony sleep Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born
I submit that removing punctuation from this poem removes also the binding of the
several sentences that make it up, moving whatever virtue it has as prophecy in a direction toward unmoored and hysterical utterance. The liens are overwrought and somehow at the same time flaccid because unearned, in the way that argument by assertion as opposed to evidence seems always unearned. What had seemed grounded is now revealed as a mere claiming that things are this way or that because I wrote it and I say so. The authority is gone from it like water into sand.
3. It seems unsatisfactory to me to come to a sometimes-this / sometimes-that conclusion, that is, that punctuation is necessary for some poems and a must-to-avoid for others. How much better and more fun it would be to pick a side, as we students had in the anonymous moments of the Merwin poem! But there is a reason for the poetic differences regarding syntax, line, and punctuation between, say, Robert Graves and Apollinaire. Two wonderful and powerful poets, each with entirely different approaches to poetry. And it may be that the difference is part of what Justice was trying to show us that day in Iowa, how deeply the use of a poetic tool — punctuation — affects the meaning and weight of a poem, and the reader’s response to it. It is an important part of the poetic toolbox, whether used or not used. Its absence, as it turns out, is not a subtraction from the poem but a way of achieving a different effect, so that the lack of punctuation also lodges in that same poetic toolbox, ready to be called upon when needed.