Some Thoughts on Punctuation

Updated: Jul 15

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.  W