Guest Blogger Jennifer Finstrom
Editing the Past: Punctuation in Poetry
Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to revisit some of the poetry that I wrote almost twenty years ago. I was assembling fifteen pages of poems that had thematic connections but were written between 1998 and today. There were differences in tone and style, certainly—I’m scarcely the same writer that I was almost twenty years ago—but I hadn’t realized that I would be revisiting myself in a different grammatical moment as well.
Grammatical time is a concept that I’ve just recently begun thinking about. One of the elements that intrigues me most about grammar is how it changes over time—think of the many different choices in grammar that we see when we read older texts. I think that there would be much less grammar-based anxiety today if we used words like “conventions” and “choices” rather than “rules” and “errors.” That doesn’t mean that I don’t value clarity—I do—and I spend a lot of time thinking about it, no matter what I’m writing.
I wear many different hats as a writer and the one that I’m figuratively wearing right now is my poetry hat. Occasionally, I’ve heard a writer say that grammar and punctuation don’t matter in poetry, but I would beg to differ, although not in a prescriptive, rule-based way.
When I say that grammar matters in every context, I certainly don’t mean that how it might sound. I mean that the grammatical choice a writer makes is what matters in every context.
When I make grammatical choices in a poem (and I’m thinking primarily of punctuation here), I generally adhere to the recognized conventions that would be at home in academic prose. But I appreciate writers who make different choices—if I can see some reason for those choices and there is some degree of consistency. I don’t think that the conventions should be thrown away with abandon in poetry—but that, like any other text with a purpose, clarity and consistency are the things to keep in mind.
I mentioned my fifteen pages of poetry earlier, and as I read through the older poems of the bunch, I noticed that I was making some choices with commas that I wouldn’t make in my writing today. I made edits in most of these and felt better about it. However, I didn’t change every single comma that stuck out to me. The writer that I was in the last years of the last century didn’t possess the grammar knowledge that I’ve gained through teaching and tutoring and extensive fascination with the subject. Nonetheless, some of the choices that weren’t “correct” didn’t bother me and seemed to fit with the rhythm of the lines. I let those unconventional commas remain. It was an interesting choice.
Just a few days ago, The Guardian published the article “Lousy at punctuation? Fear not—so was Wordsworth” about how that poet of the Lake District sought punctuation help elsewhere, astonishingly not even wanting to proof the choices his scientist-proofreader made before the poems were sent to the publisher. The article mentions other poets who struggled (Gray and Byron) and poets who were adept (Jonson and Keats). The article also mentions how Emily Dickinson’s punctuation has been edited over time.
And even though my choices are more or less standard, I can’t even imagine asking someone else to punctuate my poems or being happy if they did! Revisiting my work now has given me a glimpse of a past me who knew different things. It also gave me a glimpse of my past life. In looking over those poems, I realized that I could, if I wanted, edit my past as well as my punctuation: I decided not to alter my history, but it was a strange moment when it was briefly possible.
Poetry is different from prose. Line breaks give us opportunities that the paragraph doesn’t. And I guess that raises the question of what punctuation actually is. Is it only those marks that we’ve become so familiar with, or can it be absence, the space at the end of the line where the reader is briefly suspended? There’s only one way to answer that question and that is to write, to try new things, to look back at your past self and see how far you’ve come.
Jennifer Finstrom blogs about grammar and punctuation at grammarfairygodmother. She teaches in the First-Year Writing Program, tutors in writing, and facilitates writing groups at DePaul University. She has been the poetry editor of Eclectica Magazine since October of 2005. Her recent publications include Escape Into Life, NEAT, Extracts(s), and YEW Journal. Her work appears in The Great Gatsby Anthology and is forthcoming in Alice in Wonderland Anthology and Ides: A Collection of Poetry Chapbooks, all from Silver Birch Press.