At last, in the final four weeks of the semester, my “Introduction to Creative Writing” class has come to poetry. I both love and dread this section. I love it because I teach poetry taxonomically. That is, each student must delve deep into the well of poetry old and new until she finds a poetic form to embrace. She then reports to us all on the history and highlights of, say, the pantoum or the elegy; recites a poem in that form; and writes one in that form. The exercise reminds me of the fantastic abundance of formal possibilities in the poem and the endless flexibility of its so-called rules. A sonnet, for instance, is “a little song,” and while we lean toward the iambic pentameter, 14-line version of the thing, thousands of gorgeous sonnets fulfill the basic expectations of the form without rhyming, without iambs, and in more or fewer lines. It’s fun to watch my undergraduates discover the species and subspecies of poetic utterance. Some lose their fear of it; others learn, for the first time, to respect it.
Then we come to their own creations. These are necessarily halting, clumsy, often sentimental or opaque. I’ve been teaching this course for decades, and the quality has not varied much. What’s becoming more of a problem, because it’s a rising problem in the world of writing, is punctuation.
As I and others on this blog have observed, we punctuate less and less. The trend began before the phenomenon of texting, but texting (with its awkward switch between one screen and another in order to add punctuation) has accelerated it. I routinely mark three or four dozen missing commas in a student essay, and recently I’ve begun noting many missing periods as well. Add to this tendency the nonce punctuation of many contemporary poems (just start with e.e. cummings and keep going), and you have a recipe for Wild Inconsistency, with generous spicings of confusion and serendipity. Moreover, perhaps influenced by hip-hop and spoken word poetry, more students than ever before, in my experience, are stuck writing end-stopped lines of poetry, something like this:
Once I traveled to Paris
The Eiffel Tower the Louvre
Along the Seine I walked and walked
The rain came down umbrellas opened
Paris shimmers in the fog
(Bad, yes; worse when it rhymes, and I’m not here to torture anyone.)
With its possibilities for invention and rule-breaking, poetry may seem the last way to guide students toward a more nuanced and effective use of punctuation. But consider what happens when students learn to “read” the punctuation in even the most traditional verse. Take Emily Dickinson’s “A Light Exists in Spring”*:
A light exists in spring
Not present on the year
At any other period.
When March is scarcely here
A color stands abroad
On solitary hills
That science cannot overtake,
But human nature feels.
It waits upon the lawn;
It shows the furthest tree
Upon the furthest slope we know;
It almost speaks to me.
Then, as horizons step,
Or noons report away,
Without the formula of sound,
It passes, and we stay:
A quality of loss
Affecting our content,
As trade had suddenly encroached
Upon a sacrament.
When they first read the poem aloud, students accustomed to nonexistent punctuation and the end-stopped line tend to voice it as “A light exists in spring [pause] Not present on the year [pause] At any other period [pause] When March is scarcely here [big pause].” When I asked them to rewrite the poem without line breaks but with the punctuation, they get something entirely different:
A light exists in spring not present on the year at any other period. When March is scarcely here a color stands abroad on solitary hills that silence cannot overtake, but human nature feels.
Aha. So those little points and tails in Dickinson’s lines aren’t just some sort of confetti. They are markers for the reader; they establish a tension between the metered, rhymed lines of the poem and the syntax of its sentences.
I’m not sanguine about my poetry unit’s making a huge difference in how my students handle punctuation. The best I am hoping is that they will start seeing those little dots and squiggles as something other than “formal” writing rules and start seeing them as supremely useful tools for expression. Maybe, if I’m very lucky, they will turned in a few final poems that, per Pound’s famous dictum, are at least as well written as their prose.
*Other versions of Dickinson’s poem use slightly different punctuation, but the effect is generally the same.