On the use of commas in poetry

Letter from Bruce Meyer to students at the University of Windsor about the use of the comma in poetry:

One of the things that I should probably point out is that poetry is not, how shall we put it, like an undergraduate essay. Poetry relies on sonics — the sound of the words, the lines, and especially (with the type of poetry I write) the syntax. I use enjambment the way some painters use broad brushstrokes.

Here’s why. My idea of what creates sound has its origins in the theories of John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, and the Old Vic Theatre Company in London that revolutionized the way Shakespeare’s plays were heard early in the 20th century. Shakespeare did not write his poems in lines. They may appear to be in lines, but Gielgud, Olivier, et.al. realized that if the sound of Shakespeare was not going to be constrained by lines it had to be delivered in terms of syntax, sentence by sentence. And they were right. Derek Jacobi, an alum of the Royal Shakespeare Company (and a former drinking buddy of mine at the Denbigh Arms in London — I believe I pointed it out to Marty or took Marty there) explained  to me Olivier’s ideas on how to read Shakespeare.

Whenever one reads poetry, one must read it by syntax. The syntax is enjambed (meaning a sentence runs over from line to line). Whenever one reaches a piece of punctuation, such as a comma, it becomes a pause (like in music where one doesn’t play a note but the measure continues even in the silence), and the pause acts as a light stress in the line. So, I have waved off a great many commas because they are making the lines too long and throwing off the music. The lines of poetry serve as an underpinning mechanism to the larger idea of the sound in the sentence structure. Yes, the commas belong in the undergraduate essay (and you might lose marks for not having them in the essay) but in poetry, they are the death of sonics. I don’t blame anyone for wanting to put the commas in. I wag my finger at my students for not having commas in the right place in their essay. That’s what I do for a living.

Why are sonics, the sounds, so important? Not only do they create pauses or silent half-measures (and they can be used to break lines and statements into segments for emphasis) but because they impact on the cadence of the lines. I write cadential verse. Cadential verse (and this is kind of like music theory at work in poetry) relies on the natural inflections of language, the rises and falls of the voice for emphasis, pronunciation, etc. I am very aware of the needs of grammar but grammar seldom serves sound. Try pausing and breathing at every piece of punctuation in, say, Sonnet 18.

One other items I’ve tried to explain is the use of what to the student ear might seem to be archaic expression, vocabulary, or referencing. I’m afraid I’ve lived in several centuries (not actually but through all the experiences, the people I’ve known, the things I’ve seen). I am inextricably connected with the past, and that’s not a bad thing. Shakespeare, Heaney, Larkin — they’re all earshot with phrases, words, actions, details of life, and even inflections of voices that aren’t part (per se) of the contemporary world but that continue to live through what I saw and how I say it. I have a lengthy note about the adze and it might be a good idea to make a field trip with some of your classmates to a century barn in Essex county and have the farmer explain how the wood feels, the tools that were used to create the beams, the hard work and extraordinary passion that went into raising a barn (one doesn’t build a barn, one raises it, and the word raise carries suggestions of Jesus on his cross on Golgotha — not that barns are religious in the truest sense of the word though they are full of connections and reminders of the woodworking that went into executing someone two thousand years ago or providing a shelter for cows…and a shelter for cows can be a barn or a stable behind an inn).

My hope, my holiday wish for everyone in the Practicum, is that you will all become sponges. I hope you will make it one of your life purposes not merely to exercise what you know but to soak up new experience, the go out and look for what you don’t know. I’ll be up all night trying to find the name for the style of cap Rembrandt wore when he painted his self-portraits. I know such caps were worn to keep loose hairs from finding their way to wet oil paint; but that kind of cap has a name and I am determined to find it even if it takes me until dawn (and it is 2:15 a.m. right now). Do not be fashioned by what is taught to you; be curious. Become sponges. Never cease to want to know more and more. At some point I hope you will read Goethe’s Faust (both parts, although Part One is far better than Part Two for some reason) because it is unlike Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Goethe’s Faust is about wanting to know stuff and not being satisfied with what you already know. There’s a great line near the end of Samuel Johnson’s little 18th century novel, Rasselas (another book I hope you will read because it is the source for the Declaration of Independence and was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite book at William and Mary College — I spent an afternoon going through the sign out book for the library from the time Jefferson was an undergrad). The line is “Show me something tomorrow I have not seen today.” So, that’s my wish for everyone.

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