The Perils of Punctuation

Punctuation in poetry is like a whole different language. I remember during Poetry I, people suggested I use em-dashes or colons in place of words like “but,” “because,” “then,” etc. It was a way to earn yourself extra words in a line, complicate the meaning of a line, and reduce wordiness in poems. It was something I had never really considered before. Needless to say, I got incredibly enthusiastic about punctuation, and it was a good class in which to do so, with a large number of advanced poets to introduce me to new forms (like the em-dash-colon combination and double colons).

However, the exercise we did on Thursday got me thinking about how many different ways we interpret punctuation. For example, I tend to use colons to define something, while I know others use colons as a mirror. What I really want to speak about is the double colon, which has made a grand entrance into poems in the last couple of weeks & it’s something I (& a lot of others, I think) struggle with. The poem I’m submitting for workshop this week has a double colon in the title & I’m still not 100% sure that’s the correct usage, but we’re going for it. I frantically Googled “double colons” and re-read some poems from This Coalition of Bones (Cori Winrock), where double colons can be found aplenty. I found a useful hint on how some authors use a double colon (thanks to a poetry collection review) and Dr. Smith sent me a section from The Poetry Handbook he’d found.

In the review, Phillip B. Williams comments on how the poet’s double colons “function as a sticky board of allegorical possibilities, both defining conditions and labels and effectively confining such definitions to signifiers that carry an unconscious cultural and historical legacy.” (You can find the complete review here; the collection itself looks fabulous.) The Poetry Handbook suggests that in “maths (double) colons express (compound ratios, ‘punctuation’ : words :: cartilage : bone’ (punctuation is to words as cartilage is to bone).” Over the summer as I wrestled with double colons, Lucia told me she saw double colons acting as a mirror/”having your cake and getting to eat it too.” In other words, the poem is enhanced/complicated/furthered by both sides of the double colon, but the poem could function if you took one side away. All things to consider and struggle further with when contemplating tricky punctuation.

I wonder if our different interpretations of punctuation influence how we read/critique each other’s poems. Is there a real standard in poetry, where boundaries are constantly pushed & re-shaped? What new punctuation can we introduce in our poetry? Over the summer, I used inequality signs (<>) in a poem as a visual guide for the reader/a different way to create white space. Has anyone else played with unusual punctuation or punctuation combinations in their poetry? What’s a punctuation mark you’d like to further explore?

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