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1 Poetry and punctuation

Recently a friend took me to task for not punctuating a poem of mine that he otherwise liked. He didn’t see the aesthetic or political argument for it, he told me, although, in declaring it ‘a fine poem’ he rather undermined the argument that it needed punctuation in the first place. 


I’ve been working towards this unpunctuated style for a long time. My first collection, Mathematics & Other Poems used an ampersand in place of the conjunction ‘and’ under the influence of Berryman most probably, though Ginsberg uses it randomly in ‘Howl’. It seemed strangely transgressive to me at the time; now I don’t know why.  The style of the book in general is more conventional with many sonnets and substantial stanza forms. I experimented with what I think of as a ‘stripped back style’ in my second collection – Fahrenheit Says Nothing To Me (2004) – which has a bare minimum of full stops and commas, shorter lines, a more colloquial phrasing and a more ironic tone, but it was in Ghost Estate (2011) that I abandoned punctuation entirely. I found it personally liberating in much the same way that I imagine the modernist experimentation with free verse must have been a liberation. Ultimately, I was persuaded to drop the beloved ampersand – friends found it an irritation, though in some ways that irritation was the point of the whole thing. I abandoned it with an irrational regret. They say it was invented by Tiro, Cicero’s slave-secretary.

Why do I not punctuate my poems? It’s a reasonable question. After all, I also write novels and short stories which are (I hope) impeccably punctuated despite the fact that I am an admirer of Jose Saramago whose novels barely contain a handful of full stops and commas.

But it’s not just some whim, or some form of egotism that drives me to dropping those familiar dots and commas. My reasoning was (and remains) as follows:

  1. The ‘stripped back’, minimalist style that I favour can look cluttered by the whole apparatus of commas, colons, semi-colons, m- and n-dashes, question marks, exclamation marks, full stops and capital letters.
  2. I subscribe to the view that the reader of poetry expects to have to work a little, and in that regard I believe in making it strange, making demands. In some ways the poems are deceptively simple so the absence of punctuation demands that the reader assess each line and each sentence a little more closely.
  3. Ambiguity or uncertainty are important values in poetry. They ask the reader to invent meaning and allowing this space of invention is very important to me. The more the meaning of the poem is defined by the writer the less space there is for the creativity of the reader. There are lines in my poems which can be read equally well with the line above or the line after – it’s a matter for the reader which reading she chooses – and the absence of punctuation helps to create that space.
  4. Ultimately, not punctuating makes demands on the line length and stanza shape. I try to make each line a unit of sense – not necessarily a complete sentence but at least a clause of a sentence. The line break occurs where normally one would pause for breath (a comma or full stop). There are some exceptions to this, and again the aim here is to ‘make it strange’, to challenge the reader to interpret for themselves. But I remember well that first decision to try to do without punctuation, and at the time it was as much as challenge to myself as to anyone else.

My poem ‘In Time Of Quarantine’ (from Smugglers In the Underground Hug Trade, Doire Press 2021) exemplifies many of these points. Here’s the first stanza:

and some of us will be smugglers

in the underground hug trade

black market kissers

purveyors of under-the-counter embraces

solicitors of indulgence

intimacy pushers on the bright side of the street

our only law will be affection

our currency will be love

from which there is no default

In many ways the absence of punctuation has forced me to clarify the ideas I bring to poetry. In particular, many of my poems are inspired by my readings in political philosophy. A poem like ‘We imagine the police’ from Ghost Estate is based on the thinking of some of my favourite political philosophers. It begins…

we imagine the police

cameras catching other people

doing things that irritate us

in their cars

this is the police state

of mind

& we are sensible citizens

of the commonsense…

In the first two lines you can see the ‘make it strange’ imperative at work. If you stop at the end of the first line the sense is that we create the police (a classic Marxist concept), but then the word ‘cameras’ forces you to re-read the line and now we’re imagining police cameras catching other people doing things. Then the simple statement that imagining police cameras catching other people doing things that irritate us is ‘the police state of mind’, a phrase which hovers on the ambiguity of ‘police state’ and ‘state of mind’. There are other references – to Gramsci, for example, in the word ‘commonsense’ that I won’t bother to go into because this is not a politics lecture.

It would be easy to argue that the requirement to punctuate is a bourgeois imposition, that regular use of such marks is a relatively recent development in the history of language and the ancients seemed to get along fine with scriptura continua, or that rejecting such norms is itself a political act in a poetry that is frequently political. But, as I have already suggested I have much more personal reasons for choosing it and I make no such grandiose claims. In the end I fall back on Viktor Shklovsky’s declaration that the method of art is to make things strange. Strangely enough, I think that’s enough.

2 Poetry and politics

A long time ago I took a decision to make politics and political theory a significant part of my work both in poetry and prose, or rather I decided to stop avoiding it. I laid out my reasoning in an article called ‘Riding Against the Lizard’ (2009) which was first published in the late and much-lamented The SHOp magazine and which can be read here . At the time poetry, as written in Ireland, showed very little evidence of engagement with politics. Now, I’m glad to say, there are many poets who take politics head on, but at the time it was considered ‘bad form’, a little too Left, a little strident, distasteful. It was difficult to find places to publish poetry that was overtly political, (and, in fact, it is still not welcome in certain quarters). Heaney’s liberal balancing act was the model, whereas Montague’s Rough Field was considered an intemperate aberration. My own position (as argued in that essay) was a simple one: we are all citizens and as citizens we are obliged to engage with the political in whatever way we can, otherwise we resign it to those who can wield it with power. A poet has no special dispensation to be outside of the political. Maintaining a strategic silence is not particularly brave or admirable.

Naturally, there is some truth to Auden’s ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ (though that can be read in two ways), but equally, abandoning the field of politics entirely will certainly make nothing happen. What’s more, the old adage that ‘silence means consent’ is completely true, at least in the political as opposed to the personal sphere. If writers do not engage with politics in whatever way they can then writers are assumed to be happy with the status quo. And just to remind ourselves – the ‘status quo’ is a permanent housing crisis, a healthcare system that can barely cope in a bad winter, overcrowded prisons, gross dereliction of duty with regard to the climate and a politics that is driven by the ideology of the vulture fund.

So my decision to ‘be political’, in reality a simple decision not to exclude my political views as unfit subjects for poetry, brought with it the imperative to render political thoughts in ways that are accessible.

At its most ironic there is a poem called ‘A Riff On Marx’s Theory of Surplus Values’ which goes:

the philosopher makes ignorance
and the poet makes silence
the priest makes sinfulness
and the criminal makes the criminal law 

The last line of the verse, a refrain in fact, is a quotation from Marx. By contrast there is a longish sequence called ‘Via Antonio Gramsci’ which moves between countries, places and ideas with fluidity and which an Italian critic called ‘un modo di ragionare in forma di poesia’ (a type of reasoning (or argument) in the form of a poem). It has, as an irregular refrain, the words ‘someone singing bandiera rossa/sotto voce’ (Bandiera Rossa is the Italian Communist Party marching song). The poem considers the rise of neofascism in Europe and links it with early Italian and Irish fascism and ‘fatherland’/‘mother Ireland’ imagery, the whole undercut by irony and personal or familial connections such as:

better my sons
freewheeling after midnight 

down Tottenham Court Road 

or watching the bankers 

waving fifties 

at the G20
face to face with the police cordon 

and the simple structural
violence of the state

Here, I think, the narrative requires no punctuation. Each line carries a ‘unit of sense’, a clause in the story, and the closing lines contain a classic leftwing view of the role of the police – the enforcers of the state, the visible expression of the state’s structural inequality as expressed by the G20 meeting in London in 2009 which drew enormous protests at a time of economic crisis.

At a more direct level are poems such as ‘The Ballad of Lampedusa’ written in Sicily at the peak of the refugee crisis (unless we say it is continually at peak) and at the same time that Syriza in Greece was struggling with the EU and Wolfgang Schauble in particular:

a cold storm throws foam and stones

on the coast of Sicily

a grecale blows

nothing to hinder it

between here and the Peloponnese 

and I sit by a window translating 

a poem about people drowning

half-way to Africa

almost in Tunisia

in Lampedusa

Or the poem ‘Ghost Estate’ which was considered safe enough to be on the Leaving Certificate course (and ultimately on the exam paper), about the economic crash of 2008 and the proliferation of so-called ‘ghost estates’ around the country. That housing crisis is still with us in one form or another. The refrain is from an advertising hoarding I used to see regularly at the time. The last two lines are intended to suggest that we have been ‘sold out’ by our politicians, or that the ‘first republic’ (thinking in French terms) has been sold out:

Ghost estate

women inherit

the ghost estate

their unborn children

play invisible games

of hide & seek

in the scaffold frames

if you lived here

you’d be home by now

they fear winter

& the missing lights

on the unmade road

& who they will get

for neighbours

if anyone comes anymore

if you lived here

you’d be home by now

the saurian cranes

& concrete mixers

the rain greying into

the hard-core

& the wind

in the empty windows

if you lived here

you’d be home by now

the heart is open plan

wired for alarm

but we never thought

we’d end like this

the whole country

a builder’s tip

if you lived here

you’d be home by now

it’s all over now

but to fill in the holes

nowhere to go

& out on the edge

where the boys drive

too fast for the road

that old sign says

first phase sold out