More Punctuation: Mary Ruefle on the Poetry of Semicolons

Adam’s post below on commas reminded me of Mary Ruefle’s on semicolons in the opening lecture of her book Madness, Rack, and Honey (note the Oxford comma in the title). Semicolons these days have garnered something of a bad reputation, w/ a good many going the way of Cormac McCarthy and rooting them out near and far. I’m with Ruefle, though; there may be no punctuation truer to our speech.

Now here is something really interesting (to me), something you can use at a standing-up-only party when everyone is tired of hearing there are one million three thousand two hundred ninety-five words used by the Eskimo for snow. This is what Ezra Pound learned from Ernest Fenollosa: Some languages are so constructed–English among them–that we each only really speak one sentence in our lifetime. That sentence begins with your first words, toddling around the kitchen, and ends with your last words right before you step into the limousine, or in a nursing home, the night-duty attendant vaguely on hand. Or, if you are blessed, they are heard by someone who knows and loves you and will be sorry to hear the sentence end.

When I told Mr. Angel about the lifelong sentence, he said: “That’s a lot of semicolons!” He is absolutely right; the sentence would be unwieldy and awkward and resemble the novel of a savant, but the next time you use a semicolon (which, by the way, is the least-used mark of punctuation in all of poetry) you should stop and be thankful that there exists this little thing, invented by a human being–an Italian as a matter of fact–that allows us to go on and keep on connecting speech that for all apparent purposes is unrelated.

You might say a poem is a semicolon, a living semicolon, what connects the first line to the last, the act of keeping together that whose nature is to fly apart. Between the first and last lines there exists–a poem–and if it were not for the poem that intervenes, the first and last lines of a poem would not speak to each other.

Kotsko’s Guide to Commas

Few indeed are the writers who fully understand the use of commas. Part of the problem is inherent: a wide range of comma usage is, in my opinion, discretionary. It’s not a matter of knowing the rules (hence the uselessness of relying on half-remembered “rules of thumb”), but of being conscious of the range of uses for this most subtle of punctuation marks and being able to explain the reasoning behind a particular usage.

In my opinion, there are a handful of situations where a comma is more or less obligatory. The first is in the construction of a series: “red white and blue” is clearly wrong. Read the rest of this entry »

How to do things with words? — Speak them and see.

Just now came back across this on my personal, mostly non-academic blog from a couple of years ago. It’s about stylized writing in general (aka, the dreaded purple prose), and definitely seems in line with some of the aesthetic concerns some have when it comes to the use of theory-speak, clarity, etc. Thought I’d re-post.

* * *

Purple, I suggest, when it isn’t just showing off, is phrase-coining; an attempt to build longish units of language that more or less replicate sizable chunks of Being in much the same way as the hiss-crack-cuckoo words mimic a sound. There is language  that plunges in, not too proud to steal a noise from Mother Nature, and there is language that prides itself on the distance it keeps itself at. Then there is purple which, from quite a distance away, plunges back into phenomena all over again, only to emerge with a bigger verbal ostentation. It is rather moving, this shift from parroting to abstraction, and then back from abstraction into what might be called symphonic hyperbole. . . .

I am suggesting that purple prose, ornate and elaborate as it sometimes is, reminds us of things we do ill to forget: the arbitrary, derivative, and fictional nature of language; its unreliable relationship with phenomena; its kinship with paint and voodoo and gesture and wordless song; its sheer mystery; its enormous distance from mathematics, photography, and the mouths of its pioneers; its affinities with pleasure and luxury, its capacity for hitting the mind’s eye — the mind’s ear, the mind’s very membranes — with what isn’t there, with what is impossible and (until the very moment of its investiture in words) unthinkable. Purple, after phrases coined by Horace and Macaulay, it may have always have to be called, but I would call it the style of extreme awareness.

– Paul West, “In Defense of Purple ProseRead the rest of this entry »

I downloaded Scrivener

I’ve been going through some real soul-searching about my writing process. It’s obviously served me well in a lot of ways, but I’m increasingly realizing that it was developed under more or less emergency circumstances (committing to a book mid-PhD) and is currently being held together with duct tape. The Girlfriend suggested that if I wanted to shake things up, I should finally submit to peer pressure and download the universally-recommended Scrivener.

A lot of my resistence to using Scrivener came from a sense that it was doing things I was already doing. Read the rest of this entry »

Cart-horse reversal in writing pedagogy

I am completing my second semester teaching first-year writing-intensive courses at Shimer, and it is increasingly clear to me that much of traditional high school writing pedagogy is, to use the technical term, ass-backwards.

There is an overriding emphasis on presentation to the detriment of actual content — you need a “hook” for your reader in the introduction, you need a strongly stated (read: exaggeratedly simplistic) thesis statement, you need to aim for a broad application in the conclusion, etc. Meanwhile, very little thought seems to be given to how you select and connect the much-vaunted “three main points,” for instance, or basically anything else about how to really figure out what to say. Similarly, students need to learn all about documentation styles and proper citations and avoiding the dreaded plagiarism, but little thought is given to how they are supposed to be making sense of and using those sources — although the number they must cite is strictly enforced!

It’s almost as though all the incentives point toward making papers easy to grade at a glance, rather than laboriously teaching them how to actually, you know, construct a line of thought that’s worth the bother of writing down in the first place.

Notes on a Novel

I posted this elsewhere recently, but I was discussing it with a friend today and realized that much of it has some debt to ideas that emerged while reading Dan Barber’s On Diaspora. I’m thinking here in particular about his articulation of reverse causation. These days I’m far more interested in novels & poetry than I am philosophy, but I don’t think this latter day interest comes at the expense of philosophical influence. Perhaps the following post (in the form of a letter to a nameless recipient) bears this out.

* * *

Dear __________,

I apologize for the gaps between our correspondence. And though it will serve as no adequate excuse for such silences, your informant told you correctly: I am currently writing a novel. Or, if not writing, dwelling on the writing of a novel. Or, if not a novel, something whose ambitions are matched only by its remaining largely unread.

I’m holding out hope I can make my minimalistic plotting work. As you know very well, I’m far more interested in consequences (and the responses to consequences) than I am plots, which tend to be too forward-focused and linear for my taste. Consequences realign not simply our perception but our experiences of the past, as much even as they create an imagined future. Dare we go so so far as to say that the present is spent mostly negotiating the indistinguishable boundary between responding to these things past and anticipating those things to come? If this is so, could it be said further that consequences are a violence in & against the occurrence of the moment?

Read the rest of this entry »

Would this actually work? My fantasy freshman comp course

When I went to college, the standard writing instruction was a two-course sequence known as freshman comp. I mercifully tested into an experimental one-semester “honors” comp alternative, but as a TA in the English department, I became very familiar with the standard approach, which I believe to be broadly similar to how freshman comp is typically implemented. The first semester taught “writing as such,” and the vehicle was primarily the students’ own personal experiences and reflections. The second semester taught more of the skills required specifically for college writing, including more argumentative papers and research papers — usually all on self-chosen topics.

I don’t think there are many people who would strenuously defend this approach to freshman comp, even though — and correct me if I’m wrong about this — it appears to be a kind of “default setting” for initial writing instruction at many institutions, particularly less selective ones. I’m going to throw out one possible change that I think may be helpful, and I look forward to my readers telling me why it couldn’t possibly work.

Read the rest of this entry »

Musings on teaching writing

When I was in high school, our writing instruction included a lot of exercises in “the writing process.” Rather than simply turning in a final product, we were required to follow a series of steps that our teachers took to be exemplary in some way — this basically consisted of brainstorming, outlining, rough draft, second draft, and final draft. I’m sure the method was helpful for some people, but I and many of my peers found it to be an artificial series of hoops. Between the rough draft and final draft, nothing substantial would change, aside from perhaps correcting spelling errors or altering wording here and there.

I do appreciate the spirit of this exercise, but where I think it goes wrong is in not teaching students how to think about writing parts of things. Read the rest of this entry »

Writing Your Reading

Yesterday I spoke to a good friend of mine about the post I wrote this week about Robert Walser’s short story “The Battle of Sempach.” Well, actually, I’d just happened to ask him whether he’d read the story, which he took, not unfairly, as an invitation to comment on the post. He told me something that, I will admit, made me a little defensive, but as time passed, spurred some thought & maybe some further exercises in the same vein as that post. Basically, the upshot of his response to the post — I’m still unsure if he liked the story, which remains the issue for me — was that I’d kind of copped out in the end by not explaining adequately what I found interesting about the story. (This is a common critique of my posts, btw, and one to which I submit without ever actually changing my blogging behavior.)

Don’t misunderstand: I’m not writing this post now to use the power of the bully pulpit to rag on my unnamed friend. He remains a friend and one whose comments on writing in general that I value. But I do wonder: why this need for commentary? Do engagements with a story or text, philosophical or fictive, have to explain it, let alone be dolled up in such a way that our explanations are described as  “interpretations”? Is it not possible, I think it is, to burrow into our reading by way of our writing, and come out with something that is unavoidably interpretive, but perhaps less explanatory than exploratory? A kind of wandering that doesn’t take pictures or souvenirs, and that collects only dirt in the shoes and burs in the socks.

The trouble with TeX

I am involved in a Twitter discussion about this classic article about why one should eschew Word processors and instead choose to use a markup language like TeX. The basic argument is that creating a text is and should be a separate task from typesetting it, but programs like Microsoft Word spuriously combine the two. The result is crappy typesetting and a constant distraction from the document’s logical structure to how it looks.

Fair enough! To all those who use TeX, I wish you nothing but the best. But I agree with Voyou that TeX does not actually solve the stated problem — instead, it adds a whole additional layer of making you learn a clunky mark-up language. Read the rest of this entry »


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