Is the comma in danger of extinction? Here at the The Coming of the Toads commas have fallen out of favor as we have begun to eschew the common comma, not all commas, and the comma in writing (where else is it used?) still remains an effective tool for the common reader, but sometimes the right word in the right place creates its own pause and nothing more is needed by way of punctuation, for the common reader or the anti-reader. Of course commas are used for more than to create pause. The comma used to separate items in a series, red white and blue, for example, often punctuated as red, white, and blue, keeps the colors from running together. The comma evolved from the colon and suggested something cut out but today the comma is used to add on, to amplify, to continue, to ramble on, sometimes unmercifully, the end nowhere near, the sentence a structure of lean-tos, each clause flipping about like a butterfly which may look to the common reader indecisive. Then there is the comma butterfly, also called angelwing, and what writer would want to eliminate angel wings from their writing, not us. Whoops, that’s anglewing, not angel wing, a mistake no comma can rescue. Still, the happy discovery that commas may suggest angel wings gives us a lift.
You took away the source, but it was some graffiti, as I recall, but now in the grog of morning’s woke fog, I forget what it said, but one of the words was missing an apostrophe, crowds, I think, should have been crowd’s. The crowd is awaiting its apostrophe. So something is missing, the elemental that connects. That’s the meaning of apostrophe – an elision, but more, to turn, to turn away (from), even as things merge, as in a crowd. The apostrophe, like a stray bird, lands in the nest of merged things, its meld. The crowd is awaiting its possession, what it wants, its melt and weld. Also, the apostrophe that is an address to a missing person, one who has been turned away, or is turning away from another, as the crowd disperses. Waiting’s apostrophe. Waiting for the bird that has flown to return. As the crowd scatters, like birds, each one turning away from their neighbor, coming apart, each now a new apostrophe looking for a new gathering, a new mustering, a levy of birds, where they can drop into place to satisfy the whole. And today’s crowd of words is punctuated by the police, steel pot helmeted commas out to enforce the gravity of grammar, but they seem unable to put a stop to the run-on sentences.
The use of metaphor is not pretentious. Most folks use metaphor, most of the time, in ordinary circumstances – metaphor is hardly limited to poems or wordsmiths. When we look at something familiar but see something different – the metaphorical mind engages. Advertising is grounded in metaphor, where images are often used to counterpoise logic (vintage cigarette ads will provide examples), and we seldom ask ads to explain themselves. Advertising traffics in pathos, which, while it appeals to the emotions, does so in logical ways. The Spanish poet Federico Lorca suggested other forms of logic (words used to reason) are available and frequently used to understand or make sense of persons, places, and things – and of events and experience. Lorca named one other kind of logic Hecho Poético. Poems are not puzzles to solve. They are facts. Poems are modes of experience grounded in common sense, mother wit, connected to mood: indicative, ordering, questioning, wishful, conditional.
Settings is everything. If you don’t get your settings under control you risk exposure to a crowd of marketeers and advertisers, scammers and schemers, grammarians and auditors, spelling and lingo specialists, APA and MLA experts and all sorts of self-appointed stylists, and there you are, slipping down swell after swell of pop ups as you fall into the troughs between paragraphs, your settings in disarray. Not that marketing or advertising are intrinsically bad or wrong. But you can’t just sit there. You must ensure fork and spoon and knife and teacup are correctly situated, properly placed, not to move them, mind you, but to observe their movement around the table. Just kidding, that – don’t know anybody frets over those settings anymore, but in writing, there seems to remain a force, a sitting army ready to be activated to a sentence disaster (run-on or fragment), a paragraph catastrophe (its topic sentence decapitated), a thesis statement emergency (no one in disagreement). Fonts and points are important though, for the setting of the hens relies on easily reached clucks and clicks and the broody trance setting in. Yet, if you want to be set completely free, the thing to do is disable, disarm, disengage, dissemble, disassemble. The problem we have been set is to first find settings and to then calibrate and if no pop ups appear, to celebrate. I don’t know what set me to thinking about settings, just sitting here, wondering if it’s worth getting into or not, the topic, floating on the open sea of writing, settings uncleated, set loose with pen and paper as with oar and boat, where propriety is indeed a kind of table setting so that the tea party does not go mad, rarely though all that useful navigating an open sea, a blank sheet, subject to the predicates of clockmaking winds.
This and That had a quick chat.
You go this way and I’ll go that,
balanced on the brim of a hat.
Said That, I which wish to set
up this neither forget nor forgive
any trespass near or far.
As far as that goes, replied This,
I’ll look forward to that there
reminder, and with That,
into the hat fell This,
out came That.
Thus This fell forward nearby,
while That fell far and away
back, and this chat was that.
For some, grammar might be understood as an attempt to control language, or to control a speaker. But the only way to establish complete control over a language is to kill it, which is probably or nearly impossible, because language possesses, like the planarian, the ability to reform or regenerate from a tiny piece of itself. I point to an object, and that is how grammar works. The object could be the sugar bowl on the kitchen table, the moon, or a running man. I link to it for the purpose of linking you to it also. But first, I have to get your attention. Of course, I can always point to myself, or point to an object by myself, like talking to myself, which might be one origin of poetry. When the objects we point to disappear, or others claim to be unable to see them, we come to the first existential crisis of language, where we find ourselves in grammar school, the subjects of rote repetition in an effort to create memory. In grammar school, we learn to wear a uniform.
We learn to number our clothes. The hat, number 1. Or maybe we start with the shoes, the socks being a subset. First we put on the right sock, then the left, then the right shoe, then the left shoe. Never mind it’s a sunny day and we were thinking what fun it would be to go barefoot. To go barefoot, in grammar school, is one of the first examples of being ungrammatical. We are assigned a seat, a number in a numbered row, alphabetized and numbered in the numbers book. Having a number is essential when everyone looks alike.
So it was with a tremulous motion I finally approached my MS Word file containing my first published novel, “Penina’s Letters,” to correct a few unintended consequences. The first printing had contained an unacceptable number of typos, and the front matter setup has always felt a bit clumsy to me. The chapter listing page, for example, showed the chapter titles but no page numbers. And the ISBN didn’t show on the copyright page. But why the tremolo? Why not just go in and make the changes? I did manage one corrected copy upload, after the first printing back in 2016, ridding the book of most of the obvious errors, mistakes which, it pains me to admit, I had failed to spy with my little proofreading eye. But a few issues remained, as additional readings revealed, but the thought of entering the MS Word file again and resubmitting for revision to CreateSpace for approval with the hope of not making matters worse was all more than I felt up to. Besides, I now had other projects underway that required my attention.
Then, a week or so ago, I was notified that CreateSpace was closing its doors and all texts migrating to Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). So I took the opportunity to become acquainted with KDP by reworking the front matter of “Penina’s Letters” and fixing a trio of what I recognized as outstanding mistakes.
My first submission of a redo file for KDP’s approval was rejected – something to do with pagination errors. Mercifully, the rejection came within the 24 hours promised, and I went back to work on the Word.doc before motivation waned, resubmitted again, got approval, ordered a proof copy, and voila! No page numbers at all.
Suffice to say, after all that preamble and bramble, that for the past several days I’ve been immersed in a kind of MS Word pagination purgatory. Changes to a text often cancel out other changes, or sit on top of them, burying them below – but that suggests there is a top and a bottom to the thing, and of course there is not.
I got page one to say 1 but could not get the other pages to follow suit. I got every page to say 1. And so on, nothing acceptable. I began to think, rationalizing and trying to come up with some creative solution, why bother paginating at all anyway? Does the common reader really need page numbers? And isn’t a page number a kind of mar on an otherwise illuminated manuscript page? I got page numbers to show, but not in the footer where they belong. I toyed with “different front page,” “link to previous,” “create section break,” erase all and begin again. Deeper and deeper into an MS Word morass I sank. I entered “document,” “paragraph,” the journeyman’s “tools.” Suddenly blank pages and huge gaps in the text began to appear throughout the manuscript. I fixed and corrected and proofed. At one point, I had a file with pagination complete that seemed correctly formatted. I resubmitted yet again to KDP, and the proof file came back still with no page numbers.
I took a break from the project. I remember McLuhan saying something about pagination beginning with the printing press. The fall is into the printing press. Is there a page 1 to the Internet? In a mosaic, one may enter and exit anywhere. Page numbers are useless. There are no pages. There is the infinite scroll – over, under, sideways, down.
“Backwards forwards square and round.
When will it end, when will it end,
When will it end, when will it end,”
the Yardbirds sang.
“We don’t need no stinking page numbers,” I can hear Puck Malone of “Penina’s Letters” saying. But in the end I managed somehow to successfully place page numbers on the outside edge in the footer of even numbered pages, in sequence, every other page. I seemed to recall seeing books numbered only on every other page. I looked through some books. Saul Bellow’s “The Actual” places page numbers only on the odd numbered pages, right edge of page, in the margin, spelled out, in italics: page one. Enough.
Interested readers may utilize the “look inside” feature at Amazon to get an idea of how the new printing of “Penina’s Letters” came out.
She came from around the sun
in cherry blossom time
and paused, here, on this spot
and found she could not
blind to the irises and black
dots spotting the hawk
on its back
their ships were nothing like
the science fiction versions
more like eyelashes
The good sister could not
hide her red cheeks
as she left her red checks
across their papers
up and down the aisles
of her universe.
The comma, which gives one pause; the comma which does not give one pause; the comma, at which point one pauses; the comma, a cockroach in the corner of the closet after all the clothes are cleaned out and the conversations are forgotten, hollow and cold; the comma that defies erasure, the comma that sticks; the comma that permits addition but sometimes subtracts; the comma a foot soldier, a drone wearily drove, the first key to fade; the comma a banana peal only a curmudgeonly grammarian with scruples would slip on; the comma a red light where turning right on the red without stopping is ok; the commas lined up like cars waiting for the ferry to return to cross over to the islands:
,,; ,, ,,; ,, ,,; ,, ,,; ,, ,,; . . . . . .
Scamble: I met a comma at the bus stop this morning. … Did you hear what I said? I said, I met a comma, at the bus stop, this morning.
Cramble: Be wary of commas. They’ll be on you like fleas.
-Did you know the apostrophe is the feminine form of comma?
-Band of punctuation pirates, the lot of them. Some witch of an exclamation point once hexed me into a pair of parentheses.
-Yes, life is hard enough without being labeled a parenthetical expression.
-Imagine impossible to break away from the vice grip of your parents.
-The bus stop comma seemed a cool enough little fellow.
-What was he up to?
-Just pausing, to say hello.
-I once dated an apostrophe, a beach volleyball aficionado, as I recall.
-Cool comma wasn’t going to the end of the line, Line 15, though, where the periods have apparently gentrified the neighborhood, the so-called Pearl District.
-No more comma splices. A few fragments, still.
-What’s the point of periods, anyway? We never really stop we get up and go again. He got off at the very next stop, the cool comma did.
-Why I prefer the express bus no all of that stop and go busyness biz.
In the beginning was the word, and the word was a sentence.
And the sentence was an assignment.
And the assignment broiled in the brain,
that alchemical brewpub of doubt.
A devil came near, cooing, “Plagiarize, my dear;
allow me to serve the sentence for you.”
A good angel appeared: “Depart, ye fiends of papers for free.
Ditch, web dwellers of rehearsed research.
Begone, you bad teachers of bad writing.
Students can do this on their own.”
And singing Blake’s proverb, from
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,
“No bird soars too high if he soars
with his own wings,” the angel dropped a book
into the waiting writer’s lap, and flew away.
What book did this fresh, good angel drop, which might bargain anew all the how-tos with writing students and their teachers both in and out of academia? Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several short sentences about writing (Vintage, April 2013). Klinkenborg challenges schooled approaches consisting of “received wisdom about how writing works” (Prologue). Klinkenborg turns the traditional writing teacher on his head and shakes the bulges out of his pockets. All sorts of found, useless stuff drops out, lightening the student’s load. Klinkenborg speaks to the writing “piece,” considers genre arbitrary and binding. He eschews genres and schools and rules. But not grammar and syntax. Loves the fragment, not the run-on. His style is controlled by “implication.” Implication is a good sentence’s great secret, its ability to suggest thought. His sentences often illustrate their own attributes. The book as a whole is a study and a reflection on that study of the sentence. The book’s prose is cut into lines that emphasize what’s necessary to read a sentence for its syntax and rhythm and space. Some may see this as mere trickery, and maybe the book is a slow, idiosyncratic, quiet rant. His discussion of “rhetorical tics,” the bane of Freshman Composition that remains through graduate school and beyond like an old scar, is funny and sad (118). If you’ve ever completed any assignments on your own, you might recognize yourself in his descriptions of a web of false writing. I did. But I also saw many hunches I’ve had over time validated: writing is learned while writing and in no other way; a good writer is a good reader, a good proofreader, but also a good general interest reader, which means not having to have something that “interests me” before being able to read it, because good writing creates its own interest; teachers have done so much damage to students that many students would rather risk plagiarism than think and write on their own.
There are contradictions, difficult to resolve. Klinkenborg says, on page 57, “You don’t need to be an expert in grammar and syntax to write well.” I agree. The apparent contradiction is that he then spends the next sizable section of the book on what we should know about grammar. “You do need to know the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs,” he says, but he doesn’t say why, nor does he try to explain that difference (though the answer might be found in an implication I missed). If we don’t need to know grammar, why spend time on it? This is an important question. And of course we do know grammar. We learned grammar when we learned to speak. But we may not know how to talk about grammar or to read for grammar or syntax. And some knowledge of parts of speech and what we think of as grammatical terms might be important to certain kinds of reading. He wants us to find words in a dictionary and to notice etymology and parts of speech. This is sound. But some of his precepts seem vague, even New-Agey. Explaining implication, he says it’s “The ability to speak to the reader in silence” (13). Well, John Cage did speak to the reader in silence. And Klinkenborg’s many references to the way we were taught to write in school are at risk of becoming a kind of straw man argument. Has no one tried to dig through the dried up crap of fabricated rules before? But the straw man here, if there is one, might be personified as an industry of text books, so the challenge is worth the charge. Klinkenborg may not be an archangel delivering a sacred text, but his book clears the air for a spell.
A colleague suggested the Klinkenborg book, and I’m glad to have read it and to recommend it for general interest readers, writing teachers at any level, and students at any level, anyone, in short, in or out of school, interested in reading or writing. Yes, Klinkenborg wants to talk to the whole writing world about sentences. He wants to non-specialize the traditional approaches to thinking about writing, remove bogus rules from circulation, instill faith and trust in aspiring readers and writers.
Several short sentences about writing is divided into four major sections and many subsections. The book (204 pages) does not wear its skeleton on the outside. The main sections are as follows: 1 – a short prologue; 2 – the central text (146 pages), the sentences arranged in cut lines, like verse (opposite of what we’ve come to expect from prose); 3 – “Some Prose and Some Questions,” eleven short prose excerpts by established writers, followed by a section inviting analysis of the pieces through reflection suggested by specific questions Klinkenborg provides; and 4 – Some Practical Problems, 33 pages of short sentences from student writing, with short comments by Klinkenborg. It’s not a text book, but it could be used as a text. But that would require, perhaps, changing the mindset of an instructor, or even of an entire English department, or at least calling upon instructors to reconsider traditional “received wisdom about how writing works,” or how the teaching and learning of writing might work.
Here’s an example of a wonderful Klinkenborg sentence fragment: “The faint vertigo caused by an ambiguity you can’t quite detect” (55). This is quoted unfairly out of context (is there any other way to quote?), but who is “you” here? What kind of reading experience must one have to get dizzy reading a poor sentence? And here’s an example of the way he challenges the august teaching community: “…The assumption that logic persuades the reader instead of the clarity of what you’re saying” (117).
By implication, at least, Klinkenborg’s sentences touch on many of the topics usually covered in composition classes: research, authority, argument, outlining, chronology and sequence, style, ambiguity, rules, rubrics, writing models, imitation, rhythm, revision, editing, meaning, figurative language, transitions, reading, reader, clarity. The sentences wit and cut new paths through this overgrown field.
If you are into marginalia, this Klinkenborg book is a lepidopterist’s field day. I found myself chasing sentences around the book as if they were butterflies. My copy is a mess of notes. I was inspired to try my hand at an original sentence. Here goes nothing: Thoughts without sentences are like flowers that never bloom, each tightly wrapped petal a word waiting to become part of a sentence to be smelled, to be read or heard in a single breath. Klinkenborg would say it’s too long, ambiguous, cliched, doesn’t breathe. And it doesn’t make sense. Do we hear through breathing? Sounds like something a Woody Allen character might say, the audience erupting in laughter, the irony on you. “The most subversive thing you can do is to write clearly and directly…” (132). Easy for him to say.