Poetry Porch: Poetics

(from a note to the Editor)

Thank you for your interesting response to mine about my poem “Entr’acte”, its capital letters and dashes. I realized after writing to you that what I said did not really express exactly what I meant and saw another way to write it, which I wanted to write.

One Thanksgiving I sat down at my sister’s computer to record a draft of a poem, hoping to print it out and go on working from there. I was startled to find that the computer did not record what I wrote. As I recorded it, I began lines in my customary fashion – with lower-case letters, unless the line happened also to begin with the first word of a sentence. I was startled to find that the computer officiously substituted capital letters at the beginning of each and every line. Clearly the geeks who wrote this soft-ware had not gotten with the program; most contemporary poetry is written with this more relaxed, less stiff punctuation, to the point that initial caps now seem hopelessly stilted and old-fashioned. With my nephew’s help I expelled this uninvited editorial feature of the computer’s word-processing program.

Shortly after returning home, I happened to be reading A. R. Ammons’s wonderful essay “A Poem is a Walk” in Donald Hall’s invaluable compilation of essays, Claims for Poetry, and was both amused and delighted to encounter this passage, “A teacher once told me that every line of verse ought to begin with a capital letter. That is definite, teachable, mistaken knowledge. Only by accepting the uncertainty of the whole can we free ourselves to the reconciliation that is the poem, both at the subconscious level of feeling and the conscious level of art.”

Poems are very short compared with essays, stories, and novels. They are often highly compressed and rarely exegetical. They employ many devices to give the reader an experience in a short and free-wheeling compass. For some years now, under the influence of both the Japanese use of punctuation words in haiku and Emily Dickinson, I have been trying as I revise draft poems to heed punctuation as an element of the effects the poem as a whole can produce.

Now when I read poems that follow the old-fashioned initial-cap practice, these upper-case letters jar me. Remembering that, at some stage in the series of drafts that produced “Entr’acte” as I thought of how startling this unexpected character’s arrival onstage was to the two usual characters on the spot, and how penetrating and baleful was its stare, only a few yards away as I stood on the third-floor deck, I supplied a few of its line-starting verbs and one adverb with capital letters that I hoped would jar others as such letters had jarred me, thereby capturing something of the unnerving quality of this never-before visitation.

In the present, we don’t know what the future holds, even the next minute of it. In reading a literary work, any experience recounted tends to lose this quality of uncertainty because the reader knows that the future of the first line’s present is already set down or very likely set down in the lines that follow, which gives the succeeding lines a feeling of inevitability very foreign to what the teller of the tale experienced at the time. I’ll do anything I can to bring the reader into the media res of a story, including into the ignorance of the future and the surprises of the present encountered there. Thus I added capitals that I hoped, and hope, will unsettle the reader.

– Paula Bonnell                    May 3, 2015