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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Punk Punk-tuation

The summer I was nine, I sat one day in my mother's van in the parking lot of the local Wawa (those of you who know what a Wawa Market is now know where I grew up), wilting in the humidity, waiting with my sisters and brother for my mother to emerge with the green checkered ice cream carton that was going to save us from the heat, when I suddenly realized that the word "as" was going out of fashion. From my dazed and sweaty position, I jolted upright in my sticky naugahyde seat. I hadn't heard anyone use the word "as" long as I could remember. Right then and there I decided single-handedly to rescue the word "as" from its recent obsolenscence. So it became my summer of similes: the backyard as hot as a desert, the pool as fun as a carnival, and on and on. It must have been tedious for everyone in the vicinity, but I will say this: the word "as" is alive and kicking today, and you all have my nine-year-old self to thank for it.

Now I propose to do the same for my favorite punctuation mark: the colon. The first problem in re-popularizing the colon is, well, its name. Sounds rather gastrointestinal, if you know what I mean. So first, I'd like to propose a contest to rename the colon. If you have any good ideas, anything better than mine (the dual vertical period, the rotated nostril mark) please write in immediately. My campaign depends on it.

Now, let's do a colon-oscopy, an in-depth examination of the colon, but not the icky kind. Let's look at the uses of the colon, as copied and pasted here from The Guide to Writing and Grammar:

(From here on down, I am cutting and pasting from said website, until further notice.)


Use a colon [ : ] before a list or an explanation that is preceded by a clause that can stand by itself. Think of the colon as a gate, inviting one to go on:

There is only one thing left to do now: confess while you still have time.
The charter review committee now includes the following people:
the mayor
the chief of police
the fire chief
the chair of the town council
You nearly always have a sense of what is going to follow or be on the other side of the colon.

We will often use a colon to separate an independent clause from a quotation (often of a rather formal nature) that the clause introduces:
The acting director often used her favorite quotation from Shakespeare's Tempest: "We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep."
We also use a colon after a salutation in a business letter . . .


Okay, here is where I stop copying and pasting from the website, though I do want to mention, for those of you who are huge colon fans (like myself), that if you scroll to the bottom of that website, you will find The Poor Man's Animated Exercise on Uses of the Colon, with fabulous and (literally) colorful examples of when to use and when not to use the beloved colon.

Okay, so here's what I like so much about colons: You nearly always have a sense of what is going to follow or be on the other side of a colon. And that's why I adore using colons in poems. I like to follow a colon with something that I hope the reader won't expect to follow or be on the other side, combined with the structural implication that I did in fact expect the reader to expect it, or know it, or to perhaps bop herself on the side of the head thinking "Why didn't I see that coming?" I love the tension, all embodied in that one tiny punctation mark: the colon. In fact, I probably use colons too often: so sue me.

And I love the inventive use of other punctuation marks in other people's poems too. For example, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon in her book Open Interval uses the em-dash and the colon in combinations that my poor brain cannot understand. Reading those poems gave me a headache. I actually threw the book at one point, my head hurt so badly. And I loved every minute of it. Van Clief-Stefanon almost tore a hole in my brain with all that wild punctuation, and how often do you get to say that?

So here's what I want from you, readers, if any of you actually made it this far:
1) suggestions for re-christening the colon
2) examples of other poems and poets using punctuation creatively and to great effect
3) tributes to your own favorite punctuation marks.

The end. (And none too soon.)


drew said...

I, too, love the colon but I really, really love the em dash. It fits everywhere, doesn't make too much noise, isn't fussy, and slips in and out of a sentence with ease — like this.

Leslie Jam said...

I love the colon, use it and it's step sister the semi-colon regularly. I am also a fan of the simile which by nature often requires the use of 'as'. Trust me as always I am on your side!

Jessica Goodfellow said...

Thanks, Les and Drew, for supporting the colon. The em-dash, yes, a thing of beauty. I personally don't have the discipline to use the em-dash judiciously rather than sloppily, but perhaps now is the time to work on that. Les, the semi-colon, really? Don't you find it a bit clunky, sort of obvious (though necessary at times)?

Jessica Goodfellow said...

I just heard the poet Gjertrud Schnackenberg, interviewed on the New Letters on the Air podcast, claiming her deep love for semi-colons. She even read a poem with more semi-colons than she thought she had ever used in another poem.

Leslie Jam said...

I like how the semi-colon sticks out in a document-I find it also rarely used. People tend to embrace the obvious punctuation marks don't they? The period, the comma, and the much overused exclamation mark.