A year and a half ago, while workshopping poems for my collection Anything Sounds Like A Symphony, I received game-changing advice. For reasons I can’t remember, I had been capitalizing the first letter of every line. But two folks told me that since my free verse closely resembles prose, I should punctuate and capitalize it as such.
I take workshop feedback very seriously, so I reformatted all my poems. It also made me realize much of my poetry from 2012–2016 read like bullet lists. Maybe it was my training in technical writing that led to that. I don’t know. But the feedback helped me rewrite and improve a body of work I was mostly happy with, but which had problems I couldn’t quite resolve. Symphony was a better work because of it.
When I was done, and Symphony was published, I had this inescapable feeling I could go even further. The experience made me wonder just how much punctuation and capitalization was necessary to convey meaning.
As an editor and a writer who produces essays on public policy, I need to be the master of grammar, punctuation, and all the formal mechanics of writing. The things I work on professionally and academically need to be technically perfect, and that is no small task.
But just how much technicality is required to convey meaning, emotion, and imagery? This question made me reevaluate my approach to poetry. What if I could get rid of all the mechanics and focus only on words? Is that even possible?
I gave it a shot to see how much of the mechanics could be removed during the Poetry of the Planets group project earlier this year. Using nothing but line breaks and spaces between stanzas, could I make meaning absolutely clear? Could I toss out capitalization and punctuation altogether?
It turns out: I could. But it wasn’t instantaneous, and my first few efforts required a period or two for clarity. Also, I granted an exemption to apostrophes to show possessive words and contractions.
As possibilities became realities, I worked to construct lines which never needed periods. It became a poetic mission, the kind of artistically satisfying personal obsession that makes you terribly boring at social gatherings. “I’m working on exterminating punctuation to reveal the beauty of words. Let me show you.” Right. Good luck with that line at the next office or holiday party.
Oddly enough, it worked. I put the new poems in front of workshop groups which included amateurs and academics and everything in between, and they drew the exact interpretation I wanted. They unequivocally got the meaning. The only exceptions were when I had made narrative errors, not mechanical omissions. Those exceptions forced me to rewrite poems until people drew my desired interpretations.
I also discovered a weird thing about line breaks. Without a period to stop a sentence, I could create double meanings depending on where people assumed the sentence began or ended. The first confirmation of this effect happened when author Judy Cullen sent me a beautiful reading of my poem, Jupiter.
The poem has two ambiguities in it. The first happens at the line, “love me for an hour then leave / traces of your orbit…”. Judy read this without a pause between “leave” and “traces”. Read with a pause, it says, “Love me for an hour and then leave,” as in, “Let’s get it on and then you go away.” It’s a cold line, read that way.
But if you extend it without a pause, as Judy did, it’s a line encouraging your lover to love you then leave traces of themselves, which is an intimacy the former reading stops cold. I wrote it that way to set up multiple possibilities between coldness and intimacy—something standard punctuation never accomplished.
The poem’s second ambiguity happens in the line, “until all they know is mystery like a fool / i would keep you to myself”. When Judy read it, you can tell by her pacing that she chose the first meaning: they know only mystery, like fools. But a second possible interpretation exists. You could end the sentence after “mystery”, and read the next part as “Like a fool, I would keep you to myself…”
Which interpretation is correct?
Like the first ambiguity, both ways of looking at it are right. As the author, I can tell you the correct interpretation is to simultaneously hold both interpretations in your mind, despite the contradictions. In the first case, both the coldness and intimacy are intended; in the second case, both the foolishness of others and the foolishness of the narrator are intended.
Those simultaneous but contradictory meanings were never available to me in more conventional forms. Stripping out punctuation between sentences made it possible to mean two things at once.
In most poems, I want the reader to reach a definitive meaning. But having the option to reach two possibilities, either of which is correct, and both of which are more correct when taken together—that was simply impossible in my previous style.
I respect poets who work in forms with guidelines about meter, rhyme, structure, and other formalities. In nearly three decades of composing poems, I’ve dabbled in countless formalisms. But my current minimalist approach to free verse has unlocked a freedom of expression I felt was inaccessible before.
This is not a minimalist manifesto, nor an insistence that my current approach is right or wrong. All wordsmiths need to find solutions to their own unique concerns about language. I would not produce fiction, essays, or technical manuals using this philosophy.
But when I need to unleash myself from the mechanical constraints governing my non-poetic work, and delve into the potential beauty of the spoken word, throwing convention to the wind and relying only on line and stanza breaks opens a whole new world of possibilities.