A Dash of Dash: The Lyric Art of Punctuation
With apologies to Noah Lukeman
By Heidi Czerwiec
Before evolving to mark syntax for you, silent reader—hearing these lines in your head, perhaps in a version of your own voice, or perhaps one you’ve invented to suit me (how do I sound to you?)—punctuation began as a guide to reading aloud, akin to musical notation, indicating breath breaks and rhetorical shifts, differences in pitch: verbal stage directions. Punctuation as punctum, existing all at one point, until…expanding infinitely outward across the emptiness of the page’s space, inflecting it with flavors of pause and visibility.
(Lyric, not Lukeman’s Style, whose focus is prose.)
The period. Hard transition. Hard pause. Hard pacing. Punctuation’s menarche and yet a hard stop.
Shorter, more frequent periods. A sign of immaturity. This age’s short attention span. Whereas sentences with more to say, more content, more content to extend, and therefore with less periods, seem either sophisticated or a sign of a bygone style.
Ironically, cf heavy periods. Cf a more muscular, masculine style. Cf Hemingway, Carver.
The period is a boundary. Diana is the goddess of boundaries, including menarche and menopause. The start and end of periods. The boundary’s boundaries.
Still other softer stops, stacked vertically: the divisive colon and semicolon, who divide readers and even writers; yet they point to something on the other side of the divide, try to hold hands with it through the tiny gap. Lukeman describes the semicolon as elegant, aesthetically pleasing, a luxury item, and says its primary function is to connect; he then criticizes those who overuse it, especially writers of the early 20th century. Yet I think that for them, there was no other way; only connect. The semicolon enables more complex thought; it invites the reader into the intimate inner sanctum of the writer’s unspooling mind. Yet the colon is the elegant semicolon’s wild younger sister: all melodrama, making a scene or making a statement on the way out: a gasped intake before the big reveal. The diva delivers her great aria and then: the curtain call.
Multiple colons in lyric writing create: a string of thoughts: a throughline: a thread to be threaded through those dots.
The comma, little breath mark, noted between notes, in pencil, on my flute music, quick gasp, impeding the flow. A pause, as of musical phrasing; a signature, of time, passing. If music is audible math, the comma both adds, as well as separates, the enumerated.
Lukeman says, “The writer who overuses commas tends to also overuse adjectives and adverbs…. He grasps for multiple word choices.” While I feel called out, despite not being the He of all Lukeman’s conjectured writers, I also feel it important to note, that the comma is crucial to lateral movement, essential to slippage, to the sideways sidle, the appositive accrual, for which multiple word choices (and genders) are critical.
Parentheses a containment field (who or what is being contained?), a flex (the material so strong it presses outward), a tender aside (only you and I are invited within its intimate bounds). (Is what’s inside more, or less, important?)
Lukeman sees parentheses and double dashes as nearly identical in effect—“virtually interchangeable—but does he see them? What about the visual? A selfie in a convex mirror.
( ) shaped like ears to be whispered into, a spoken-but-overheard quality, an aside, a digression.
Lukeman says the writer who overuses parentheses thinks in digression, “overflowing with knowledge, impatient to get it all in.” (As if that’s a bad thing.) Fragments, half-ideas, running off mid-thought to chase an idea down the rabbit hole (and somewhere, down there (the wild hair (hare (nested)))).
Question mark the riddler of endings, yet perhaps meant as play, as game? A gamine voice lilting upward? Even if rhetorical, does it not, for moment, create a space inside its hook? A crooked finger inviting you, reader, even briefly, to imagine your answer?
One period is a hard stop yet ironically not three…no neat start but spotting…no hard stop at the trailing off of menopause, an ellipses whose spotting points at a stuttering… or else three at a time…an imbalance that accompanies immaturity, or the overly sentimental.
Em-dash—the “Em” short for Emily—who dashed off her hand-sewn fascicles—full of them—little pauses—little stitches in time—making space visible—tension rods in tensile ambivalence—to connect or hold separate?—from “ambi” + “valent” to hold both—committed to refusing to commit—the dash more casual—even dashing—dashing off a point before dashing off—
White space Zero at the Bone
Like white space a ceasing of sound / a caesura / but more vivid / even violent / call it a slash / a collapse of lines pancaked into prose / the layers still visible / literary strata
Idiosyncratic dingbats, a doofy name for a discreet divider, dividing text into discrete sections, longer than a medium pause, may contain a shift of perspective, of style, of time or topic, framing the text in its own cel signaled by this cartoonishly-named device, bullet-riddled stop sign at the edge of town.
Essayist and poet Heidi Czerwiec is the author of the lyric essay collection Fluid States, selected by Dinty W. Moore as winner of Pleiades Press’ 2018 Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose, and the poetry collection Conjoining, and is the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She writes and teaches in Minneapolis, where she is an Editor for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Visit her at heidiczerwiec.com.