Yesterday, I spent time at the exhibition hall and early dinner, so I only made one session. As it happened, it was a rich session and one in which I got to play a small role. This panel was the BABEL working group’s discussion of our ever favorite and often frustrating punctuation marks. Each member of the panel addressed a different type of punctuation: the space, the apostrophe, the comma, the interrobang, the asterisk, and the ampersand. The talks ranged from the outrageous to the poignant, which perhaps illustrates an idea that came up in more than one of the talks: punctuation both incites emotion and drives it. How it incites varies. For instance, who has not seen or experienced the frustration elicited upon encountering a missing apostrophe (as David Hadbawnik pointed out in countless memes devoted to the subject)? This (and I proudly admit I’m one of the most rabid) despite that many punctuation marks are in relative infancy of their so-called modern codification (ex. earlier in its history, the apostrophe was indeed used to form the plural: tomato’s).
Yet, the emotion of punctuation is not limited to that created by its misuse. Its significance, for instance, in literature and poetry can be the difference in whether the writing speaks or is mute. My friend Josh Eyler presented on the comma, and a few weeks back he asked if I and another friend, Cameron Hunt McNabb, would be up for helping him with a rather unorthodox plan. How could we not? His idea was indeed unorthodox, but a perfect fit for the concept of his talk and the concept of the panel. After a brief introduction, Josh began to discuss the Margaret Edson play Wit of which there is also a film version starring the incomparable Emma Thompson. The play is about Vivian Bearing, an English professor and a Donne scholar, who is diagnosed with cancer, and the story is a series of flashbacks that follow the path of her treatment. At a pre-arranged cue, Cameron and I stood up out of the audience and, entering from both sides of the stage, began a dramatic reading of a scene from the play that Josh had described. If I hadn’t been a bit preoccupied, I would have liked to have seen what I am sure was surprise from the audience! Unorthodox indeed.
To speak to the scene, however, it is a moving moment that revolves around, of all things, the comma. In the flashback, Vivian remembers a discussion with her professor, Dr. E.M. Ashford (my role in our amateur production), in which she is told to rewrite a paper because she has used the wrong edition of Donne’s “Holy Sonnet Six” in favor of one that is “inauthentically punctuated.” What begins as humorous turns to the poignant as Ashford verbally removes all the unnecessary punctuation from a line of the poem, returning it to the “authentic edition’s” simple comma.
“And death shall be no more, comma, Death thou shalt die.”
“Nothing but a breath – a comma – separates life from everlasting life.”
A breath. After our scene, Josh expanded upon this concept as he considered thinking of time periods as commas, thus reminding us that we are only separated from the Middle Ages by a breath. He drew even more from this as he indicated that we also are only separated from our students by a breath, a comma, a pause, rather than the “insuperable barriers” that all too often get built.
The scene in the film:
To move on to the rest of the panel, my thoughts are rather a jumble. I will attempt to sort them with one of my own favorite punctuation: the bullet mark.
- The first talk, “Seeing Spaces” by Chris Piuma, brought up one idea in particular that I want to mull further. He commented that spaces are inserted into editions and all text for the purpose of making reading easier. When it does, what happens then when we (or students) are asked to read something with non-traditional spacing (insert medieval MSS)? He acknowledged that poetry often does complicate spacing, but not everyone reads poetry and gains this experience.
- Meg Worley, in “The Divorce of Punctuation and Diacritics,” indicated how, in literary history, some authors wanted control of punctuation, and yet others ceded it to the publisher, having little interest in it. How do these choices affect or even control the reader? We should consider our own interaction with punctuation and not be afraid to “push back” and question how works are punctuated. What kind of speculation and analysis would present itself if we consider passages with commas (re)moved or statements becoming questions?
- As an example, in a way, of the idea of reconsidering punctuation as printed, Corey Sparks (remotely through the miracle of YouTube – see full presentation below) reimagined a few Chaucerian passages by replacing certain punctuation added in by editors and adding the interrobang (‽). This mark can indicate querying surprise and can often complicate narrative with its presence. In particular, Sparks considers passages from the Book of the Duchess, one into which editors often assert an assortment of punctuation.
- Robert Rouse tackled the asterisk. The idea that struck me the most from his talk was his consideration of the Middle English dictionary and the asterisk as search tool (adding an asterisk to a truncated word being searched allows the dictionary to search for more forms). Rouse described this as smoothing over the edges of what we don’t know, offering us options and possibilities. He likened this way of looking at the search tool to our entire field, suggesting we should think in terms of Medieva*.
- Jonathan Hsy brought us the ampersand (&). He sifted through a great deal of information and history, but I was drawn to his last point. He showed the image of the Tristan + Isolde film poster (posted below), which has the tag line: “Before Romeo & Juliet, there was Tristan + Isolde.” I still do not have a conclusion about the parallel use of the two marks (unlike my views on the film itself), although I am intrigued by the medieval vs. Early Modern reading.
I believe I will stop there, although there were many fascinating ideas presented that I did not discuss. I will end with the same question someone else raised at the end of the panel: what has happened in scholarly history that we can now be this playful with punctuation?
Hopefully, tomorrow, I will finish the last of the Kalamazoo posts.