Half-Hazard: Poems

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A Meditation on Exclamation Marks in Contemporary Poetry (!)

“I always got the exclamation mark at the end— / a mere grimace, a small curse.” Luljeta Lleshanaku, in her poem “Negative Space,” writes how she would wait her turn during a reading circle in first grade: “A long sentence tied us to one another / without connotation as if inside an idiom.” Other children would get nouns, verbs, and pronouns, but she was stuck with that vertical punctuation. Likewise, for many contemporary poets, the exclamation mark is a mere grimace; for others, a small curse. It was not always this way.

The Italian writer Iacopo Alpoleio da Urbisaglia claimed to have invented the exclamation mark in the 1360s as a way to enunciate admiration rather than a question. In his book The English Grammar (1640), Ben Jonson again stresses the element of admiration, and quotes from Chaucer: “Alas! what harm doth appearance / When it is false in existence!”

Eric Weiskott, in his consideration of how translators shift the punctuation of Beowulf, told the wider history of the exclamation mark: “As the novelty of pointing common interjections wore off, writers reinterpreted the grammatical criterion as a tonal one, and the point of admiration became the point of exclamation.” He credits the “marketing of the first commercial typewriter in 1870” and the “rise of the modern psychological novel, with its penchant for expressive pointing in dialogue” as completing the punctuation mark’s shift from admiration to exclamation.

Older poems teem with the mark. William Wordsworth used three exclamation points in “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802,” all in the sonnet’s final four lines: “Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep! / The river glideth at his own sweet will: / Dear God! the very houses seem asleep; / And all that mighty heart is lying still!”

Emily Dickinson used them often in her early poems. Cristanne Miller thinks Dickinson’s exclamation marks were similar to her question marks: “As conclusions to poems, both indicate that what appears to be true is not always to be trusted, that surprising events may disrupt impressions or assumptions.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins, a stylistic wonder, littered his poems with punctuation. He was an aural poet, and knew punctuation could pinch the page—lift his words at the right moments. His poems are full of exclamation marks. “The Windhover,” dedicated “To Christ our Lord,” includes two line-ending exclamations, perhaps the only way Hopkins saw fit to communicate the sincerity of his faith.

Yet other poems, like “Pied
Beauty,” were comparatively muted. Hopkins was a master of pacing, and it seems
like he’s going to end his poem with an exclamation point, but the tease is
without the expected satisfaction: “With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle,
dim; / He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: / Praise him.” It makes
perfect sense: Hopkins is talking to his readers, and not God—for whom he saves
his exclamations.

Exclamation marks are not exactly
rare in contemporary poetry—but they are occasional enough for us to take
notice. For all their ubiquity in texts and emails, exclamation marks call
attention toward themselves in poems: they stand straight up.

One of my favorite exclamation marks in recent poetry is in the poem “Undressed” by Kristen Tracy from Half-Hazard. “Part of me wants to throw this ring back,” a woman narrates, “but part of me is happy to have a diamond. / Is love sad?” There is a part of her that wants “to chew the ring up // and die,” and it is that part of herself that most attracts her: she wants to “mend its mittens / and kiss it on the mouth.”

She wavers. Does she want to
stand at the altar? Could she really share a closet? She hears the “clamor of
my lover’s / shoes” traveling across the floor, and “they vibrate in my ring.”
There’s no way his steps could cause such shaking “unless my lover travels like
/ King Kong,” but the implication is clear: he’s home now, and she’s taken out
of the reverie. In the poem’s penultimate line, Tracy adds a parenthetical: “(I
think I love this ring!). It is an interjection within her thoughts. A push
back against the part of her that doesn’t want to get married. It’s a perfectly
timed injunction against the self; a demonstration of how an exclamation mark
can make an entire poem work.

Another recent poem, “Sunset on 14th Street” by Alex Dimitrov, has six exclamation points, and each one feels just right. The opening lines of the poem, “I don’t want to sound unreasonable / but I need to be in love immediately,” are parallel in length and rhythm, and set the tone. When the narrator says “I can’t watch this sunset / on 14th Street by myself,” we know that he can, but he doesn’t want to—and often those two things are the same.

Dimitrov’s exclamation points
serve as enunciations—observations about the world, us, and the narrator, as
when he says “I’m broke and lonely / in Manhattan—though of course / I’ll never
say it—and besides / it’s almost spring. It’s fine / It’s goth. Hello!” The
poem accumulates toward an exhortation for us to stop “performing our great politics”;
after all, we are “Still terrible / and awful. / Awful and pretending / we’re
not terrible. Such righteous / saints!” Yet Dimitrov’s poem ends with a gentler
declaration: “Look at the sky. Kiss everyone / you can for sure.”

I love when poets use punctuation to control us, to slow us, to focus us. Think of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose”: “Some of the passengers / exclaim in whispers, / childishly, softly,”. Maybe exclamation marks are not shouts. Sometimes a whisper is the loudest sound.

Image credit: Flickr/James St. John.

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