More Punctuation: Mary Ruefle on the Poetry of Semicolons

Adam’s post below on commas reminded me of Mary Ruefle’s on semicolons in the opening lecture of her book Madness, Rack, and Honey (note the Oxford comma in the title). Semicolons these days have garnered something of a bad reputation, w/ a good many going the way of Cormac McCarthy and rooting them out near and far. I’m with Ruefle, though; there may be no punctuation truer to our speech.

Now here is something really interesting (to me), something you can use at a standing-up-only party when everyone is tired of hearing there are one million three thousand two hundred ninety-five words used by the Eskimo for snow. This is what Ezra Pound learned from Ernest Fenollosa: Some languages are so constructed–English among them–that we each only really speak one sentence in our lifetime. That sentence begins with your first words, toddling around the kitchen, and ends with your last words right before you step into the limousine, or in a nursing home, the night-duty attendant vaguely on hand. Or, if you are blessed, they are heard by someone who knows and loves you and will be sorry to hear the sentence end.

When I told Mr. Angel about the lifelong sentence, he said: “That’s a lot of semicolons!” He is absolutely right; the sentence would be unwieldy and awkward and resemble the novel of a savant, but the next time you use a semicolon (which, by the way, is the least-used mark of punctuation in all of poetry) you should stop and be thankful that there exists this little thing, invented by a human being–an Italian as a matter of fact–that allows us to go on and keep on connecting speech that for all apparent purposes is unrelated.

You might say a poem is a semicolon, a living semicolon, what connects the first line to the last, the act of keeping together that whose nature is to fly apart. Between the first and last lines there exists–a poem–and if it were not for the poem that intervenes, the first and last lines of a poem would not speak to each other.

7 thoughts on “More Punctuation: Mary Ruefle on the Poetry of Semicolons

  1. I agree that contemporary polemics against the semicolon are short-sighted. If you’re going for a Hemingway-esque asceticism, perhaps semicolons should be omitted, but using a semicolon to join two independent clauses seems no more “wrong” than using a comma-plus-conjunction to do so. To me, the polemic against semicolons is a minor skirmish in the broader war against long sentences — and there’s no reason to be against long sentences (which are not as such “run-on sentences”!). I’m sure long sentences can be used inelegantly or inappropriately, just like any other syntax.

    Why the English language has to be loaded with all these unilateral prohibitions is beyond me. I’m sure it’s Orwell’s fault in some way. It’s idiotic that Cormac McCarthy would take it upon himself to prohibit semicolons. Really, you don’t want to have the option of joining two sentences without a conjunction? It’s either full-stop or “and,” with no in-between? Again, why unilaterally disarm? And exactly what the fuck are you going to do when you want to include commas within items in a series?!

  2. Vonnegut was also a semicolon-despiser. I really don’t understand why anyone would bear it an animus (I’m not sure I was aware, actually, that it’s been the subject of polemics), unless it’s just because many people don’t actually know how to use them.

  3. The master of the semi-colon was the English novelist Anthony Powell; in his 12-volume sequence ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ his sentences can combine a number of semi-colons being as they are a combination of description,analysis and memory. The semi-colon is not only that which enables us to represent on the page how we truly speak; the semi-colon is also the representaion on the page of how we think; consider how our thinking exists not in short sentences but rather in an on-going series of inter-connected ideas and perceptions.The war against the the semi-colon is thus a war to stop people thinking in inter-related and complex ways.

Comments are closed.