Sunday, February 11, 2007

Commas at ends of lines

Here's a pet peeve of mine: the omission of commas at the ends of lines of verse.

Here's the example I just came across, from "Cher," by Dorianne Laux, today's poem in the Poetry Calendar 2007:

I wanted to wear a lantern
for a hat, a cabbage, a piñata
and walk in thigh high boots

Am I just being too picky (too much of an English teacher) when I stumble over the absence of a comma after "piñata"? Otherwise, the poem uses conventional punctuation throughout, and no other commas are omitted at the ends of lines.

I don't want to pick on Laux about this; it's something I see quite often, and I frequently stumble over it. In Laux's poem, at least, the missing comma does not make the grammar and syntax confusing, or create a distracting uncertainty about what exactly is meant (not an ambiguity but an uncertainty, which is a different thing).


J. Newberry said...

I suppose I'm not bothered by punctuation "errors" in a poem if there is some good reason for the modification (I like that word better).

I don't see a good reason here.

(Enjoy your blog, btw. I found it through Steve Schroeder's "Sturgeons' Law."

Donald Brown said...

I certainly agree that it's annoying (and misleading) when commas are only omitted at line-ends in poems with otherwise regular punctuation. However, I accept no commas in poems that eschew punctuation for the most part and only put in the most necessary commas. I seem to think I've done this myself sometimes, but I'm not sure why.

greg rappleye said...

Isn't this the old "Harvard-Oxford serial comma" debate? I'm not sure this has much to do with the lineation of poetry.

Like you, I do not see any "grammatic/sense ambiguity" in the Laux line and in fact, the pinata, untended by a comma and hanging in the air
has a certain "image ambiguity" that appeals to me.

I am not sure how one wears a cabbage or a pinata.

SarahJane said...

The lack of a comma there doesn't really bug me. Using punctuation "incorrectly" only bothers me if it's inconsistent within the poem.

Some would argue that a comma isn't really necessary there because of the "and," and also because a lot of poets consider the end of a line a kind of comma in itself. I can go with that, as long as it's applied throughout the poem.

Andrew Shields said...

Don: I agree that omitted commas in poems that try to be as sparse as possible with punctuation are no problem.

Greg: I don't think is the Harvard-Oxford thing, as the "and" here does not connect cabbage, piñata and walk but rather wear and walk.

As for how one wears those things, Laux is remembering Cher on the Sonny and Cher show, wearing all sorts of wild hats. I had no memory of that, as the show was a couple years too early for me, but the image seemed familiar.

Sarah: "a lot of poets consider the end of a line a kind of comma in itself"—well, that is precisely the idea that causes the trouble, in my experience. As in these lines (which I quoted once in a review) from Monica Alvi: "Collect nothing / which isn't infinitely collectible." As I wrote in the review: "Is the relative clause defining or non-defining; is 'nothing' general or particular? Such distraction outweighs whatever gain the ambiguity produces."

Thanks for the comments, folks!

Andrew Shields said...

Here's another one that my Mom sent me from Garrison Keillor's "Writer's Almanac" for today (not only Lincoln's birthday, but also Darwin's, both in 1809):

"I love you my mona / my lisa, my cabbage, my gargoyle, Degas' little dancer // in dawn's ragged gown." (from "Jet Lag" by Eve Robillard, from "When Gertrude Married Alice.")

The omission of the comma after "mona" is just distracting and clumsy!