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  • Now someone’s talking”: Unpunctuation and the Deadpan Poem
  • Calista McRae (bio)

Towards the middle of James Merrill’s epic The Changing Light at Sandover (1982), a spirit first known as 741 has the idea of adding punctuation to a Ouija board, by “passing out [a] kit of tiny tools”:

‘ . (!) –, / ? Now someone’s talking. . . . Wee scoops, tacks, tweezers, awl and buttonhook, Comma doubling as apostrophe And dash as hyphen—tinkering symbols known Not in themselves, but through effects on tone.1

By punning on the biblical admonition that without “charity” one speaks “as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal,” Merrill implies that a similar sea-change depends on punctuation: if charity keeps speech from becoming mere noise, these “tinkering symbols” transform the voice on the printed page.2 In the poem’s earlier pages, before the board included such marks, each speaker communicated in unpunctuated uppercase, as if from a distance so vast that tonal variation fell away. A line from the ghost Ephraim typifies that ambiguous tone: “AH MY DEARS / I AM NOT LAUGHING I WILL SIMPLY NOT SHED TEARS” (Merrill, Changing Light, 17). Rueful, gleeful, arch, slightly minatory? It’s difficult to say.

Although it is evident that unpunctuation alters not only the look but the spirit of any poem, its sources and consequences have not been laid out at length. There are no studies of unpunctuation’s workings in specifically modern, comic poetry, my topic here.3 This neglect may stem from a sense that the effects are [End Page 1] as varied as the practitioners: what can Don Marquis’s satirical archy and mehitabel (1916–36) have in common with the wildly allusive quatrains of Harryette Mullen’s Muse & Drudge (1995)? Although this typographical deviation is used by a disparate array of twentieth- and twenty-first -century writers, the poems they produce are drawn together by the ways that minimalist punctuation changes their voices. It creates a poem usefully described as deadpan: it suppresses, plays down, or disguises tone.4

This tonal uncertainty first appears at the beginning of the twentieth century and stems from two related concerns, both subjects of recent modernist scholarship. First, the deadpan poem registers what Martin Jay has called modernism’s “unprecedented preoccupation with the interior landscape of the subject”; as Tyrus Miller and Justus Nieland have argued, anxieties about a potentially deteriorating or porous self suffuse modernist comedy, especially in the novel.5 But the undemonstrative, silent poem works in contrast to the “bitter comedy” that Miller has foregrounded as late modernist practice, and to the “inhuman” or “depersonaliz[ed]” comedy that Nieland detects.6 Similarly, though the deadpan poem shares with other comic modernist modes a “reaction against sentimentality,” its allegiances are conflicted. It cannot be readily mapped onto either an humanist or anti-humanist model of comedy.7

Instead, the poetic deadpan fuses a nineteenth-century interest in flatness as sign of deep interiority with an early twentieth-century skepticism about depths and subjectivity. Managing simultaneously to imply a self and to avoid dictating its emotions to the reader, it plays a speaking voice against an inscrutable interior. As Lesley Wheeler has shown, voice is often “a metaphor for originality, personality, and the illusion of authorial presence within printed poetry”; dispossessed of the punctuation that helps vivify that voice, the poem is opened to a comic uncertainty.8 The deadpan poem addresses a bind felt keenly in modernist poetry, as well as in the poetry that will follow: that there are limits to both how one can transcend one’s self, and how one can express that self.

Shiftless Modernism

In 1916, a columnist at the New York Evening Sun entered his office to find a page of free verse in his typewriter:

expression is the need of my soul i was once a vers libre bard but i died and my soul went into the body of a cockroach it has given me a new outlook upon life i see things from the under side now9

Archy, now a cockroach but still a vers libre poet, takes up residence in the basement office of the Evening Sun. For the next two decades, he reflects on philosophy...


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