A Gorgeous Semi-Colon
from LUNGFULL! 17
I am not obsessed with semi-colons. I was however seduced by one in particular. I discovered it in the second stanza of the handwritten copy of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven." The manuscript was on display at Free Library of Philadelphia as part of their bicentennial celebration of Poe, which ran until February 2009. I wrote the essay for the exhibition and commented on Poe's handwriting:
Many of Poe's literary aspirations can be seen in his impeccable penmanship neat, well proportioned, and impressive on the page. His exquisite manuscript of "The Raven" is typical. His signature Edgar A. Poe appears as if it were branded, itself becoming another example of the Poe brand…. Tellingly, Poe's super legible writing acts as a cover for the more turbulent and disruptive forces occurring both in his life and work.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;
I continued to dwell on Poe's semi-colon. I remembered a conversation I had with Hal Sirowitz when he moved to Philadelphia in the spring of 2007. After dinner at his house in the Mt. Airy section of the city, Hal showed me few new poems he had written. I liked them all, but had one suggestion for a possible semi-colon. Hal was clear about not using a semi-colon for the line. He said he never used them. He had read an essay by Richard Hugo that said poets should not use semi-colons because "they look ugly." Hal continued the story: "At first I thought Hugo was crazy how can you call a punctuation mark pretty or ugly? But then I started taking more notice of semi-colons and saw that they were ugly. I haven't used one yet in a poem. I did sneak one into a prose piece."
I admit that semi-colons are graceless, but I still can't shake the one I saw. At their most startling they can catch you in the throat: an indicative, yet ever-yielding pause; a dotted-line connection, discretely made; an architectural hinge and pivot where all that stays and all that goes assume a terrible balance.
by Thomas Devaney