From an Old Essay

Came upon this during Finals revision.

I distrust these ‘at once’ statements as much as any other sensible middle-class bloke. They are consistently an annoyance in Ricks. One room cannot be dark and light; a ball cannot be light and heavy; according to Ricks, though, hyphens in poems can at once pull to and push apart. Ricks is wrong—hyphens only link where a whitespace had divided. They mark juncture; the syntactic or whimsical roping-together of words unpartnered, rather like the ‘yoking’ Johnson perceives is characteristic of Metaphysical poetry. He can get away with it because most assertions about literature are insulated from any true procedure of proof. Sure, you can prove irrefutably facts about what happens in a text, like Nabokov in his Lectures (it’s arguable this is scholarship, not criticism), but in stating a view more numinous like ‘This hyphen at once attracts and repels’, all you can do is quote the hyphen and see if anyone believes you. Such quotation does not constitute ‘evidence’ any more than quoting the words ‘silken tent’ constitutes evidence for Paul Muldoon’s idea that ‘cunt’ is hidden there by Frost. To my mind, the hyphens in ‘now-almost-meaningless despair’ (last words of King Log’s wondrous ‘Arrurruz’ sequence) do nothing other than conflate those three words into a newly meaningful hybrid. (And is it beside the point that they improve the rhythm?) Omitting the hyphens would have put them apart. Simply because the effect works within the domain of literature, it cannot be said at once to have achieved contradictory aims. Maybe on second reading it seemed the hyphens were doing more than uniting. That’s fine, but it annuls Ricks’ sly ‘at once’. If I were to push and pull a door at the same time, I would break the laws of physics, probably disappearing into a self-conceived black hole. Is literature so rarefied, so abstract and so closely reined to the intellect, that it need not obey these laws?

1 comment:

  1. Where shall I find Muldoon's a(c)c(o)unt of RF's "Silken Tent"?

    Literature need not obey *those* laws, it is true. Paratacticism, for example, allows multiple contradictory meanings to reside in the same line at the same time. Why should not a hyphen mark both a digression (the push) and an elaboration (the pull)? Draw a box on a plane; the familiar arrangement of two overlapping diamonds linked by short segments. At one moment, the box seems to project from the page, and the next, it recedes into it. The perceptions of both height and depth are embedded simultaneously, because both depend on a perceptual tendency to put the visual together in various ways, any one of which is a workable model of the reality under observation. Likewise with the hyphen; the "pushing" and "pulling" we speak of aren't actions (which *would* be bound by physical laws) but relationships between words -- verbal, not verb, though the closeness of these is telling. Lakoff & Johnson will have more to say about why we tend to conceive of verbal actions in terms of movement -- the embodied consciousness is a messy construct, but there is that in it which rings resoundingly as correct. All this depends largely on the degenerate use of the hyphen -- no longer used to unite, to span the gap of white space, but now also to mark aside, a role once reserved for the dash or parentheses. Or not regressive, but restorative; originally, these several punctuation marks were undifferentiable jots, and only through their history of use did a taxonomy of use emerge alongside the radiation of forms.

    Whether Ricks presses too much upon the reader with the impressive "at once" is a question of rhetoric, rather than punctuation function, but one we might profitably consider. Others have, of course.