Thursday, July 9, 2009

Comma, Comma, Comma, Comma, Come On!

Comma , , , , , Crazy , , , , , Poems


Volume Two
José Garcia Villa


Ron Silliman


The Black Debt)
Steve McCaffery


Kenneth Goldsmith


Sea Lyrics
“What In Fire Did I, Firelover, Starter of Fires, Love”
(all collected in Ring of Fire)
Lisa Jarnot


Vertical Rainbow Climber
“The Cryptographic Ocelot”
Will Alexander


A Prefatory Note

I must begin with an apology, for the “Comma . . . Come on!” kicker-headline above. Admittedly, that headline badly puns the poor comma half-way (or more) to oblivion. In my defense, others have done the same. Consider please the following punning book titles, all of which are real as real as can be:
Comma Sense: A Fun-damental Guide to Punctuation

Lapsing Into a Comma: A Curmudgeons Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print – and How to Avoid Them

Comma Sutra: Position Yourself For Success With Good Grammar
Those are something, eh? Okay, now that we’ve had that fun, let’s get on with the show.


This post concerns six poets’ comma crazy poems. By “crazy” I mean nothing pejorative, and everything exultant. By “comma crazy” I mean that the comma, natch, is the key punctuation mark. These poems have a lot of commas (and I mean a lot, as you’ll see below), and just as important the comma also supports or advances a fundamental poetic purpose, at least in most of the poems discussed.

This post might only be an excuse allowing me to make a list, and to discuss a bit about, a few extremely well-made comma-centric and comma-licious poems. On the other hand, and assuming you’re interested or kind enough to read on, maybe some common comma tactics will, be, seen.


Volume Two
José Garcia Villa
(New York: New Directions, 1949)

Volume Two is the ur-book for comma-crazy poems, and the earliest published of those discussed here. Garcia Villa goes comma-n,u,t,s:




There are 165 numbered poems in Volume Two, and all but approximately 15 follow the same pattern as the poem above: a comma after every word (except for the periods which end sentences), with no space between the comma and the following word. A few of the poems are more than a page, although a good number (Garcia Villa calls them “Aphorisms”) are two or three-liners.

Volume Two,must,have,been,mighty,trippy,when,first,published,sixty,years,ago.


In a note that begins Volume Two, Garcia Villa calls his commas a “strange innovation” and concedes readers “may be puzzled and perplexed.” He denies eccentricity, asserting that the commas are used functionally and poetically. Specifically, Garcia Villa explains they commas regulate “verbal density and time movement: enabling each word to attain a fuller tonal and sonal value, and the line movement to be more measured.”

He also explains how the comma should work: “a pause ensues after each comma, but a pause not as long as that commanded by its prose use: for this reason the usual space after the comma is omitted. The result is a lineal pace of dignity and movement.”

(Please note: unfortunately, the default spacing here on Blogger, as well as the spacing used for the comma poems used in The Anchored Angel, the fantastic 1999 book of selected Garcia Villa writings edited by Eileen Tabios, cheat Garcia Villa’s poems. In the New Directions Volume Two, while the space after the comma is omitted, the comma between each word has a touch of independent space on each side, and thus the poems there appear far less crowded than they do here on Blogger or in The Anchored Angel.)

Garcia Villa in the prefatory note also writes that his method “may be compared to Seurat’s architectonic and measured pointillism,” in which the points of color are both medium and technique:

Despite these claims, some readers will find Garcia Villa’s commas distracting, maybe even a blunder, or at the least a failure in the sense that they do not live up to the bold claims he makes for their use. There has been plenty of criticism along those lines.

However,I,like,the,commas. I like the slight but distinct pauses between each word. The commas do indeed create a pace, a majestic march. It can trend toward the metronomic, but that’s sometimes avoided because while the comma-pauses are uniform, the words between the commas are of varying lengths and of course vary phonetically too.

I also like the commas because they tend to foreground each word as an object in and of itself. The words are not just a part of structured syntactical arrangement, but independent things as well.

Because, of,the,commas,each,word,to,quote,from,the,poem,set,out,above,is,a,Solitary,Unit.

Garcia Villa’s commas do work better in some poems than others. Most of what he calls “Divine Poems,” heavy with religiousness, don’t work that well, even when I manage to get my faith groove working. To me, the short aphorism-poems work better, and in some of those the comma-technique and poem’s subject matter are almost perfectly matched. Consider the synergy of style and content in the following untitled objectivist gem:

It’s marvelous, yes, the way, the slow and stop-and-start journeying of the beetle around the melons, is shown by the commas, which cleverly reflect (if the commas are given the slight pause Garcia Villa suggests) the pace of the process as it really happens. Also nice is the way the two big words (“circumnavigator” and “cantaloupes”) balance out the shorter words and the comma-pauses of the poem, and the way the disparity between the two larger words and the smaller elements (words and commas) mirrors that between the insect and the fruits (or the insect and length of its travels).

Here’s another aphorism-comma-poem that seems to work especially well:
Not,the,easy,straight,line –
Yes, there’s a dash in there, but you gotta agree, it’s a perfect addition here.

The last aphorism-poem I’ll share has but three words. It probably was written as a direct allusion to the story of Jesus. But the religious dimension can be considered just a starting point, after which the poem can be read as a kind of enigmatic thought or half-thought about most any ordeal. But what the heck am I doing here? I’ve just written about 50 words about a three word poem! Enough! Here’s Garcia Villa:
Now that's concise!

Ultimately, I like Garcia Villa’s commas, even when they don’t work that well, because in using them, he just went for it. It’s, a, ,crazy, , , a most unusual, experiment, one that still seems unique. I salute the veer, the slant, the curved approach of Volume Two. Here from the book is the tippy-top example of Garcia Villa’s fun, a work which until further notice earns the prize for the comma-ist poem ever (click image to enlarge on a new page, if you’d like):


Ron Silliman
(Hartford, CT: Potes & Poets Press, 1982)
--re-printed in--
The Age of Huts (compleat)
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007)

BART is a prose poem of one long, very long, sentence. That sentence was written entirely over the course of about five hours on September 6, 1976, while Silliman rode on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system, or waited for trains in BART stations. The book’s cover, depicted above, looks like an enlarged version of the electronic bar-coded ticket used to get in and out of the stations.

The poem’s single sentence has upwards of 500 (yes, five hundred) clauses, each of which is separated by a (do I even need to say it?) comma. Some of the clauses are just a few words, others longer. The following excerpt amounts to about one-quarter of page (the poem in this manner runs for 22 pages). The spacing here more-or-less mimics that of the original publication:
this world is foreign to me, an act of

description, old rail cars, I-beams, a school

or hospital off in the distance, we stop, a

woman gets on chewing blue gum, a yardful

of transformers, PG&E, old homes, weathered,

wooden, no lawns, just direct, these tracks con-

stantly bordered with cyclone fence topped

with barbed wire (and I only just noticed),

girl in a pink dress cries, a vacant lot, full

of refrigerators and stoves, South Hayward,
This kind of potent parade of particulars – observed details of the world and the poet’s own mind-thoughts – is Silliman’s poetic forte, or one of them. The commas are of course grammatically proper and necessary, buttressing the huge sentence as it tracks down and across page after page via clause after clause. But the commas, I believe, function as more than just appropriate punctuation.

To me, the poem-sentence’s series of clauses separated by commas echo Silliman’s day on BART, in which he experienced a series of movements (forgive me here) punctuated by brief stops at each station. It’s not an exact parallel – there are far more commas in the poem than there would be station stops on the trains, even over the course of a five hour ride. But the general echo of a pause (as at a station, where the train stops briefly as passengers exit and board) and movement (as in the train is underway) does exist, and the commas make that happen.

The sentence’s comma-separated clauses also seem to mimic the actual BART trains Silliman rode. The clauses can be seen as strings of train cars, with the comma and its following space the gap between cars common to trains. The clauses and commas also might be seen as a kind of written reflection of the distinctive “look” of the top half each BART car when seen from the side:

This is a bit far-fetched, but the windows and windowed doors of each car, separated by wider or narrower areas or strips of aluminum, can be “read” as a series of clauses, with the windows sometimes the clauses and the metal the comma, and sometimes vice-versa. The exteriors of BART cars do have a definite Morse Code-ish look that perhaps gives some basis for my fancy here.

In all these ways, the commas serve the poem, and BART is more true to the reality from which it was made because of those commas.


Steve McCaffery
The Black Debt
(London, ONT: Nightwood Editions, 1989)

LAG is long: about one hundred ten pages, with each page filled side-to-side and top-to-bottom with comma-linked phrases. There are at least twenty phrases per page, meaning there are well over 2,000 commas in the poem, including the one that ends the poem (there’s no terminal period!).

Holy descendant of the virgula suspensiva, that’s a lot of commas!

Here’s a page from near the “Lag”’s middle (click to enlarge in a new window):

There’s much fun stuff to read here, so long as you’re comfortable with the paratactic shifts each phrase brings (the comma-linked phrases, in McCaffery’s words, “do not connect in order to narrate but to decentre and scatter”). There’s a pun or two (“phallus in wonder gland far back in thyme”), wordplay (“obsolete absolute . . . ), the comic or absurd (“drunk clowns at a bullfight”), the quasi-surreal (“olives escaping via eggs”), the intellectual/literary (“Pindar as a nihilist), mysterious numeric code-like segments (“fifty thirty twenty twenty three six sixteen”), and . . . well, you get the idea.

McCaffery has explained that he used critical theories of Jean-François Lyotard and Giles Deleuze to model and forumulate his poem. With regard to the commas, McCaffery’s explanation of how Deleuze’s notion of “becoming” helped him formulate the poem seems very relevant:
I wanted ‘Lag’’s incessant rhythm of propulsion, brevity, instant happening and anullment to suggest a constant ‘becoming-meaning’ and to shift from a ‘logic’ to a ‘physics’ and ‘kinetics’ of reading.
The commas are key to all this happening. Indeed, without them “Lag” couldn’t have been the poem McCaffery wanted. Sentences with terminal periods are far less kinetic than, and typically not nearly as propulsive as, comma-linked segments. Ditto with regard to the brevity and instant here-now, now-gone-ness of the segments. Sentences with periods, even short ones, would seem engraved in stone. The commas allow the poem to flicker phrase or clause after phrase or clause, each phrase or clause thus becoming a kind of film frame run through the projector of our minds, for page after page, after page.


Kenneth Goldsmith
(New York: zingmagazine press, 2000)

6799 lists, alphabetically by artist and then alphabetically by title within the artist’s name, all the albums (LPs and CDs) owned by Kenneth Goldsmith at the time of writing. The poem’s title refers to the year (‘67) he began collecting the listed albums, and the final year (‘99) covered by the list. The poem/list is presented as one long sentence that ends with a period. The only other punctuation in the poem’s 92 pages are commas, which are used to separate each entry. Given that there are about 60 albums listed per page, there are upwards of 5,400 commas in the poem.

Holy virgule dropped
in the 16th century to the bottom of the line and curved, that’s really, really, really a lot of commas!

Here’s an excerpt, about one-quarter of a page, that lists some of the artists whose last names begin with the letters “Ni” (and a few that begin with “No”) (click on image to enlarge in a new window, if you please):

6799 includes as a preface an e-mail exchange between Goldsmith and A.S. Bessa, and lo and behold the first exchange concerns, you guessed it, the comma. Bessa states that when looking at Goldsmith’s drawings about punctuation marks he’s reminded of how Mallarme would re-work prose poems to among other things, add commas so as to slow down the reading act. Goldsmith agrees.

In 6799 itself comma both regulates the pace of reading and serves in its more traditional role of separating things (here, artist names and album titles). Interesting, and an indication of the importance of the comma to this work, the question of which punctuation mark to use was probably one of the only elements that Goldsmith had to affirmatively decide upon when he made this conceptual poem. Almost everything else in the work – all the albums listed, and the order in which they are listed – was based entirely on what was in his music collection when the poem was made and the alphabetizing ordering principle.

However, once Goldsmith decided to present the albums in 6799 not as a traditional list, with one item per line, but in a block of text, he then must have faced the choice of how to separate each entry. Lots of options were available: semi-colons, backslashes, sentences with periods (one album per sentence), or even nothing at all (i.e. just a space between each listed album). He chose, and he chose the comma. It does the heavy work without intruding greatly. I applaud Goldsmith’s choice, if for no other reason than it gave me a chance to re-visit here a fun conceptual work.


Sea Lyrics
Lisa Jarnot
(n.p. [New York]: n.p. [Situations Press], 1996)
--re-printed in--
Ring of Fire
(Cambridge, MA, 2001)
(Cambridge, England: Salt Publishing, 2003)

Sea Lyrics is a chapbook of thirty prose poems. With one exception, each poem is a single sentence. The sentences are comprised of groups of clauses, phrases, or segments (I’ll call them clauses), separated by, yep, and yes, commas. Most of these sentences have anywhere from a half-dozen up to twenty or so clauses.

A two sentence definition of California from a 1768 encyclopedia serves as the epigraph to Sea Lyrics. The definition’s first sentence identifies California as a “large country of the West Indies” and gives the longitude and latitude. The second sentence states, “It is uncertain whether it is a large peninsula or island.”

To me the key word there is “uncertain.” I read Sea Lyrics as Jarnot’s own multi-faceted or un-fixed definition of California – focusing mostly on the Bay Area Northern California. More precisely, perhaps, Sea Lyrics is Jarnot’s accounting of California as it existed within and without her, personally and collectively, in fact and poetically, with all the perceptual and anagogic angles and ambiguity that such entails.

The most common way for a clause to begin in the thirty poems is “I am . . .”. Some of these phrases seem autobiographical, in a very specific and personal way: “I am stuck in traffic by the mudflats on the bay,” for example, or “I am waiting to buy coffee near the docks upon the square, . . . ”. Others clauses seem autobiographical in a more collective way: “I am the empty grain silos of Bernal Heights and god, and I am you on the back of a motorcycle crossing Dolores in the pineapple groves of Elvis Costello,” for example and “I am the tiny specks of detritus and metal that flake in the streets, I am the stray opossum at the undersides of highways, I am the screaming man at midnight in the lot.”

Obviously, Jarnot’s California is far different than a dictionary definition or encyclopedia description. Hers is a more personal than objective explication, more connotative than denotative, ever-shifting and layered, not set and linear. The nature of California, in Jarnot’s Sea Lyrics, is as uncertain as the land’s geographic nature – “large island or peninsula” – was for those in the Eighteenth century.

Related to the layering and ever-shifting nature of Sea Lyrics is the fact that many words or images recur or echo within and across the poems. Some of those words are: waterfront, avocado(s), dawn, fish, tattoos, dreams, the ocean and matters related thereto, eucalyptus, lagoons, opossum, Lucretius, the bridge, fog. Some obviously are directly germane to any depiction of Northern California; some are idiosyncratic to Jarnot’s experience, and some are relevant to the human experience, no matter the geographic location.

Because of the way that words recur or echo through the poems, presenting excerpts from Sea Lyrics is dicey: doing so shortchanges the overall effect. Still, you should have some idea how it goes. Here are two of the thirty prose poems in the book:
Both sea lions and sea leopards cough in the halls of our
sleep while we play pinball, I am ebbing in and out, I am
dreaming dreams I hardly know and have tattoos, I am
dreaming dreams outside of dreams and fish tanks and
the spanishest of music.

I am bludgeoned by this most exotic ocean, currently, I
am in the post office with the prison cells and tides, I
am with the fires in the eucalyptus fog, I am clearing
and the colors are all changing, I am changing colors in
the lift of fog, I am almost to Japan, I am circles and the
squirrels revolve, I am missing plastic pets, I am
predictions of the sounds of tides and this.
I cherry-picked these two, I must admit. The explicit mentions of and imagery redolent of the sea in these two – “ebbing” and “tides,” for example – permit me to more easily mention why I think Jarnot uses comma-separated clauses in Sea Lyrics: waves. Waves of thought, waves of perception. Waves of words, on the page, waves, from and in the poet’s mind, waves. Waves of words in which, as with the water of the sea, and thoughts in the mind, there is intermixing, back and forthing. Until the terminal period of each poem, and because of the commas, waves of clauses roll, swells of words surge, to the shores of the eyes.


“What In Fire, Did I, Firelover, Starter of Fires, Love?”
Lisa Jarnot
– included in –


(Cambridge, England: rem press, 1998)

– reprinted in –
Ring of Fire

(Cambridge, MA, 2001)

(Cambridge, England: Salt Publishing, 2003)

Jarnot’s collection Ring of Fire includes, in addition to the Sea Lyrics set, another half-dozen or so prose poems that consist of a longish blocks of text full of comma-separated clauses. Among these, “The Age of Velocipede,”a three-pager with some 150 clauses, has been rightly called a “tour-de-force.”

However, another of the book’s comma-laden prose poems, “What In Fire, Did I, Firelover, Starter of Fires, Love?,” is my favorite. Heck, even it’s title has a lot of commas, relatively speaking. In addition, the poem, because of how it differs from its model with respect to punctuation, gives me a chance to further consider the particular power of the comma.

Jarnot’s poem, as its title indicates, recounts what she loves about fire. It includes both personal memories and more universal matters. The poem runs for a bit more than a page. Here are the first several clauses of “What in Fire Did I . . . Love?,” followed by those clauses with which the poem ends:
The glow of it in early winter, the barn that Eric Bartlett
and Ronnie Burke burned down on Sturgeon Point Road
in 1981 and not on purpose, the coils of voluminous
smoking snake pellets set off in the driveway and on the
porch steps with the neighbors kids, the activity of Jim in
finding the biggest log outside the house to put into the
fire, the burning things upon the beach–paper cups, straws,
tires, and also driftwood, the building of all such things to a
cone of six feet high on or near the night of the fourth of July,
             [ . . . ]
                                                                                         . . ., the fire
in the fennel stalk and also then Prometheus, all general ideas
of warmth and glowingness the variety of foods that can be
cooked with it, the use of it to see when there’s no electricity,
its ability to melt wax, the way it starts from broken glass
reflections, the way it melts sand into useful glass,
the way it can be used to shape things into glass-shaped
swans and also other birds.
Jarnot’s poem is patterned on a passage from the “Ithaca” episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses, in which the narrator provides a lengthy catalog-list answer to the question, “What in water did [Leopold] Bloom, waterlover, drawer of water, watercarrier returning to the range, admire?” Here are the first several parts of the dozens of things that Bloom admires in water:
Its universality: its democratic equality and constancy to its nature in
seeking its own level: its vastness in the ocean of Mercator’s projection: its
umplumbed profundity in the Sundam trench of the Pacific exceeding
8,000 fathoms: the restlessness of its waves and surface particles visiting
in turn all points of its seaboard: the independence of its units: . . . .
Note the differences between Jarnot’s and Joyce’s punctuation. What’s the colon do, that the comma doesn’t? And vice-versa? Exact answers here are hard to pinpoint, and the differences probably aren’t vast. However, Joyce’s segments seem more punctuated, to come less freely, than Jarnot’s comma separated clauses. The colon seems to provide a greater pause, a greater separation between the clauses. This probably derives from the colon’s traditional and primary functions as a punctuation mark: to introduce a logical consequence or effect that follows from a fact stated before, and to introduce a description that makes explicit the elements of a set.

In contrast, Jarnot’s clauses marked off by commas – even with that punctuation and resulting pause – come quicker, and seem to blend more. And that, I think, is a good thing in a prose poem such as Jarnot’s . “What In Fire, Did I, Firelover, Starter of Fires, Love?” is not a math equation of units rigidly calculated, or a deductive exercise. It’s a knitted work, in which each clause is hooked to those that precede and follow it, that proceeds via association. The comma, I submit, facilitates that action.


Vertical Rainbow Climber
Will Alexander
(Aptos, CA: Jazz Press, 1987)

Will Alexander’s first book, Vertical Rainbow Climber, was published in 1987. By any measure, this book is rare. Only eight libraries have a copy, according to WorldCat, and it almost never shows up for sale.

Of Vertical Rainbow Climber’s twenty-three poems, nineteen are in prose. All but two of those prose poems are lengthy one sentence poems, with the sentence made up of numerous clauses separated by commas. These single-sentence prose poems are mostly a page or longer: clause, after clause, after clause, just like that except, of course, the clauses vary from a single or a few words to more complex quasi-sentences.

Among Vertical Rainbow Climber’s comma-laden prose poems is “Mountain Slope Swimming In Detroit.” It happens to be – and this is especially noteworthy for the bibliographically inclined – the very first poem Alexander ever published. The poem appeared in the magazine River Styx in 1979, eight years before it was collected in the book.

“Mountain Slope Swimming In Detroit” includes numerous references to that city (e.g., “the Penobscot,” a high-rise architectural landmark) and in general has condemnatory tone toward it. The energy of Alexander’s words and phrases, a burning rush of language, sears the page. Here are four excerpts, including the poem’s first three lines (comprised of a half-dozen comma-separated clauses), then passages from further along in the poem. Please notice how the focus, language, and subject matter jump and leap and flow:
Falling from the Penobscot, rising up an incline treatise, locked in outward
forms of gravity, flag pole speech in broken Esperanto, nocturnal grease
rockets, fluvial expressways humming solipsistic cowardice, . . .

                                                                                                                   . . ., on
the John Lodge expressway there are boats the size of wind whipped
martinis, cars are stripped to their essence, taken to Chicago as recycled
horse paint, in the projects wind is pure as death, a needle the length of a
lamp vein, sticking through the heart, freezing the heart with cocaine ice
cubes smoking in ditches, Detroit, father of chrome and fire, . . .

                                                                 . . ., the miraculous miasma of Martian
sun storm saddles twisting through heartbeats, mountains obscured by
bygone goats’ brains turning on rods the length of a diamond, mountains
with spectacular shirtsleeves shining, all confused by Martian crowbar
systems, . . .

                . . ., Detroit with whalebone teeth locked in the foot of an organ
grinder’s stomach, negative abrasions tearing down castles, car door
jockeys hitting themselves with man centered bricks from the universe of
death, fumes from nuclear tom cats unwind tendons, sets the
heartbeat free, oblivion is reached, borrowed birds breaking through
shadows, brocaded coffee marks sifted from prisons, liberation of the
mind, the eye, the spirit, . . .
In the twenty plus years since Vertical Rainbow Climber, Alexander has published only a few single-sentence comma-laden prose poems. Most of the poetry he’s published has been lineated verse (with no punctuation whatsoever!). His prose – short and longer fiction, philosophical speculations, and topical essays – mostly takes the traditional form of multiple sentences in multiple paragraphs.

But Alexander has published two or three comma-laden single sentence prose poems, though none have been collected in a book. One of these comma-laden single sentence prose poems – a wondrous four-pager published in 2001 – is a personal favorite, so much so that I’ve collaged up a “cover” for it:

“The Cryptographic Ocelot”
Will Alexander
Tripwire: A Journal of Poetics, # 5 (Fall 2001)

“The Cryptographic Ocelot,” as with a number of Alexander’s poems, has a “voice” that’s decentered – somewhat – from the poet himself (there’s more than a little Alexander, I think, in all his poems written from the voice of something or someone else). The “voice” here – the “I” of the poem – is an ocelot, who addresses a water owl (itself an imagined creature) who is considered a friend. No question about it, that is one funky-good imaginative starting point!

Alexander’s ocelot blisters the “daily plutonic comedy indebted to delusion,” to quote but one of many opprobriums stated in the poem about human existence, or at least much of it. The ocelot is a magnificent, vital, empowered force; perhaps a model or inspiration for us all. Here are a few excerpts, and again, remember: the poem here proceeds in the voice of the ocelot:
                                                                  . . . , I am armed with the crucial
invective, with the clipped tornado rejoinder, a mirage who squares
his knights & his bishops within this cultural esplanade of panic,
within this dizzying economic abradant, because I am the permanent
heteroclite, the resistant heteroecious demon, who always carries in
his eyes the glazed look of infinity, a tonic with mingled lightning
persona, with the cycadaceous viral totemics, . . .

                                                                       . . . , I live by means of green
beryllium adjustment, because you must admit that we are living
amidst the ruins of broken dimensional timing, invaded by detritus
from the more insidious realms, . . .

                                          . . . , from my secretive selvas I am a fiery radium
expunger, a riverine Cagliostro, capable of gristle berries or smoking
caviar russets, you see my friend, the human race exists annulled as a
super-luminal pornography, a human zone wasted in an ornament of haze & psychological destruction, a haze in which the sleight of hand
dimension takes on the concrete draught of daily existence, full of
corroded pantomime maneuvers & juggling & God games, one must
always build dazzling lacunae, false exterior puzzles, in order to feel
the pulse of the seismic, . . .

                                                             . . . , as for sentiment, let me call out the
dog hackers, let me call out the messengers from cinematic snuff bal-
lets, because I have no sympathy for beleaguerment, no sympathy for
the pus stained consumer’s dollies, for mechanically approved rhetori-
cal engagement, I’ve obliterated counting, . . .
So, okay, why are the poems full of comma-laden clauses? What was, and is, Alexander doing when he takes this approach, including in almost all of his first published poems?

I think the clauses separated by commas relate to certain fundamentals in Alexander’s poetics: the way he, his imagination, and the world come together in words. I’m going to let Alexander himself explain this, sort of. You see, to my knowledge Alexander’s never written about his comma-laden poems. So I’ve had to improvise.

Specifically, I’ve read through everything I could get my hands on that Alexander has published: poems, essays, fiction, and interviews. In these sources I identified certain phrases that seem to directly relate to Alexander’s poetics, at least insofar as that concerns his long single-sentence prose poems. I then stitched those phrases together, using – natch – commas, into a paragraphic super-sentence which I set out below.

I admit this mode of explication is unconventional. Alexander wasn’t writing (or talking) about his comma-full poems in the phrases below: I’m projecting a relation to his poetics from fragments. Yet I’m convinced, strongly, that my jury-rigged hodgepodge accurately reflects Alexander’s approach to language and writing, particularly as that undergirds his long single-sentence, comma-filled prose poems.

Here it is, and remember the following (with two minor exceptions indicated by brackets) are Alexander’s own words, lifted and arranged:
I’m joining in the creation of the universe, but in my own particular way, which is opening and opening and opening and opening, creation [that] always probes, is a kinetic diorama, is a movement of encounter with forces, the fluidic motion of the sidereal, mesmeric, an unbroken motion of consciousness, [a] river of poetry, where wild fire ignites from a river, the perpetuity of energy, expansiveness, sumptuous musical cross-hatching, a broken density of leptons, of fevers, of mimes, of flaming interior squalls, the constant rotation of immensity, the blending of halts and motions, like the vertical equilibria of fire, transmitted by surges, waves of oneiric potions, erupting transfunctional plasma, magic intensification of multiples, not the language of pedestrian exchange, but language charged as a means for moving the consciousness to the zone of “interior liberation,” the magical movement of language as it flows, a burning integral flow, which spawns the vertical numerology of trance, rushing like beautifully irradiated vipers across a drawbridge of air whistling the original nightmare incandescence of heaven, the tumbling of words, constellations of unforeseen combinations, a-connected compounds always at odds with discursive elaboration, convulsed in deeply layered expression, flood of words, alchemically cooking away, the language . . . constantly swarming, as it flows I flow, . . . .
Isn’t that something?! (The sources for each or any, yes, each or any, clause above are available on request set out below, by request, in an appendix that follows the end notes!)

The key words from collage above are: opening and opening, movement, motion, river, fire, perpetuity, expansiveness, constant rotation, surges, waves, rushing, tumbling, a-connected, deeply layered, flood, flows. None of this action, in the prose poem format, would work nearly as well if Alexander used traditional sentences (with periods that stop thought) and paragraphs (with their explicit shifting of focus). Given what Alexander values in writing – and again, I believe the collage above accurately reflects his essential poetics – his poems with long comma-laden sentences, I believe, are perfectly suited for his singular adventure.



That’s all, folks! Thanks, thanks much, for sticking with this. Any grand summations or over-arching conclusions, I, leave, to, you. Please see the note immediately below for a bit more information about the poets. And if you know of other comma crazy poems, please leave a comment. As for me, I’m already thinking of poems with lots of ellipses, colons, dashes, hyphens, etc. etc. . . . .


Notes on the Poets

José Garcia Villa died in 1997. Books currently in print include Doveglion: Collected Poems (Penguin Classics, 2008) and The Anchored Angel: Selected Writings by José Garcia Villa (Kaya/Muae, 1999).

Ron Silliman continues to write and publish. In addition to The Age of Huts (compleat) – cited above – his longpoem the Alphabet (University of Alabama, 2008) is in print. Silliman is at work on Universe, another longpoem project, although to my knowledge none of that work has been published.

Steve McCaffery continues to write and publish. Among his recent books are Every Way Oakley (Book Thug 2008), a homolinguistic translation of Tender Buttons, and Slightly Left of Thinking (Chax Press 2008), a collection of poems and texts.

Kenneth Goldsmith continues to write and publish. His poetry, conceptual and otherwise, is available almost in its entirety on the web for all to see, read, and enjoy (click here to go, if you please (scroll down just a bit on the linked-to page)).

Lisa Jarnot continues to write and publish. Her most recent collection of poems is Night Scenes (Flood Editions, 2008). Her biography of Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus, is scheduled for publication in early 2011.

Will Alexander continues to write and publish. Just a few months ago, uploads featuring Alexander reciting his work while accompanied by music, described as “recorded recently in Amsterdam,” were made to YouTube (click here to go to one). The website indicates that New Directions will publish Alexander’s Sri Lankan Loxodrome in September.

Appendix – The Annotated Will Alexander collaged “quotation”

I’m joining in the creation of the universe , but in my own particular way, which is opening and opening and opening and opening [“Will Alexander: A Profound Investigation (interview with Marcella Durand),” The Poetry Project Newsletter, No. 202 (February/March 2005) at 15], creation [that] always probes, is a kinetic diorama, is a movement of encounter with forces [“Transgression of Genre As Vitality,” Chain 3-1], the fluidic motion of the sidereal [“My Interior Vita,” Callaloo 22:2 (1999) at 371], mesmeric [Id.], an unbroken motion of consciousness [Id. at 373], [a] river of poetry [“Hauling Up Gold From The Abyss: An Interview with Will Alexander,” Callaloo 22:2 (1999) at 405], where wild fire ignites from a river [Sunrise in Armageddon at 190], the perpetuity of energy [Interview in Rain Taxi, Vol 11, No. 2 (Summer 2006) at 29], expansiveness [“Hauling Up Gold From The Abyss: An Interview with Will Alexander,” Callaloo 22:2 (1999) at 406], sumptuous musical cross-hatching [“Poetry: Alchemical Anguish and Fire,” Oblek 12-1 (Spring/Fall 1993) at 17], a broken density of leptons, of fevers, of mimes, of flaming interior squalls [“Within The Scope of the Post-Mortem Imam,” in Towards The Primeval Lightning Field at 20], the constant rotation of immensity [Id. at 30], the blending of halts and motions, like the vertical equilibria of fire [“The Whirling King in the Runic Psychic Theatre,” in Towards The Primeval Lightning Field at 51], transmitted by surges [Id. at 58], waves of oneiric potions [Id.], erupting transfunctional plasma [“Language: Leap As Inscrutable Physic,” in Towards The Primeval Lightning Field at 75], magic intensification of multiples [Id.], not the language of pedestrian exchange, but language charged as a means for moving the consciousness to the zone of “interior liberation” [Id. at 82], the magical movement of language as it flows [Id. at 84], a burning integral flow [“Isolation and Gold,” in Towards The Primeval Lightning Field at 111], which spawns the vertical numerology of trance [Id.], rushing like beautifully irradiated vipers across a drawbridge of air whistling the original nightmare incandescence of heaven [“from The Black Speech of Angel,” Hambone 7 (Fall 1987) at 164], the tumbling of words [Id.], constellations of unforeseen combinations [Id.], a-connected compounds always at odds with discursive elaboration [Sunrise in Armageddon at 130], convulsed in deeply layered expression [“from The Black Speech of Angel,” Hambone 7 (Fall 1987) at 169], flood of words [Id.], alchemically cooking away [Id. at 165-166], the language . . . constantly swarming [Id.], as it flows I flow [Id.], . . .



Ed Baker said...

nice nice thorough post nice ,thanks..

wanna hear my Villa story/x-perience?

long about 1973

which I can "pin down acuse of [...]


while up in The City some friends suggested

we go over to The Pope's place and show him/ read some of what I had been doing...

not knowing who The Pope of Greenwich Village was I said "sure, but I don't like crowds, nor do I read in a group or in a workshop... EVER!"

anyway here is the ms that Villa looked over:

and, he really paid attention to what I was doing on the page...

just now via your site

am for the first time seeing The Comma Poet in action!


EILEEN said...

What a kick to see that centipede again....and I love the conceptual underpinning to Ron's BART -- thanks for the reminder. Another wonderful post Steven!

Steven Fama said...

Thanks Ed, for the Villa story. I love reading/hearing about such meetings.

And Eileen, thanks for the nice comments. The ideas on Ron S.'s poem directly result from -- is yet another benefit of taking -- BART to and from work. Taking the train means time to read and think at least twice a day, and on top of that, I can't imagine a more appropriate place to read and think about Ron's poem!

EILEEN said...

Speaking of BART, one of my great regrets is never having the chance to follow through with Philip Lamantia's offer to introduce me to BART (this was shortly after moving from NYC to Bay Area). He said he'd show me BART, even pick up the tab for my ticket (when I asked how much a ride costs)....I promised to write a poem about the experience.

Well, I suppose there's nothing to stop me from writing the poem anyway (grin).

p.s. Rereading the Will Alexander section again -- gads his poems are wonderful, too. There's such energy, a flow, to his words...greatly passes the test of being read out loud when the reader herself gets transported into some lovely

Curtis Faville said...

Many years ago I was in a natural history museum--or was it a zoo?--probably at the one in Golden Gate Park. There was this ocelot in a tiny all plexiglass cage--cutest little devil, just sort of staring at me dreamily, but as I leaned curiously toward him, quite close to the glass, he suddenly struck, really just like a snake, his teeth slamming against the edge--scared the living daylights out of me. Embarrassing too. I thought: If that cage hadn't been there, he'd have clamped down on my face and ripped my cheek off--not to speak of what his claws would be doing in the meantime.

I absolutely love all cats, but that was a sobering moment!

brian (baj) salchert said...

During the years my companion wife was alive/ we had a cat three times even though I am allergic to pet dander. Having been born outside and allowed to be outside until we took possession of it, our last cat was feral. One day it got upset with me--don't know why--and scratched the back of my left leg. About a year later it got upset with me again because--though I was unaware of it--it was on top of the TV and was about to jump to the top of the front door I had open just when my conversation with my wife ended and I closed the door. That time it scratched the back of my right leg. To my wife's great displeasure, I called Animal Control and had the cat taken away.

Similar to that cat, the styles of writing you enjoy are outside my comfort zone, but your wild yet generous / thorough / insightful blogging style juices my brain.

brian (baj) salchert said...

Lisa Jarnot's "What in Fire, Did I, Firelover, Starter of Fires, Love?" title brought Gerard Manley Hopkins to mind.

Steven Fama said...

Curtis and Baj, I love those wild cat stories, especially (if I may) Curtis's harrowing encounter with the ocelot. That ocelot there, in its stunning energized pounce/attack, seems very consistent with how the ocelot voice "sounds" in Alexander's poem.

troylloyd said...

first, a bad joke:

comma coma

second, thanx for introducing me to yet another interesting poet i was unfamiliar with: José Garcia Villa

third,"And if you know of other comma crazy poems, please leave a comment,"

i must mention here the Canadian poet Gary Barwin, he may perhaps be one of the finest punctuation poets working in North America today, you can view his wares on his blog:
Serif of Nottingblog
here are a few choice examples from his quirky quiver,
, ; , ; , ; , ; , ; , ; ,



, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


&, i must say Steven, yr blog is all aces, it has quickly became one of my favorite reads, not only because i usu. learn something, but yr critical writing style is quite accommodating & friendly for the reader, often presenting some very complex theoretical strains, yet achieving an immediate graspability via not only a lucidity, but also a certain warmth which is most welcome..., cheers!

while searching for a suitable comma coma character, i came across an interrobang, so here it is:

Steven Fama said...


Thanks so much for the kind remarks on the post and blog.

I don't mean to rush over my gratitude for those words, but I'm excited to get to my thanks for pointing me (and linking) to some of Gary Barwin's visual poems that use commas. I was hoping to learn about something like this, even as I regret not knowing about such work when I wrote the post (because it should be included).

And a super-special thanks -- and I hope others who read this recognize what you've done here -- for your own comma poems (the individual links to Barwin's poems, I do believe, are your own creations, yes?). Particularly great are (1) the poem comma with the commas between each letter, and (2)the one that's but a line with a comma in the middle. Those are classic!

troylloyd said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
troylloyd said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
troylloyd said...

hey Steven,

yeah, Gary has an impressive body of work, he has quite a spread of books & chapbooks available, a good place to start is this collaboration w/ derek beaulieu:
frogments from the frag pool ,
it's really a great reading experience.

here's a tribute post i did for Gary: co:on ,omma fullst.p, not quite up to measure w/ his work & in particular the penultimate piece is quite weak, the one w/ the cheezy bubble effect, only reconfirming that i'm a bit of a basketweaver & not entirely adept at harnessing the full potential of computers.

& indeed,
you are an attentive reader, i hadn't fully realized i had written comma poems until it was recontextualized thru the lens of yr readership, & that fascinates me, how the operational aspects of procedural method made w/o cognitive value of production can be a liberating field of discovery, one not fully realizing any reward until after the fact of action, one can become absorbed by procedure to an almost trancelike state, entering a mode of "unthinking thinking", if you will...

...well, i managed to keypuch a mass of convoluted tangle in the above writing, put simply, i realized this threshold ofmental detatchment at a time when i was reading many books about Fluxus & wrapping my brain around all their various practices & unknowingly being opened up to the playful probity of possibilities via engaging w/ a certain manner of operation which is capable of bearing many fruits, yet forgetting about planting the seeds, as it were.

i dunno if any of this makes sense, forgive the ramble!

Robert Kasher said...

Hi Steven,

You might want to check out poet Adeena Karasick's new book from Talon (Distributed by U Chicago Press in the US) "Amuse Bouche". In it she has an extensive illustrative poem on commas from the Cixousian perspective of being the Mistress of punctuation. I think you'd find it really funny and interesting. If you want a copy I'd be happy to send you one.

Robert Kasher

Heller Levinson said...

Comma, Comma, -- Brilliantly done, Steven, Love the Alexander collage!

Heller Levinson said...

Appendix appreciated, much work required to nail those sources down, thanks from all of us!