How Poets Use Punctuation as a Superpower and a Secret Weapon

A poet I know, reluctant to define what poetry can or can’t be, once suggested (somewhat facetiously) that a bag of dirt could be a poem if the poet deemed it so — calling to mind Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, the urinal turned into art by contextual/conceptual gesture alone. This got me thinking about what my own bare-minimum criteria for poetry might be. A bag of dirt in a gallery might be an installation, but I wasn’t quite willing to concede it could also be a poem — a poem must at least, on some level, I thought, be verbal. But was that quite right? What about Aram Saroyan’s famous visual poems, in particular the lowercase m with an extra hump — not even a word or part of a word; an unletter. Maybe poetry only requires typography — but doesn’t it also require sound, the sense that at least in theory you could hear the poem? I do feel I can “read” that long m — it has a sonic quality — and the Saroyan poem “lighght.” An ampersand alone on a page would represent a pronounceable word. But what about a parenthesis, or a semicolon?

By Elisa Gabbert, The New York Times

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