Punctuation in Poetry


Punctuation in Poetry


when three bearded men
unbury winter’s bones they pick
at old wood scars dead trees and
their limbs now lying there lifeless

they dig deep at flowerbeds
uprooting a riot of Japanese
Knot Weed untangling roots
all tangled and twisted with
Bees’ Balm and perennials
that stray across borders
unwelcome immigrants neither
barriers nor fences can possibly hold

they probe between flag-
stones where wintering birds
and squirrels and chipmunks
cracked the seeds and wild weeds
that grow there and flourish

but where would the land be
and what would it accomplish
without helping hands
and the power of strong fingers
and fresh eyes that spot those
intruders who diminish
the space where good flowers
grow strong with fresh herbs
chives and oregano basil
and parsley peppermint sweet
crushed beneath feet

Comment: I posted this poem yesterday. It’s another raw poem. On re-reading it, I found it confusing. To punctuate or not to punctuate, that was my question. I decided to rewrite it and use punctuation. Here’s the new version.


Three bearded boys unbury
winter’s bones. They pick
at old wood scars, dead trees and
their limbs now lying lifeless.

They dig deep at flowerbeds
uprooting a riot of Japanese
Knot Weed, untangling roots
all tangled and twisted:
Bees’ Balm, Cape Daisies,
and quick-growing weeds
that run across borders,
unwelcome migrants
that barriers can’t hold.

They flourish between flag-stones
where wintering birds,
squirrels, and chipmunks
cracked seeds from the feeders.

Where would the land be,
and what would it accomplish
without helping hands,
the power of strong fingers
that pluck out the intruders
that infringe on the spaces
where proper plants grow
unthreatened by weeds?

Second Comment: Both versions work, but in different ways. The first version is more spontaneous and less logical. It allows thought and image to freely flow, but there’s some repetition and a certain lack of clarity. It does allow the  reader to be creative and to seek for alternate meanings and choose the combinations that please the most. The second version is more logical and expresses a slightly different train of thought. Punctuation forces revision and a revision that punctuates demands good grammar, less freedom of speech. The result is a tighter, much closer expression. By extension, the need to punctuate also demands more thought, more concision. Needless words are eliminated. Better combinations are possible. In addition, I find the rhythm becomes more prominent, but less spontaneous. To punctuate or not to punctuate: only the poet can decide, but any comments will be most welcome.


Hyperbole: Wednesday Workshop



It is no exaggeration to say that Hyperbole is one of the most exciting and fascinating aspects of rhetoric.

At its most basic, hyperbole means exaggeration. When we start to explore the term, however, it means oh so much more.

Looking up synonyms for hyperbole, for example, we find the following: exaggeration, hype, metaphors, overstatement, amplification, coloring, distortion, embellishment, enlargement, magnification, PR, big talk, embroidering, laying it on thick, making a mountain out of a molehill, tall talk.

But let’s not stop there. Merriam Webster offers this as a definition: The representation of something in terms that go beyond the facts. “Enough food to feed a whole army” is a common example of hyperbole. Here are some more suggested synonyms, with a few overlaps: caricature, coloring, elaboration, embellishment, embroidering, embroidery, exaggeration, magnification, overstatement, padding, and stretching. Related words include: amplification, enhancement, fabrication, misrepresentation, fudging, hedging, hype, puffery, plum-mcduffery, and superlative.

The Power Thesaurus suggests that there are over 263 synonyms for hyperbole. It offers 14 pages of them. Here is the start of page one:

exaggeration / image, parallel, flower

overstatement / exaggeration, adornment, coloring

metaphor / exaggeration

embellishment / exaggeration, excess, decoration

distortion / exaggeration

magnification / exaggeration, fancy, line.

We could go on and on and on with this, world without end, secuale seculorum, for ever and ever, and all that, without exaggeration. The point is clear, we have more than enough definitions here to fill several rather large books and clearly, without being too catty about it, it would take at least nine lifetimes to read and understand them all.

Meanwhile, hyperbole possesses an adjective: hyperbolical. This is sometimes confused with the term hyperbolic which in turn is occasionally confused with the term hyperbollocks, as in the saying: “this article is, without embellishment or exaggeration, a load of hyperbollocks.”

Chuck Bowie comments: “Down the road, I hope we get to see your take on how to employ this useful tool without reducing the document to caricature.”

Roger Replies: Thank you for your comment, Chuck. I think that the application of hyperbole to a literary text or an image within a text depends entirely on the individual author. As authors and human beings, even in our daily speech and our interactions with other people, we can and do exaggerate. How we apply hyperbole to our structures and stories and characters is very individual. Clearly there must be a balance between emphasis (potentially good) and over-exaggeration (potentially bad, but with strong potential for parody and comedy), but so much depends on the individual situation. A stylistic analysis of each instance will reveal if the hyperbole is excessive. However, in my opinion, that necessitates the presence of a text, rather than a doctrinal theory about ‘how to do it’. The easiest way might be to analyze a text or two and see how hyperbole functions in specific circumstances. Certainly, as you so rightly note in the above comment, hyperbole can be used for comic purposes, as I have done in my article. Its overuse can both be criticized and parodied. An interesting study, with the seeds of a doctoral thesis planted therein, would be to demonstrate how, in Don Quixote, Cervantes moves from a hyperbolic parody of his character to a truer understanding of the essential dynamics of the main characters’ essential personalities. If I were fifty years younger, I might start that doctoral thesis.  Alas, within the self-imposed parameters of  this blog, there is neither time nor space. We can continue this conversation at our leisure. Thank you for responding.



Wednesday Workshop
26 April 2017

I want to begin by confessing that I don’t know what they are. Algorithm: it sounds like a word pulled out of a lexicographer’s top hat or a question from a Grade 9 Spelling Bee.

“May I have the definition?”

“Certainly: it’s ‘a step-by-step procedure for solving a problem or accomplishing some end especially by a computer’ …” (Merriam-Webster).

Before we go any further, please watch this brief, very explicit (self-explaining, sorry) video.


So, if I understand the video correctly, an algorithm, applied to literature, is a program that (a) analyses the structure of texts and (b) establishes whether or not a specific text follows the necessary steps or procedures for that text to become (b.1) a best seller or (b.2) an acceptable potential book in which an investor (aka publisher) could or should invest his / her money.

Where does this leave us as writers? We have spoken before about the Guardians at the Gates and the Judges who determine our fate when we enter literary competitions (see below)


Suddenly, these Guardians are no longer fallible flesh and blood but infallible wires, nuts, and bolts joined by electronic circuits.

So, we have a story. Right? Right length. Right theme. We think it is good. We submit it to an editorial house. What happens next? Well, it depends. A major house won’t touch it unless put forward by an agent. No agent? It molders to a prolonged, slow, very slow death on someone’s desk. Electronic submission? Wait a minute. Some secretary may read the first five pages and find them good. Then, your submission may be sent to Death by Algorithm.

How is that algorithm prepared? Thousands of best-sellers and classics are fed into the computer program, analyzed, sorted into lines and curves, highs and lows … then your manuscript is fed in. If its computerized profile matches their computerized profile (the algorithm) then BINGO … you may have a foothold on the first rung of the lowest ladder that leads to winning the literary lottery!

Or not.

What can we, as writers, do about this? Absolutely nothing. We must believe in ourselves. We must believe in our writing. We must keep on writing. We must publish where and when we can … and, above all, along with Albert Camus and Sisyphus and his rock, il faut imaginer l’écrivain heureux / we must pretend that, as writers, we are happy.

And that, ladies and gentlemen and others, is a pretty sorry state of affairs and a pretty lousy (but very interesting) piece of translation.

Three Unities


The Three Unities
Wednesday Workshop
19 April 2017

The Three Unities

The Three Classical Unities are those of Time, Place, and Action. They are usually associated with classical theatre. It is worth remembering that, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when poetry and theatre ruled the artistic world of the west, the novel was relatively undeveloped and narrative form was concentrated in epic poetry. In fact, one of Cervantes’s greatest innovations was to draw a parallel between the modern narrative, as he developed it, and epic poetry. “También la épica puede escribirse en prosa,” he wrote in Don Quixote, I, 47. ‘Epic poetry may also be written in prose.’ Lyric and epic poetry had a different construct to the theatre, so it is really the classic theatre that we are discussing here, rather than poetry and prose, though all forms of creativity benefit from a knowledge and understanding of the three unities. Let us look at these unities one by one.

Unity of Time: The play should take place within a time frame of a day, twenty-four hours. This concentrates the action at the moment of maximum impact, or crisis, when the major decisions are being taken. In order to fill in the background details of what happened before, a confidant is often used, especially in French theatre, and this confidential person, or adviser, assists the main characters in coming to their decisions by providing missing background information.

Unity of Place: The play should take place in the same house, as a minimum, and preferably in the same room of the house. This limits travel, and the wanderings of Odysseus, for example, would be impossible in the classical theatre. This is a restriction that was blown away by epic poetry. The narrative forms also rejected this type of unity as they developed, and contemporary film, with its total mobility really reduces Unity of Place to the realms of history and the Absurd.

Unity of Action: All action within the play should be subordinated to the main plot and the main characters. There should be only one plot, but a minor plot is permitted provided it echoes, mirrors, and reflects upon the main plot. Unity of action is interesting in that, to a certain extent, it has remained with us. Television shows, especially police and crime shows, may have multiple actions, but they all link together to form a pattern of events that are linked within a series of unified patterns. It is these patterns of unified action that so often reveal the criminal.

Unity of Theme: Spanish classical theatre, under the watchful eye of Lope de Vega, broke all the unities as established above, but created a new unity: unity of theme. This, too, has demonstrated its longevity and is still with us. Thematic unity is common to all forms of literature and is a binding thread in poetry and prose, theatre, film, and novel. Unity of theme suggests that beneath the surface movement of the art work, there is a thematic unity, a set of deeper ideas, if you like, that provides links to all the action and thought.

Closely linked to these four unities is what I call Unity of Language. Unity of Language is consistent within characters, the way they speak, the way they use language. It is also consistent within a poem or a book. Sometimes it is based on the concept of Associative Fields according to which each word is surrounded by a series of associations (the Associative Field) that links words to each other at one level and to a central theme at another level. The use of Associative Fields is greatest in poetry and those forms of writing that base themselves on poetical repetition. In fact, the Associative Field may be looked upon as a form of repetition that provides emphasis by repeating a theme while avoiding the repetition of the same word within that theme.

I look on the development of art and culture as akin to the movement of a pendulum on a grandfather clock. On one side, let’s call it the right, the pendulum demands rules, immutable rules, and writers that stick to those rules. On the other side, let’s call it the left, there are no rules and chaos reigns in a creative land where the broken rule is the law of the day.

Classicism, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, was followed by Neo-Classicism, in the Eighteenth Century, and this was an even more stultified form than classicism itself. The Romantic Movement, on the other hand, broke the rules of Classicism and brought energy and freedom to all forms of art. As Victor Hugo said: “J’ai mis un bonnet rouge sur le vieux dictionnaire.” ‘I have place a red [French revolutionary] bonnet on the old dictionary.”  Romanticism is Revolution. In art, we need regular revolutions. The next major revolution is always just around the corner. Or, as the pendulum theory suggests, maybe the next revolution, waiting just around the corner, is a swing of the pendulum back from freedom (Romanticism) to restraint  (Classicism).

Certainly we modern authors may exercise our choices in a way that older authors could not. We can and should be aware of all that has gone before us. Knowing the traditions from which we write allows us to write better and to choose better, taking or rejecting that which we want and that which suits us best in our own artistic endeavours.

In Medias Res


In Medias Res
Wednesday Workshop
12 April 2017

In medias res is Latin for in the middle of things or in the middle of the story. It is a device from classical literature, going back to Homer, that allows the narrator to start the tale half way through, to return to the beginning to show what has happened leading up to the current situation, then to end the tale in suitable fashion with all the necessary details now in place.

In some ways it’s a bit like the arrival of a pizza from a new pizza home delivery service. You are hungry, you make the phone call, you order the pizza, and then you sit and you wait. The doorbell rings and the dog comes rushing out of nowhere and barks at the delivery man who stands there with his delivery bag in which the pizza nestles comforting and warm. You tell the dog to sit, you hand over the money, with a tip, of course, and the delivery man takes the pizza from the bag and pops it into your hands.

You close the door, walk back into the kitchen, and everyone is there, salivating waiting to see what you’ve bought. You know what kind of pizza it is, because you ordered it. But this is the secret of in medias res: the pizza is there but it’s still a mystery. You don’t really know what the pizza’s like. It may smell nice, it may look great when you open the box, but what’s in it, or rather on it; and how does it taste? These things are as yet unknowable. They are the mysteries that give in medias res its bite.

“Seek and you will find.” But what are you looking for?

You recognize the onions,; then there’s a meatball; ooh, look, some slices of salami and bacon; then there’s red peppers and green peppers; no anchovies (are you old enough to remember that song? RIP J Geils: I remember and still like your music); it’s a high rise pastry and there’s a cream cheese filling in the crust: delicious; oh yes, that subtle sweetness will come from the pieces of pineapple that decorate the pizza. Cheese: there’s plenty of that, three different types by the look of it and the tomato sauce is spicy and delicious.

When you take that first bite, the whole blend explodes in your mouth and the full delights of pizza burst upon you.

And that’s how I think of in medias res: no planning, washing and cutting the ingredients, no cooking, no placing in the oven, no wait as the house fills up with the smell of cooking pizza.

There’s just the pizza itself and the journey backwards to discover how it was made and what conjures up the magic of that first bite.

Beneath the surface of many people’s writing, lie lots mysterious ingredients. Sometimes, you can draw a few of them out and examine them as they flourish in the daylight. Often, they remain as mysteries, unconscious moments that float like lilies upon the surface of the story.

As I write, the sun is shining and the storm that visited us last week has all cleared away. There are deer prints by the bird feeder where the deer came last night and nuzzled for bird food.

The red spark of a squirrel sits by the feeders and four mourning doves crowd together on the balcony. I do not know where they came from and, like the deer, I do not know where they are going, although the deer tracks point to a probable destination.

In medias res: we all live there; we understand it, even if we don’t call t by its classy Latin name; we are intrigued by it; and it often lies at the center of our fascinating world.

Structure in the Short Story


Structure in the Short Story
Wednesday Workshop
30 November 2016
Posted: 4 December 2016.

I just attended, with one of my writers’ groups, a writing workshop offered by a guest speaker. Our speaker threw out some interesting ideas on structure in general and structure in the short story in particular. The first comment he made was “Are you sure that your novel is not a short story and vice versa?” He then suggested that often beginning writers run out of steam because their novels are not really novels but are short stories that need cutting, rather than expanding.

He followed this up by suggesting, and I made no notes so I write from a memory that fails me more often than it used to, that a short story should have a structure that runs something like this:

stasis > key occurrence > end of old world (stasis broken) > beginning of new reality (the world upside down) > quest (the search for  new balance) > climax (when all the events of the crisis come together) >  the moment of truth (when the central character is faced by a decision) > the choice (the protagonist chooses) > pay-off for protagonist (order is restored and the protagonist is changed or confirmed by his choice) > pay-off for readers (who see that change and are themselves changed by looking at the same old world through different sight and a new knowledge or insight gained).

 One of the group members circulated his notes from the workshop and summarized the idea rather more succinctly:

The first thing I remember … in any story, the main character has to be changed at the end from what s/he was in the beginning.

The other item was the list of elements in a story: Stasis, Trigger, Quest, Surprise, Critical Choice, Climax and Resolution.

            Clearly this is a theoretical structure, but many short stories follow it or versions of it. Through this structure, our speaker suggested, there often runs a leitmotiv and this can provide a thematic unity that also holds the story together. Returning to this thematic unity and writing selectively from within it, can often produce the desired change in reader and protagonist. Equally clearly, there is no length to this structure and the resulting story may be very brief or suitably enlarged.

According to our speaker, the character of the protagonist is very important and the key aspects of the protagonist’s character must be clearly drawn, right from the start. The protagonist must also go through some sort of change as the story and the protagonist’s character both develop. Place is also important and the protagonist should be linked into a place and preferably a time. The protagonist in the short story is, after all, in a dialogue with his time and his place (his chronotopos, as Bakhtin would phrase it).

This is certainly a prescription for short story writing, one of many prescriptions, I might add. A quick search turns up another definition, this time of a five-point narrative arc offered by Mark Flanagan:

“Sometime[s] simply called “arc” or “story arc,” narrative arc refers to the chronological construction of plot in a novel or story. Typically, a narrative arc looks something like a pyramid, made up of the following components: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.”

            Flanagan continues with a definition of each moment in the story. Exposition reveals the characters and the setting. Rising action is a complication that hinders the protagonist. Climax is the point of highest stress or tension. Falling action is a releasing of the pressure and the resolution ties up all the loose ends. (Taken from this site)


Lope de Vega, the Seventeenth-century Spanish playwright, suggested a simplified three-part structure: situation > complication > unfolding / dénouement. Of course, the complications may be multiple, resulting in an action that runs situation > complication > further complications > complicating the complications > even more complications > even more complicated complications > and then the final unraveling of the ‘by now very twisted’ plot. An even simpler two-part definition, also from Spain’s Seventeenth-century, offers us the dual structure of a ‘world in disorder’ > ‘a world in order’ — how the characters progress from disorder to order is up to you as a writer.

Of course, the author may decide NOT to tie up all the loose ends and re-order the world to perfection. When this happens, we may have a dystopia: the disaster continues; or we may have an open ending that prompts the reader to wonder what might happen or what might have happened. As for ‘beginning at the beginning,’ there are also stories that begin in the middle (in media res) and then go backwards in time before going forwards again. This raises the awkward question: how short is a short story? I won’t attempt to answer that one here.

Whether you describe or prescribe, there are many possibilities in the world of short story telling and it is always the story that counts. If it is good, then perceived structural flaws that go against these prescriptive methods may well become a prescriptive structure for another future writer. Interior monologue and dream, for example, linked thematically but not necessarily linked in time and space, may well distort or destroy yet another structural format, that of the three classic unities of time, place, and action. these, incidentally, are expanded into four by the great Spanish playwrights (among others, I am sure) who add unity of theme to the other three.

Robin Grindstaff, in an online article entitled “Narrative Arc: what the heck is it?”, available at


suggests yet another simplification and reshaping, of the narrative arc idea.

“Think of narrative arc as a bell curve. It starts at a point on the lower left hand side of a graph, rises in a curve to a peak, and then drops back down again. The standard narrative arc is often referred to in terms of the three-act play: a beginning, a middle, and an end.”

            This is not unlike the structure outlined by Lope de Vega, except for the fact that ‘middle’ is a rather inadequate term for the multiple complications outlined in the Lope de Vega model. This statement may be a little unfair as Robin Grindstaff goes on to outline the complications that may occur in the second act in the following fashion:

“In act two, the main character must try to overcome the conflict presented by the inciting event. The character wants something, has a goal in mind. The conflict and tension of the story rise, and obstacles are thrown in the path of the character to prevent her from achieving her goal. The character faces these obstacles on her way to overcoming the conflict. The obstacles get bigger, more difficult, and the character may be on the verge of defeat or surrender. At this point, the character must make a critical decision or a moral choice that changes the direction of the story.”

            Clearly the ‘obstacles that are thrown’ compare favorably with Lope’s consistent throwing of obstacles and ‘middle’ therefore becomes a euphemism for ‘complications.’ Act three allows for the climax and resolution of the story and this includes character change or ‘death in defeat’ and tragedy. I recommend this article very strongly, as it goes way beyond the outline I have offered thus far and clarifies many features of the narrative arc.

In fact, Grindstaff then references Nigel Watts, Write a Novel and Get It Published, and outlines an eight-point narrative arc that runs

stasis > trigger > quest > surprise > critical choice > climax > reversal > resolution.

 This runs a close parallel to the circulated list (quoted earlier) of seven elements:

 Stasis > Trigger > Quest > Surprise > Critical Choice > Climax > Resolution.

 The main difference being the insertion of a reversal between the climax and the resolution.

So, we have now established an narrative arc, or a pyramid, with 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 or 8 steps included within it. This is all very prescriptive: do it and you will succeed. My greatest fear then becomes the gate-keepers, those anonymous figures who sit on shadowy selection committees, place ticks in appropriate boxes, and judge the quality of writing by consensus in committee. I can hear them now: “#7 is missing. There’s no reversal. Reject!” “I don’t like #5. The choice isn’t critical enough. Reject!”

As writers, we must remember that all these arcs and numbers are just theories. The most important thing is the command ‘Take up thy pen and write’! All the theory in the world does not produce a good short story or a good novel. In fact, the opposite may be true: too many rules may stifle our narratives at birth or choke them to death My advice: know your theories, then smash them into little pieces and create the new structures, the new formats, the next new great piece of writing that will lead you, as a writer, to boldly go where no writer has gone before.

 Blessings, happy writing, and follow your creative instincts.