Oct. 15, 2010

On Punctuation

by Elizabeth Austen

not for me the dogma of the period
preaching order and a sure conclusion
and no not for me the prissy
formality or tight-lipped fence
of the colon and as for the semi-
colon call it what it is
a period slumming
with the commas
a poser at the bar
feigning liberation with one hand
tightening the leash with the other
oh give me the headlong run-on
fragment dangling its feet
over the edge give me the sly
comma with its come-hither
wave teasing all the characters
on either side give me ellipses
not just a gang of periods
a trail of possibilities
or give me the sweet interrupting dash
the running leaping joining dash all the voices
gleeing out over one another
oh if I must
give me the YIPPEE
of the exclamation point
give me give me the curling
cupping curve mounting the period
with voluptuous uncertainty

"On Punctuation" by Elizabeth Austen, from The Girl Who Goes Alone. © Floating Bridge Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission.

It's the birthday of the writer who said, "I may as well tell you, here and now, that if you are going about the place thinking things pretty, you will never make a modern poet. Be poignant, man, be poignant!" That's novelist P. G. Wodehouse, (books by this author) born in Surrey, England (1881).

When he was two years old, his parents went off to Hong Kong, leaving him to be raised by various aunts. He would later feature lots of scary, mean-spirited aunts in his fiction, and he once wrote: "It is no use telling me that there are bad aunts and good aunts. At the core they are all alike. Sooner or later out pops the cloven hoof."

He's the author of 96 books, including My Man Jeeves (1919), Carry On, Jeeves (1927), Thank You, Jeeves (1934), and Right Ho, Jeeves (1934), all of those about a butler named Jeeves who is forever rescuing his employer, Bertie Wooster, from all sorts of ludicrous situations.

He first invented his character Jeeves in 1915. About 50 years later, in a book called The World of Jeeves (1967), he explained: "I find it curious, now that I have written so much about him, to recall how softly and undramatically Jeeves entered my little world. ... On that occasion, he spoke just two lines.

The first was:
'Mrs Gregson to see you, sir.'
The second:
'Very good, sir, which suit will you wear?'
It was only some time later ... that the man's qualities dawned upon me. I still blush to think of the off-hand way I treated him at our first encounter."

Wodehouse was exiled from England after some satirical comments he made on German radio during World War II, when he was taken prisoner by the Germans. He moved to France and then the United States, became an American citizen at the age of 73, continued to write stories about English castles and butlers, and eventually settled in Long Island, where on a daily basis he walked his dogs, had cocktails with lunch, and watched a soap opera — all in addition to writing novels at his typewriter. When asked how he approaches his writing, he said, "I just sit at a typewriter and curse a bit." He lived to be 93.

He described one of his characters like this: "A tubby little chap who looked as if he had been poured into his clothes and had forgotten to say 'when!'" He wrote of another: "He felt like a man who, chasing rainbows, has had one of them suddenly turn and bite him in the leg."

He once said, "I go in for what is known in the trade as 'light writing' and those who do that — humorists they are sometimes called — are looked down upon by the intelligentsia and sneered at." But he's considered a brilliant stylist, and all sorts of "serious" literary writers, including Evelyn Waugh and Rudyard Kipling and Zadie Smith and Salman Rushdie, have professed to being big fans of Wodehouse.

From the archives:

It's the birthday of the poet Virgil, (books by this author) born Publius Vergilius Maro near Mantua, Italy, 70 B.C.E.

It's the birthday of the novelist Mario Puzo, (books by this author) born in New York City in 1920. He wrote The Godfather (1969), a huge success, and he went on to write The Sicilian (1984) and The Last Don (1996).

It's the birthday of the Italian novelist Italo Calvino, (books by this author) born in Santiago de Las Vegas, Cuba in 1923. He published Italian Folktales in 1956, and after that he wrote many more novels that were influenced by the folktales he had learned, novels full of magic and allegory, like Baron in the Trees (1957) and If on a Winter's Night a Traveler (1981).

It's the birthday of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, (books by this author) born in the Prussian village of Röcken (1844). He was a philosopher who loved literature, and he experimented with different literary styles to express his philosophy. Some of his books are long lists of aphorisms, while others are written almost like novels or poetry. His most famous book, Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883), describes a prophet who comes down from the mountains to teach people about the coming of a new kind of superman, but the people he speaks to only ridicule and laugh at him.

Nietzsche spent most of his life suffering from debilitating headaches and deteriorating eyesight, and he eventually went crazy and spent his last years in an asylum. He's perhaps best known for claiming that "God is dead," but most people forget that he actually said, "God is dead ... and we have killed him!" He thought that the absence of God from the world was a tragedy, but he felt that people had to accept that tragedy and move on. He wrote that God was like a star whose light we can see, even though the star died long ago. Much of his philosophy is about how people might live in a world without God and without absolute morality. At the time of his death on August 25, 1900, almost no one had heard of him, but after his work was republished, it had a huge impact on the philosophers of the 20th century.

He said: "I know my fate. One day my name will be tied to the memory of something monstrous — a crisis without equal on earth ... I am no man, I am dynamite!"

And, "I would believe only in a god who could dance."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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