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Dr Alistair Brown
Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Parentheses and Ambiguity in Poetry of the Twentieth Century

Chapter One: The Lie of the Parenthesis

Some Terms

In his preface to In Parenthesis, David Jones writes:

This writing is called In Parenthesis because I have written it in a kind of space between - I don't know between quite what - but as you turn aside to do something…the war itself was a parenthesis - how glad we thought we were to step outside its brackets at the end of '18…our curious type of existence here is altogether in parenthesis (Jones, p.xv)

Jones's statement illustrates the ambivalent nature of the parenthesis. For Jones, 'parenthesis' is a temporary biographical space which exists outside the boundaries of his normal life. Yet, paradoxically, what Jones imagines to be parenthetical to usual existence is made the opposite of parenthetical by the act of writing. The book represents a unique temporal frame in his biography and, by leaving most of the narrative that might refer to the continuous and 'normal' life outside the pages, it is the war which is foregrounded and the mundane which implicitly occupies the realm of the suppressed and, by being unwritten, the unimportant. Everything within In Parenthesis is far from parenthetical as our conventional definition of the term understands it.

The OED describes a 'parenthesis' as:

A word, clause, sentence, etc., inserted (as an explanation, qualification, aside, or afterthought) into a passage which is already grammatically complete, and usually marked off by brackets, dashes, or commas. Also, the use of such insertions, especially as a rhetorical figure.

As a combination of the Greek 'para', meaning distinct from but analogous to (OED), and 'thesis', meaning a proposition, tenet or argument (OED), the parenthesis is simultaneously something which exists within, but is distinct from, a line of reasoning. The parenthesis is therefore a mode of rhetorical expression based on both similarity and difference, inclusion and exclusion. Importantly, in this definition is the notion of the parenthesis as a function of grammar. It suggests that the test of a parenthesis is that it can be removed from the surrounding text without this affecting the text's grammatical coherence. However, because the parenthesis is principally a rhetorical mode, as suggested both by the definition and by Jones's sentiment, the possibilities for its syntactical presentation in the written word expand. As well as brackets, dashes or commas or other features of publication may mark a particular section out as parenthetical. Stanzas, chapters, different styles of typography or even the line break may all be recruited to demarcate one sequence of language as being distinct from another, whilst still being incorporated in the text as a whole.

Despite such potential grammatical variation, the parenthesis has tended to be misinterpreted as referring simply to brackets and their contents. It is therefore important to highlight the distinction between parentheses and the syntax conventionally used to denote one. For although a variety of means can be used to mark something as being parenthetical the most explicit is the curved bracket. John Lennard, noting an unusual gap in the English vocabulary, has usefully termed the curved bracket the lunula (Lennard, p.1) . The lunula refers to the actual curve of one bracket, and lunulae, the plural, refers to both opening and closing curves, and the textual contents between them. In this dissertation, I will use the term lunulae to mean this closed unit of bracketing whilst 'parenthesis' will be used in its primary sense as a rhetorical, rather than syntactical, expression. When we see lunulae our immediate response, due to the conflation of the term parenthesis as a rhetorical mode with the syntax used to denote it, is to perceive the contents of the brackets as being 'in parenthesis', that is, an argumentative aside. Thus it is with lunulae that this dissertation is concerned, for it is when something is enclosed in lunulae that the author is most self-consciously and deliberately drawing our attention to the fact that a phrase or section is distinct from the main rhetorical line of his text. The lunulae is the most prominent syntactical enactment of hyperbaton.

Already it can be noted that the parenthesis is a somewhat ambiguous mode of speech since something may be parenthetical in the rhetorical sense without being in brackets. Further, a segment of text, though enclosed in brackets, may be non-parenthetical, in the sense that what it says is of greater importance than that which remains outside the bracket. It is this contrast between the syntactical presumption of the lunulae and the effect is actually has which poets have exploited. The inherent contradiction, as evidenced in Jones's statement, in writing something apparently unimportant but which, by the very act of writing, demands attention is present in the parenthesis in poetry, which implies suppression but maintains a presence equivalent to, if not greater than, the poem which lies outside the brackets. When something is marked as a parenthesis by syntax we conventionally assume its importance is lowered yet the reflection of the contents of that lunulae onto the surrounding verse may be of supreme importance in reversing or destabilising the meaning of the whole poem outside the lunulae. This is often achieved by having the lunulae, with its association as a kind of sotto voce, deliver a private emotional subtext against the current of the ostensibly public poem. In the twentieth-century, lunulae have been used, in line with a modernist questioning of the aesthetic function of art, to question our assumptions about the integrity and validity of the poetic act by showing how public poems may not accurately represent the poet's emotional or political intentions.

Lunulae and Alternative Meanings

A prose sentence can be intercluded by lunulae. In poetry the lunulae are integrated. The test of whether a lunulae is truly a parenthesis is if its contents can be removed from the text without this affecting the movement of the piece in totality. This satisfies the purely technical usage of lunulae in the written text. Publishers can place dates of poems, authors, or page numbers in lunulae and these can be removed safely without altering the meaning of the poem itself. However, within a poem lunulae are as inalterable as the other substance of the verse such as its metre or its vocabulary. To remove any lunulae from the contents of the poem is to fundamentally, and destructively, alter the nature of the poem. It is obvious that in metrically regular poetry, if we were to eliminate the lunulae the poem's structure would simply fall apart. By being integrated into a rhyme scheme the lunulae is never truly parenthetical.

Lunulae usually hold a movement tangential to that of the text outside. Browning's 'A Grammarian's Funeral' (Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume II, p.1392) is a useful example because the movement held in lunulae is a physical one, clearly distinct from the abstract emotional action of the rest of the poem. The drama of 'A Grammarian's Funeral' emerges from the attempt to match the philosophical system the grammarian endorsed in life with his physical state in death: "Our low life was the level's and the night's;/He's for the morning." (ll.23-24) Just as Hamlet would have mountains thrown on the grave of Ophelia, so the obsequies for the grammarian must be suited in magnitude to his work and the bearers' respect for it. The first four lunulae suggest the actual movement of the corpse up the mountain, whilst inversely and psychologically the bearers regress further and further into remembrance and elegy. Browning achieves a comic effect by making the comment of the lunulae reflect ironically on the epithets of the grammarian, epithets which he still seems to speak:

Moaned he, "New measures, other feet anon!
My dance is finished?"
No, that's the worlds way: (keep the mountain side,
Make for the city!)

The philosophical idealism of the grammarian contrasts with the physical reality of the world, the movement through which "our master famous calm and dead/borne on our shoulders" is unable to affect. There is a reversal of the hierarchy as the master, previously constantly working but now inert, and followers, perpetually moving:

"Now master, take a little rest!" - not he!
(Caution redoubled,
Step two abreast, the way winds narrowly!)

The comic inter-relationship between the physical movement of the lunulae and the conceptual mental movement outside shows that the lunulae cannot be extracted from the rest of the verse without this having an effect on the overall tone of the poem. Even without the exigency of the lunulae in the rhyme scheme they would fail the test of a pure parenthesis.

Despite the ironic link between the physical and conceptual, nevertheless the reader is able to perceive the lunulae as maintaining a different drive from what is occurring outside them. In the fifth lunulae, however, there is a merging of the two motions, with the ambiguity of the subject to whom the lunulae refers:

Was it not great? Did he not throw on God,
(He loves the burthen) -
God's task to make the heavenly period
Perfect the earthen?

The triple direction of burden apparently, but not necessarily, because of the segregation the lunulae makes from its subject, applying to God but also suggesting the burden borne both by the master in life and resonating as the weight borne by those who now carry him, means that both past, present and spiritual strains are connected. Whereas the first four lunulae were containing a different form of motion to the elegiac, although linked to it, the fifth is more complex. It is uncertain whether the phrase refers to the physical or the psychological and therefore to what extent the role of this lunulae is the same as that of the first four (clearly tangential) or different. We cannot be sure how parenthetical this lunulae is, whether it works within the current of the general movement or against it. It is the axis of the poem, because it starts the harmonising of the two movements which is completed in the final lines:

Lofty designs must close in like effects:
Loftily lying,
Leave him - still loftier than the world suspects,
Living and dying.

The achievement of a fitting summit for the grammarian, the "high man, aiming at a million", make his state match his Enlightenment ambitions and the closing ambiguity, "living and dying", suggests that the elegy has achieved its ambition of remembrance and maintenance of that memory for others in the present.

The lunulae, in offering a tangential movement, create irony through the conjunction of two contradictory ideas. The lunulae as it is used in the fifth case is typical of its effect in poetry which is to delegate the making of a distinction between the parenthetical and the principal to the choice of the reader. This is the case in Gillian Clarke's Letter From a Far Country. As an epistolary declaration this is again a public poem. Although egocentrically derived the writer is aware of the political nature of her work and that the poem has pragmatic, as well as personal, ambitions. It intends to reverse the gender order, reforming writer and the feminine as subject, and recipients and masculine as Other. The implied reader, "husbands, fathers, forefathers" (l.8) must work hard to construct the background of the writer from the details we are given. For example, the books, "Mozart, Advanced Calculus, William and Paddington Bear" (l.29) indicate the range of her family. This failure to explain the details of her narrative, as if we are supposed to already understand its context, alienates the (imagined male) reader. Although the explicit addressees of the letter are men in general, the direct use of the third person singular - "Into the drawers I place your clean/clothes" (l.31) - suggests she is writing to her family. There is therefore a tension between the generalised 'we' and 'you' of feminine and masculine and the domestic 'I' and 'you' of mother and family.

The lunulae of the poem contain moments of private insight which suggest that the tension is resolved in favour of the latter relationship. Against the grand scheme of feminine suppression and revolution:

The gulls grieve at our contentment.
It is a masculine question.
'Where', they call, 'are your great works?'

the lunulae are trivial and isolated moments:

(In the airing cupboard you'll see
a map, numbering and placing
every towel, every sheet.
I have charted all your needs)

These asides are poignant because they contain final pieces of advice to her family and therefore represent a poet who, whilst explicitly making a polemical incitement to revolution, cannot let go of the domestic. The lunulae are integrated in the poem because their aphorisms proceed naturally in the general line of the narrative, the diagram of which is historical, as the writer moves through her memories :

Seville orange marmalade
Annually staining gold
The snows of January

(The saucers of marmalade
are set when the amber wrinkles
like the sea if you blow it.)

Jams and jellies of blackberry…

Because the lunulae exist in a generally coherent psychological progression to remove them would be to disrupt the structure, which in this case is psychologically rather than metrically regular. Further, their recurrence at regular intervals suggest that even whilst developing cerebrally the poet is in stasis. The declarative words of her letter are developing in one direction, but the mind which produced them is fixed at home. This is confirmed by the final lines, "Today this letter goes unsigned,/Unfinished, unposted." (ll.391-392). The nihilism of the unpublished letter - without a reader its words become effectively non-existent - is evident. The enclosed space afforded by the lunulae, which are directed towards the family rather than men in general, become important for they are the space in which the writer exists. She, along with all women, works in the domestic, the parenthetical, outside the boundaries of important public literary and political activity and achievement. In Freudian terms, the lunulae suggest a divide between the conscious and the subconscious. Although the ego is writing and positing that the socially constructed super-ego may be undemocratic, in the parenthetical flashes we see the id, the primitive instinctual drive which, in the end, reasserts control over the superficial expressions of the ego.

Whereas explicitly the letter is directed to one group of readers, and is politically motivated, seriously and privately the letter is personal. It is this fact the voice held by the lunulae opposes the superficial movement of the rest of the poem, altering perceptions of the surrounding text, which makes the lunulae a useful tool for forming ambiguity. The lunulae prevents the poem from being perceived as progressing in a unified manner along a single psychological line and therefore affords alternative readings of the same piece of language. That the lunulae directs us towards alternatives may only be apparent as we become aware of the context of the lunulae in relation to its immediate surrounding text or in its relation to the wider intended narrative drive of the poem. In effect the lunulae holds truth within it, though conventionally it is perceived as parenthetical, and the poem is untruth, though we are liable to take its expressions as literal and accurate.

One feature of twentieth century usage of the lunulae is that it draws attention to its status as a unique piece of syntax. The fact that a curved bracket is used to mark a parenthesis, rather than any other punctuative or metrical device, is important in its own right. With the first lunulae of The Waste Land, Eliot is making the mark operate outside of its traditional technological limits (Lennard, p.181). The lunulae is used not simply as a marker of voice difference but as a means of motivating our reactions based on our conventional responses to the nature of a parenthetical clause. Although theoretically the lunulae ought not to be there, they are appropriate because of their visual quality. Eliot is the pioneer for the twentieth-century usage of the mark, as continued especially by concrete poets such as Cummings. The first lunulae of The Waste Land cannot be a true parenthesis, because it is required to make the sentence grammatically complete:

There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock)
And I will show you something different…

Especially because of the conjunction 'and' which follows the lunulae, we cannot avoid reading it if we are to make sense of the sentence. Instead of the lunulae denoting a rhetorical shift, they are used here as a kind of visual metaphor. By forcing us to read, where we cannot avoid reading, between the brackets, we are invited into the protective containment the lunulae offers. W.B.Yeats does something similar in his 'Words for music perhaps' (Collected Poems, p.217) where the refrain, "(All find safety in the tomb)", splits the conclusion of the surrounding phrase and visually and audibly brings us inside the lunulae so that we must enter, against our natural instinct, the enclosed 'tomb' of the brackets before we can continue the verse.

Eliot also uses the lunulae's characteristic of being simultaneously different and integrated, absent and present, in the text:

Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
Exploring hands encounter no defence;
His vanity requires no response,
And makes a welcome of indifference.
(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead)
Bestows one final patronising kiss,
And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit…

The lunulae is a temporal control allowing past and present characters to coexist whilst suggesting the difference between the two. Again the presence of the conjunction 'and' implies a continuity in which the lunulae ought not to appear. Tiresias is actually present on the bed of the 'young man carbuncular'. There is a paradox of tense as 'foresuffered' suggests a future, predictive quality in his action yet the past tense which is used within the lunulae imply something occurring in history. Tiresias's omnipresence across temporal boundaries in re-enforced by the changes in height suggested by the move from the bed to "below the wall" to "the lowest of the dead" to the stairs. Although Tiresias seems to link past, present and future in the passage, the lunulae also suggest his separation from the action. As the inhabitant of a parenthesis, he is not fully present in the poem's narrative drive; he is an onlooker, within the poem but without the action. Perhaps only the lunulae can achieve this level of coexistence and distinction.

The lunulae therefore operates on two levels. In the visual mode as occurs in the first example from Eliot, the lunulae draws attention to itself as a unique mark. The poet uses the fact that the lunulae is associated as an parenthetical or separate conceptual or physical space. Here a lunulae may sustain different meanings once we are aware of its location in the context of the surrounding phrases or of its context in the entire movement of the poem, but it also functions with an immediacy because of the way it looks on the printed page. In a passive mode, as occurs in the other examples, the lunulae marks out an idea as being parenthetical, in the sense that it contains a movement apparently tangential to the rest of the verse. Alternative forms of denoting a parenthesis, such as the comma, could be used for a similar effect but the poet uses the lunulae because he or she wants to make explicit a dichotomy in the poem. Although the parenthesis in the common definition offers additional information relevant but not crucial to the work, for example through a list which proves the validity of the preceding discussion, such a usage, though common to prose, can never be fully realised in poetry because, for all verse, the lunulae automatically marks a shift in tone and, particularly with a metrically regular scheme, the lunulae is integral to it. In actuality, once we are aware of all the lunulae and also how the poem concludes, the lunulae is revealed to be a fundamental part of its psychological development. When we read lunulae in poetry it is not a question of whether we read or ignore them but at what level of active engagement they exist, whether the idea presented within them is totally tangential to the rest of the argument or may be merged with it in some way. The lunulae does not have a binary existence either within or without a text but it holds a position on a shifting scale of importance variously being more or less crucial to the text but never able to be fully eradicated without this causing somealteration of meaning, or destroying the metrical scheme, and never able to sit in the text without our awareness that poses a parenthetical idea. It is left to the reader to decide, supported by our understanding of the poem's direction, which may vary depending on whether we are new or experienced readers, whether a lunulae is to be integrated or separated from the verse.

Ambiguity in Poetry

As Empson suggests, the "essential key to the poetic use of language is that it is the reader who invents reasons and weighs judgements as to why a poet has chosen to convey the facts he has" (Empson, p.45). Poetry challenges us in its use of language and whereas ordinary speech attempts to offer a direct correlation between what is spoken or written and what that utterance represents, poetic language operates against accepted rules for communication, deliberately confusing the reader and relating things indirectly, for example through the use of metaphor. Ambiguity is a major device for the poet to engage us imaginatively, by forcing us to evaluate the balance of a particular phrase.

The lunulae constructs ambiguity by being synthesised integrated into a poetic line of reasoning, and supporting that line, but simultaneously working tangentially to it, and offering alternative readings of the same piece of language. In the example of the fifth lunulae from Browning the lunulae fits neatly into Empson's definition of a second-type ambiguity in which the subject could refer to one or another. Most often, however, the ambiguity is a general one, referring not to a single unit of language but challenging the logical nature of the poem generally. By presenting moments of insight into the cerebral processes behind the poem the lunulae forces us to make judgements about the nature of the facts the poet ostensibly presents. Further, it becomes part of a wider uncertainty about poetry's ability to contain and explain the human. In asserting a complexity of psychology, rather than clarity, the lunulae becomes a metapoetic device, reflecting on the signification processes which are used to depict the psychology which has created them and suggesting that those significations might not be fully capable of representation. As a part of this process, the lunulae tends away from a simple role in creating ambiguity and tends instead towards the paradoxical, sustaining not multiple simultaneous readings but different, mutually exclusive readings of the poem. The act of writing might suggest containment and explanation but the lunulae suggests that the opposite occurs. Just as David Jones's writing act foregrounds the parenthetical, the lunulae in twentieth-century poetry reveals the mainstream, the poetic, as a fragile system which fails totally to fulfilling its mimetic, pragmatic and expressive ambitions.

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Chapter II - The Insecurity of Modern Poetry

Paradox of Structure

When the contents of the lunulae are ambiguous it is because they offer a tone which diverges from, or alters the perspective of, that presented throughout the rest of the poem. However, in modern poetry the lunulae often tends to the paradoxical rather than the ambiguous such that the content of the lunulae becomes mutually exclusive to, rather than mutually interactive with, the poem outside the brackets. The difference between ambiguity and paradox is important here because whereas ambiguity is the "capability of being understood in two or more ways; double or dubious signification" (OED), paradox is "a statement or proposition which on the face of it seems self-contradictory, absurd, or at variance with common sense, though, on investigation or when explained, it may prove to be well-founded" (OED). In a paradoxical usage the thing, emotion or action, happening within the lunulae opposes the thing occurring outside it so as to make the maintenance of different simultaneous meanings absurd, although through this senselessness fulfilling an objective of the poet. Whereas it was suggested in the examples from Clarke and Browning that the ambiguity occurs depending on how much the reader dissolves or maintains the lunulae, integrates or segregates them from their surrounding text, often in modern poetry to manipulate the lunulae would be to reduce the poem to an almost mathematical exercise which undermines our presumption of poetry as being a dignified aesthetic mode.

E.E. Cummings often gives us no clues as to the balance of the lunulae such that the ambiguity becomes monochrome, and the poem either means one thing or means another. For example:





(Complete Poems, p.673)

Two alternative meanings are possible here and instead of choosing one over the other we accept both in a synthesis that is the poem, thus fulfilling Empson's definition of a second type ambiguity. The synthesis of two different possibilities occurs here, but visually rather than metaphorically. The two ideas are one poem because they share the same space on the page. This visual congruence between two ideas is symptomatic of concrete poetry. However, to separate the two ideas would be to destroy the 'literariness' of the piece. Neither "loneliness" nor "(a leaf falls)" could be said to be 'poems' under any conventional definition. This is not to suggest that the two ideas when separated do not complement each other. A leaf - singular, falling - is a lonely icon since leaves supposedly fall together at a particular season, not individually. However, in constructing this correlation, and in making sense of the poem, we must first deconstruct it and in so doing reveal some of the underlying devices of poetic language. Metaphor, which works by similarity and difference, is demonstrated in action by the presence of two ideas separated but reflecting on each other; the way units of sound complement is shown visually by the breakdown of the "-af" of leaf pattering the "fa-" of falls. Cummings himself, in a statement which supports the idea that poetic language is an indirect, obscuring form, suggested that "Nothing is quite as easy as using words like somebody else. We all of us do exactly this nearly all of the time - and when we do it we are not poets." (Another e.e.cummings, p.xv). In this type of concrete poetry Cummings is following his own thesis and, by using the lunulae to mark a strict boundary between two separate ideas, laying bare the mechanisms of poetry.

Admittedly the example above is extreme and prosaic, useful for illustrating the range of possibility in the lunulae but hardly representative of the general use. However, other poems inside the boundary enact a similar effect of antithesis at a level which allows a more coherent general reading whilst still forcing us into an evaluation of the modes of poetry's construction. In Cummings' 'may I feel said she' (Complete Poems, p.399), two antithetical types of sexual gamesmanship are enacted, one within the lunulae and one without. Taken as a whole the poem develops sinisterly towards a sexual possessiveness in the woman, a possessiveness which is unexpected because the gender boundaries have been consistently defined in the poem with woman as innocent and emotional ("is it love said she"), and man as dominant and lust driven ("let's go said he"). The structure of the poem with its alternating masculine and feminine lines, the first demanding forward movement, the second hesitating, has its axis in the doubt expressed by the woman about the propriety of an affair:

(but you're killing said she

but its life said he
but your wife said she
now said he)

In the lust of the encounter such doubt becomes forgotten, and the woman is a joint accomplice in the forward drive of "don't stop said she". A complete reversal of roles occurs in the final two lines. Now the man sees intercourse in spiritual terms whilst the woman becomes dangerously possessive, with the suggestive capitalisation of "Mine" implying that sex, for the woman, is a type of religion, but one of ownership rather than spirituality:

you're divine!said he
(you are Mine said she)

Although the man is placed first in the alternating lines, we realise that this structure gives the woman the final say.

This critical response to the poem contrasts with what occurs when the lunulae are subtracted. Now the text reads, almost logically:

may I feel said he
it's fun said she
why not said she
may I stay said he
if you're willing said he
ow said she
go slow said she
you're divine!said he

The alternative structure, in which the male line frames the two thoughts of the woman, offers a more balanced gendering. Both male and female make requests of the other. The man asks to 'feel', to be allowed to stay, only if the woman is willing; the woman responds, 'it's fun' and 'go slow'. There is no sinister interplay of dominance and hesitation and the final line of this alternative, without the 'Mine', turns divine into an adjective which relates solely to the woman, and is therefore a positive complement, rather than being seen suggestively in the context of lust replacing religion. This technique of segregating the lunulae from the poem ought to be a dangerous one, because it clinically dissects the poem into something away from its original form. However, because it is a technique Cummings endorses in his careful structuring of the alternative verse, it is a valid one to carry out here. Although the poem must primarily be read in a normal, linear mode the fact that the second 'poem' has an integrity of its own enables re-construction of an alternative, the direction of which is diametrically opposite the gender terms of the whole. These are not lunulae which we may decide spontaneously whilst reading to maintain or dissolve, but are lunulae which we are invited to deconstruct and therefore read either one poem or another.

This invitation to work with the lunulae, rather than simply accepting what the poet has written occurs in Harrison's poem 'The Heartless Art' (Selected Poems, p.206-208). The penultimate stanza forces us to modify the lunulae which makes a mockery of the poem as an elegy:

I've left some spaces ( 1
benumbed by morphia and Methadone
until the ( )2 of April, ( )3
When I began these lines could I have known
that the nurse's registration of the time
you let your spirit go with one last groan
would help complete the first and third line rhyme?

The reader is referred to footnotes at the bottom of the page - respectively "how you stayed alive", "4th" and "10.05" - to complete the blanks. In doing this, we must re-enact the inert form-filling with which the nurse registers Seth's death. It is a grotesque action because it abuses our sensibilities about the pre-formed nature of poetry, or any art work, which should explain in itself rather than expecting us to do the writing. Both here, and in the fission of methadone into syllables, the first of which conveniently rhymes with death, poetry becomes a heartless art because it constructs rhyme from the facts of death rather than using death as an inspiration for creation. Rather like Marvell's 'Bermudas', here Harrison allows the facts to guide his chime rather than making the rhyme act as oratory to his subject.

The lunulae force us to deconstruct poetry before we can read the poem. When we have done this, we observe the poem as a failed "in memoriam". Its intention was to repay the debt Harrison owed Seth, who showed him the workings of machinery, by illustrating the mechanisms of poetry. Although Harrison does this, because he writes the poem after Seth's death its original intent is eliminated and poetry is therefore reflected back on itself rather than with a view to another audience. We sense that the final stanza ought to be parenthetical but instead it is the crux of the poem. The poem fails to reach its intended recipient and we become both voyeurs of a private piece and protagonists in creating the poem and in creating exposing the failure of poetry to work at an elevated level. The answer to Harrison's closing question, "why should you need/to know the final failure of the poet?" is pragmatic. Harrison needs to be published, to write that poetic form, the 'memoriam', expected of all poets and his poetry is designed for broadcast not privacy. It has ambitions beyond its own self-contained pretensions to beautiful aesthetic. As a poet Harrison has been storing the possibility of rhyming 'Seth' with 'death' but humanely he has desired "to delay/the use". Becoming a poet has therefore compromised his humanity and poetry, although a creative act paradoxically is one of detachment from the human in its incessant aesthetic demands. Harrison exposes the greasy science of poetry in which rhymes are stored and engineered.

By completing the lunulae we enact the poet's quest for a rhyme from any source and at any cost, even compromising the humane. Just as with Cummings, to fill in or detach the lunulae is absurd because by doing so we annul the whole point of writing and reading. We become locked in a hermeneutic circle of action, which debars all emotion such that to act is to deconstruct poetry, and therefore to expose the heartlessness of poetic action. In a reversal of what Cummings suggested, since syntax is first, who pays any attention to the feeling of things?

The Unsure Imagination

The lunulae as used above serves to demonstrate the raw technical methods behind poetry. In another method, although the structural aspect is not foregrounded, the lunulae exists as a space in which the poet suggests that his or her poetry may not be fully accomplished, and dramatises a failure to completely capture an idea and to convey it succinctly. It suggests the impossibility of controlling the imaginative spirit which inspires writing. As suggested in Clarke's poem the poetic, public voice may follow a different thread from the personal, private imagination and so in a sense any lunulae, by containing something tangential, suggests a hyperactivity of the imagination which prevents the poet maintaining a consistent reasoning. Indeed, the lunulae has often been used to suggest the poet's doubt about the integrity of his poem although Elizabeth Bishop takes this to the extreme.

In her poem 'The Weed' (Complete Poems, p.21) the meaning of the metaphor is obscured by the many layered psychology which fashions the poem:

I dreamed that dead, and meditating,
I lay upon a grave, or bed,
(at least, some cold and close-built bower)

The poet is dreaming that she is dead and that, though dead, she is still capable of meditating whilst the uncertainty of her location expressed by the 'at least' in the lunulae establishes the poem as fantasy. The allusion to Coleridge's 'This Lime Tree Bower my Prison' suggests that this is a poem in which the imagination will project movement whilst the physical body remains still. There is a constant growth and motion in the weed and the heart but the restless vitality contrasts with the inactivity, emphasised through the doubts expressed in lunulae, of the poet in response to this psychosomatic intrusion. She notes that "Its green head was nodding on the breast./(all this was in the dark)". Because of the dark the green quality of the weed must be constructed by the imagination, not by external measurements. The reader is unable to relate the metaphor to anything physical and empirical. Indeed, even the heart is not described in the first person as necessarily belonging to Bishop. The poem's internalised, imagined system prevents our gaining of a definite intent in the poem. The denial of resolution is finally accomplished by the lunulae which undermine even the imaginative basis. If the weed is the creation of the poet's imagination, what are we to ground it on if that imagination and the poetic system used to represent it is itself shown to be unstable? The final lines turn the ambiguity of what the weed represents into a paradox about poetry as an artefact:

the weed-deflected stream was made
itself of racing images.
(As if a river should carry all
the scenes that it had once reflected
shut in its waters, and not floating
on momentary surfaces.)
The weed stood in the severed heart.
"What are you doing there?" I asked.
It lifted its head all dripping wet
(with my own thoughts?)
and answered then: "I grow," it said,
"but to divide your heart again."

Here the internalisation is completed. The stream is weed-deflected, not deflected by anything tangible, and the weed has no external purpose but to divide the poet's heart. The dichotomy between stream and drops (elsewhere in the Bishop canon, for example, 'Man Moth', drops and tears are used to suggest precious moments of containment of some emotional or imaginative spirit) suggests that the river represents a total understanding of which the weed, its "heavy drops" as "my own thoughts?" is only a part. If the poet herself is not certain if the weed originates in her thoughts, how can we know that the poem actually means anything? Given the internalised system of representation and action established by the poem, there is no clear origin for the poem. The context of the relationship between signifier and signified is unstable because all that is signified is imaginary and the signifiers, the words, are themselves incapable of describing what is occurring because the poet herself lacks perception. When her imagination which replaces perception is itself shown to be uncertain of its own nature, as expressed in the private doubt of the lunulae, the poem's meaning self-destructs.

Performing Parentheses

The final ambiguity the lunulae promotes depends on the way a poem is performed and the different responses to the lunulae which will be generated depending on whether we discover them audibly or visually. Because this is dependent on personal preferences, not every recipient of a poem will discover the effect of the parenthesis when spoken and it is therefore only a potential, rather than intrinsic effect. The characteristic of the lunulae in the twentieth century is that it comments on the act of writing. Importantly, however, the act of writing is different to the act of speaking and whilst a lunulae can be written, it cannot be spoken. The lunulae lose their unique containing quality and become conflated, like a homophone, with other forms of parenthetical idea such as the line break or the comma such that it cannot be made clear to the listener that the poet is consciously marking something out as being parenthetical. If the lunulae is a private space for the poet to express doubt about poetry, in being dissolved private and public distinctions must also vanish.

Elizabeth Bishop's poem 'One Art' (Complete Poems, p.178) concludes:

- Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
The art of losing is not hard to master
Though it may look like (Write it) like disaster

The lunulae encapsulate a qualification which undermines the credibility of the superficially forceful tone. The first lunulae is remarkable for it is the first time that the qualities of a lost object are described and elaborated. There is a sharp contrast between the growing enormity of the things Bishop loses - albeit metaphorically, rivers and continents - and the sudden minute summary of identity here. By using description, against the trend of the poem and in a line which barely fits as a pentameter, Bishop breaks the mould she has created for herself. It is losing not some thing, an object, but someone, a subject, that matters. Paradoxically, however, there remains an inadequacy about the description. Whilst Bishop has broken her design she does so in lunulae, a space conventionally reserved for emphasis and examples which support an argument already stated, and the fact that there are only two details, the latter of which is harshly split across lines, implies that the sum of the subject is more than what is admitted. By saying something against the structure of the poem, but by saying very little, there is suggestively an enormous amount left unsaid. The awkward structure of the final stanza, with its extra line, its use of the antiquated "shan't" instead of "isn't", the qualification and repetitive "too hard to master", and the intercluding lunulae disrupt the regular integrity so apparent in the tight two-rhyme scheme of the preceding verse. This shift in tone, the struggle to maintain superficial poetic form against an underlying and deep emotion is confirmed by the final lunulae, "(Write it)". There is an ambiguity of its meaning, the two parts of which depend on how we maintain the lunulae when read, but dissolve the lunulae when spoken. Taking the grammar literally leads to a positive reading. We substitute the first "it", which refers to the "art of losing", to the "it" in the lunulae, in which case the sense can be paraphrased as:

'The art of losing's not too hard to master though the art of losing may look like (Write the art of losing) like disaster'

However, this positive reading to which the grammar invites us contrasts with the inadequacy of expression implicit in the first lunulae. If Bishop has achieved a victory in reconciling her personal loss through the medium of words, it is a pyrrhic one because it has sacrificed representation of the human for textual summary, just as 'The Heartless Art' does.

The substitution of the ambiguous 'its' can only occur when the poem is seen and retrospectively criticised. Alternatively, we can work against the grammar, and here the challenge the performed lunulae makes is enacted. Because we can observe the page, see the poem as an artefact, we see also the potential truth of its statement. The art of losing is defined for us and can be achieved and mastered. Although it may look like disaster, it cannot be disastrous because here the poem is, created, and all we need to do to master loss is to write it down in a similar way, to re-enact the poetic process. Once we read the poem aloud, however, this relationship between mechanism and result is removed and we are kept one literary step away from the solution the poem suggests; we can never master the art of losing because to do so we must (and the italics enforce this as imperative, not optional) write rather than listen. The lunulae (Write it) can lead backwards, as occurs in the first reading but also forwards, because of the repeated like. To make a pause between "like" and "write" and to remove the pause between "it" and "like" is to turn the sense to mean, 'Write it like disaster'. Whether such a mode is intended is impossible to know as there is no evidence to suggest that Bishop wrote the poem for an audience. Thus the effect of reading the lunulae aloud may be unconscious. Indeed, it might be read privately in a similar way but the effectiveness of the alienating effect is doubled when the lunulae is read aloud. The lunulae make a double challenge to the pragmatic advisory effort of the poem. On the first reading the lunulae suggest a defiant achievement, although one which also forces a suppression of problematic emotions. On the second reading, in which the lunulae dissolve, this failure becomes explicit and the drama of the poem is not the public mastery of loss but the private knowledge of a poet who knows her 'Art' cannot achieve its ambitions.

The alternative interpretation created in speaking the lunulae is not unique to Bishop, although 'One Art' is remarkable in the way in which it draws attention to the many levels of literary control of the emotions. Geoffrey Hill's long poem Speech! Speech! has several such moments in which to speak the poem, as the title would invite, alters the meaning of the lunulae. For example:

From the beginning the question how to end
has been part of the act. One cannot have sex
fantasies (any way) as the final
answer to life.
(Stanza 10)

Depending on the preference of the speaker the meaning can shift from the aggressively dismissive - 'one cannot have any sex fantasy, whatever it involves, as the final answer to life' - to the more open - 'one cannot have sex fantasies, anyway, as the final answer to life' - implying that there might, at least, be an answer to the "question how to end". Other moments of vocal play recur throughout the poem. However, Hill's most imaginative use of the lunulae comes in the second of his 'Two Formal Elegies: For the Jews in Europe' (Collected Poems, p.31). Here the lunulae shift dramatically emphasis when received aurally. As in The Waste Land, the first lunulae acts as a visual metaphor of enclosure:

Documented and safe, we have enough
Witnesses (our world being witness-proof).

Contrarily, the second lunulae acts at the opposite of enclosure, implying an infinity of irresolution:

Is it good to remind them, on a brief screen,
Of what they have witnessed and not seen?
(Deaths of the city that persistently dies…?)

By placing an ellipsis in parenthesis, Hill suggests a closed and permanent loop of played scenes of destruction. The one-way barrier made by the first lunula brings us into the line of the poem and then we are forced to return perpetually to the start of the line by the ellipsis and the open question and the closing lunula, and hence re-enact the replaying deaths. The lunulae functions as a kind of valve, allowing us in and keeping us there. Clearly this is an effect of which we are deprived when the poem is read aloud, and the sentence stands more definitively as a statement of what is seen, rather than a recreation of the effect of that sight. Finally, by closing his poem on a parenthesis, Hill proposes the problem of formal remembrance as man has constructed it:

To put up stones ensures some sacrifice.
Sufficient men confer, carry their weight.
(At whose door does the sacrifice stand or start?)

In the sonnet form the last line, here provided by the lunulae, traditionally provides a sense of resolution. By denying this - by ending on a question, in lunulae, with a word outside the rhyme scheme - Hill defies the logic of elegy. His question is parenthetical, because it goes against the conventional and settled mode of remembrance in which "sufficient men confer". By challenging established wisdom Hill prevents any sense of satisfying judgement. However, when read aloud the visual properties of question and brackets, which demonstrate Hill's poem to be functioning tangentially to humankind's usual forms of remembrance, become lost. The question achieves a greater level of explicit defiance and the sentence tends to a political demand rather than personal lament. By working against the tradition, Hill's final lunulae, unlike in most of the other poems discussed above, actually reasserts poetry's ability to challenge conformity and to forge new arguments which may reproduce a human empathy in our systems of representation.


Empson condemned italics in poetry for being vulgar, since "a well constructed sentence should be able to carry a stress on any of its words and should show in itself how these stresses are compounded" (Empson, p.48). It might be argued that the lunulae has a similar coarseness because it stresses that something is parenthetical rather than allowing us to work this out for ourselves. Certainly it is possible to create ambiguity by forcing the reader to determine at what level of activity a word or phrase is working, that is to say how parenthetical or fundamental a word is in the general argumentative trend. For example, in William Carlos Williams' 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus':

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wing's wax

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning
(Selected Poems, p.212)

how are we to interpret 'unsignificantly'? In the movement as presented here, as in Auden's 'Musée des beaux-arts', the dog will go on with his doggy life and nobody notices Icarus. However, if we treat 'unsignificantly' as an unpunctuated parenthesis, one which functions as an aside against the general movement, the word has ironic connotations. Clearly for Icarus it is of great significance that the sun has melted his wings. Enabling such a decision making process through the elimination of guiding punctuation is something we other poets such as Emily Dickinson achieve.

However, the lunulae is not vulgar because it creates ambiguity, rather than resolving it. The parenthesis in poetry might be better termed 'par-antithesis' for it expresses, through being the private space for a poet's thoughts, a tangential movement to the rest of the poem, even whilst being integrated in it. Lunulae therefore undermine, perhaps partially but often fundamentally, the integrity of the surrounding verse. Where the essence of a poem is to illustrate something about the nature of poetry the ability of the lunulae to suggest disharmony is something to be exploited. By shutting an admission of poetic failure, in the sotto voce private space implied by a lunulae, off from the rest of the poem which, presumably, seeks to engage us with its success, the lunulae is a still, small voice which is often more powerful in the boldness of its reappraisal of the poet's art than the loud, superficial explications of the rest of the poem. This scepticism about artistic achievement is a defining quality of the modern and the lunulae, by questioning the coherence of the poetic imaginative process, re-asserts the dynamism of the poem of the mind in the act of finding, if not in its resolution.

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  1. For example, Christopher Ricks points out the nature of the line break:

    The white space at the end of a line of poetry constitutes some kind of pause; but there need not be any pause of formal punctuation, and so there may be only equivocally a pause at all. A non-temporal pause? Unless the rhythm or the sense or the formal punctuation insists upon it, the line-ending (which cannot help conveying some sense of an ending) may not be exactly an ending. The white space may constitute an invisible boundary; an absence or a space which yet has significance; what in another context might be called a pregnant silence. (The Force of Poetry, p.90) [Back to text]
  2. John Lennard, in his comprehensive examination of the parenthesis, takes a broadly socio-historical approach, demonstrating how the use of the lunulae has been affected by cultural attitudes to the printed word, for example, to denote sententiae or to indicate attributions of speech and the practical necessities of the printing process. With the Romantic shifts in understanding modes of thought and expression, particularly with Burke’s assertion that "incompleteness, obscurity, and the deceptive surface are no longer to be condemned as faults of the beautiful, but celebrated as criteria of the sublime." (Lennard, p.139) the lunulae starts to be used to represent a psychological state.

    Inevitably in such a prosaic subject area there is going to be some overlap of ideas. There is, for example, no escaping from the fact that Eliot is the first modern poet to use the lunulae outside of its traditional boundaries. However, I hope to adopt a psychological rather than historical line and suggest how the lunulae has been used to indicate a psychological instability and complexity which therefore contributes specifically to ambiguity of meaning in poetry and, further, how such complexity even tends to the paradoxical such as to question the completion of the poetic act itself. [Back to text]

  3. Although sometimes even this can be problematic. For example, if we notice that the date of a poem is 1918 we might come to the poem with a set of preconceptions which will make our reading of the text different to that reading we might have had if we had been unaware that the poem was from the canon of ‘war poetry’. [Back to text]

  4. Ironically, the aphorisms might be also seen as denoting sententiae in a return to the seventeenth-century usage of the mark. Lennard, pp.23-24. [Back to text]

  5. William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity:

    An ambiguity, in ordinary speech, means something very pronounced, and as a rule witty or deceitful. I propose to use the word in an extended sense, and shall think relevant to my subject any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language. (p.19) [Back to text]
  6. Eliot maintained the conjunction ‘And’ in spite of the recommendation of Vivien Eliot to delete it. See Facsimile and Transcript, p.7. This enforces the idea that the lunulae is consciously acting in a way outside the normal. [Back to text]

  7. Eliot’s note suggests this is the idea he was trying to convey in a footnote:

    Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a ‘character’ is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest…What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem. [Back to text]
  8. Thus such a poem might also have latent in it some form of third-type ambiguity, in that two apparently unconnected meanings are given simultaneously. Empson, p.127. However, Empson’s definition refers to the combination as it occurs in a single word. This illustrates the limitations of Empson’s argument when applied to the medley of deconstructive forms the twentieth-century poet might possibly use. [Back to text]

  9. Complete poems, p.240:

    since feeling is first
    who pays any attention
    to the syntax of things
    will never wholly kiss you;

    The poem concludes:

    for life’s not a paragraph
    And death I think is no parenthesis

    Cummings’ final idea prompts the interesting idea that a parenthesis ought always to be closed; we can never have an opening lunula without a corresponding closing lunula. Hence it is a convenient metaphor for death, which is seen as an infinite rather than unified space. [Back to text]

  10. For example, Lennard examines Marvell’s ‘Bermudas’, pp.54-56 [Back to text]

  11. Hugh Kenner has suggested a similar problem exists with the footnote which is in itself a peculiar form of parenthesis:

    The footnote’s relation to the passage from which it depends is established wholly by visual and typographic means, and will typically defeat all efforts of the speaking voice to clarify it without visual aid. Parentheses, like commas, tell the voice what to do: an asterisk tells the voice it can do nothing. You cannot read a passage of prose aloud, interpolating the footnotes, and make the subordination of the footnotes clear, and keep the whole sounding natural. The language has forsaken a vocal milieu, and a context of oral communication between persons, and commenced to take advantage of the expressive possibilities of technological space. (The Stoic Comedians: Flaubert, Joyce and Beckett, p.39-40).

    He is wrong to suggest that "parentheses, like commas, tell the voice what to do" because in being spoken parentheses, or rather lunulae, become conflated with other forms of caesura such as the comma. Hence their level of difference from the other text is decreased. [Back to text]

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This page was published on October 10, 2003 | Keywords: parentheses, lunulae, poetry, modernism

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