Monday, January 16, 2006

Transvestite Hermaphrodites

This is what semicolons are, according to Kurt Vonnegut in an extract from his forthcoming memoir (The Guardian Review, Saturday 14th January). A few paragraphs about war (and whether or not to talk about it) are followed by a brief lesson in creative writing:

"First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college.

And I realise some of you may be having trouble deciding whether I am kidding or not. So from now on I will tell you when I'm kidding.

For instance, join the National Guard or the Marines and teach democracy. I'm kidding.

We are about to be attacked by al-Qaida. Wave flags if you have them. That always seems to scare them away. I'm kidding.

If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don't have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I'm not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practising an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven's sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something."

I can dig this kind of dogmatic humour: shooting from the hip, telling it like it is. Is he kidding about semicolons though? I don't believe he is. I remember the poet Martin Mooney had a similar revulsion towards them. Or maybe it was just that he told me about what American poet Richard Hugo said about them in his excellent, autobiographical book (about creative writing among other things) THE TRIGGERING TOWN. Maybe this loathing of semicolons (or poor old transvestite hermaphrodites, heaven help them) is largely an American thing. I understand that they are a bit fussy and fiddly (Hugo thought they were "ugly" if I remember right). But they do serve a function, being less absolute than a full stop and more absolute than a comma. Okay, you could just use a full stop, or a comma as many poets do, or an extra space or two or a Dickinson – dash.

Maybe KV has pinpointed a weakness in my work; vagueness, an attachment to in-betweeness, to things that are neither one thing nor the other. Still, I find it hard to take issue with innocent bits of hard-working punctuation minding their own business.


tainted perfection said...

That is incredibly amusing! I really enjoyed reading this.

I do like semi-colons though they constantly lost me marks in college(punctuation is not my strong point). But I find it hard to believe someone can call semi colons ugly, if we are to judge punctuation on the basis of appearance I must say I find them very pleasing to the eye(I've even written a poem about their beauty).

The colon on the other hand makes me think of lists, they are too uniform and have nothing to offer but dots! The semi colon, however, swirls. It is a dot with a tail, which is far more interesting than dashes and dots.

Póló said...