redux: “Female punctuation forbids me to say more.”

Yesterday John finished reading the mss. of a novella I recently completed. He had many helpful things to say and was generous beyond words. I knew that some of the things he didn’t say had to do with punctuation — I’d told him I wanted him to concentrate on what worked and what didn’t but not to mention the word “comma”. This morning, thinking about meaning and punctuation, I remembered this post from a few years ago and how I mused that the fermata, a symbol of musical notation indicating a hold or pause, could work in literary notation too…

___________________________________

Last night, as  part of a two-day birthday treat, we went to the Blackbird Theatre Company’s production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play, The Rivals, a comedy of manners in five acts, first performed in London in 1775. It was wildly funny. Mrs Malaprop made us laugh every time she opened her mouth. I hoped I wouldn’t forget any of her best lines — she describes her young niece’s suitor as “the very pineapple of politeness,” and later, realizing she (and others) have been duped, she takes the high road, saying,”We will not anticipate the past, our retrospection will now be all to the future”. I think my favourite malapropism was “Female punctuation forbids me to say more.”

Apart from the humour of that line, do you think there is such a thing as “female punctuation”? I am married to a poet who taught college English for more than 30 years. He has very strong opinions about the use of commas. “When in doubt, leave it out,” he always says. Or “less is more.” Recently he copyedited a manuscript for me and he lamented my over-use of commas. I can defend each and every one of them and I don’t believe I use them incorrectly but I’ve begun to try to come up with reasons for the way I use them. They’re not there simply to separate clauses or items in a list but also for timing. And is it really acceptable to use a comma for timing?

An online site, Oxford Dictionaries, suggests not. Here’s what the site has to say about the comma:

A comma marks a slight break between different parts of a sentence. Used properly, commas make the meaning of sentences clear by grouping and separating words, phrases, and clauses. Many people are uncertain about the use of commas, though, and often sprinkle them throughout their writing without knowing the basic rules.

While I’ve been sitting here thinking about this, I’ve also been listening to my favourite singer Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sing a duet from Handel’s opera, Guilio Cesare, with another ravishing singer, the countertenor, Drew Minter. The duet is “Son nata a lagrimar” and it’s one of the last pieces I tried to learn when I took voice lessons. Handel is a singer’s dream composer. He showcases the voice, giving it a place to shine — without the pyrotechnics of, say, Mozart. Pyrotechnics are all very well for those who have quick-silver agility: a coloratura like Cecilia Bartoli, for example. But Handel’s settings are burnished, like fine gold, with a warm patina. Anyway, as I listen to this and remember how I began to understand the use of the fermata when trying to sing Handel, I think, Oh, now there’s something that ought to find its way from musical notation to the literary text. The fermata, says my Shorter Oxford Dictionary (the one in two volumes, with tiny tiny type), is “A sign indicating an unspecified prolongation of a note or rest.” If you look at these bars of that duet, you can see it right at the end of that last bar, over “piu”.

fermataHow long does one hold that? It’s a matter of discretion — the singer’s as well as the conductor’s. The note is coloured by so many things and this particular duet is heart-rendingly sad. “I was born to weep”, sings Cornelia, as she contemplates what will happen to her stepson Sesto after she refuses to marry a general who is responsible for the death of her husband Pompey. So lingering on that “piu” (it means “more”) wrings every last bit of sorrow out of it.

Learning to sing taught me something about how words sound in the head as well as the mouth, in the heart as well as the throat. I’m thinking that it might be time to introduce the fermata into textual punctuation. Imagine it. A note from writer to reader — read this aloud, linger over the line, draw out this word, this phrase, allow yourself to take it into your heart, longer than a comma, a semi-colon. Take your time. Breath a little. Forget the grammars and the stylesheets. Mrs. Malaprop, impatient with her niece Lydia Languish, says of her, “She’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.” I can imagine a fermata over the “allegory”, a very feminine form of punctuation whose time has perhaps come.

“Female punctuation forbids me to say more.”

Last night, as  part of a two-day birthday treat, we went to the Blackbird Theatre Company’s production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play, The Rivals, a comedy of manners in five acts, first performed in London in 1775. It was wildly funny. Mrs Malaprop made us laugh every time she opened her mouth. I hoped I wouldn’t forget any of her best lines — she describes her young niece’s suitor as “the very pineapple of politeness,” and later, realizing she (and others) have been duped, she takes the high road, saying,”We will not anticipate the past, our retrospection will now be all to the future”. I think my favourite malapropism was “Female punctuation forbids me to say more.”

Apart from the humour of that line, do you think there is such a thing as “female punctuation”? I am married to a poet who taught college English for more than 30 years. He has very strong opinions about the use of commas. “When in doubt, leave it out,” he always says. Or “less is more.” Recently he copyedited a manuscript for me and he lamented my over-use of commas. I can defend each and every one of them and I don’t believe I use them incorrectly but I’ve begun to try to come up with reasons for the way I use them. They’re not there simply to separate clauses or items in a list but also for timing. And is it really acceptable to use a comma for timing?

An online site, Oxford Dictionaries, suggests not. Here’s what the site has to say about the comma:

A comma marks a slight break between different parts of a sentence. Used properly, commas make the meaning of sentences clear by grouping and separating words, phrases, and clauses. Many people are uncertain about the use of commas, though, and often sprinkle them throughout their writing without knowing the basic rules.

While I’ve been sitting here thinking about this, I’ve also been listening to my favourite singer Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sing a duet from Handel’s opera, Guilio Cesare, with another ravishing singer, the countertenor, Drew Minter. The duet is “Son nata a lagrimar” and it’s one of the last pieces I tried to learn when I took voice lessons. Handel is a singer’s dream composer. He showcases the voice, giving it a place to shine — without the pyrotechnics of, say, Mozart. Pyrotechnics are all very well for those who have quick-silver agility: a coloratura like Cecilia Bartoli, for example. But Handel’s settings are burnished, like fine gold, with a warm patina. Anyway, as I listen to this and remember how I began to understand the use of the fermata when trying to sing Handel, I think, Oh, now there’s something that ought to find its way from musical notation to the literary text. The fermata, says my Shorter Oxford Dictionary (the one in two volumes, with tiny tiny type), is “A sign indicating an unspecified prolongation of a note or rest.” If you look at these bars of that duet, you can see it right at the end of that last bar, over “piu”.

fermataHow long does one hold that? It’s a matter of discretion — the singer’s as well as the conductor’s. The note is coloured by so many things and this particular duet is heart-rendingly sad. “I was born to weep”, sings Cornelia, as she contemplates what will happen to her stepson Sesto after she refuses to marry a general who is responsible for the death of her husband Pompey. So lingering on that “piu” (it means “more”) wrings every last bit of sorrow out of it.

Learning to sing taught me something about how words sound in the head as well as the mouth, in the heart as well as the throat. I’m thinking that it might be time to introduce the fermata into textual punctuation. Imagine it. A note from writer to reader — read this aloud, linger over the line, draw out this word, this phrase, allow yourself to take it into your heart, longer than a comma, a semi-colon. Take your time. Breath a little. Forget the grammars and the stylesheets. Mrs. Malaprop, impatient with her niece Lydia Languish, says of her, “She’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.” I can imagine a fermata over the “allegory”, a very feminine form of punctuation whose time has perhaps come.

the moon in its last quarter

I woke about half an hour and watched the moon from my bed. It’s growing smaller, the last quarter, and for the last fifteen minutes it’s been hanging in a tall fir to the south of my house. It’s bright. And it’s my son Brendan’s birthday. 31 years ago this morning, right about now, I insisted we go down to St. Mary’s Hospital in Sechelt because I wasn’t going to wait any longer. I wasn’t actually in labour but Brendan was almost two weeks overdue and I needed for us to get on with life. No more sitting huge and helpless by the fire with an almost-two-year old (Forrest) racing around, out of reach, and people calling daily to ask if there was a baby yet. It felt like there would never be a baby if I didn’t insist.

So I did. And the doctor who was filling in for our family doctor broke my water at around 10:00 that morning and Brendan was born just in time for lunch. His. Mine. And we did get on with life. We’d recently moved into the house we were still in the middle of building, though we had a roof, a bathroom, and the windows were in, walls finished. No kitchen cupboards or tiles on the floor or even interior doors. But that all happened gradually and the baby thrived (he’s a mathematician now) and Angelica joined us two and a half years later. Birthdays remind me of the passing of time as surely as the moon does.

Yesterday I had a singing lesson, my first in more than 2 years. Somehow I gave up singing and I’ve missed it. Last Sunday we were listening to  a CBC feature on Tom Schilling, a Hamilton singing teacher. Tom was inspiring. John turned to me, said, “You should sing again. It made you so happy.” It did.  And I think it did more than induce happiness (as if that wasn’t enough): research tells us that it strengthens the lymphatic system, which in turn strengthens the immune system, and the controlled breathing is better for you than yoga. People with dementia (not me, not yet) have access to memories and joy when they sing that might not otherwise be available to them.

I loved being in S’s pretty studio again. I thought we’d really just do scales and arpeggios and work on breathing and yes, we did those things. But when I mentioned a duet I’d been listening to (kind of obsessively, actually), “Son nata a lagrimar”, from Handel’s Giulio Cesare, S pulled the music from her file and we tried it. I mangled it — I was singing the low line, Cornelia’s part, and it was the first time I’d seen the music. But how wonderful it felt to feel my voice inhabit, even badly, even briefly, those beautiful notes. And to enter, for a little while, the drama between Cornelia and her son Sesto. (“Condemned to grieve” — that’s a loose translation, I guess. )

And how wonderful it felt to drive home along the quiet highway, in sunlight, with my favourite singer, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, singing the duet with Drew Minter, listening to their voices entwine and echo, and to hear the little embellishments that experienced singers can add to a score, and to be able to hum along.

220px-Giulio_Cesare_opera

Playlist for summer

After weeks of rain, a time when the province’s rivers flooded, when cherry growers mourned the condition of this year’s crop, when the berry growers in the Fraser Valley prayed for sun, when the roses lost their petals in sodden clumps, when driving home in darkness meant being alert for frogs on the highway, when the slugs (I swear) grew to the size of mice, well, yesterday afternoon the sun came out. And we are promised weeks of it. The UV index this morning is 7. Or maybe 8.

So it’s time to bring out the summer music. I confess I’m not really sure what a playlist is. I don’t have any of the latest technology, I still play cds and have only once or twice downloaded a song. What I’ve always loved about vinyl records and then cassette tapes and compact discs is the sense of narrative in the playing of them. You start at the beginning and you listen to the whole thing (mostly). You realize that the musician had a particular kind of listening in mind as he or she decided on the sequence of pieces. There’s a trajectory and the listener is part of that.

Last night friends came for dinner and we listened to a collection of Romska balada, a cycle of Roma songs that are individually beautiful but form an extraordinary extended expression of longing, sorrow, prayer, and joy. Somehow this was perfect music for sitting under grape leaves while the sapsuckers flew from tree to tree and we talked of absent children, gardens, and waited for the lamb to finish grilling.

So what would my summer playlist sound like? Some Dylan, Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You”, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending”, played by the marvellous Hilary Hahn, Steve Earle singing “Jerusalem” (and not Blake’s Jerusalem, though maybe I’d want that too), two “Four Strong Winds” – Ian Tyson and Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris singing “Boulder to Birmingham”, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Drew Minter  singing “Son nata a lagrimar” from Giulio Cesare, a duet that gives me goose bumps just typing the title, Dire Straits (“Wild West End”), Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas in its entirety, and then maybe Jean Redpath singing the songs of Robbie Burns. I’m sure I’ve left out key elements but it looks like I’ll have the whole summer to perfect my list.