There’s a delightful essay in the 90th anniversary issue of the New Yorker, in which longtime copy editor Mary Norris expounds on her craft, with particular attention to the comma, and defends, almost successfully, the magazine’s indefensibly arcane comma style in sentences like “When I was in high school, at Horace Mann, in the Bronx, in the nineteen-seventies, everyone took pride in the brilliant eccentricity of our teachers.” (“I really don’t see how any of them could be done without.”) My favorite passage involves her questioning the idiosyncratic commas in James Salter’s novel Light Years. She’s sure Salter is too careful a writer to make a mistake; so why then does he insert an unnecessary comma in a line about a “thin, burgundy dress” that shows the outline of a woman’s stomach? And later: “that stunning, wide smile.” A ship’s “black, stained side.”
Nagged, Norris writes Salter a letter, inquiring after these commas. He responds in a way that charmingly suggests he has given thought to each individual choice: “I sometimes ignore the rules about commas although generally I follow convention and adhere to the advice in Strunk and White. Punctuation is for clarity and also emphasis, but I also feel that, if the writing warrants it, punctuation can contribute to the music and rhythm of the sentences. You don’t get permission for this, of course; you take the liberty.”
This is the part where it becomes clear that Norris is no mere “comma queen” but an excellent writer herself: “In doing without a hyphen in the title ‘Light Years’ (Webster’s spells it ‘light-year’), he cubes the meaning: carefree years, seen from an astronomical distance.” Isn’t that great, the economy of “cubes the meaning”? And of Salter’s explanation of his “thin, burgundy dress,” she writes: “He was doing the same thing with ‘stunning, wide smile,’ trying to control the impact of the ‘stunning’ by smacking it with a comma as one would put English on a cue ball.”
I read Light Years just over a decade ago, when I was in grad school, during what turned out to be the last year of living with the first love of my life. I remember, as I often do, the room in which I read it, since I inevitably pictured the events of the novel happening in that room. (This creates cognitive dissonance, since Nedra and Viri would have had nothing to do with the cheap futon we used for a couch.) Beyond the languid quality of the prose, the suburban narrative like a dressmaker’s dummy on which to hang all that lush, sensual description, I only remember one scene from the novel, a fragment of a scene, where a man luxuriatingly humps a woman from behind. A cuckolding, with pillows. (One gets an impression of Salter as a man who enjoys sex most especially in the past tense, retelling it to himself.) I can’t help picturing this scene superimposed over that futon, which was only pulled out to serve as a bed when my boyfriend and I were no longer sleeping together, literally or figuratively, since he’d begun sleeping with somebody else.
After reading the article, I got dressed and drove to the library to check out a copy of A Sport and a Pastime. I wanted to revisit Salter without re-reading, which gives me mortality anxiety, something like the shivery way my friend Martin reacts to melting ice cream. Within the first twenty pages, I knew Salter’s response to Norris was a self-deception; he uses that wrong comma as a rule: “long, rectangular patterns”; “long, rising pastures”; “a single, great spire”; “faint, rotten odor”; “a thin, black cigar”; “a beautiful, black Chanel suit with silver buttons and a ruffled, white shirt.” So while the “thin, burgundy dress” succeeds, that comma forcing you to pause and appreciate the fabric’s salacious filminess, it feels like a lucky mistake, a stopped-clock way of getting it right.
I have been thinking about punctuation. It is suddenly salient, rising off the page like bas relief. And aren’t these little marks like hinges? Alice Fulton invented a punctuation mark, the “bride” or double equal sign (==), to use in her book Sensual Math. She made it to mimic the background threads that hold lace together. In an interview, the poet Christopher Kondrich quotes Liz Waldner’s line “I’ve made myself not-matter.” In Norris’s terms, the hyphen cubes the meaning, makes “not matter” a compound verb (an action rather than absence of action) as well as a compound noun (not antimatter but not matter either).
I remember a lecture I went to in college, or perhaps it was a Q&A period after a reading – the poets were Anne Carson and Frank Bidart. Someone asked Carson about her quirky line lengths. Her reply was not intellectual; she invoked intuition. There was also some discussion of punctuation, and Bidart (with his typical strident intensity) remarked on the crucial difference between “The woods are lovely, dark and deep,” and “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep.” It isn’t a series of three adjectives, rather two phrases with equal weight, but if you’re used to seeing series without the Oxford comma (the style adopted by the Associated Press), you might misinterpret the line. But the example only works out of context. In the context of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” you could not possibly resist being lulled by Frost’s insistently iambic rhythm; how could you resist it? Coming as it does toward the end of the poem, the line is not ambiguous; the poem has already taught you how to read it. • 23 March 2015