comma nature

thanks everyone for the engaging conversation re: Villa’s use of commas … and congrats to mephis and iseult for getting some points today! remember, if you get 10 points you get a prize, and since mephis is at 8, i need everyone besides mephis to start getting some points so i don’t actually have to give HIM a prize! hee hee … maybe i’ll create another blog identity and start guessing as soon as i post to prevent him! so devious i am.


today was as great as yesterday because the A’s won again!!! work was busy, one 3rd grader was writing a narrative paragraph about a day he spent at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk … he was very proud that he drew a face inside the “o” of “Boardwalk” and said the face was bored because the “board”walk was boring … and he’s like DO YOU GET IT? my students are becoming more like me everyday. (hey jessica, where does this fall in the range of vispo?)

another funny thing at work is that i’ve convinced my students that my last name is “Torchure” … so they call me “Mr. Torchure”. at first it was just to break the ice with them on the first day. but today, when i assigned them their homework (5 narrative paragraphs) one student, exasperated, exclaimed “WHY ARE YOU TORTURING US!” there was a moment of silence. then another student said “it’s because he HAS to torture us, his name IS mr. torchure.” and the other kid was like “ooooh yeah that makes sense. it’s okay then.”




thanks gladys for mentioning Tim’s essays … i’ve read the one in Melus, but not the one in Pinoy Poetics (that’s one book i’ve wanted to read but haven’t yet purchased – do people recommend this book?) i can’t remember if Tim mentions Villa’s relation to Gertrude Stein in regards to the comma, but the rest of this post is about just that.

altho one would locate Villa’s influence in these poems most strongly in e.e.cummings, one could read Villa’s “preface” to his comma poems in “counterpointillism” to stein’s rejection of the comma (i should also mention that stein’s “poetry and grammar” was written around 1930, while Villa’s “Volume Two” was not written until 1949 – so it seems likely he was familiar with stein).


anyways, Let’s look at what stein says about the comma first: HERE IS AN EXCERPT FROM ‘POETRY AND GRAMMAR’:

“commas are servile they have no life of their own they are dependant upon use and convenience and they are put there just just for practical purposes […]

I have refused them so often and left them out so much and did without them so continually that I have come to be indifferent to them. i do not care whether you put them in or not but for a long time I felt very definitely about them and would have nothing to do with them.

As I say commas are servile and they have no life of their own, and their use is not a use, it is a way of replacing one’s interest and i do decidedly like to like my own interest my own interest in what I am doing. A comma by helping you along holding your coat for you and putting on your shoes keeps you from living your life as actively as you should lead it […]

A long complicated sentence should force itself upon you, make you know yourself knowing it and the comma, well at the most a comma is a poor period that it lets you stop and take a breath but if you want to take a breath you ought to know yourself that you want to take a breath.

it is not like stopping altogether which is what a period does stopping altogether has something to do with going on, but taking a breath well you are always taking a breath and why emphasize one breath rather than another breath. Anyway that is the way I felt about it and I felt that about it very strongly. And so I almost never used a comma […]”



such a contrast to Villa that it’s rather shocking (yes i know im a nerd)! what’s interesting to me here is how stein anthropomorphizes the comma into a servile, colonized subject. the very first sentence in the excerpt above could almost describe a colonial view of the other – a subject that has no value in and of itself, but only exists as use-value.

her response to this grammatical, colonial crisis is to ignore the comma – to refuse it a space within the active life (her continuous present) – this response keeps the comma servile and lifeless. altho her rejection of the comma is anti-colonial (she is against servitude because it prevents the active life of the liberated – but her rejection is NOT postcolonial (in the sense that it doesnt reimagine the colonized).

it is so odd to me: stein was such an innovator but she negatively essentializes the comma and is unable to reimagine its value. THIS IS WHERE VILLA COMES IN.


his “comma poems” are a direct argument against stein – a postcolonial attempt to reimagine the colonized position of the comma…remember in his preface from the post before. he says:

“These poems were conceived with commas, as “comma poems,” in which the commas are an integral and essential part of the medium: regulating the poem’s verbal density and time movement: enabling each word to attain a fuller tonal and sonal value, and the line movement to become more measured.”

Think about how much more AGENCY the once servile comma has in Villa’s conception. stein discards the comma, villa allows it to regulate, enable, and measure. one could push the argument and claim that Villa’s subaltern position contributed to his desire, in these poems, to liberate the comma (but who can prove this?) – regardless, it is clear that Villa will not allow the colonized comma to remain colonized; one cannot omit the comma without the loss being cognizable (forgive me for being a bit allegorical;)

but this sentence from stein reminds me so sharply of the u.s. military’s perspective of my people’s rights on guam: “I have refused them so often and left them out so much and did without them so continually that I have come to be indifferent to them.”


The result of Stein’s conception is indifference; the result of Villa’s conception conception is “a lineal pace of dignity and movement” (that’s from his preface again).



14 thoughts on “comma nature

  1. craig, your post/colonial reading of stein and villa re: the comma is super interesting to me. i have to say that my critical impulse with villa’s work is also to read it through his biography, his relationship to american high modernism, and,of,course,his status as a colonized subject. i hadn’t read stein’s own manifesto on the comma, but your reading them together, with the understanding that villa’s take on the comma was most likely a reaction to stein’s pronouncements — which i’m sure the other high moderns recognized as such — makes me nod my head, especially because your reading underscores the way form is a product partially of one’s history, geography, and social matrix (class, gender, sexuality, race), as well as personal talent/imagination.

    i have to confess that i always felt vaguely guilty that my critical impulse has been to read villa through his bio, because i found that i couldn’t get into his work otherwise. i think the guilt comes from my primary training in the ‘new critical’ ethos in my undergraduate program, but i also think it’s due to how villa did NOT want to be read/understood by others through his being filipino, being a colonized american subject, being not born in the world of the other high moderns.

    (hmm, thinking a lot about what i just wrote. i wonder if i’ll change my mind later.)

    ok, before i forget, i did read both of tim yu’s essays on villa and he did mention stein but i don’t remember it being very extensive — it was a while ago that i read them, however, so i could be wrong here.

    also, there’s a great chapter on villa’s life and work in augusto espiritu’s book, five faces of exile, the whole of which tries to make sense of the lives and art of five filipino expatriates to the united states through their history as colonized subjects. there isn’t a lot of critical work on villa in general besides the essays in eileen tabios’s edition of villa, yu’s essays, and espiritu’s chapter, so i’m glad that all of these are really excellent.

  2. mephis, underestimate me not you should.
    speaking of ‘new criticism’ – congrats to mephis for getting the reference to James Tate’s Ode to the Confederate Dead…let’s not let him run away with the thing!

    thanks for responding gladys! i will def. check out espiritu and pinoy poetics.

    i agree that reading Villa’s work with his life in mind accentuates the reading (even if he resists this kind of reading). and that is also why i didnt push too far the argument that his being filipino determined his conception of the comma (especially because one could argue that stein was also marginalized /subaltern because of her sexuality) – thus leaving us at a theoretical dead end.

    his resistance itself is interesting – very few “cultural signifiers” in his work – same with Williams Carlos Williams (who was half puerto rican)…what’s up with that? a critique of the Harlem Renaissance perhaps?

    i really hope others respond! and i will respond of course tomorrow!

  3. I’m still thinking about commas – and dashes, too . . . will likely take some time to formulate my thoughts.

    I mean, I’m no Ondaatje πŸ˜‰
    writing a vibrant book like Coming Through Slaughter. Is that another point for me?

  4. Oh I think you better

    Peel My Love Like an Onion

    Ana Castillo

    before I go off…

    so what do I get?

  5. hee hee, so you have a choice: get a 10 point prize, or let your points ride for a 20 point prize (which is twice as good)!!! CONGRATS AGAIN!!!

  6. You had me busting up over the comma colonized position (which I kept reading :ized, because it’s how I feel about the colon), and it’s only funnier because reading the comma poem reminded me vividly of listening to you read one of your poems. Which sounds like an arguement both, really. On the one hand you’ve got Stein who sounds pretty invested in the transaction between writer and reader, if you’re up to snuff on your shit, it should have enough integrity that it can withstand interpretation by the reader sans comma. Villa would prefer dictate the method in which his work is read, to ensure that the reader takes note of “a lineal pace of dignity and movement.” Stein’s got a little more faith in the reader than Villa. So my question to you, Craig, is do you want your reader to read your poem the way you do?

  7. alright mephis, i’ll let you know the prize over email πŸ˜‰

    great points forrest! and thanks for commenting. perhaps i would argue that stein really has no investment in the transaction between writer and reader. her investment seems to be only in her own interests, the privatization of meaning being a hallmark of her work (which i think is what makes her work so great also – and her theory so bad).

    and i dont know if villa is so much interested in control, he says we can read the poems without the commas if we want, but then of course we lose out on what the commas add.

    to answer your question, though, i have only one thing to say: THE READER IS DEAD.

    what do you expect: after GOD and the AUTHOR died, the READER had no chance.

  8. Dead zombie writers and Mephistopheles way ahead… this is a ghoulish blog indeed.

    This Villa-Stein comma correspondence is really intriguing. Wonder if there’s any way to find out how conscious Villa was of this while composing the poems?

    Interesting that Stein is mainly talking about commas in prosody: commas being weaker, “helper” stops as opposed to the harder, willful stops of periods.

    But Villa is inserting commas in lineated verse. So how do the breaths of the commas differ from the linebreak breaths?

    On another note, I have an alternative reading of Stein’s comma manifesto, based on gender dynamics and Stein’s own bio. Actually I wrote a lengthy comment about this earlier today but when I went to preview my comment Blogger zapped it into oblivion. *sob* *whimper*

    If this conversation is still going on next week, maybe I’ll try to reconstruct what I wrote.

    In the meantime, you can file me under the last letter of the alphabet, which in ancient Greek means “THE READER IS ALIVE.” πŸ˜‰

  9. thanks for responding pam! and


    mephis decided to cash in his ten point for a prize, so he is going back to ZERO. so jump in the game, the water is warm.

    good point about stein’s comments being in prose… does it redeem?

    and another good point: villa doesn’t really account for the additional pause at the comma + linebreak moment…INTERESTING!!!

    please reconstruct if time permits…if you post, i can always post your comment as a new blog post, and freshen the conversation! i think your alternate reading of stein will definitely complicate my rather slanted reading of her (and how bout that picture of her with the flag, talk about slanting!)

    always great to hear from you!

  10. Turns out I have a few more minutes before my appointment with a bench press, so I’ll try to recreate…

    I can’t help seeing the biographical correspondences in Stein’s opposition between the servile (feminine) comma and the decisive (masculine) period. I keep thinking back to that unflattering New Yorker article a few years back, which quoted a magazine photographer’s memories of photographing Stein on an ocean liner. He didn’t want to shoot her just standing woodenly still, so he instructed her to act like she was doing a task, like unpacking her suitcase. This flummoxed Stein because, she said, Alice always unpacked her suitcase for her, she never unpacked her suitcase for herself and didn’t know how to. Well then do something you know how to do, the photographer said. Stein said she knew how to take off her own hat and put it back on, and so the portrait was taken, of her taking off her hat and putting it back on.

    For me, this puts a biographical spin on:

    As I say commas are servile and they have no life of their own, and their use is not a use, it is a way of replacing one’s interest and i do decidedly like to like my own interest my own interest in what I am doing. A comma by helping you along holding your coat for you and putting on your shoes keeps you from living your life as actively as you should lead it…

    Is Stein displaying more than a bit of resentment toward those feminine helpers (Alice and/or a maid) who enabled her masculine privilege (freedom from household chores, free time to pursue willful acts of self-expression) but also helped keep her in a state of dependent infancy? Is her dismissal of the comma an attempt to erase or deny the significance of these partners/helpers in relation to her work process?

    Bitch magazine would have gotten her good for this!

  11. I’d say she was a little deffient in feminine and masculine characteristics. Especially if her must prominent muscle memory was putting on and taking off her hat. (Unless it was really cold cruise.) I’d say this is where she really pays for the death of the reader. It’s only dead because it’s suffused into everything. And here we are reading her hat.

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