Poems Elizabeth Bishop's outstanding poetry won numerous awards and fellowships; her correspondences with mentor Marianne Moore and with close friend and fellow poet Robert Lowell are well-known; her teaching career late in life influenced numerous young poets. Basically, her poetry needs no comment. It's well published and well loved.
I just began poring over the book last night, and her comma usage is swoon-worthy. Those long, lovely sentences, swooping in periodic phrases and clauses, all elegantly separated by commas, semicolons, and even dashes.
Consider this passage, on Brazil's first emperor, Dom Pedro:
Dom Pedro had been badly brought up; he had led the luxurious but slovenly life of the small upper-class of Brazilians of his day; he had been friends with slaves and stable boys, and a notorious womanizer from the age of thirteen or so. He is, nevertheless, a fascinating character: brilliant, in spite of his faulty education, energetic, spoiled, dissipated, neurotic—and suffering from occasional epileptic fits.
Can we name the specific uses to which commas are put here? Commas for series, commas for nonessential interjections of the adverb "nevertheless," commas for prepositional phrases; Bishop wields them all. She effortlessly slides those semicolons in as "metacommas" in that first series of three full clauses and expertly varies her usage with that final dash at the end, instead of the serial comma we expect, setting off that participial phrase "suffering from occasional epileptic fits" that is so different from the single-word adjectives preceding it in in the series.
Whew! I enjoy long sentences, which I admit is my personal stylistic preference. I enjoy Henry James. I enjoy the complex syntax of dependent and independent clauses, the parenthetical, the comma-profuse, the nonessential, the series. Not everyone does, of course.
And even I, who love this type of writing so much, find things that shock me. Consider this passage from Brazil, further along in the work:
Every decade saw new construction, buildings torn down, and streets and avenues put through,—the ugly price of progress.
Oh no! What is that comma doing before the dash? Intentional? The error of the tired eyes of a copy editor overcome with commas?
What is the rule about commas and dashes, anyway? Well, as I always learned, we do not use commas before dashes, although they are occasionally okay afterward, in direct discourse that indicates broken speech. For example: "He raised the dagger, and she gasped out her objection, 'No! Oh, Roderick—,' Suddenly, the door swung open." Or something similarly Bulwer-Lytton-like.
I'm afraid that comma before the dash in Bishop's description of Bahia in the mid-20th century just seems wrong to me, though. Even the most admired of my favorites makes decisions I might not have made.
What do you think? Would you put that comma before that dash? How do you feel about commas, anyway?
Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and taught English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services.