On Apostrophe

by Cate Mahoney

O Wisdom, grant me the ability to share information with my Princeton Writes peers about the figure of speech “apostrophe.” O Courage, put a steady hand on my back to let the breath in and keep my fingers a-typing.

That, my fine friends, with its telltale invocations, was an example of apostrophe. Did you find it slightly embarrassing? Well, the literary critic Jonathan Culler thinks it probably was, as apostrophe now seems archaic because of its performative aspect. It was originally used by the ancients when stories were heard aurally and always had a waiting recipient. “Sing to me of the man, Muse,” – sound familiar?

Most of us think of “apostrophe” as a punctuation mark that makes something possessive: Did you read Cate’s latest blog post? She obviously must be the students’ favorite teacher!

This post is not about that. This post is about the figure of speech, which poets have used since the beginning of time.

In his seminal book, The Pursuit of Signs (1981), Culler examines the use of apostrophe to help us better understand lyric poetry – poetry that is song-like – going so far as to posit that we can identify this poetry by its association with apostrophe. Apostrophe, considered this way, is not just a trope but is also a larger influence that changes the fabric of a poem, forcing the writer and reader into an altered “circuit of communication.”

From this perspective, apostrophe is an intensifier of emotion with the power to cull responses from objects or abstractions, which means we can address objects as subjects, much as we might address a loved one. This also means that we can understand “encounters with the world as relations between subjects.”

Culler adds that apostrophe’s scope is wide enough to contain its creator, for the gesture of establishing a relation with an object serves to help define the self. Indeed, only through invocation – the ultimate poetic voice – can the “true form” of the poet come to light.

The eagerness of poets to reveal themselves as makers in the act of making means that apostrophic poems often “display in various ways awareness of the difficulties of what they purport to seek,” writes Culler. This self-consciousness can be structured in two ways: either by throwing the self into the unformed spaces of the world or by the radical interiorization of the external.

The invocation to an abstract “you” or “thou” can then be thought of as, in the words of Percy Bysshe Shelley, “the different modifications of one mind” or, as Culler aptly phrases it, the “concretizations of stages in a drama of mind.” And in this drama, the unities of action, place, and time are unwelcome: Apostrophic poetry works against narrative, breaking from the confines of conventional temporality.

Culler highlights elegy – poetry that honors and mourns the dead – as fertile ground for apostrophe. Through invocation, the bizarre duality born of grief, encompassing the finality of death and the hunger for presence, can co-exist. Time’s sequence is jarred with each use of apostrophe; in fact, ordinary time is neutralized, and a new time – the now of the poem – emerges. I think this is an extremely insightful claim, and Culler specifically cites Shelley’s “Adonis” as an elegy that outmaneuvers narrative. But I wonder whether narrative must be expunged. Take Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H.” for example: The lengthy poem displays a temporal sequence that obeys time but shows grief’s habit of rocking its way back into the present.

Above all, apostrophe dramatically expands the horizons of the reader, with what Culler calls the “uncalculable force of an event,” and herein lies the fun. By turning objects into subjects, the poet generates intimate relationships in which we are invited to partake, as well as a new temporal dimension to inhabit. While no experience can be evoked in its entirety, in the now of the poem, we share something special together.

There are many classic examples of apostrophic poems, some of which I’ve already mentioned here, but I want to close this post with one of Kenneth Koch’s joyful attempts. In his 2001 collection, New Addresses, every poem is dedicated to something, be it “Friendship,” “Stammering,” or “Orgasms.”

O Friends! Let’s enjoy one poem now.

“To My Twenties”

How lucky that I ran into you
When everything was possible
For my legs and arms, and with hope in my heart
And so happy to see any woman—
O woman! O my twentieth year!
Basking in you, you
Oasis from both growing and decay
Fantastic unheard of nine- or ten-year oasis
A palm tree, hey! And then another
And another—and water!
I’m still very impressed by you. Whither,
Midst falling decades, have you gone? Oh in what lucky fellow,
Unsure of himself, upset, and unemployable
For the moment in any case, do you live now?
From my window I drop a nickel
By mistake. With
You I race down to get it
But I find there on
The street instead, a good friend,
X—-N—-, who says to me
Kenneth do you have a minute?
And I say yes! I am in my twenties!
I have plenty of time! In you I marry,
In you I first got to France; I make my best friends
In you, and a few enemies. I
Write a lot and am living all the time
And thinking about living. I loved to frequent you
After my teens and before my thirties.
You three together in a bar
I always preferred you because you were the midmost
Most lustrous apparently strongest
Although now that I look back on you
What part have you played?
You never, ever, were stingy.
What you gave me you gave whole
But as for telling
Me how best to use it
You weren’t a genius at that.
Twenties, my soul
Is yours for the asking
You know that, if you ever come back.