25th Trillium Award

Two Solitudes: The And-ers and the Ampersanders

Share |

A Poetry Month blogger more responsible than me would probably use this post to remark on the recently announced shortlist for the Griffin Poetry Prize ? among the most lucrative and exciting poetry prizes going. Instead, I am going to fixate on a typographical symbol.

(?Responsible Poetry Month blogger? is an oxymoron anyway. But I do extend virtual kisses-on-the-cheek to all of the shortlisted poets and the lone poet-translator. It is one of the unlisted perks of being shortlisted.)

Here is my starting point: ?Except for one Sharon Olds poem in 1998 ('The End Table'), no respectable poet has employed [the ampersand] in recent years.? Someone going by the name of Sparrow posted this on The Poetry Project website a couple of years ago.

I could use many words to describe Sharon Olds? poetry. I am not sure ?respectable? would be my first choice. I am not sure it would be Sharon Olds? first choice either.

But, as for the ampersands, I admit to struggling with a similar prejudice. The ampersand has appeared on and off in poetry since forever ago, but it really took off in the 1960s and ?70s.

Being on the road with Allen Ginsberg was fun and all, but it didn?t exactly help our favourite ligature keep its youthful complexion.

By the early 2000s, ampersands began to appear on throw cushions, and these throw cushions began to appear in the homes of white, thirty-something couples who perhaps got married with a little help from a shabby-chic ampersand photo prop. Herein lies the problem.

If you have in your home a paperweight embellished with Vincent Van Gogh?s Sunflowers, I will not judge you. It happens to the best of us. If you have in your home a reclaimed fluorescent-tube ampersand mounted above your double bed, I will judge you a little bit, but we can still go for drinks. After a couple, it is even possible that I will ask to flip the switch that lights it. If you put ampersands in your poem about sunflowers... well, you had better be good at it.

These days, rocking the ampersand is like rocking a mullet haircut, or like strapping a tiny set of weights to your ankles before sprinting around the track. In the right context, it can be impressive. I am sure it is beneficial, somehow, for your abs. But in other contexts, it simply confuses the issue of how fast or good looking you are.

(I am aware that the idea of an ampersand slowing you down will seem oxymoronic to ampersand devotees.)

Phil Hall, a nominee on this year?s Canadian Griffin shortlist, is one of the people I am willing to let confuse me. His poems include ampersands as surely and reliably as a certain kind of brownie includes? walnuts, and yet they still manage to captivate.

I toyed with the notion of asking Hall?s publisher, Book Thug, to publish an ampersand-free edition of Killdeer, the nominated book, or better still, a ?bilingual? edition, with the ampersanded version on one side of the page, and the ampersand-free version opposite, just so I could see. But then I worried it might turn out a little like a mullet-free version of David Bowie?s Ziggy Stardust album.

It may be best to let sleeping &s lie.

Advanced Search