I come to exclaim the points made in the exclamation points workshop.
“The Dickinsonian [Death-Conscious] Exclamation Point” was one of the quirkier offerings at this fall’s Tell It Slant Poetry festival, held by the Emily Dickinson Museum. The online event mined the meaning behind the mark—which appears in Dickinson’s work roughly 384 times.
The audience of 150 logged on from around the globe, Philadelphia to Mexico, Wales to Miami, to hear host Moriel Rothman-Zecher, a poet, novelist and essayist, share takeaways from his upcoming article on the subject in the American Poetry Review. He did a Q&A and led several interactive exercises, too. The participants, for instance, tried swapping shiny exclamation points for dull periods in their own poetry, and posted the results.
The whole experience was thought-provoking, odd, poignant and just so fun. Or as Dickinson might say (in poem F170A): “’Tis so much joy! ’Tis so much joy!”
Rothman-Zecher began by pinpointing the point’s origins. Some scholars think that “!” began as a slip of a pen. Medieval scribes would end certain sentences with the Latin Io, which signals joy or delight but, at some point, the I was mistakenly placed over the o. Alternate theory: during the Renaissance, the Italian poet Iacopo Alpoleio da Urbisaglia rightly or wrongly declared himself the inventor of the exclamation point, which he dubbed punctus admirativus. In English: “mark of admiration.”
Do we admire it in modern literature, though? Not so much, said Rothman-Zecher, who broke down its reception into four categories.
Dialogic was the first: exclamation points may be more acceptable in dialogue, to convey vocal excitement. Yet exclamation points have been maligned (the second category) for being excessive in poetry and prose. To frame this claim, Rothman-Zecher read us Elmore Leonard’s diktat from his 10 Rules of Writing: “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” And then he cited theorist Theodore Adorno, who deemed exclamation points pointless, “a desperate written gesture that yearns in vain to transcend language.”
The third category was sarcasm, in that “!” can convey “an undertone of derision, caricature or scorn,” said Rothman-Zecher. And then he quoted various poets who wrought irony out of them, such as these lines from a Diane Seuss sonnet: “…He said and I quote ‘To be absent from the body is to be present / with the Lord!” What does that look like exactly we cried. Are there chairs? Are there / lambs to tend? Because you know how we get when there are no lambs to tend!”
Dickinson lords over the last category, the “death-conscious” or “ecstatic” exclamation point, which glories in life despite—or because of—its finitude. In her poems, “you see the exclamation points jumping off the page,” said Rothman-Zecher. “You see it signaling something—and almost never is it dialogical and almost never is it ironic.”
One person asked whether exclamation points are coded as gendered, given how male critics disdained “female” effusiveness. Rothman-Zecher agreed, recalling that he’d once written enthusiastically to someone he hadn’t met yet, and they responded: “I was sure you were a woman based on how many exclamation points you used in your email.”
Another asked if the em-dash did some of the work of the exclamation point, but was more acceptable and thus more common. Answered Rothman-Zecher: “I think the em-dash is absolutely a safer punctuation mark.” No shock—a few years back, the Tell It Slant festival offered a workshop on the Dickinson em-dash, too.
My favorite part was when Rothman-Zecher asked us to take a poetry volume from our bookshelves, search for exclamation points and share the lines with the group. Dozens bobbed up in the chat section. A sampling: “Fare forward, travellers!” (T.S. Eliot); “sometimes they’ll sing a trapgod hymn (what a first breath!),” from Danez Smith; “This afternoon, in the velvet waters, hundreds of white birds!” (Mary Oliver).
And then Rothman-Zecher read from Dickinson’s poem F338A, possibly the final one she wrote. Which means her last mark may have been—wait for it!—an exclamation point:
Good-by to the life I used to live,
And the world I used to know;
And kiss the hills for me, just once;
Now I am ready to go!