A tribute to the dash in the poetry of Emily Dickinson — plus, yes — a reminder — it’s not too late to bake your cake for National Punctuation Day!

I’m a day late on this one, as usual. And — oh, rats! — just as I feared — a dollar short. Yesterday was National Punctuation Day. Sorry if you missed it. As an author, I tend to think of every blessed day as punctuation day. But when pressed, I will confess to a favorite — the dash. Not to be confused with the hyphen, heaven forfend. But before I go there, to celebrate the dash in fine fashion, let’s get to the good news:

It is NOT TOO LATE to enter the National Punctuation Day Baking Contest!

This is serious business and yes, there are rules:


1. Entrants must send a recipe and a sample of their cookie, cake, pastry, doughnut, or bread baked in the shape of a punctuation mark to National Punctuation Day, 1517 Buckeye Court, Pinole, CA 94564.

2. Entrants must send two print photos—one putting the item in an oven before baking and the other taking it out when it’s done. Make sure we can see the baked goods clearly.

3. First-, second-, and third-place winners will receive a box of non-edible NPD goodies, and all entrants’ photos and recipes will be published on the National Punctuation Day website.

4. All entries must be received by September 30, 2009!

So get cooking, people! The website, founded by Jeff Rubin, is pretty terrific — and there’s even a free newsletter, The Exclamation Point! (How did you like that dash, folks? It worked, right? Less formal than the aristocratic colon, the  dash often serves much of the same function, the speaker gets that extra beat, the next thing is set off with time and space, yet it all feels natural and common, the way real folk sound and think — I think. The punctuation mark of true cognition.)

Of course, no one has done more for the dash than this woman:

Emily Dickinson, American Poet.

For more on Emily Dickinson’s radical use of the dash, click here — you won’t be sorry you did.

Here’s an example:

I cannot live with You —
It would be Life —
And Life is over there —
Behind the Shelf

The Sexton keeps the Key to —
Putting up
Our Life — His Porcelain —
Like a Cup —

Discarded of the Housewife —
Quaint — or Broke —
A newer Sevres pleases —
Old Ones crack —

I could not die — with You —
For One must wait
To shut the Other’s Gaze down —
You — could not —

And I — Could I stand by
And see You — freeze —
Without my Right of Frost —
Death’s privilege?

Nor could I rise — with You —
Because Your Face
Would put out Jesus’ —
That New Grace

Glow plain — and foreign
On my homesick Eye —
Except that You than He
Shone closer by —

They’d judge Us — How —
For You — served Heaven — You know,
Or sought to —
I could not —

Because You saturated Sight —
And I had no more Eyes
For sordid excellence
As Paradise

And were You lost, I would be —
Though My Name
Rang loudest
On the Heavenly fame —

And were You — saved —
And I — condemned to be
Where You were not —
That self — were Hell to Me —

So We must meet apart —
You there — I — here —
With just the Door ajar
That Oceans are — and Prayer —
And that White Sustenance —
Despair —

Editors often altered, or “regularized,” the eccentric punctuation of Dickinson’s poems, effectively distorting her work. For a brief but fascinating discussion of that, check this out.

What’s your favorite punctuation mark?


  1. Shannon says:

    I’m with you on the dash! I also love a good exclamation point (but admit that I overuse them)….

  2. While not a comment in response to National Punctuation Day (it does sound fun), I can hardly wait for your book next week!

  3. jimmy says:

    Thank you, Kristine, I really appreciate your interest — I hope the book lives up to the relentless hype machine that is jamespreller.com.

    BTW, the Shannon above is a first-time comment from a long-time lurker, and friend, the newly wed Shannon Penney (daggers to the hearts of men everywhere!), my editor at Scholastic.

    Some day we’ll have to talk about the much-maligned exclamation point. It’s become de rigueur to dismiss them out of hand — with no place in polished prose — so of course that activates the childishly oppositional aspect of my nature. Surely some people must THINK in exclamation points (others in ellipsis, etc.).

    I remember reading a great profile on Ted Williams — who was hard of hearing, emphatic by nature, and tended to shout — where the writer put EVERYTHING that Williams said in CAPS. Every word. You’d think that over 15 pages it would grate on the nerves, but it totally worked.

    Rules, who needs ’em!

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