what’s in a name? why “apostrophe”?

At first we thought about calling the press “Comma” and decided to use the mechanical mark, exclusively, (rather than the word “comma”) in all of our early design ideas. I suppose, initially, the idea was to emphasize the material aspects of the poem (via the Objectivists maybe? Perhaps Williams’ “machine made of words” ticking in our ears?). Anyway, a publishing house in the U.K. beat us to the punch: http://www.commapress.co.uk/. This, however, turned-out to be rather fortuitous, as “apostrophe” is the nom parfait for our press.

Distinguishing the apostrophe mark from the comma presented some difficulties, so we abandoned this notion of using the mark, exclusively, and have since tried some different typography intended to evoke the idea of “apostrophe” in its many incarnations. At any rate, I suppose we were particularly interested in the dialogue between the material/physical aspects of the text and its manifestation on the page – and ultimately in the mind. And, further, how this interaction or conversation occurs. For both of us, poetry and poetics have always been deeply philosophical endeavors, and the intersection of philosophical thought with aesthetics, art and representation, as well as the role of culture in all of this, is something we were interested in exploring, especially via poetic discourse. . .

The word “apostrophe” is incredibly multilayered. Perhaps its most obvious use is as a sign or mechanical mark that indicates the omission of a letter or letters, as in “weren’t.” And, similarly, its use to indicate the genitive or possessive case, as in “John’s book.” Or, again, as a superscript to designate plurals of abbreviations and symbols, as in the “6’s.”

More interesting perhaps is its use in figurative and rhetorical language as defined by the OED here:

“A figure of speech, by which a speaker or writer suddenly stops in his discourse, and turns to address pointedly some person or thing, either present or absent; an exclamatory address. (As explained by Quintilian, apostrophe was directed to a person present; modern use has extended it to the absent or dead (who are for the nonce supposed to be present); but it is by no means confined to these, as sometimes erroneously stated.)”

The notion of an address to an imaginary person (or personified image) parallels the relationship between the writer and reader implicit in the production of any text, whether the writer actually imagines an audience or not. Also, implicit here is the idea of digression – a pause, a stop, an aside. It is in this space where poetry often finds its voice, where the imagination accepts the uncertainties of language and of human experience.

The word itself is derived from Latin (apostrophus) and Greek (apostrophos/prosoidia), and involves the idea of “turning away” or “turning aside,” as well as simply an indication of “loss” or “omission.” So, it is here, in loss, in turning way from intention or purpose where the material or noumenal interacts with the phenomenal, as Kant would put it; or, where the sign enacts its meaning; i.e. the mark as an indication of loss, a moment of pause, a digression in meaning.

And, imbedded in the word “apostrophe” is of course, “strophe.” Strophe is also multilayered. Most obvious, perhaps, is the unit in poetry similar to the stanza, except that it more often refers to a section in a poem that does not follow a regularly repeated pattern, whether rhythmic or rhyming; i.e. a stanza in free verse. As with “apostrophe,” the word is partly derived from the Greek (strophe), or “to turn,” as well as the Indo-European (streb). In classical Greek drama, a strophe indicates the first movement of the chorus while turning from one side of the orchestra to another; i.e. a physical movement (bodies and heads turning) accompanied with a turn in song. It also refers to the first division in a Pindaric ode.

Finally, there is yet one other interesting definition worth noting, again from the OED:

“The aggregation of protoplasm and chlorophyll-grains on the cell-walls adjacent to other cells, as opposed to epistrophe when they collect on the free cell-walls. . . Apostrophe takes place under unfavourable external conditions.”

Although the use of “apostrophe” as a rhetorical and figurative device seems to predate this use in biology, it’s still a kind of fascinating use of the word. Maybe it would be interesting to consider this cellular activity as a metaphor for language? Perhaps there’s a theory brewing akin to Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the rhizomatic process of concepts and ideas?


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