The Declarative Question in Poetry Today

Question pie chart.

Be mine to drink with, to share
a doom with. Recognize me when I return.
Be silent through the desert hours of neglect.
I haven’t failed you, have I.
—Kyle Booten, ‘Bonsai’

And why shouldn’t we have it.
Why not invite what no one can have.
—Alex Dimitrov, ‘Seduction and Its Immediate Consequences’

Who did the world go
back inside.
—Melissa Ginsburg, ‘Dear Weather Ghost’

I actually mean, what happens to the evil and where does it go.
—Evan Kennedy (no relation), ‘Putting Holes Through Me: Have You Ever Become an Ecstatic Stigmatic’

Where do you go to remember winter
and were you ever warm.
—Marni Ludwig, ‘Museum Garden’

Say well, what do we have here.
Say what can’t we make when we’re together.
—Alice Miller, ‘Eyed’

I wonder will it be nothing
at all. For how long.
—Jacob Sunderlin, ‘That Kind of Quiet’

And isn’t the blank sky
the same as surface-deep sleep.

And hasn’t the tea gone cold while
she waited. And hasn’t she become
an expert by now. Of course not.
—Samantha Zighelboim, ‘Self-Portrait in Euphemisms’

I should begin by defining the declarative question in poetry. By this term I mean a sentence that, in the normal course of events, would enjoy a question mark (?) at its end, and all that a question mark signifies: 1) a departure from the mode of explaining, 2) a demand on the reader or addressee to answer, 3) a rise in intonation, 4) the puzzled pause prompted by that lovely, curly, quizzical glyph.

Next, I should say that I personally dislike the declarative question, but that I can put those feelings aside when reading critically, like a cat judging a dog show.

My feelings don’t matter. But perhaps my initial thoughts on what declarative questions do and why they are used may.

I cannot say that ‘literally’ all books of poems today contain question-mark-less questions, but I can say that I have noticed them more and more in otherwise normally punctuated work. I cannot say that it would have been unthinkable for a poet twenty years ago to pepper her work with declarative questions, but I can say that more poets now are thinking, I believe actively thinking, of doing it.

I will address the four points that I opened with.

1) Departure from the Mode of Explaining

If a question is a departure from the mode of explaining, then neutering questions of their question marks is an attempt to keep explaining. It is a way of acknowledging uncertainty (‘I, the poet, may not know something, so I will ask a question’) and then erasing that uncertainty (‘Well, it’s not really a question’).

It may seem surprising to think that any poet in 2014 would wish to seem more rather than less certain, but that is the effect that declarative questions have. To write one is to say: ‘I know more than I know.’

You may be thinking at this point: ‘Aren’t these just another sort of rhetorical question? Isn’t the poet just asking a question to which she already knows the answer?’ No. The difference is precisely that the answer to a declarative question is usually not known, but even if it is, the act of questioning, the performance of doubt, is negated.

It is also possible that in declarative questions there is a recognition that many of the ‘questions’ we ask are not really questions, in the same way that ‘How are things?’ or ‘Was that good for you, too?’ aren’t really questions. Those examples are plainly phatic utterances, mere formulas. But let’s consider one of the epigraphs above, this time with question marks restored in their ordinary positions. These are the Jacob Sunderlin lines: ‘I wonder will it be nothing / at all? For how long?’ These two questions are neither serious nor rhetorical; they are meaningless, rote. Not necessarily in a bad way! But it is fair to say that in their bland expression of confused ennui they convey little more than the most casual ‘What’s up?’ To erase the question marks is to acknowledge this fact.

2) Demand on the Reader or Addressee to Answer

There may be no such thing as a stupid question, but there is certainly such a thing as a rude question. A question plainly asked, even in poetry, can be too crassly schoolroomish, too lamely Socratic. It may cross over into something like bullying. The poet who chooses to use declarative questions is saying: ‘This is a safe space. It is not an exam. It is not an interrogation. Answers don’t matter.’ There is no risk of insulting the reader’s intelligence with a facile inquiry, and no risk of asking a distracted or lazy or ignorant reader something too difficult to fathom. Writing ‘O Wind, / If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?’ in a poem is madness. You might as well ask: ‘Who was vice president under Benjamin Harrison?’ (Levi P. Morton was.)

The declarative question also soothes the addressee of the poem, especially when it appears in a love poem. Consider the lines from Alex Dimitrov quoted as epigraphs: ‘And why shouldn’t we have it. / Why not invite what no one can have.’ The awful truth about these lines is that, if posed as questions—real questions—they might easily be answered negatively. The case is the same with the Alice Miller lines: ‘Say well, what do we have here. / Say what can’t we make when we’re together.’ We cannot make anything together. That is not a possible answer to a question that hasn’t really been asked.

As I am describing it, you might think that the declarative question is a sort of rudimentary trick, like stealing a child’s nose. Yes. I think it is just such a trick. But such tricks can work.

3) Rise in Intonation

Unless you’re an Australian or a New Zealander or a surfer, your voice probably doesn’t rise at the ends of sentences. This use of high rising terminals is called ‘uptalk,’ and it makes speech sound interrogative and tentative. For a poet wishing to eliminate the sounds of uncertainty from her verse, the easiest way is to excise the sounds of questions.

Regardless of a poet’s intention, the use of declarative questions flattens the tone and the affect. (And I suspect that it is quite intentional.) This flatness may be part of an overall poetic project of grey matter-of-factness. It may suggest an objectivity which may or may not be present in the poetry. It may be an unthinking, written adoption of what Rich Smith calls ‘Poet Voice,’ which is a way of reading aloud that impregnates every word and phrase with a precious but weak energy, like a poetic cosmic background radiation. I suppose the idea is that all poetry is slightly higher in register than non-poetic expression, thus it doesn’t need dynamic changes. But if every line hovers an inch off the ground, no higher or lower, what is the point of being off the ground at all?

4) A Pause, an Appreciation of the Aesthetics of the Question Mark

A different kind of flatness is promoted by the substitution of full stops for question marks. I am speaking of something more like the visual flatness of a flat landscape, like a tableland. Because the question mark is more than just a cue saying that a sentence’s meaning is different. It is a physical intervention into the scenery of letters and small symbols, like a tree planted in a concrete park. Some have compared the question mark to an old, bent-backed man on a pogo ball, to an umbrella handle, to the Tottenham Hotspur badge, to the front-on view of a smoking cigarette. It is all these things, but it is also a reminder that the indeterminate is beautiful, an opportunity for the reader to reflect: ‘Oh! Is that how things really are? I really don’t know.’ We could easily call it ‘the wonder symbol.’ The poet who denies herself the use of this symbol is taking a risk. I myself (one reader) do not yet know what the compensating gains are.

* * *

It is worth noting that the opposite phenomenon, the unnecessary, mistaken use of question marks, is not uncommon, either. Take these lines from Philip Levine:

What’s it worth? You’ll get your answer

from the mice as they make their way
in search of anything useable left behind?

If we assume that this is not just carelessness, we find the subject of another essay. Who knows what to think anymore?

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