I’d like to use your poem Grace in the upcoming issue of _____. It’s a beautiful piece, but I would much prefer to spell out the word “and” throughout rather than using the “&.” How do you feel about this? We’re going to run it in either case, and we will, of course, respect your decision.


Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting


Ampersands: I love ’em! I know that poems with ampersands are looked down on by the mainstream poetry establishment these days, and some readers may find them off-putting. But I like “&” because it is an ideograph, one of the few permitted in our otherwise alphabetic language, and so connects us more viscerally to the world of signs and tracks and omens.

In addition, “and” is one of my favorite words, because of the way it can bring disparate things together and lead the mind off in new directions, so I don’t mind calling attention to it.

That said, however, I’m very curious about your reasons for wanting to spell out all the “and”s in this poem. I’m not completely inflexible on this point.


Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting


As for ampersands, I guess I’m just one of those people that are put off by them in formal text. I find that they interrupt my concentration–and that I end up paying attention to the &, rather than focusing on the word it represents.

That said, your argument for using them was very nicely stated. And in the end, I’ll be fine with whatever decision you make.


Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

What do you think? Is anyone else out there put off by ampersands in poems, or other text?

I find them curvy and sensuous – little women, almost. “&” could be a pictograph of a woman holding a child – not an inappropriate image, considering the fecundity of the word it represents, often replaced by a mere pause, a catch in the breath represented by a spermatozoal comma. To me, ampersands make a printed poem a bit more tactile, subconsciously recalling the link with calligraphy – and with my childhood, when I taught myself poetry and calligraphy together. I don’t remember when and I why I picked up the habit of using the ampersand for every “and” in my poems except at the beginnings of sentences, but it has become deeply engrained.

And being suspicious of any and all habits, I’m grateful to C. for making me question it. Does it really make sense to risk distracting the reader with this anachronism?

Some time ago, the redoubtable Languagehat gave his imprimatur to a page from Adobe that traces the history of the ampersand. I had known it came from a ligature for the Latin et (“and”). But I hadn’t realized that it still serves as a sort of touchstone for modern type designers, the one character where they can really let their imaginations roam.

There are many interesting variations of the ampersand, such as those created by the talented Ludovico degli Arrighi, the Renaissance writing master (fig. 8 ), and Robert Granjon, the gifted 16th century French type designer (fig. 9). The new Poetica typeface family, which was designed by Robert Slimbach of Adobe and based on Cancelleresca, the commercial writing hand used during the Italian Renaissance, offers a rich collection of 58 different ampersand characters (fig. 12).

Ampersand usage varies from language to language. In English and French text, the ampersand may be substituted for the words and and et, and both versions may be used in the same text. The German rule is to use the ampersand within formal or corporate titles made up of two separate names; according to present German composition rules, the ampersand may not be used in running text. In any language, the ampersand’s calligraphic qualities make it a compelling design element that can add visual appeal and personality to any page.

Some version of the ampersand appears in most languages that use a Roman script, so it gives any text that employs it a sort of window into the wider, polylingual universe. It is also an important element in many computer languages. Character entity references in HTML all begin with an ampersand, which further reinforces – in my mind at least – the connection between ampersands and the dream of a common language.


Ampersand image of “Humanist minuscule, 1453 A.D.” borrowed from the above-linked Adobe page.

31 Replies to “&”

  1. As a former editor of lit mags, I can say that for me, a poem with &s meant one of two things, in general: (1) a young and inexperienced poet who was never told not to use them, or (2) a “postmodernist” or a “language poet.”

    I like the language poets, especially Clayton Eshelman and Leslie Scalapino. So that isn’t a bad association. There are also many good postmodernists, especially Ann Lauterbach and Jorie Graham.

    The bottom line is that if the poem is good, then it stands however the author wants it. If the &s distract, then the poem isn’t good enough to begin with.


  2. In the case of your poem it doesn’t bother me. I reserve judgment on whether it would in another poem. In your poem it’s almost like a pictogram of the mosquito. And as far as symbols go, it is an elegantly flowing one. A + sign is mathematical and belongs with numbers, while & fits with letters. But willy-nilly, used to be cute, I wouldn’t care for it. Like people who send email as if they’re text messaging, “U want 2 chat?”, especially if they’re over the age of 18. & is also not as annoying as the symbol used for the rock star formerly known as Prince. At least & is recognizable enough that one’s brain automatically fills in the word “and” when reading aloud (or aloud in one’s head as I do). My 2¢ worth. :-)

  3. I never notice &s when I’m reading a poem. My brain makes the appropriate adjustment. The poet makes a judgment about each word in a poem, and if the inclusion of an & is purposeful, if it is essential to the poem, it belongs there.

  4. I don’t like them in poetry, they seem stilted to me, (though not in your poetry anymore, because you’ve trained me to expect them.) But in general I look at a page of poetry and see ampersands and it has the same effect on me that seeing lots of ellipses and italics and capitals and all that sort of junk does: I think, why should I trust your words to do the job, if you yourself don’t?

    I’ve been corrupted by you, though. And I find myself using them when I want a conjunction that (to borrow computer lingo) binds more tightly than “and” — I might write, “a red & blue flag and a green & black one,” informally.

    To me though it falls under George Orwell’s (or is it E. B. White’s?) rule that “the obvious is better than the obvious avoidance of it.”

  5. Bill – Thanks for taking to the time to share your impressions as a former lit mag editor. I know I didn’t pick it up from “Language” or post-modern poets, but maybe from some of the African-American poets? I don’t remember.

    I wouldn’t mind being thought of as postmodern, but I suspect my poetry isn’t nearly difficult enough. I have this perverse interest in being read by people other than graduate students in English. :)

    Leslee – I appreciate this reaction, because you’re exactly the sort of person I DO envision reading my stuff.

    I never even thought about the plus sign. Are there people who use that as shorthand for “and,” too? I guess there must be. But Prince – didn’t he go back to just being Prince? That whole idea of picking a completely unpronounceable symbol is bizarre and obscurantist – the opposite of my poetic ethos. (Well, at least the obscurantist part.)

    R.D. – That’s the way I am, I guess – barely noticing. The thing is, as I intimated above, I’m not sure it is essential to the poem. But – one thing I forgot to mention – it does serve as a useful marker for me, given that so many of my poems are in prose. When I start using ampersands, i know I’m writing something that will require my full attention on every word.

  6. Your very fine poetry (& I can’t say enough good things about your poetic gift- even in this eminent neighborhood, it shines) can do without this (in my opinion) gimmicky device.

    The & just hasn’t added anything to my experience of your poems, & in fact it often was an unwelcome distraction ’till I learned to ignore &, gradually, come to neutral feelings about it.

    But what do we know of the motives of others? Nothing.

    What to me feels like a reaching for a personal style (“Emily already took the long dash, so I’ll take the ampersand…”) might be to you the most unpremeditated & natural thing in the wide world. This can’t be known.

    That said, I’m all for this & all other kinds of experimentation in the field of literature. Let’s never stop making it new.

    As for the ampersand all by its lonesome, isolated & thoughtfully considered, there can be few things in the visible world as beautiful & self-sufficient. It’s like an 8 making love to an x. A union standing for a union.

    For sheer grace, it is comparable only to the resting house cat, or certain skies after rain & just before sunset.

  7. Dale – Yes, I remember you asking me about my use of ampersands a couple years ago. That’s one of the things that prompted this post – my feeling that I hadn’t given you an adequate explanation. I’m glad to hear I’ve corrupted you a bit.

    lots of ellipses and italics
    Oops, I like ellipses and italics, too! I think the writer has every right to try and signal how s/he wants a peice to sound – in this case, whether to trail off instead of dropping in tone at the end of a sentence, and where to speak louder or more forcefully. You’ve said yourself that you prefer to read poems out loud…

  8. St. Ant. – Damn, you guys type faster than I do!

    This is all very interesting, seeing the different reactions people have. Yours sounds like the most vehement so far, other than C.’s. Also the most philosophical and poetic! A union standing for a union…. comparable only to the resting house cat, or certain skies after rain & just before sunset. I wish I’d written that.

    Thanks for the kind words about my poetry.

  9. I dunno, Dave. I’d love to have something profound and wise to say, but I’m just me, and I don’t. All you can do is what seems right at the time; do it and move on, I reckon. Something about not being attached to your own creation. If ampersands seem right, fine. Next time maybe they won’t. That’s fine too. I am what I am, not what I was—or should that be, am I what I am and not what I was? — & feel free to replace I with you.

    I suspect I’m talking on behalf of more than just me when I say I don’t come here for the ampersands/&s—I come here for what they’re part of; what it all does. Keep doing it.

  10. I love ampersands. They are, as has been said, sensuous & lovely & graceful. I love their history, their many typographic forms, their brevity and impact. I use them often when writing by hand, informally. However, I have always felt there is a time and a place for them.

    I do “see” words when I read — very much so. As a result, I find myself acutely aware of ampersands appearing in poetry, partly because they are not routinely used in our written language, and partly because I find their sheer beauty distracting. (An ampersand in a sentence is like an exquisite woman entering a room, inevitably drawing my attention.)

    Every graphic form we choose to use communicates something or a lack of something. In print, ampersands can be used with purpose that relates to the context and, in my opinion, that is when they are used best.

  11. i come here for the beautiful and thought-provoking whole – the images both written and visual – and the way you make me think and stretch. i’m not particularly sophisticated about how one is supposed to read poetry. i only know if it touches that place in me. i love how even the punctuation you choose is endowed with properties that perhaps i haven’t considered before. i agree with pete…perhaps it works for what you are trying to communicate this time, next time, who knows!

  12. Dave,

    First of all, your photos the last couple weeks have been stimulating, refreshing and lovely. Why aren’t there pictures like these in the fucking newspaper?

    As for the ampersand, I like it. But I also see a strong case being made that you might be overusing it. On the pro side: yeah its got a great curvey body with lots of ways to read into it, the history of it etc., but can’t each letter in the alphabet be seen for its own beauty? For example, I like the capital letter “F”. It’s firm. It looks like a person standing erect with arms extended ready to fight – or wait, are they arms ready to embrace and fuck? Whichever, it doesn’t really matter because no one else is really gonna see that in the letter unless the poem is about that idea. Likewise, I’m sure few people see what the few posters above see in &. This argues in favor of a selective use of &. Choose it when you’re specifically trying to evoke something special and different from “and.” Is it important enough to your personal style that you should use it all the time? I sorta doubt it, but maybe so. That’s up to you to determine. In conclusion, despite the rational argument I just presented, in my gut I like the “&” but I don’t know why.

  13. Thanks for this additional feedback; sorry I’m a little slow in getting around to it today.

    Pete – I’d love to have something profound and wise to say, but I’m just me, and I don’t. This is a model I’d do well to follow myslef: preface most of my commnets by announcing I have little to say! But you do. Your point about not being too attached to my creations is a good one, and I think I had something like that in mind today when I wrote back to the editor and told her to print the poem with the “and”s spelled out, since she preferred it that way. Thanks for your kind thoughts.

    Ontario Wanderer – Thanks for wandering by! Yes, a great deal of the translation of glyphs into meaning is subconscious, isn’t it? In general, it’s probably fair to say that no reader puts as much thought into something as its author. I work hard so you don’t have to. Eating a dish takes far less time and concentration than preparing it.

    MB – Good to hear from another ampersand enthusiast.
    I find their sheer beauty distracting.
    Ha! Sounds like you almost agree with the Saint, then.

    Anne – I’m glad you get so much out of the site.
    i’m not particularly sophisticated about how one is supposed to read poetry.
    I guess I’m not either! I really had no idea that the use of ampersands so marked me. This has all been very educational.

  14. Oh, I have no interest in laying down my preferences as rules. Just telling you what my initial response is, when confronted by a page of text, not knowing the author or having other expectations. You’ve never struck me as prodigal with typographic bric-a-brac or stage directions, aside from your fondness for ampersands. I think I use more of them than you do.

    In handwriting ampersands wouldn’t strike me that way. I use pluses myself, in handwriting (because I print, and pluses seem to go with printing, and besides, my written ampersands are always lopsided and unpleasing). But ampersands stand out to me as artificial in typewriting, because they’re actually harder to type, to my fingers anyway, than the word “and.” An abbreviation that’s more effort than what it abbreviates offends my sense of economy. Or something.

  15. Ah, see now, I often use ampersands in handwriting (in lieu of pluses, but only because I spent considerable time — at a much younger age — practicing the making of them) and, like Dale, they don’t bother me in the least there. I think it has to do with my own association of handwriting with both more informal style (than type) and with the arts of penmanship.

  16. Beer Activist – I mean Chris –

    Thanks for that great, waffling, comment! It made me remember why we got to be friends. If you were here right now, I’d pour you one (or two, or three) of these extra-fine mugwort stouts. But since you’re not, I’ll just have to drink it all myself. Pity, what?

    Good point about the latter F. You learned that on Sesame Street, right?

    Glad you like my photos.
    Dale – O.K. But I’m so dyslexic, half the time I actually type “nad” and have to go back and correct it. So I think “&” is quicker for me.

  17. Looking back again at what “the Saint” wrote, yes, I think I do almost agree with him — definitely with his descriptions of its beauty — with the caveat that I still emphasize I can imagine a use of the ampersand for purpose of meaning that would be contextually appropriate. Can I give an example? Not offhand, sorry, but I can imagine it might exist.

  18. “The Saint” my ass. Try telling it to my wife.

    MB, since I agree with your caveat, I guess we agree completely.

    Dave: keep in mind that, sometimes “nad” is exactly the word you want.

    Delicious comment thread.

  19. MB – I’m not sure how you managed to slip that earlier comment in before mine without me spotting it, but this has been a confusing day. (Spent close to two hours battling with the post editor this morning, for example.)

    It occurs to me that maybe part of the reason for the divergence in opinion here has to do with people’s divergent expectations for poetry – in particular, their sense of how formal or informal it ought to be. As you probably know by now, I’m a bit of a Rabelaisian: I like to startle the reader sometimes, and try to keep things informal even – or especially – when the tone is highly serious. Yin and yang. But of course not everyone will appreciate the fine, resonant quality of a loud fart at a formal banquet. I forget that sometimes.

    Anyway, thanks for taking the time to clarify your views.

    SA – Oh, so the “St.” must stand for “street,” then? Silly me!

    Yeah, it’s been an interesting bunch of comments. Nice to be reminded I have such thoughtful readers (or any readers at all – i quit keeping site stats).

  20. I thought “st” was one in a number of iterations, most commonly seen after the digit 1 — you know, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and so on. It makes “Antonym” into “the xth Antonym, namely the one in front of your eyes, not to be confused with tomorrow’s Antonym.” But xth means just one in a series, whereas xst means *the* one of the series, the definite indefinite, you might say. Like the “this->” construct in object-oriented programming, it means “this instance of what you got right here.”

  21. Ah, well, but then, I use British spellings and archaic phrasings, and do so not only in my writing, but in my everyday speech. (Yes, I actually do say the u in behaviour.) As does my beloved D, and we both did this before we met. Affectation or genuine eccentricity? Well, we found each other endearing, as others no doubt often found each of us irritating for exactly the same reasons. Like poetry itself, a matter of who is saying it, personal taste, and affection.

    I just can never hit the right keys to use &, in addition to having to shift – I would have writings full of 7s.

  22. Dr Dre didn’t go to medical school, Judge Dredd is yet to pass the bar and King Kong has no subjects.

    That’s my story and I’m sticking with it. For today at least.

    (I must say, though, that Dr Evil did attend Evil Medical School for six years so he, at least, is a real doctor).

    This is a fine Nigerian tradition, by the way, this arbitrary use of honorifics. The most notable living musicians are: King Sunny Ade, Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey, Sikiru Ayinde Barrister, Sir Shina Peters, King Wasiu Ayinde Marshall…

    We must have passed it on to our American cousins: Count Basie, Duke Ellington.

    So, “Saint” is small potatoes. But what with the hairshirt and the locusts, I’m frankly thinking of upgrading to Pope. Or, at the least, Cardinal.

    End of digression. Back to &.

  23. I love ampersands too, both in handwritten notes and published poetry. I don’t care about historical associations with “language poets” — as far as I’m concerned, they’re a fine declaration of independence from the banality of everyday spelling, and if they’re good enough for Hayden Carruth (Green Mountain Idyl: “Honey I’d split your kindling/ clean & bright/ & fine/ if you was mine”), they’re good enough for me.

    What a great thread!

  24. Hat! Thanks for stopping by.

    a fine declaration of independence from the banality of everyday spelling
    I like that. And I do share your fondness for Carruth. That’s a great, bluesy stanza you quote, and I think it displays what strikes me as a certain wrapped-upness to the adjectives he connects with “&”s.

  25. Dave,

    I’m a little late, but I don’t think anyone has mentioned this. Maybe because it is my own oddness? I “hear” the ampersand as ‘n rather than “and”. Beautiful ‘n blameless.

  26. That’s interesting! A little frightening, in fact – can you imagine how editors would react if I sent them stuff with “‘n”s?!

    Thanks for the comment. (Late is always O.K.; I’ll see them no matter what.)

  27. Proof that everything looks better in Garamond? The Printer’s Ball approaches here in Chicago (will Qarrts be displayed?), once again to dash my hopes for a come-as-your-favorite-font party. Surely font choice would be useful for ruling out partners, just as one avoids Ayn Rand acolytes and fantasy baseball enthusiasts.

    How grand to be directed back to this delightful exchange. I imagine a John O’Brien cartoon of beach volleyball, with unspooled ampersands as net and an anxiously-coiled version as ball.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.