Why do poets say “O”?

Why do poets say “O”? What’s wrong with the normal way of writing it? Isn’t O some kind of archaic holdover? I could swear it gives off a faint whiff of mildew.

Maybe it’s precisely its strangeness that that attracts poets, our task being mainly a making-strange. Since O is so seldom used outside poetry, it remains relatively untarnished by humdrummery. “O” exclaims; “Oh” expresses. The h, though unvoiced, brings connotations that the solitary O doesn’t carry. It’s like a little chair pulled up next to an otherwise unadulterated expression of pure emotion. And it’s a well-used chair, accommodating everything from sudden understanding to disappointment to orgasm.

Unlike O, Oh can be a question: Oh? It can be paired with its opposite — Oh ho! — or with its fraternal twin for an expression beloved of those who are just learning to talk: Uh-oh!

But a cursory survey suggests that O is far from obsolete among practitioners of contemporary poetry. In the latest Copper Canyon Reader, which is what Copper Canyon Press is now calling its paper catalog, Laura Kasischke’s “Miss Brevity” ends, “O, // you swear you’ll remember us forever, / but you won’t.” And Emily Warn has a poem titled “O My Soul.” In the latter case, the use might be semi-ironic, since the text of the brief poem reveals that the narrator doesn’t believe in the soul in a conventional sense. (“I forged you with my speech. / No longer bereft, you blaze.”) But Kasischke’s use seems completely unironic.*

I just happened across another instance of “O” in a blog post from a writer and photographer I admire, the author of Paula’s House of Toast:

O, who has set the water table ?
O, who has caused
these strange patties to rain down from the sky
into the nooks and crannies of our cravings ?

Here I think O serves as a signifier of the self-consciously poetic; nothing says “serious poetry” like “O.” Given that the next line following the part I quoted is “Selah,” I think it’s likely that Paula was being a bit tongue-in-cheek.

Aside from such ironic uses, though, I’m not sure what prompts contemporary poets to continue using what has always struck me as an affectation. I prefer “Oh” precisely because it is impure and vernacular. But it occurs to me also that since I’m kind of emotionally repressed, I may not be the best person to judge the appropriateness of using an expression of concentrated emotion, in a poem or otherwise.

Have you ever used “O” in a poem? If so, why?

UPDATE 6/27: Check out Kimberley Grey’s poem “The Difference Between Oh and O in the May issue of Boxcar Poetry Review. (Thanks to Sarah Jane Sloat, on Facebook, for the tip.)

*A Google search reveals that an earlier draft of the poem published on Poetry Daily in 2006 and reproduced in a couple of blogs did have “Oh.” That version is otherwise identical to the poem in the catalog. So at some point Kasischke decided that “O” was better suited to the task. I wonder why?

35 Replies to “Why do poets say “O”?”

  1. i read, somewhere, a convincing argument that a use of O as a self-conscious poeticism stems in large part from attempts by poets writing in modern languages to replicate the (much more ordinary) effect of the vocative case as a mark of address in the poetry of ancient languages.

    i might have read it in ‘poetry’s touch’, a recent book on lyric address that mainly gives readings of rilke.

  2. I think the fact that as a single letter “O” is quite obviously a picture of an open mouth saying “O” plays in it — either attractive or off-putting, depending on how much screen you like.

    1. There is that resonance; good point. Another comment that came in last night, and which in my tiredness I inadvertently deleted (Sorry, Christi!), pointed out a possible association with the full moon as well.

  3. I was going to say, ‘Because they’re pretentious twats’ until I read Dale’s explanation, which is somewhat kinder and much more appealing. So I’m with him.

  4. I’ve never O-ed in a poem. Then again, I’ve never Oh-ed, either.

    Oddly, I’ve just noticed the old O last night, in my Poetry Northwest, which includes a Yeats and a Blake and their O’s. And here you are with a question on new O’s.

    oOs are calling me.

    I prefer Dale’s shape of the mouth idea.

    [Poetry Northwest also published an engaging poem that includes a few symbols, including a smiley and equal signs, in “Notes on Compression” by Campbell McGrath.]

    1. Deb, it’s never too late to start! Now I’m thinking maybe I need to drink the O-juice, too.

      Dale always has the best ideas. Whether they’re accurate or not almost doesn’t matter.

      Qarrtsiluni published an amusing satire(?) by Ray Templeton back at the beginning of June about a poet who used nothing but smileys: “The New Poetry.”

  5. i have neither the skill nor the guts to pull off the “O!” or the ampersand. but i am working on a lofty series of poems that employs — along with complex patterns of rhyme and meter — the ever-classy “U” as a substitution for the troublesome “you.”

    1. Ha! That sounds like a fun series. Actually, that gives me an idea for an amusing blog post: take some well-known, deeply serious poem and translate it into IM argot. (It’s probably been done, though.)

  6. And my own instinct is to compare both to “oy”, which I regularly use in speech. It’s usually translated as “Oh”, but has very different emotional implications….

    1. Yes, oy is very useful, too (though I can’t say I’ve ever used it in a poem). Not to be confused with the oi! shout of punk rockers.

    1. Sounds amusing — too bad they don’t give any examples. My only objection to the concept is their hijacking of the word “twiterature” as a title for the book, which has been used to refer to any literature shared on Twitter, including original serialized novels, haiku, etc.

  7. When translating Arabic poetry and fiction into English (Arabic being a language that uses a vocative particle as a matter of course), my internally imposed rule is to use “O” to express the vocative particle (which is usually only necessary in poetry) and “Oh” for exclamation. Why I settled on that I couldn’t say.

    1. Thanks for commenting. That makes sense to me, actually — “O King” looks better to my eye than “Oh King” (but I wouldn’t want to alter the spelling of something more idiomatic, such as “Oh good lord!”). I assume, though, that in some cases you could just leave it untranslated (e.g., “King!”).

      1. I would be unlikely to use it in prose because there is enough context to show that someone (or something) is being addressed, but in poems I often find it’s needed for clarity.

        And you give a good example – there’s a world of difference between “Oh lord!” and “O Lord”.

        1. Very true. Although one could also make a case that the average reader can distinguish such meanings by context alone, and that “Oh Lord” could in fact be substitued for “O Lord” with minimal risk of misunderstanding.

  8. “But O I love you it sings, my little my country
    My food my parent my child I want you my own
    My flower my fin my life my lightness my O.”

    — Robert Pinsky, from “The Want Bone”

  9. O is both the human mouth, and an ungoverned sound from deep within. Oh is the shallow, breathy exhalation of a Valley Girl with a new retainer.

    O claims space/Oh collapses.

    O is forceful, a stiff-arm/Oh is ineffectual, and flitters.

    O is emotive/Oh so bland,unlike the quixotic ampersand.

    [Write poem using both ampersand and Samarkand. Go!]

    O stops time/Oh dribbles interminably.

    Even as colloquialism, Oh has been irredeemably Simpsonized by D’oh.

    On O’s resonance with the full moon, see the New Yorker cover.

    1. Oh, what a comment, O Julia! Thanks. Even though I disagree with your put-down of Oh.

      I completely forgot about D’oh. that makes me like Oh even more .

      I don’t know if I could write a poem using both “ampersand” and “Samarkand,” but I’m pretty sure you could.

    1. Yes. One can’t read it without imagining how Jon Stewart would say it.

      Of course, I would maintain that the more lightly we take our countries, the better, but that’s maybe a discussion for another time.

  10. “O” has been traditionally used for an invocation, quite different connotation than an exclamatory “oh.” Of course, if you use “O” in a poem, you better earn it! It does have a whiff of mildew.

    1. Yes. This post is a good example of learning by blogging; my failure to invoke the vocative in spelling out the difference between the two was obviously a real oversight.

      1. Since 2000, everything I know I have learned from the Internet. Well, almost. And with the advent of Kindles, it may soon be everything. Great, isn’t it, the sharing of information and ideas that has proliferated?

  11. actually, everyone has it partially correct – i’m surprised this isn’t taught in basic english grammar anymore – but i digress.

    the use of ‘o’ is a recognized poetic and literary device (always capitalizd) and called “apostrophe.” the device is used to address a person or a thing as if there (whether it’s yours or not, such as kimberly grey’s body). so, using, “O Body!” could refer to your body (in my case, lamenting it) or someone else’s (in that case, usually extolling it – haha that’s just me). but the thing to remember is you use “O” to address something or person as if it is there with you as you wax poetic.

    …and not to be confused with an actual ‘ apostrophe, which is punctuation.

    1. forgot to add: ‘O’ is a quite common form of poetic apostrophe, but even if you don’t use it and just say, “you,” it’s still apostrophe because you’re addressing the person or thing as if they are there and can reply. Example: “Squiggly line in my eye fluid . . . I see you lurking there on the periphery of my vision.” Stewie Griffin uses both ‘O’ and “you” in his poem thus: “O squiggly line in my eye fluid . . . I see you lurking there etc.”

      Funny example (from Family Guy) but a good one, no less, to illustrate the device.

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