In the new Poets & Writers, Kevin Nance has a fascinating piece on the ampersand in modern poetry. Click here to read it in its entirety after taking a quick peek here:
In the twentieth century, the ampersand was rediscovered and exploited, variously, by several generations of American poets, especially those eager to declare their position outside the academic mainstream. Several of the Black Mountain and Beat poets used the ampersand freely, and with conspicuous inconsistency, as an occasional substitute forand—notably Allen Ginsberg in “Howl,” with its “blond & naked angel.” The relentlessly experimental e. e. cummings was fond of the ampersand, as was Frank O’Hara. A number of African American poets also adopted the figure, as Amiri Baraka did in “Monday in B-Flat”: “I can pray / all day / & God / wont come.” The ampersand in American poetry reached its apogee in John Berryman’s The Dream Songs (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969), in which the poet used the mark to undercut the erudition, complexity, and formality of his rhyme and stanza structures, as in the sequence’s opening:
I don’t see how Henry, pried
open for all the world to see, survived.
What he has now to say is a long
wonder the world can bear & be.
Throughout the mid-twentieth century, such uses of the ampersand suggested experimentation, casualness, a desire to tweak the sniffing nose of literary decorum, and a certain kind of haste. “It is, after all, an abbreviation,” Harvard scholar Helen Vendler pointed out in an e-mail exchange. The ampersand became a mark of originality in American poetry, part of a customized system of punctuation whose earlier elements had included Walt Whitman’s ellipses, Emily Dickinson’s dashes, and cummings’s quirky parentheses and lowercase i. (Later, some of the New York School of poets deployed the exclamation point in similar fashion, even as A. R. Ammons was making his own highly idiosyncratic use of the colon.) Other poets embraced the ampersand for its mere presence on the typewriter, whose keys they were determined to “play” in virtuoso style.