Clare Goulet on Dashes and “Thisness”

H. L. Hix: Near the end of an essay on Jan Zwicky’s use of dashes, you attribute to variable lengths of dashes an importance beyond that normally attribute to punctuation marks: “[Zwicky’s] attention to dashes concerns her own struggle for integrity; I think of Wittgenstein’s punctuation, her comments on his thought as ‘a struggle with our integrity as language-using creatures’ (LP L116) and what she sees as his ‘attempt to safeguard value — meaning — from the ravages of mishandled language’ (LP L118).  Reading thisness is ‘a responsibility of enormous proportions — to the whole world, in fact…’ (C&R 9)” (181).


To someone not familiar with Zwicky’s work, I imagine this would look like a sudden and unwarranted leap: varying lengths of dashes matters to the whole world!  Is there a succinct way to articulate (as an invitation into Zwicky’s work for a person not yet familiar with it, rather than as an explication of it for readers already attuned to it) what you and Zwicky mean by “thisness” and why something so apparently trivial as the lengths of dashes can have such weight?


Clare Goulet:



Jan Zwicky uses four lengths of long dash in Lyric Philosophy, three in Wisdom & Metaphor, and at least two in a poetry volume.  We know already how other forms of punctuational markings work with tone to  change our minds—the difference between saying ‘Really!’ with a wide grin and ‘Really?’ with an raised eyebrow. Here, with Zwicky’s dashes, the first thing you might notice as a reader is that some lines are longer than others and that these differences change the tone, the meaning, of some exchanges: the longest ones may even elicit certain visceral responses from you. OK. But what does this have to do with a responsibility to the the whole world? Why do these dash lengths, and our reading of them, matter?



We might begin simply with the idea of precision, which requires sharpened tools. Cooks, carpenters, surgeons know this: having four types of knives to operate on something as complex as the human body allows defter work than one—even if you could get by with a single knife in a pinch, or with one length of long dash.  Or consider the kitchen: paring knife, carving knife, peeling knife, fluting, boning: how many are too many?  That depends on what you’re  composing, what it calls for; the cook (or painter or composer) needs to be somewhere between careless and obsessive.



Zwicky’s dashes are one aspect of her painstaking care to see and translate the precise relation of how things hang together—the relation of this idea to that one.  Can a mere dash throw that off?  Try a tablespoon instead of a teaspoon of salt next time you make an omelette, and see what this changed relationship of one element to the others has on the whole. It’s just an extra pinch of salt; the dish is inedible.



But there’s more to it than tool-use: going on at the same time is the rescue act of lyric, a  desire for wholeness. On the page we encounter each dash as a thing in itself, a thin line, a  detail.  Zwicky: “there is only centre, there are only details.”  In a moment of focussed attention (by composer, by reader), that detail becomes central: it speaks the whole—take for example Wittgenstein’s stove, from the Notebooks: “If I have been contemplating the stove, and then am told: but now all you know is the stove, my result does indeed seem trivial. For this represents the matter as if  had studied the stove as one among the many things in the world. But if I was contemplating the stove, it was my world….”  In the case of certain of her longer dashes, each is for a moment the centre around which a thought (and by extension the whole book) turns. At the same time it’s just another dash—“there are only details.”


In Zwicky’s idea of lyric thought and speech, “every detail counts. Every thing in them is resonant, like tones in a chord. There is no real distinction between details and centres in such compositions; they are, we might say, radically coherent.”



The world, not the self, is the focus. Zwicky: “In the kind of radically coherent composition I’m interested in, you often don’t get a confessional stance or a preoccupation with the self: you get a preoccupation with the world….The self as inevitable player in the whole world can be there, but it is not the focus.”


So: if you want something to be a resonant whole, to enact how things hang together, to trace or translate with precision the shape of what-is, each detail counts.  Attending to these details is a way of being less preoccupied with the self and more attuned to and responsible to the world, to a whole world. This one.



Some days I’m not sure if or how this dash stuff matters. Some days I wonder if the length of dash is no more or less important than bearing the right gift or making the appropriate greeting at at, say, your cousin’s wedding. The apt gesture surely matters; why else do we make such an effort, or take such offense at its lack?  Some days I think about hands, what we do with them when encountering another (the power-tap, the open palm) and how in conversation the hands gesture this way or that as we speak–to be clear, to be heard.  How dashes are the hands of the sentence, and the multi-voiced left/right spreads of Lyric Philosophy have many hands. That room is just plain filled with people in conversation with each other! Zwicky is concerned with tracing the shape of how things are—plural—in relation with each other; in her books each longer dash articulates how things hang together in this moment, in the reading of this particular passage, the relation of those ideas.



‘Reading thisness’ isn’t just about books.  Tim Lilburn, leaving the Regina Public Library:

“I suddenly stopped on the steps, struck—immobilized—by the sense, the sure, sharp realization, that everything around me—the looming Power building, Victoria Park and its cenotaph, the beautiful First Baptist Church—were not here but seemed slightly dislodged and hovering, leaning elsewhere, their loyalties elsewhere, caught in a momentum of nostalgia for, obeisance to, distant centers of settler power, Winnipeg minimally, but more truly Toronto and the east, New York , London, the Europe to which the older buildings earnestly paid homage. The Aboriginal men, still moving and talking in the park, certainly were authochthonic; they moved and rose effortlessly from the ground.”



Zwicky’s dash styles aren’t explained to us in advance but encountered as we read these books, which tell us that “nothing can be specified in advance of a given case.” Length and shape and patterned repetition is how we get it. Which requires a slightly heightened contemplative attention and opennness on our part, as reader, to see what’s in front of us. (To see what-is.) No one, after all, experiences the whole world; all we have is the piece in front of us at a given moment. Our responsibility to the world enacts itself through our attention to that one piece—Tim on the library steps, my omelette, Wittgenstein’s stove, your piano practice, Jan’s last dash at proposition 34L in Lyric Philosophy, and so on.



If a person doesn’t think the world is shaped by how we treat one another—and can’t see how a particular situation might call for extreme care and flexibility in response—then dash lengths won’t matter much either. One size (usually one’s own) fits all.



Zwicky’s Lyric Philosophy and her remarks to Tim Lilburn in “Contemplation & Resistance” are the best responses to your question; the first is book-length, the second is a page. All I can offer here are my own lay-reader struggles.

for 4.  (in order of appearance) Jan Zwicky, Lyric Philosophy, page 66L; Ludwig Wittgenstein, Notebooks, 83e (cited in Warren Heiti’s “Ethics and Domesticity” in Lyric Ecology); “The Details: An Interview with Jan Zwicky,” with Jay Ruzesky in the The Malahat Review, No. 165, page 93.

for 5.  Zwicky, Ruzesky interview again.

for 7.  Tim Lilburn, Going Home, page 4.

for 8.  Zwicky, Lyric Philosophy, page 167L.



Clare Goulet.  “Reading Thisness.”  In Lyric Ecology: An Appreciation of the Work of Jan Zwicky.  Cormorant Books, 2010.  166-83.

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