The Ontology of the Semi Colon

Moments divide our life sentence
like punctuation marks.
Exclamation points occur with surprising frequency
after parenthetical asides.
The eyelash of quotation fixes an instant in its frame.
Dashes are out in force—
allowing the breath to be caught
in gasps that suggest
a less than logical flow of events.
The bitter-sweet comma like a chocolate chip
says some separations are inevitable
even for compound subjects.
One evening comes to its abrupt end
with a period that is magnified into a cosmic hole
which draws into its fold
a succession of spineless question marks.

Maxine Cassin
from her book Turnip’s Blood
The Sisters Grim Press, 1985
Used by permission of the poet.


Listen to John Gery reading Maxine Cassin’s
“The Ontology of the Semi-Colon”

Listen to The Ontology of the Semi-Colon


For an English Class

Lesson Plan for Maxine Cassin’s “The Ontology of the Semi-Colon”
by Nancy Jaynes

I would begin by reading the poem, and then dissecting its vocabulary.

My middle school students would be familiar with the common punctuation terms, but perhaps not get the use of the phrase “parenthetical asides.” I think that most adults don’t really appreciate the different use of the semi-colon as opposed to the comma, and so I would use this poem as a launch to a mini-lesson on punctuation.

After reviewing punctuation, I would return to the poem.

Once again, I would ask students to focus on its vocabulary, but this time we would discuss associations with words and phrases such as “life sentence,” “fixes an instant in its frame,” “cosmic hole,” “bitter-sweet,” and “spineless.”

I would also discuss the meaning word “ontology” as a new word for my students, asking them if they noticed that there was no reference to semi-colons in the body of the poem.

I’d ask them what they made of the title.

Finally, I would read the poem aloud one more time.

After this third reading, I’d ask students to work with a partner to rewrite (on large flip chart paper) the poem in different language, preserving what they think the poet was saying.

Partners would post and share their versions with the class, and then, as a final activity, the class would discuss variations between and commonalities among the various interpretations.

For a Math Class

Lesson Plan for Maxine Cassin’s “The Ontology of the Semi-Colon”
by Laurie Williams

Begin with a definition of ontology (noun) 2. a theory concerning the kinds of entities and specifically the kinds of abstract entities that are to be admitted to a language system

Either read the poem aloud in class or have students read the poem to themselves.

Ask students what the poem is about.

Then ask what punctuation and mathematics have in common.

Ask students what language (or a language system) is.

Then ask them if math is a language (or a language system).

If you choose, depending on the class level, you can delve into platonism and nominalism at this point.

Have students listen to or read the poem again.

Then have them come up with an list of entities in math. Have them define those entities and include an analogy, a simile, or a metaphor for each one.

Then have students write their own poem using their defined entities of math. Have students assume their audience for the poem, knows the basics of math, but really has yet to internalize many of the concepts of math, therefore the analogies, similes, and metaphors are to help the audience bridge the gap between definition and understanding. Have them use Ms. Cassin’s poem as a model

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