Trying to Make Sense of It

I find Barbara Johnson’s approach to explain the purpose of rhetoric and the effect apostrophes create compelling. However, as previous blog posts have already mentioned, the text is very dense and the contrasting evidences she provides seem to have a disconnection among them. My main problem with the essay is that Johnson seems to mention several instances where apostrophes are used, like in Baudelaire or Brook’s works, but the comparison she poses between Baudelaire and Shelly’s works and Brook’s poem seems unclear to me. Based on my understanding, Johnson uses examples from Baudelaire and Shelly’s poems to point out that a simple apostrophe can create a large impact in manipulating how a work is presented. Essentially, an apostrophe can turn the structure from direct to indirect as well as personify inanimate objects. However, she loses me when she starts discussing Brook’s poem when she refers to the “you” and the “I.” I had a hard time grasping her logic behind that part. Johnson’s point does become clearer in the next few paragraphs as she discusses the role of apostrophes and the way they present women.

Her argument on abortion and the how it’s presented in male and female writings remind me of the sociolinguistic aspect of writings. In the subject of abortion, women are more personally connected with the consequences and effects of this issue, so the voices that resonate in their writings are significantly different than those by male authors. I think Johnson brings up a good point in addressing the role of apostrophes in writings. Although there are still areas I don’t understand completely, I appreciate the fact that Johnson points out the ubiquitous role rhetoric plays in not only poetry, but also other works. The amount of attention she gives to an apostrophe, something so minute, is astonishing. Previously, I only looked at apostrophe as a way to show possession and simply glossed over them, but after reading her essay, I start to see the linguistic roles it can play in writings.

Trouble understanding the connection of the argument

While I thought that the subject matter of Barbara Johnson’s critical essay on Apostrophe, Animation, and Abortion was interesting, I had a lot of trouble understanding the flow of her argument. This became especially tricky for me when she began referencing Baudelaire and quoting a lot of examples of apostrophes. My understanding of the argument being made is that the interpretation of rhetoric plays a much larger role, not only in poetry, but in all types of written work than one initially would think. For example, in military documents, it happens to be written in a way to justify more precise violence. In fact, it seems to be purposefully written in such a matter. This is interesting, because you can really see the way in which political and legal documents would be written with purposefully vague language to justify certain loopholes due to distinctions in rhetorical interpretation. Interpretation plays a large role in our culture in general and is used in many different matters.

My confusion becomes pronounced because I don’t quite understand how all of the specific apostrophes that she cites back up this argument. Additionally, she seems to jump from one cite to the next almost by the sentence without really explaining what the point of her quote was. At one point, she writes two questions to defend her point, “Is Agatha really a stone? Does the poem express the Orphic hope of getting a stone to talk?” I’m still trying to puzzle over what those have to do with the original argument from the military document example and how it all ties together.

My confusion aside, I like the criticism’s focus on the duality of interpretation being an important thing to consider as it aligns with my own opinion.

Too Dense for Comprehension

Barbara Johnson’s “Apostrophe, Animation, and Abortion” was overwhelmingly dense and difficult to understand. When reading it, it actually reminded me of the poem I presented on in class by Gregory Pardlo “Shades of Green: Envy and Enmity in the American Cultural Imaginary.” Both literary pieces are written in the form of a scholarly analysis, and at the end left me thinking “so what?” Often times, after reading literary critiques and analyses like Johnson’s, I wonder what the importance of them is. Johnson first talks about Baudelaire’s poem “Moesta et Errabunda,” and makes many conclusions about the text as a whole based on the line “Tell me, Agatha;” for example, she asserts “The poem thus enacts in its own temporality the loss of animation it situates in the temporality of the speaker’s life.” This may be, but after I read it, I again returned to the question “so what?” Essentially, it seemed the Johnson was saying that the use of apostrophe gave inanimate objects meaning, and thus they become animated. Authors use apostrophe as a tool to create meaning in their work. Only after looking up apostrophe could I somewhat get a grasp on what she is talking about in her essay; basically, it occurs when the speaker no long addresses the audience, and turns to addressing some other third party (often an inanimate object that thus is brought to life. This, for Johnson, is an effective way of producing meaning in a work, rather than simply stating something directly. As is evident by her analyses of the poems, a good deal of conclusion can be made that is not directly present on a surface level reasoning. While I do agree that by examining the use of apostrophe in a text, a reader can produce more significant analyses of a message, I found it very difficult to comprehend most everything of Johnson was talking about. the essay seemed too wordy and overly pedantic, and at the end left me questioning why she’d even take the trouble of writing such a seemingly pretentious piece. I also failed to understand how she tied abortion to the overall argument of the essay. As mentioned, she uses the poems as “evidence” for her argument. It seemed like she was doing a super magnified close reading. For Moesta et Errabudna,” she compares the name Agatha to a stone, which I had a difficult time understanding. However, in “Ode to the West Wind,” it was easier to see her argument about apostrophe through the addressing of the wind. Overall, I am interested to see how our class discussion turns out tomorrow, and better break down this very dense literary piece.


Through Apostrophe, Animation, and Abortion, Barbara Johnson opened my eyes to the extent in which different literary devices can be used. The topics that she analyzed through different poems are very intense and deep—topics I didn’t think could be shown so intelligently through prose. For example, she mentions how apostrophe was utilized in a title (that I did not see as apostrophe, at all) to address finding lost love by having the title be in a dead language. Also, Johnson mentions how a “poem seems to empty itself of all its human characters and voices” to act out a “loss of animation.“ I would never be able to connect how the tone (which is what I am assuming she meant by “empty itself”) of a poem can be used as apostrophe. Johnson also explains how imagery is used with apostrophe to get wind to “speak but in order to make it listen to him.” I found the way these devices are being used to be extremely mind-boggling. Not only is the use of these devices that the poet authors use inspiring, but Johnson being able to interpret these literary devices and incorporate them into the meaning of the poems is perplexing. I, honestly, read through this asking myself, “I do not understand this at all.” I really could only read in awe that this kind of analysis is capable to be done. It gives a good example not only for our close reading assignment, but also for our future

The Importance and Relevance of Language

Johnson argues that rhetoric is an indirect way of saying something, but it carries a lot of force. It’s effective in whatever its mission is, but it acts in sneaky ways. I think the analogy of warfare is a clear way of describing what she’s talking about, but as soon as she moves on to talking about apostrophe (only one page in) I get a little confused. She seems to be describing that Baudelaire is saying things in a round about way in his address to Agathe, but it seem to me that Johnson is describing so many ideas so quickly that I’m getting lost. Her use of quotations and examples really illustrate what she’s trying to say, but because this essay is so dense and packed with so much information, it is difficult to stay on track. While her concepts are a little tricky, I think the point she’s making is very powerful – that the way things are written in any situation has tremendous impact on its effectiveness. I really like her argument, using abortion as the example, of the undecidable issues being the most political, and how the arguments surrounding them are quite poetic. Here, she elaborates on her theme of the address. Abortion descriptions become poetic because they are addressing something that may or may not be a person, which illustrates her point of apostrophe. Johnson talks about the struggle between the “you” and “I” in Keats and Rich’s poems and how they blur the line of the addressee. Johnson says, “The word is not made flesh; rather, flesh unmakes the mother-poet’s word”. Johnson’s way of deconstructing language, and explaining it to the reader, is very powerful. She brings about a strong argument about the literary importance of every word.

The Power of Word Choice

I found Barbara Johnson’s Apostrophe, Animation, and Abortion an incredibly dense and difficult essay to read. The main point I got from reading this essay is that the way arguments, documents, and virtually any piece of literature are written plays a larger role in its interpretation than most people realize. Johnson points out that using apostrophe in writing brings inanimate beings to life, giving them purpose and making them more tangible. I thought the focus on an author’s word choice and how they can practically manipulate their readers by writing a certain way was very fascinating. It was interesting to read about CIA documents or other vices of information that we think about often in a cavalier manner, or virtually don’t think about at all, being written in a purposeful way. Realizing that the authors of these documents chose the words they did for specific reason was fascinating to me.

When I was reading Johnson’s essay I couldn’t help but think it resembled a close reading. Maybe it is because that assignment is fresh in my memory so I am more readily relating it to something but they do have a lot of parallels. I think that reading this essay before we had to do the close reading would have been a useful and informative supplement to the resources we were given to complete the assignment. A difficult part of the close reading for me, as I mentioned in my reflection, was finding a perspective to attack the poem from, figuring out what I was actually supposed to focus on and analyze. Johnson does a good job at analyzing the select poems in great detail and I believe that having read this prior to completing the close reading would have helped me gain perspective on my poem.

Too Dense to Comprehend

Barbara Johnson’s essay Apostrophe, Animation and Abortion was extremely hard to read. Within the first paragraph, I was faced with four seemingly important terms (anaphora, antithesis, prolepsis, and preterition), three of which I was unfamiliar with and had to look up their definitions. Even after I started to grasp their meaning, Johnson jumps into a discussion about rhetorics in relation to covert operations was incomprehensible to me. Then concept of animating something is also very complex. Johnson’s explanation of what the meaning of an apostrophe is very confusing. I was not able to follow what Johnson was saying when she states that apostrophe can be both direct and indirect and how apostrophes “throw voice, life and human form into the addressee”. While reading this essay and looking at the corresponding poem, I often felt like it went way over my head; as if the discussion was tailored to advanced, analytical poetry audiences. Johnson’s interpretation of the apostrophe is way more thorough than the attention I would give to something I think of as just a common grammatical punctuation. How does something as simple as an apostrophe make things come alive and “personify” a being?

As I read “Ode to the West Wind”, I realized that besides the theme of death, I would not have been able to extract the theme of abortion. Throughout the whole poem, the only line that drew a connection to the death of a child would have been in the last stanza: “like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!” I would imagine that in this line, the speaker is hoping for another baby after the abortion. The titles of two of the poems “The Abortion” and “The Lost Baby Poem” distinctively alerts the audience about what the pieces are about. The last one “To A Poet” is very graphic, describing the subject of the piece, the setting and what happens. The line “small mouths, needy, suck you: This is love” conveys to me that the mother loved the baby but then why abortion then? Is it because of the harsh living conditions? I think Adrienne Rich’s poem was one of the most moving pieces for me.

maybe making sense of things

As I read the blog posts of my classmates this week I have noticed that there is an observed and felt disconnect between the first two poems discussed in Johnson’s essay, which then moves onto a discussion of abortion, motherhood and where power may be derived within, and with respect to, female existence. The preliminary explication of apostrophe is necessary to the later development of her argument, and her examples demonstrate how apostrophe is used for “the direct address of an absent, dead, or inanimate being by a first person speaker.” The animation of the “west wind” in Shelley’s poem through apostrophe renders it a responsive force. It is a way to empower what could never seek power for itself, relevant to be mindful of when analyzing the poems that concern abortion. That being said, animation is hesitant, desperate, “in doubt” because Shelley is hoping the wind will reanimate him. Especially stirring is Johnson’s reading of Baudelaire’s poem “Moesta et Errabunda,” in its address to Agatha, as a desire for the voice of other. Other, too, can be summarized, objectively, as femaleness. By beginning her piece with a breakdown of these couple poems, the reader is eased into a more sensitive subject. The reader grows accustomed to thinking rationally, like a scholar of rhetoric who can then be removed from issues of morality to see an objective humanness, respectful of a woman’s loss of self or of an other self. This is not to say however that the poems do not elicit an emotional response, but they create a space for exploring the complicated interconnectedness between being a person in a woman’s body, a body that signifies lack, when that very body has not produced life as it is ‘supposed to,’ but still longs to. The poems themselves are a different life force, existing “because a child does not.”

Thou/Thee and Thou/I; Are they the same?

In creating this blog post, I read other blog posts to get an idea about what people have talked about primarily because I could not grasp the argument that Johnson tried to make in this essay. As Brian pointed out, Johnson goes to great lengths to explain how apostrophe relates to animation.

Prior to reading this essay, when I thought about apostrophe, the first thing that came to my mind was “Holy Sonnet 10” by John Donne. In high school, we did a whole unit on Donne’s metaphysical poetry and this poem always struck a chord with me. Johnson argues that “apostrophe is a form of ventriloquism through which the speaker throws voice, life, and human form into the addressee, turning its silence into mute responsiveness.” The reader becomes the creator of meaning; we interpret and eventually “animate” the object through the lens of the speaker. “Holy Sonnet 10” similarly incorporates the problem that Johnson brings up with the thou/I. The personhood of the animated object remains unclear.

Unlike her examples, “Holy Sonnet 10” does not do that. The speaker clearly speaks to Death itself, giving Death a name by capitalizing it as well as referring to it by thou/ thee. “Holy Sonnet 10” begins with the line: “Death, be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;” At the same time, however, there is a similar ambiguity for which the Donne uses both thee and thou to refer to Death. Whether or not “Holy Sonnet 10” can really be seen through the lens of this essay, I am not so sure but it was something I thought about when reading this essay.



Johnson’s Conflict of Personhood

Barbara Johnson’s essay connected with an examination of abortion that occurred in my women and gender studies course. There is an evolution of ideas concerning the “personhood” of a fetus. In the 1884 case, Dietrich v Northhampton, a woman attempted to sue a town due to a miscarriage caused by their poorly constructed highways. The court denied her claim, ruling the fetus, at 5 months along, had ceased to exist while it was still a part of the mother.

As one gets closer to the current time period, the fetus becomes portrayed a person upon conception. This is echoed in legal proceedings, as courts during the 1900’s and 2000’s begin addressing fetuses as legal entities with rights. The woman has evolved into a vessel purely for this unborn child.

Johnson writing echoes the above sentiments. She asks the reader to question the boundaries between existing and not existing, which is the point of using apostrophe. Johnson comments on the abortion poem, “The Mother”, when she states, “The children are a rhetorical extension of the mother, but she…has no existence apart from her relation to them”. A mother is not a mother if her children never existed. Johnson’s essay displays this conflict between unborn children and their mothers – a woman chooses between herself or a baby. Apostrophe creates a being from something inanimate; abortion destroys a being that never existed – unless apostrophe is applied to that being, resulting in a murderous mother.

Johnson’s argument was emotionally powerful and well-supplemented by the referenced abortion poems. However, I felt a disconnect between the first and second parts of the essay, as Johnson’s first address of apostrophe seems unrelated to abortion. Regardless, Johnson’s writing flows well between references and her claim is believable – especially because she eliminates counter arguments.


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