January 17, 2005

Capitalization and Mr Cummings

While poking around for evidence about another person who is thought to have spelled his name all in lower case, zeiran r'ei discovered that with regard to one very famous case, the poet E. E. Cummings, the widely believed proposition that he insisted on lower case only is merely a widespread myth. The interesting details can be found here.

Thank goodness. I had been wondering how to begin sentences about Cummings. The principles for printed prose set out in The Chicago Manual of Style (one style guide that is worth taking seriously) say that a sentence should never begin with a lower-case letter or a nonalphabetic character. I think that is a very good principle. But it means I can never mention zeiran at the beginning of a sentence, only after it has already begun.

E. E. Cummings, though, can (I now learn) stand as the subject of a main clause with no preceding adjunct, which makes him much easier to talk about. Not that I have anything much to say about him, except that he is responsible for a reprehensible poem that directly suggests that syntacticians are not sexy. Cummings tended not to title his poems, but this one is generally known by the title "since feeling is first":

[Copyright 1926, 1954, © 1991 by the Trustees for the E. E. Cummings Trust; copyright © 1985 by George James Firmage, from Complete Poems: 1904-1962 by E. E. Cummings, ed. by George James Firmage; used by permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation; this selection may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written consent of the publisher.]

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;

wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers.    Don't cry
—the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids' flutter which says

we are for each other:then
laugh,leaning back in my arms
for life's not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis

The gratuitous insult to grammarians everywhere is contemptible. We grammarians are in fact very sensual, sexy, and exciting people. When a grammarian kisses you, you stay kissed.

[By the way: if you want a real example of someone who insists on lower case, Lisa Davidson reminds me that the African American writer bell hooks is one.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 17, 2005 08:30 PM