Write Like the Greats: ee cummings

What makes ee cummings great? Mastery of punctuation is one only one thing.

To show that you are one of the greats, you must first show that you know all the rules. You can’t break them, unless you’ve proven mastery over them.

A set of rules we all bemoan, but all continue to abide, are those dogmatic principles of punctuation. The sticky-and-unchangeable truths of indicating truths about words through capitalization and formations of dots on a page that convey these truths in touches to your psyche as subtle as a feather’s efforts to change your direction.

Think I’m being dramatic? Commas are argued over in court, and at least one man is said to have been “hanged on a comma” when the placement of this crucial punctuation mark contributed to his judges’ decision toward an execution. (I once had a teacher claim that the Vietnam War was “caused” by a poorly placed comma, but I can’t confirm this.)

All of which brings me to, perhaps, the greatest punctuation master of the last century: ee cummings.

While adhering to some of the most critical aspects of punctuation that convey meaning, cummings chose when and where to apply them, carefully. Like a painter enhancing the image with touches of gold leaf on the highlights. He ignored spacing where appropriate, used enjambment to his delight (it would seem), and de-emphasized the “proper” by equalizing all wording through use of entirely lower-case letters.

In one of my favorite of his poems, “i carry your heart with me (i carry it in” you can see this immediately, from the first letter. The “I” – the narrator – is instantly stripped away – placed on equal importance with the poem’s subject. Or, in grammatical terms, the subject of the sentence becomes equal with the object it acts upon. Seems strange that they both could be subjects, no?

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go,you go,my dear,and whatever is done. . .

From these lines, notice how his mastery connects the subjects – the “i” and the “you” – at every opportunity. Notice how there is no space, how there is constant connection of these equals. Notice how the parentheses – which should be used to interject thoughts in a complete sentence, like a side-whisper during a larger conversation – speak like an enhancement to the main narrative? Notice how they are placed in and around the central story?

cummings repeats this frequently. In this poem, and, of course, others. It’s a rumble in the middle of the message. A footnote too important to miss.

In his “Christmas Poem“, cummings uses the mighty parentheses only once, further emphasizing it as a schism.

After a stanza describing the “prodigious”, “gifted”, “humble”, “kneeling” images of worshipers to a “new babe” on this holy eve, cummings shatters the outward with a single punctuation mark that divides his mind from the surroundings:

. . . humbly in their imagined bodies kneel
(over time space doom dream while floats the whole

perhapsless mystery of paradise)

mind without soul may blast some universe
to might have been,and stop ten thousand stars. . .

His life has changed, in this moment. He has shown us how here, between the parentheses, there need be no commas, spaces, or words that exist outside. Only the words that need to be there are there.

It’s hard to put into words why ee cummings moves me so. His careful, yet seemingly carefree, use of the common linguistic rules that we all take for granted reads as a deep truth.

Perhaps, it’s best left to his own words. I present to you, the final stanza of “somewhere i have never traveled gladly beyond“:

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

More of this stanza is within than without. The last line ends on what he would say to her, if he could know what it was. And notice – there is no period at the end. There is no “final stop” to this declaration of his love for her.

Oh! What punctuation can do to the heart.

🌹 🌹 🌹

Not so sure about your punctuation mastery? You’ve come to the right place. Contact me.

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