Friday, October 16, 2009

From Confusion to Cummings

An exchange of letters from the pages of The Dial in 1923, as given in William Wasserstrom's The Time of the Dial (p. 58-59):

Mr. Dial Editor

My Mama told me to ask you what I want to know, so please tell me, dear sir. I am 11 years old and my mama lets me cut the pages of the Dial each month and I love to look at the funnies, next to the poetry.

Today I saw some funny poetry by Mr. Cummings. It had such funny lines and the punktuation and capitellization is so funny. My teacher makes me stay after school and my father licks me cause I punktuate and capitilize like Mr. Cummings does.

I said to my mama now can I write like they do in the Dial and she says I ll take your head off if you do what am I sending you to school for anyway to write like that.

And I said to my mama what does it mean an she said god knows cause nobody else does thats sure I've ask lots of Dial readers and they dont know no more than I do and at that its harder to break into print than to break out of jail thats what my mama said. Please Mr. Dial editor is it going to be like Cummings has it then I won't have to go to school any more to learn punktuation and capitellzation. Please answer.

Your little friend
Eugene Winton

3155 W. 38th Ave
Denver, Colo.

P.S. My mama says I won't get a reply unless I enclos a stampd envlup so heres 1.

Master Eugene Winton
3153 W. 38th Ave.
Denver, Col.

My dear Master Winton,
I am afraid that we can offer you very little consolation as to the matter of Mr Cummings' capitalization and punctuation. While Mr Cummings persisted in spite of spankings, and finally became a poet thereby, we could not officially council any one else to do likewise.

You must also remember that if all the world were like Mr Cummings, Mr Cummings' system of punctuation would lose some of its effectiveness. It is partially because the rest of us must devote our time to getting the rules right that Mr Cummings can get effects out of their violation.

But, going farther than this, I should point out that Mr Cummings does use his violations to a purpose. They are not mistakes; they are intentional. It used to be the practice, for instance, when one wanted to emphasize something, to underline it, or in printing to put it in italics. But we have learned today that much more emphasis can be gotten by other ways (this old way having been worn smooth). Look at the advertisements in a magazine, for instance, and see how much is done precisely along the lines which Mr Cummings uses in his poetry. Yet when you see an ad beginning with a small letter, do you write to the company in protest?

Wishing you all the success in the world with your school work, I am
Faithfully yours,
Kenneth Burke
Editorial Department