Thursday, October 23, 2008

E. E. Cummings vs. e. e. cummings vs. the universe (The Universe)

Cover by Harland Ristau

Michael Dylan Welch, a fine haiku poet and contributing editor to Spring, the journal of the E. E. Cummings Society, has appended a comment to a recent post on E. E. Cummings' birthday that seemed both interesting and important enough to pass along.

Just a quick note to suggest that E. E. Cummings' name be treated with the normal capitals. The lowercasing of his name was just something that his book designers did -- not Cummings himself. The policy and practice of the E. E. Cummings Society (I'm a longtime contributing editor to its journal
Spring), Liveright (Cummings' publisher), and George Firmage (Cummings' literary executor, although recently deceased himself) is to treat the poet's name with initial capitals. Despite popular practice and perception, lowercasing his name is simply incorrect. For more information, please visit the definitive articles on the subject at and

The myth of lowercasing E. E. Cummings' name is not unlike the myth of 5-7-5 syllables for English-language haiku. Too many people, even well-meaning poets and textbooks, have borrowed the number without thinking about what the number is counting. Yet people cling to their beliefs in odd ways, and perhaps lowercasing Cummings' name is similar. Or in some cases, they simply have heard anything to counter their beliefs. Please give the two essays I linked to a good read and give them a chance to shift your world just a little bit.

Michael Dylan Welch

I'd like to thank Michael for sending this along. Cummings was one of the first poets that "spoke to me" as a teen, one of the first that motivated me to make a life of reading and writing (and editing) poetry. This is the first I've heard this, though that is not surprising since I'm hardly a scholar and have never read a full-length biography. The fact that this misnomer is so culturally all pervasive is truly amazing. I've followed and read Michael's links in their entirety and would urge others to do so if you need convincing.

It should be mentioned that probably what added to the confusion is that Cummings occasionally did use the lower case spelling but I think it is very clear that, overall, it was his desire that his name be capped in standard fashion.

The intrepid Ed Baker has followed Michael's comments with a link he sent along to a Wikipedia article, that has some interesting links of it's own, and links to the articles Michael cites above. Ed also posits the opinion that Cummings probably just went along with the publisher's whim when the lower case spelling was used and that's how the whole thing got legs.

This week I read a slim volume of poems from the Chinese Tang dynasty entitled In Love With the Way and ran across a poem that reminded me of what is becoming my favorite Basho haiku (after reading it in so many different translations over the last few months). First, the Tang poem:


Grasses of the Ancient Plain

Tender grasses across the plain
Every year wither and grow back.
The wildfires fail to put an end to them,
With the breath of spring, they are reborn.

With their fragrances, they perfume the ancient way,
Emerald sheaves in the ancient ruins.
Agitated and quivering with nostalgia,

they bid farewell to the departing lord.
Bo Juyi


Here's Lucien Stryk's take on the Basho poem that came to mind:


Summer grasses,
all that remains
of soldiers' dreams.


I've linked up to some more Bo Juyi (or Bai Juyi) poems above, but here's another I ran across in a Witter Bynner translation:

A Suggestion to My Friend Liu

There's a gleam of green in an old bottle,
There's a stir of red in the quiet stove,
There's a feeling of snow in the dusk outside -
What about a cup of wine inside?

I've been busy this past week getting over a nasty cold and contacting folks about the Basho Haiku Challenge. Because I lost some time to the former, I'm still busy with the later but hope to be getting to it over the next 10 or so days.

Here's a bit of interesting news from the Japanese paper The Mainichi Daily News for those with a fondness for ancient Japanese poetry, specifically the Manyoshu. Also a great notice from the New York Times on a new film by one my favorite counterculture heroes, Patti Smith. And finally, for fans of Albert Huffstickler, Nerve Cowboy has posted the poems Huff published there from 1996 to 2002.

Johnny Baranski's Pencil Flowers is one of the books from the Near Perfect Books of Poetry list and tiny words (if you click their link, you'll see a fine haiku by the Basho Challenge winner, Roberta Beary) has posted a couple of his haiku. Here's one:

New Year's morning--
old haiku linked together
with cobwebs

I hope to be regularly posting samples from books selected for the Near Perfect list in the regular Thursday postings when time and space allow (almost slipped into a Star Trek episode there), sometimes with samples from the Back Issue archive and sometimes alone.

This week's back issue is #71, from August 1995. Full of many flights of fancy, we are all brought down to earth from lyrically ethereal realms by the ever insightful (balloon: here, pin: here) Wayne Hogan. Enjoy.


your body

each piece a shining eye
the rest of the explosion.


Air served at room temperature reverberates until we snow.
Sheila E. Murphy


late summer rain
one droplet among many
catches my eye, trickles down the glass
thoughts of you
so different from all the rest
Cathy Drinkwater Better


the dead spider's web
holds the morning catch --
opaque beads of dew
Dorothy McLaughlin


New And Collected Poems

Sun's branches leap
from the fingers across town
a one-way sign.

Talk Walks on
the wild side, spokes spin
too fast to be.

Silence squiggles and
creeps upstream, history
Wayne Hogan


Perhaps, we should end it all with the man himself, EEC, having the last word in a poem ya just don't see everyday:

----Seeker of Truth
seeker of truth

follow no path
all paths lead where

truth is here

Till next time,



Charles Gramlich said...

I'd actually never heard before that Cummings seems to have preferred his names capitalized. I always see that constant lowercasing as just an affection anyway.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Charles, well, yes, the lack of caps has always been as if for show ... I always thought of Cummings as the first, so gave him a pass

Don Marquis, who created Archy and Mehitabel, didn't though. Archy, a cockroach, narrated most of the poems and since he was so small he couldn't reach the shift key and type at the same time, hence no caps - Marquis sort of thumbing his nose at EEC. Some pretty funny stuff, actually.


Greg said...

that's pretty neat about the Manyoshu. hard to believe something that old is still lying around somewhere.

thanks for sharing that Baranski haiku... he's definitely one of the best modern haiku poets, and i didn't know he had any poems on tiny words.

i haven't read much cummings, but always thought he wrote his name in all lowercase letters. i even have it typed that way on my "books to read" list. guess i gotta fix it now.