The book is a collection of entries from a multi-author blog I read religiously, Language Log. Even so, the book is useful because it brings together entries topically, and because I have not gone through the entire online archives to find entries of interest that were written before I started reading the blog. Of the book's two main authors, one tends more towards elegance and reasoned argument; the other towards bombast and apoplexy.* I find myself agreeing more often with the first, but wildly enjoying the writing of the second. Is that so wrong?
I bring this all up, reader, because an item from the book caught my eye as I was reading on the bus yesterday. Mr. Bombast objected to this poem by e. e. cummings (or E. E. Cummings--turns out either one is right):
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
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
Because I'm not American I did not read this poem in school. Apparently it is widely taught; several web sites refer to it as Cummings' best-known poem. Although I read a bunch of Cummings as a teenager, I don't remember ever coming across this particular poem; more surprisingly, perhaps, I never had to help a student find criticism of it when I was a literature librarian in New York, where it may even be on the syllabus. So you see, I found it a pretty rude shock when I read it yesterday on the bus.
Now, Mr. Bombast disputes the opinion given in the first stanza. "When a grammarian kisses you, you stay kissed," he says. I have no means of evaluating this statement, but I am willing to take his word for it (and frankly, if either he or Mr. Elegant felt like kissing me, I wouldn't object--that's how much I like their book). What shocked me, by contrast, was the last few lines. "[L]ife's not a paragraph," Cummings claims. It isn't? As someone who finds books as vivid and meaningful as any other aspect of life, I can't seem to make this assertion make sense. I toss it back and forth in my head, but no, life still seems a lot like a paragraph. But there is worse to come: "And death i think is no parenthesis"--surely this is a veiled criticism of Virginia Woolf?
You see, in the second part of To the Lighthouse a number of events, both consequential and trivial, take place in tiny vignette flashbacks or flash forwards, marked by parentheses (or brackets in some editions). One such is this:
[Mr Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]And as if that weren't bad enough, a few pages later one of the daughters, having been married parenthetically, also succumbs thus:
[Prue Ramsay died that summer in some illness connected with childbirth, which was indeed a tragedy, people said, everything, they said, had promised so well.]When I first read To the Lighthouse, which I only did well into my thirties because Shmu told me I had to, when I got to Mrs. Ramsay's death I actually gasped. When I got to Prue's I was all but done in. So there you have it. Life is a paragraph; death is a parenthesis. What was Cummings thinking?
* He begins one entry: "I'd like to take a minute of Language Log time to slap [a certain New York Times science writer] real hard upside the head, if that's all right." What follows is more like what I'm used to calling, in scholarly situations, a serious spanking.