So, my fellowship starts next month, but I’m giving a paper on the project at my old uni in Geneva, and started some research. I’ve done a fair bit of that already, since the brackets were an alternative PhD project, and have been with me for many years now; but it’s alwas nice to return to something you think you know, and look at it through a different lense. So why not completely side-step Renaissance texts for now, and look at poetry that’s much younger, though in various ways quite close to Sidney, Wroth, and Co. And that’s of course the brilliant little masterpieces of e.e.cummings who takes punctuation and prizes it apart like nobody else, turning it inside out and upside down. Literally. Like this one:
I love how space and form express (and maybe don’t express?) each other, for instance that parallel horizontal ‘l(a/le’, followed by the crossing-over chiasms (‘af/fa’), wrapped in the overall vertical movement of the poem, our eyes as we follow the strangely cut-up letters, and of course the leaf falling. The parenthesis here inserts itself between the two words in a way which could seem violent, but is actually enabling of more and subtle sense, so its quite a gentle interruption. That’s not always the case with brackets, but cumming’s use of them often teases out their protective qualities, their way of keeping in touch with what’s before and after while also offering a safe space for what’s inside them.
In this poem especially, you realize that you can’t just read through a bracket and pretend it’s not there. It’s so much there, particularly noticeable in the second sign, the one closing the bracket, which makes ‘one’ visible, questioning how it relates to l-one-liness, or even one-liness.
I greatly enjoyed an article sketching some effects of cumming’s parenthesis such as the creation of intimacy between speaker and addressees within the poem, as indeed with those outside it. Lots of Renaissance uses I’ve already staked out resonate in cumming’s bracketting habits, and it’s heart-warming to realize yet again how close those writers from 400 years ago feel to those of today. It’s all in the form!
Questions for my own research include: do brackets have general effects that transcend genre and time? What actually are they at all? Words, or signs, or what else might their status be? Can they be interpreted at all? And does it matter to the reading of the poem? Well, I guess it does, though cummings himself reminds us that, behind all his punctuation plays, sense experience is firmly first and not ‘syntax’ which ever only imitates (the title of this blog entry is the last line of the poem ‘since feeling is first’).
Article: Roy Tartakovsky, ‘E.E.Cummings’ Parentheses: Punctuation as Poetic Device’ in Style Vol.43 (2009), 215-47.