(Or: "A and An, O and OH")
Well, this isn't exactly about poetry. It may even be anti-poetry. It is about using words and language, though. Because what I do in my day job is writing, editing, copy-editing, preparing texts for publication, producing publications, even designing styles for organisations. Currently I'm working on issues to do with a large-scale rebranding.
So anyway, last week, after months of procrastination - no, years of procrastination - I hauled off and went on my local internet warehouse bookseller and bought my very own copy of the Chicago Manual of Style. It's so exciting! (Even with the discount it was £30. It had better be exciting.) It knocks Strunk and White, I'm afraid, into a teeny little cocked hat.
So here it sits on my desk, all orange and typographically lovely, shiny, hardback and three inches thick. I was reading it. It's no less amusing than The Elements of Style, and a hell of a lot more thorough and authoritative. Thorough and authoritative is what I like. I've found (sadly) that almost any example of poor usage is enough to amuse me, so I don't need the conscientious tomfoolery of S&W to keep me interested. I arrived at work feeling utterly validated - almost as a human being! - the day I was reading on the train that the Chicago Manual doesn't even recommend punctuation after a bullet-point list.
In fact, they had an example where you don't even have the bullets. Talk about empowering!
Ever since I was called a pedant in fourth grade and my dad thought it was amusing to refer to me as "Grandma" (a Beverley Hillbillies reference) I've been obsessed with grammatical, usage, typographical and puncutation-based rights and wrongs - as if it were a moral issue where you place your quotation marks, and are they single ones - 'like this' - English-style (or is that just old-fashioned?), or big fat American double ones, "like this?" Punctuation in or out? Is your slip showing or is it like tastefully exposed beams? Subject abnd verb disagreement shows you up as a sloppy thinker: I wouldn't trust your ideas. I wouldn't trust your poem.
So the issue is this, and maybe I've just answered my own question. To what extent is this love of the rules, of the forms of typographical expression, of the forms of language itself, to what extent is it inimical to creative expression? To the plasticity you need to be able to create art out of a material? (Language is a material.) Or dies it create strictures that facilitate creation? Does it create a whole class of possibilities that's lost on people who don't can't parse a sentence?
As a kid I used to read ee cummings - or EE Cummings, as I think we're supposed to say nowadays when we refer to him (as it turns out to have been a typographical trademark and not a Proper Name) - and I can remember my mother telling me, in response to my no doubt outraged questioning (she was an English teacher), "He can break the rules because he knows the rules. He knows why he's breaking them." Also, they used to show us concrete poems and things of that sort.
My dad knew a sentence ending with five prepositions in a row, and it tells you more than I might want you to know that I know this sentence too. I'll share it on request.
But dangling modifiers? Unclosed brackets? More than three dots in an eliipsis? I just don't know... and then there are inversion, archaism, puns, malopropisms, Tom Swifites, and thousands of other examples of bad usage which can be make-or-break. Or break-or-make.
What's your position on split infini-
Speaking as a Serious Poet With the Demands of One's Muse to cope with, I'm wondering if my new Chicago Manual of Style may almost feel like a guilty pleasure.
Then again, I wrote a poem in the style of the Late Henry James (as opposed to the late Henry James, which the CMS tells me I may not use, as he has been deceased for such a considerable period). I sent it to my mother. She sent back the final stanza, which was formed of one very complex sentence, diagrammed to show that it didn't work. But her diagram was too simple. I sent it back to her diagrammed with all the sub-subsidiary clauses (and the sort of imaginary parentheses) in place. It turns out Mom can't stand Henry James. (I know, I know...)
But you know what? The Chicago Manual of Style is American. I think I'm going to have to get the Oxford one, just for comparison.