Arguing on principle against nonstandard capitalization entails a monstrous fallacy. I have excised its ebon heart. Here: see it wrench and pound.
Form and substance don't mix. The first's only a gloss over the second; style cannot contribute to meaning.
See those leathery valves spurt? That grainy dark ichor
, there? That's the unnecessary dichotomy
upheld by those who distinguish style from content. That choking miasma? The stench of brimstone
. Let's get some fresh air and talk about this.
Meaning is the effect of what is read. It is made in a collaboration between the reader and the written. Meaning is irreducible to mere information.
The prose texture of technical manuals
might be the default for written communication. But it is nevertheless a stylistic decision. Such rigorous adherence to The Rules does not make them into a transparent, immaculate container for some sort of pure meaning
No matter how sleek and clean the lines are, how straightforward, the style will not cancel itself out. Style is inextricable
from content. It is a function of every choice the writer makes -- what-to-write-about and how-to-write-it are facets of each other.
Readers are caught offguard by an i. That's the idea -- or at least one possible reason not to capitalize that pronoun. It may jar readers; sound a chime that means This text is a self-contained world
, and get us to slow down, take every word in turn, savor every way they interact. There are myriad
reasons to use nonstandard capitalization. The same goes for line-breaking, for questions of word-order and nonstandard usage, and for moves far more peculiar. (I once read a great poem that consisted of printed text with handwritten annotations
in the margin.)
To break the traditional rules of grammar
is to step outside the system. Its rules are vast, and allow for a great deal, but they do not encompass every conceivable meaning. No matter how complex the system, there is always much it cannot say
. For this reason it is the writer's prerogative to fuck
the system, and free us from the illusion that any
set of rules might delineate human thought.
Here's some e.e.cummings
i like my body when it is with your
body. It is so quite new a thing.
Muscles better and nerves more.
i like your body. i like what it does,
i like its hows. i like to feel the spine
of your body and its bones ...
cummings, here, does not capitalize I, although elsewhere he uses the rules of capitalization normally. This is no arbitrary choice. He is making a specific statement about the smallness of a single human viewpoint
in the face of love. i, here, is a diminished I. The narrator has been confronted by the numinous
, and made humble.
Look at this, too. cummings breaks a very tight grammatical unit when separating your
with the first line's ending. By doing this, we get the following line:
body. It is so quite new a thing.
The second line's meaning is substantially deepened by this juxtaposition
. Using no extra words at all
, cummings directs the referent
of 'It' toward a more abstract sense of embodiment, as well as the body of the narrator's lover. For the narrator, noticing the sensual world is a revelation
of its own, generated out of this specific apprehension of love.
That specific technique's nothing to do with capitalization, but I mention it because all enjambment
is outside the system of grammar venerated by cudgel-brandishing librarians. Line-breaking is always the poet's judgement call, and always directed towards the functional effect that happens within the reader. Of course, I've argued that everything
is of this nature; line-breaking, though, is blatant about it.
Lower case does not entail obfuscation. Bad writing is the only obfuscation. Here's some Bukowski
, whose poems are cleaner than anything I've ever read. He does it through pacing, word choice and brute passion. The lower case only accentuates the linear, stark meaning. Listen.
my goldfish stares with watery eyes
into the hemisphere of my sorrow;
upon the thinnest of threads
we hang together,
hang hang hang
in the hangman's noose;
I stare into his place and he into mine...
he must have thoughts,
can you deny this?
he has eyes and hunger
and his love too
died in January; but he is
gold, really gold, and I am grey
and it is indecent to search him out ...
Anyone who has difficulty reading this would have the same difficulty with reading anything
Not all lower case is used toward such blazing clarity, true, but clarity is not an end in itself. The meaning of the poem is the effect of the poem read, after all. Some poems are labyrinthine
, are to be wandered. But it would be inappropriate to say that a hedge-maze
obfuscates a garden. The hedge-maze, like the winding and complex poem -- like any work at all -- is something to be experienced on its own terms.
Transcending the rules isn't only applicable to poetry. Writing contains what the writer wants. In the landmark anthology of speculative fiction Again, Dangerous Visions
, cartoonist Gahan Wilson
contributed a short story
illustrated smearily with Rorschach
-esque blots. Thirty years later, the technique remains audacious, even shocking. These ink blebs, though, are central to the story's workings. They pull their weight. That's why it's brilliant, not merely gimmicky. They cause the story to transcend certain limits which the reader had, until that moment, taken for granted.
Word for word, poetry is far harder than prose
to write, because poems shape the reader's attention on a level nearly microscopic
-- writing prose with such an attention to synergy and nuance would result in magnificent work, but it would take a week to finish writing a page. Additionally, lingering on the resonance of every interconnected word isn't the usual way people read prose.
We can say, though, to hell with the usual way
. In the dialectic
of reader and written, the written has a privileged place -- it paces and directs the reader's imagination
. It is a wonderful thing when a work of prose uses this privilege to extinguish another needless dichotomy
-- the one that says poetry is fundamentally different from prose.
Bringing the techniques of poetry into a work of prose is always audacious, because prose is an arena in which most of these techniques remain unproven. It's a usage that must be fine-tuned to each individual work. Writers of free-verse
, for example, have been exposed to a large body of work against which they can compare the efficacy of their techniques -- but in the case of mingling this idiom with the structure or tone of, say, a novel
, it's mostly roll-your-own.
Much of the time, the effect can be accomplished subtly. Look at how Faulkner
twists our syntactical expectations here:
"Mister." Luster said.
He looked around. "What." He said.
"Want to buy a golf ball." Luster said.
"Let's see it." He said. He came to the fence and Luster reached the ball through...
This all comes from the perspective of a mute, mentally disabled 'manchild'
. (No, not Faulkner.) This narrator sees without comprehension, only able to grasp concepts that apply directly and concretely to him -- and this flat, linear mentality is echoed in every sentence of that chapter, over and above the mere informational content of the words.
Later in the book, a different narrator
is used; different techniques convey a different mental set. This time, Faulkner is ostentatious, dazzling:
youve never done that have you
what done what
that what I have what I did
yes yes lots of times with lots of girls
then I was crying her hand touched me again and I was crying against her damp blouse then she lying on her back looking past my head into the sky I could see a rim of white under her irises I opened my knife
do you remember the day damuddy died when you sat down in the water in your drawers
I held the point of the knife at her throat
it wont take but a second just a second then I can do mine I can do mine then
This closeness and immediacy is once again beyond what normal grammar would allow. Of course the details of character and description form its core, but when Faulkner shapes the narrative
with the tools of free verse
, they are accentuated into breathless truth. Readers can experience the mind
of Quentin Compson
with a purity that bests day-to-day experience of one's self.
All this is hard, very hard; and though adherence to proper grammar is certainly the default mode of writing, that doesn't imply any weakness. The goal is to align two understandings of the work, which might be called style and content. When they are indistinguishable, the writing is whole
Edited once to broaden the analysis into prose.
Edited twice more to smooth over somebody's hurt feelings.