remembering always that Ezra pound said “the only thing that does not change is the will to change” i face the new year considering possibilities. first of all, the kids and i are off to a new adventure: a month’s residency in north carolina while i teach and the kids get out of the wintry blasts. i’ve thought, and written too, about this kind of move for three or four years now; to be getting out of the city, seeing how the world is out there. i had originally assumed it would be for a year, but i’ll settle for a month, especially when the month is january.
while i’m down there i want to think about another major change in or for myself. my first poem was published 25 years ago, in 1952, and as far as i’ve been able to control it, every word i’ve published since has been lowercase. i’ve given the reasons so many times i’m sick of explaining, but i suppose i might as well one more time.
one of the things i did at black mountain college was to learn the art of printing. it had always excited me, the notion of extending the act of thinking to talking to writing one step further into printing. but in that act, i became physically conscious of what lowercase was, what uppercase was: separate coding systems, i suppose you could say. the letters, the letter forms, meant different things. not to mention that it was a pain jumping from one case to the other simply to fit into a norm. and as went on in the world earning my living at printing, i got more and more conscious of the “interference” of capital letters.
at the same time, i was getting deeper and deeper into my own writing, and into the work of other poets. one of the earliest influences, or more properly, attractions, had been the work of e. e. cummings, and a great part of that attraction was the magic his use of lowercase imparted. i was drawn into his poems, literally, by it. at the same time, i began to learn from william carlos williams, saw how his refusal to use the then standard poetic technique of starting each line with a capital, replacing it by using capitals only in a strictly grammatical manner, at the beginning of sentences, not lines, and for proper nouns only, again made the poem move more solidly.
but then my typewriter shift key broke, and i didn’t have the money to get it fixed.
these two writers gave me the beginnings of a theoretical base for experimenting with the abolition of capitals entirely. i saw the words, and my voice too when reading aloud, as potential dangers to the flow, the integrity, the meaning of the poem. the capital letters were, literally, getting in the way, just as, if i got too emotional while reading, my voice would get in the way. and so i started writing poems without capitals, and reading in a flat, uninflected voice. and i felt supported, on a practical level, by what i was learning about printing. after all, the usage of capitals had already been modified a good deal from out germanic roots — all those lovely long kraut words with the capitals sticking up at odd intervals throughout them — and, indeed, typefaces now were being designed that were meant to work all in lowercase, bauer’s futura being the prime example.i was careful all this time to be precise about punctuation because it was obvious that without tight and accurate punctuation all sense would be lost with no capitals to guide the eye. it’s been a continuing cross to bear with this column to hear over and over again, “oh, yeah, you’re the guy who doesn’t punctuate.” in actuality, i probably use more punctuation per piece than anyone in the paper, but people whose eyes tell them something is wrong assume it’s a lack of punctuation. and short, recognizable paragraphs become another necessity, for clarity.
i was still using upper and lowercase, then, for whatever prose i wrote — stories, critiques, letters. but then my typewriter shift key broke, and i didn’t have the money to get it fixed. from then on everything went lowercase, and it’s stayed that way since. i liked the flow, and i found that if i put extra space after the periods i could read it as easily as work with capitalization.
unfortunately, i’ve never been able to convince printers to give me that extra space after the periods, so the prose has at times been difficult to handle. i’ve felt it myself, reading the stuff aloud. and a typo which replaced a period with a comma could be disastrous as far as sense went.
so now, 25 years later, i’m thinking about maybe, just maybe, trying to use upper and lowercase in these pieces. i’m well aware at the same time that of the people who look at this column from week to week, half read me because of the lowercase, and half read me despite it. I’m also well aware that many just turn past it because of the lowercase, but that’s never really bothered me. i was doing what i felt i had to do, and what the work needed.
i’m also aware that there have been both economic penalties and benefits from the way i write — i’ve gotten published some places simply because the editors thought the use of lowercase was a kick or rebellion, or whatever; i’ve also been denied access to print because of it. the editor of a famous “men’s” magazine sent my agent a note saying that when oppenheimer learns to write upper and lowercase he’d read my manuscripts. the only inequity in this last proposition has been that the places i’ve been given access to have less money than the ones that denied it to me.
so, while i’m down in the old north state, i’m going to rethink my position vis-a-vis upper and lowercase, at least as far as prose is concerned. if it is just too hard to read, if it is getting in the way of the flow, then a new me may come back. we’ll have to see.
needless to say, i’d appreciate any feedback from any of you out there who feel strongly one way or the other. decisions like this aren’t made by majority vote, but it would be nice to hear if any of you care, and how. i know it’s not a matter of earth-shaking importance to anyone but me, but then, nothing much else is, either — for any of us.
and if someone would be kind enough to point out how the shift key works, i’ll be able to start the experimental process.
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 13, 2023