E. E. Cummings Poetry: American Poets Analysis
Since E. E. Cummings rarely used titles, all those poems without titles will be identified by reference to the Index of First Lines in Complete Poems, 1913-1962. An analysis of Cummings’s poetry turns, for the most part, on judgments about his innovative, highly idiosyncratic versification. Some of Cummings’s critics have thought his techniques to be not only cheap and shallow tricks but also ultimately nonpoetic. There was, from the early stages of his career, general agreement about his potential as a lyric and satiric poet. As that career developed through his middle and late periods, negative criticism of his verse diminished as affirmation grew. Although there always will be dissenting voices, the consensus for some time has been that his innovative verse techniques and his lyric and satiric talents were successfully blended in the best of his work.
Cummings wrote both free verse and conventional verse, particularly in the form of quatrains and sonnets. He also imposed on conventional verse the combination of typographical eccentricities and grammatical and syntactical permutations that constitute his distinctive hallmark. There is a considerable range between his most extreme free-verse poems, where the hallmark is superimposed, and his most conventional sonnets, where the hallmark is barely discernible. An example of the extreme is his “grasshopper” poem, “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r,” which is at the same time a masterpiece and a failure. The poem is a masterful blending of form and content, an achievement that might be described as pure technique becoming pure form. It fails as a poem, however, to move the reader or to matter very much except as a witty display of pyrotechnics. Its achievement, nevertheless, is a considerable one, and it serves as a useful model of one kind of poem for which Cummings is best known.
The poem “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r” is structurally a free-verse poem in which Cummings employs many of his distinctive typographical devices. The word “grasshopper” occurs four times in the poem, its letters jumbled beyond recognition the first three times. The grasshopper’s leap, capturing the essence of grasshoppers, brings its name into proper arrangement. Cummings also uses parentheses to break up words and to signal recombinations of letters and syllables resulting in conventional spelling, syntax, and meaning. At the literal and figurative center of the poem is the word “leaps,” which links the first two versions of the word “grasshopper” to the final two, culminating in the resolution of the proper arrangement of letters. Cummings’s diagonal typography for the word “leaps” is intended to render spatially, in the visual terms of a painter, the conceptual meaning of the word.
A poem of even less substance than“r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r,” and therefore illustratively useful in the same way, is the “leaf-falling” poem “1(a.” The four words of the poem, “a,” “leaf,” “falls,” and “loneliness,” are arranged along a vertical line with two or three letters or characters on each horizontal line, except for the final five of “iness.” Thus, the poem begins with “1(a,” with the rest of the poem directly below, two or three letters at a time, spaced out to suggest two triplets, set off by an opening, an intervening, and a closing single line. The use of the two parentheses, setting off “a leaf falls,” actually helps in the reading of the poem. To the extent that the slender column of letters on the relatively vast whiteness of the page visually complements the theme of the poem, human loneliness engendered by the cyclical dying of the natural world in the fall of the year, Cummings has again succeeded in an effective union of form and content.
Other examples of this kind of verse are poems depicting a black, ragtime piano player (“ta”), a sunset (“stinging”), and a thunderstorm (“n(o)w/the”). The arrangement on the page of the portrait of the piano player is very much like that of “loneliness,” as is the second half of the poem depicting a sunset by the sea. Cummings attempts in the thunderstorm poem to create visual effects to complement the conceptual meaning of the words “lightning” and “thunder.” In one line, he states that the world “iS Slapped:with;liGhtninG”; thunder in the poems appears as “THuNdeR.” These five poems represent some of Cummings’s more effective uses of several of his most representative devices, particularly eccentric typography and spatial arrangement intended to create special visual effects. Often successful, these same devices at times fail completely, merely producing involved semantic puzzles hardly worth the effort necessary to solve them. More important, however, is the fact that the same features of versification exemplified by these poems of relatively little substance are to be found in his very best lyric and satiric poetry, the best of which stands between the highly eccentric versification of “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r” and his relatively conventional uses of the sonnet form.
Cummings wrote many sonnets. A convenient sampling of his uses of the form is to be found in Is 5, which begins with five sonnets and closes with five. The first five are portraits or sketches of prostitutes and are among the few Cummings poems with titles—in this example, the respective names of each of the women. The subject matter of the final five sonnets of the collection, in sharp contrast to the portraits, is romantic love, and this set is more conventional than the portraits of the prostitutes. Cummings’s best lyric poetry tends to be his more conventional verse: A comparative reading of the second and the tenth sonnets of Is 5 will illustrate Cummings’s mastery of conventional lyric forms.
Three observations can be made about the second sonnet of Is 5, the portrait of Mame (“Mame”) and the tenth (“if I have made,my lady,intricate”). First, the former is a portrait of a prostitute, while the latter is addressed to “my lady.” Second, Mame speaks in a Brooklyn dialect, such as “duh woild,” “some noive,” and “dat baby.” What little quoted speech there is in “if I have made,my lady,intricate” is not dialect and would not be obtrusive in a Renaissance sonnet. Third, Mame’s sonnet is relatively loose structurally, while my lady’s is one of Cummings’s most conventional. The loose structure of the former results largely from the dramatic presentation, particularly as it calls for the use of fragmented speech in dialect. Both sonnets are conventional syntactically, grammatically, and typographically. Formally and thematically, “if I have made,my lady,intricate” stands...
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