Essays and Criticism
Use Of Punctuation
Many people first think of cummings’s uses of language, especially his odd methods of punctuation, when they think of the poet. In fact, his unconventional approach to poetry inspired the wrath of many conservative critics during his lifetime. As S. V. Baum notes in his 1954 South Atlantic Quarterly article, “E. E. Cummings has served as the indispensable whipping boy for those who are outraged by the nature of modern poetry.” Yet, cummings has also been acknowledged, especially recently, as one of the great modern love poets. In turn, the poem, “somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond,” is often thought of as one of cummings’s best love poems. As Robert K. Johnson notes in his 1994 entry on the poem in the Reference Guide to American Literature, it “exemplifies Cummings’s many poems in praise of love.” It is cummings’s unique use of language that makes “somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond” such a potent statement on the powerful qualities of love.
It is apparent from a first glance at the poem that cummings follows his own rules when it comes to the use of language. This is most noticeable in his lack of spaces. The first line reads “somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond,” a sentence construct that lacks proper grammar. Normally, when a writer uses a comma, he or she includes a space after it, to set the preceding phrase apart from the words that come after it. In this first line, however, cummings runs all of the words and the comma together. In fact, he continues this throughout the poem anywhere there is a comma in the middle of a line. One may wonder at first, as some critics have, whether cummings is doing this just to be individualistic. Yet, if one examines this odd use of punctuation in relation to cummings’s theme of love, it makes sense why he is running all of the words together. Cummings is so enamored of his beloved that he does not want to even take the customary pauses that punctuation marks, such as commas, introduce into a line of poetry.
One can also find support for this idea by examining the poem’s periods—or lack thereof. Poets use periods in different ways within their poetry. Some use them mid-line, to force readers to slow down in their reading. Others use them at the ends of lines to finish thoughts. At the very least, however, poets often use a period or some other end mark such as a question mark to close out the poem and signal to the reader that they have finished the examination of their subject. In “somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond,” cummings does not do this. In fact, he does not include any periods at any point in the poem. It is as if he wants to indicate grammatically the timeless quality of his love, which will never end.
Cummings’s lack of capitalization also underscores this idea. Just as there are no periods in the poem, there are also no capitalized words. While poets vary in their use of capitals, they will often at the very least capitalize the first word of the first line, to indicate that it is the beginning of the poem. In fact, in cummings’s time, poets were expected to do much more. Baum says “Academic procedure obligates the poet to capitalize the initial letter in every line and the pronoun I wherever it may occur.” Cummings, however, ignored this rule, as he ignored most other poetic rules. He did this for various reasons. Within the context of “somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond,” he does not capitalize any words, including the first word of the first line....
(The entire section is 1454 words.)
Transcendental Love and Spiritual Knowledge
Cummings’s love poems are celebrations of a many-leveled intimacy between a man and a woman. Many of them also reveal a mystical longing for transcendence that grows out of the experience of love. Transcendence is the experience of a dimension of life that is beyond all everyday categories, something that feels utterly complete, is timeless and silent, and conveys the feeling of being at the very root and essence of existence, beyond all distinctions of subject and object, of “I” and “you.”
“somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond” is one such poem. At its most immediate level, it is a poem that honors an inexplicable mystery: how, through the experience of love, one human being can awaken something in the beloved that nothing or no one else has ever managed to touch. Lovers will recognize this experience, the sense that one’s whole being has opened up to the call from another, and that nothing can now be hidden or held back. No amount of seminars, books, or workshops on how to find love can teach this experience to anyone. It just happens when it happens, and it often leaves the person, as the speaker in the poem testifies, lost in wonder at the mystery of it and searching for words to express what is inexpressible.
It is at this point that the experience of being in love, of knowing and being known at the deepest levels not of personality but of soul, comes close to some types of mystical experience and parallels the language—cosmic, boundless, paradoxical—in which such experiences are expressed. It is at this meeting point of the sensual and the mystical, attained through love, that many of cummings’s poems seem to hover, at the place where words give way to the wordless, talk gives way to silence, and there is a paradoxical experience of an empty fullness in which all meaning is contained and is also at rest.
What is this experience, referred to in the first stanza, of which the poet speaks? Perhaps the key phrase is “your eyes have their silence.” It is not difficult to imagine the situation: two lovers sit gazing into each other’s eyes. It is often said that eyes are the windows of the soul, and humans have always known the power of eye-to-eye contact. Anyone who has ever gazed steadily into the eyes of another will testify that it can produce a feeling of deep communion and primal sympathy between the two people, the sense that “I and this person are one,” existing in a timeless, silent ocean of consciousness. If this kind of eye contact is conducted as a spiritual exercise with a friend or even a complete stranger, the effect can be very similar. In fact, the practice of “gazing” was used by the thirteenth century Sufi poet and mystic Rumi in his relationship with his spiritual master Shams-i-Tabriz. As Rumi gazed into the eyes of the master, there was a spiritual transmission; the prolonged eye contact dissolved the smallness of the individual self and allowed Rumi an experience of the totality of infinite love. Rumi wrote of an experience like this (quoted in Harvey):
One look from you, and I look
At you in all things
Looking back at me: those eyes
in which all things live and burn
This puts in mind line 5 of “somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond,” in which the lover says to the beloved, “your slightest look easily will unclose me.” The respected Indian spiritual teacher Ramana Maharshi, quoted in Will Johnson’s Rumi: Gazing on the Beloved, once put it this way: “When the eyes of the student meet the gaze of the teacher, words of instruction are no longer necessary.”
This, or something similar to it, seems to be the core experience out of which the poem arises. Seen in this light, the statement in line 1, that the speaker has never traveled to this “somewhere,” suggests that such an experience is beyond the everyday, egobound self, cummings’s “i,” which consists of an unruly collection of thoughts, desires, feelings and memories. This “i” can indeed never travel to this “place,” which exists as a completely different mode of timeless consciousness and which supplies anyone who becomes aware of it with a new sense of who he or she really is. Cummings said this fairly explicitly in another of his later poems, “stand with your lover on the ending earth,” in which the “i” this time represents the higher awareness:
—how fortunate are you and i, whose home is timelessness: we who have wandered down from fragrant mountains of eternal now
This is the real self that exists in timelessness, and which is simply overlooked or forgotten when the...
(The entire section is 1931 words.)
In Consideration of Cummings
E. E. Cummings’ 100 Selected Poems was published in 1959. This selection, which includes work from Tulips and Chimneys (1923) through Xaipe (1950), was made by Cummings himself. These were the poems, no doubt, that he considered his best and perhaps most representative. I’d like to talk about a few of the lyrics in this volume, and to move from them to critical considerations that they inevitably raise.
I am now three sentences deep into my talk and already almost forced to stop. For there is a sense in which, from Cummings’ point of view, from the assumptions and visions of his life and life’s work, poems do not inevitably raise critical considerations. Poems are poems, and they are...
(The entire section is 4880 words.)