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 in dramatic contrast to “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r.” The sonnet is one of Cummings’s better lyric poems, the best of which make use of the formal eccentricities of “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r” in the poet’s successful blending of traditional subject matter with his personally distinctive, modern verse forms.
Cummings’s principal lyric subject matter is his celebration of romantic, sexual, and transcendental love and of the beauty, physical and spiritual, of lovers. A good example of a successful blend of his distinctive versification with a traditional lyric subject is “(ponder,darling,these busted statues.” Formally, the poem might be thought of as standing near the middle of the range defined by the extremes of “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r” and “if I have made,my lady,intricate.” As such, it represents well the characteristics of Cummings’s poetry. The blend of versification with a traditional subject is effective because of the appropriateness of the fragmented verse to the imagery of broken statuary and architectural ruins and of both to the poem’s carpe diem theme.
The most obvious aspect of Cummings’s distinctive verse is typographical, his sparse and erratic use of capitals and of parentheses. These particular details function in this poem of lyric substance to further understanding. Two sets of parentheses clearly delineate the three sections of the poem, the first and last being enclosed by them. The capitalization gives emphasis to the “Greediest Paws” of time and to the all-important “Horizontal” business. In addition to the typography, two examples of Cummings’s manipulation of syntax also contribute to understanding his style: verse paragraphs 3 and 6. As with the typography, the unconventional syntax contributes to the unmistakable distinctiveness of Cummings’s verse without in any way impeding the reader’s comprehension and hence appreciation of the poem.
The poem “(ponder,darling,these busted statues” is the modern poet’s address to the perennially coy mistress. As in Andrew Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress” (1650), the woman is asked to consider the mutability of all things and urged, since time passes irrevocably, to get on with meaningful “horizontal” business. Marvell’s plea turns on his images of the grave and the desert of eternity. Cummings, the quintessential modern, stands with the woman among the architectural ruins of a past that must be not so much denied as ignored, or, at least, turned away from. Although it is a lesser poem than T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), it shares with that landmark of the modernist period the fragmented artifacts of the past. More important, Cummings, like Eliot, is addressing the fundamental question of their time: What does one do in the midst of such ruins? Cummings’s answer, “make love,” is direct, obvious, and highly ironic; it is not simply flippant and clever. The poet’s urgent request to get on with the important horizontal business is one of the most traditional lyric responses to the overt awareness of mortality, one of humankind’s principal talismans down through the centuries against the certainty of death.
The poems “somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond” and “you shall above all things be glad and young” provide good examples of Cummings’s celebration of transcendental love. It should be noted that the categories, physical or sexual love and transcendental love, are not mutually exclusive. That is, nothing in “(ponder,darling,these busted statues” precludes the possibility that the lovers see something in each other deeper and more enduring than sex. However, it would be foolish to deny the sexual suggestiveness of the imagery of “somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond.”
The poem “since feeling is first” is an explicit celebration of feeling, the wellspring of all lyricism. Examples of his affirmation of spontaneity, of nature, and of the natural and the childlike selves can be found in “when god lets my body be,” “i thank You God for most this amazing,” “in Just-,” and “O sweet spontaneous.” Cummings’s intense tribute to his father, “my father moved through dooms of love,” and his slight but moving poem for his mother, “if there are any heavens my mother will(all by herself)have,” extend the range of lyric subject matter to include filial affection. The poem “anyone lived in a pretty how town” is Cummings’s allegorical “everyman” which has a poignancy similar to that of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (1938).
These poems provide examples of Cummings’s principal lyric subject matter. They also constitute a group useful for studying the formal variety found in some of his best poetry. Two of them, the poem on his father and “anyone lived in a pretty how town,” are fairly conventional quatrains given a twist by Cummings’s characteristic grammatical distortion: The parts of speech exchange roles. For example, the father moves “through griefs of joy” and sings “desire into begin.” Everyman of “anyone lived in a pretty how town” “sang his didn’t” and “danced his did.” In general, the key to this special vocabulary, here and in other poems, is that the present, immediate, concrete, and spontaneous are being affirmed, while their opposites are being rejected. “Is” is superior to “was.” The “dooms of feel” are to be celebrated; the “pomp of must and shall” scorned. In addition to these examples of Cummings’s quatrains, this group also contains another of his fairly conventional sonnets, “i thank You God for most this amazing,” and several free-verse poems, including “in Just-,” and “O sweet spontaneous.” As a group, they illustrate and support the generalization stated earlier that Cummings makes the most effective use of his distinctive devices in his more substantive lyric poetry.
Because satirists use lyricism to intensify their satirical thrusts, there is often no hard line between satiric and lyric poetry. The distinction for Cummings in particular is more a matter of emphasis than a clear-cut distinction. Because so much of his poetry is primarily satirical, however, it is profitable to consider several appropriate examples. It is also instructive to note that, as with his best lyric poetry, his best satiric pieces are those characterized by an effective blending of his distinctive devices with the resources of traditional verse. An excellent example of such blending and of the use of lyric intensity for satiric purposes is “i sing of Olaf glad and big.”
The poem looks and even sounds like free verse. It is, however, an intricately constructed set of interlocking quatrains and couplets in four-stress lines. The loosening of what sounds like very regular verse is effected by the spacing on the page and by the counterpoint of sentence or sense structure against the verse structure. That tension between verse and sense is intensified by the characteristic use of parentheses and syntactical inversions. As in “(ponder,darling,these busted statues,” the parentheses are used conventionally for humorous asides, as when readers are told that colonel left the scene “hurriedly to shave,” and for emphasis, as in the passages on Olaf’s knees and Christ’s mercy. The syntactical inversions effectively provide emphasis and hardly impede understanding. The hyphenating of the word “object-or” catches the genius of Cummings’s style at its best. The poem is about a conscientious objector who becomes an “object” in the hands of his fellow soldiers.
The satire is directed not at the military or against war, but at the lockstep, group mentality that, although fostered particularly by the military, may be found in the highly organized structures of all institutions: corporate, religious, academic. For Cummings, affirmation of the bravery of the individual places heavy emphasis on “individual,” and it is the group, crowd, or gang that is being indicated. The irony of the closing lines strongly suggests that the military is but the protective arm of the nation or culture locked into value systems symbolized by abstractions such as the nation’s “blueeyed pride.” Olaf, blond and blue-eyed, fits the abstraction, and hence his culpability is compounded. He was “blonder,” however (that is, nearer the ideal of bravery and of manhood), than most and willing to pay lip service to the ideal, while others lose themselves in the false security of the crowd.
Two other satires set in the context of war but directed at more fundamental targets are “my sweet old etcetera” and “plato told.” The first satirizes, in a light vein, attitudes very close to those of the soldiers of “i sing of Olaf glad and big.” Aunts, sister, mother, and father all think war is glorious, while the soldier, who describes them, lies in the muddy trenches, thereby refuting the grandiose notions of those safe and comfortable at home. The satire “plato told” comes closest to being an indictment of war, but its focus is really on the obtuseness of “him,” on his failure to understand what everyone has been telling him, which is that war is hell. All three of these “war” poems satirize a failure to see reality.
“Poem: Or, Beauty Hurts Mr. Vinal,” one of Cummings’s few titled poems, is a harsh but clever indictment of modern advertising and, implicitly, of the culture from which it derives. Cummings piles up actual lines from advertisements for garters, gum, shirt collars, drawers, Kodaks, and laxatives juxtaposed with fragments of lines from “America the Beautiful” and fragmented allusions to Robert Browning in the sixth verse paragraph. The poem makes fun of the glibness and excessive claims of advertising but then takes a turn toward the end to focus on Cummings’s primary satiric target: men and women, “gelded” or “spaded,” who have allowed themselves to be manipulated into anonymous units of the “market.” Cummings makes the same point in one of his harshest sonnets, “a salesman is an it that stinks Excuse.” Almost savage in tone, the poem once again links various seemingly incongruous activities in terms of the marketplace: the selling of “hate condoms education . . . democracy.” The focus of Cummings’s attack shifts from its ostensible targets—the military, advertising, and a salesman—to processes that rob people of their individuality and freedom of choice.
Cummings’s innovative genius as a versifier, excessive in many of the lesser poems, is modified and restrained in his poems of substance, effecting in many of them happy unions of form and content. He is, as a result, a modernist poet of consequence.