Cummings, E(dward) E(stlin) 1894–1962
Cummings, an American poet, playwright, essayist, and novelist, was one of the most innovative poets of his time. Avoiding highly intellectual concerns, Cummings's poems were often deliberately simplistic. A sensual poet, Cummings experimented with grammar, punctuation, and typography in order to better present his attempts to fully realize himself through his senses. Some of Cummings's best known works are The Enormous Room, The Balloon Man, and Fifty Poems. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3.)
Mr. Cummings' poems depend entirely upon what they create in process, only incidentally upon what their preliminary materials or intentions may have been. Thus, above all, there is a prevalent quality of uncertainty, of uncompleted possibility, both in the items and in the fusion of the items which make up the poems; but there is also the persistent elementary eloquence of intension—of things struggling, as one says crying, to be together, and to make something of their togetherness which they could never exhibit separately or in mere series. The words, the meanings in the words, and also the nebula of meaning and sound and pun around the words, are all put into an enlivening relation to each other. There is, to employ a word which appealed to Hart Crane in similar contexts, a sense of synergy in all the successful poems of Mr. Cummings: synergy is the condition of working together with an emphasis on the notion of energy in the working, and energy in the positive sense, so that one might say here that Mr. Cummings' words were energetic. The poems are, therefore, eminently beyond paraphrase, not because they have no logical content—for they do, usually very simple—but because so much of the activity is apart from that of logical relationships, is indeed in associations free of, though not alien to, logical associations. In short, they create their objects. (p. 75)
There is, for the poet, no discipline like the justified reservations of his admirers, and this should be especially the case with a poet so deliberately idiosyncratic as Mr. Cummings. I have been one of his admirers for twenty-one years since I first saw his poetry in the Dial; and it may be that my admiration has gone up and down so many hills that it is a little fagged and comes up to judgment with entirely too many reservations. Yet I must make them, and hope only that the admiration comes through.
First, there is the big reservation that, contrary to the general belief and contrary to what apparently he thinks himself, Mr. Cummings is not—in his meters, in the shapes of his lines, in the typographical cast of his poems on the page—an experimental poet at all. In his "peculiar" poetry he does one of two things. He either reports a speech rhythm and the fragments of meaning punctuated by the rhythm so as to heighten and make it permanent in the reader's ear—as famously in "Buffalo Bill" …, but just as accurately elsewhere as, for example, in poem 27 [in 50 POEMS ] or in trying to do so he makes such a hash of it that the reader's ear is left conclusively deaf to the poem. I assume he is attempting to heighten sound in the failures as well as the successes; if he is not, if he is trying to write a poetry in symbols which have no audible equivalents—a mere eye poetry—then he is committing the sin against the Holy Ghost. My belief is that the high percentage of failures comes from his lack of a standard from which to conduct experiments, and without which experiment in any true sense is impossible; so that in fact many of his oddities are merely the oddities of spontaneous play, nonsense of the casual, self-defeating order, not nonsense of the rash, intensive order. There is no reason he should not play, but it is too bad that he should print the products, for print sheds a serenity of value, or at least of "authority"...
(The entire section contains 8420 words.)
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