Cummings, E(dward) E(stlin) (Vol. 8)
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" upon the most miserable productions which are very deceptive to the innocent.
It should be emphasized in connection with this that Mr. Cummings is an abler experimenter than most poets with rhythm and cadence and epithet; and that these experiments come off best when he is not engaged in false experiments with meter—when he is writing either heightened prose as in "Buffalo Bill," or when he is writing straight-way meter of four or five iambic feet. Which is what one would expect.
My second reservation … has to do with his vocabulary, which seems to me at many crucial points so vastly over-generalized as to prevent any effective mastery over the connotations they are meant to set up as the substance of his poems. I do not mean it is just hard to say, which is of little importance, but that it is hard to know, which is very important, where you are at in poems which juggle fifty to a hundred words so many times and oft together that they lose all their edges, corners, and boundary lines till they cannot lie otherwise than in a heap. But this reservation … applies to no more than half the new poems; for Mr. Cummings' practice has improved with his increasing interest, as it seems, in persuading his readers of the accuracy of the relationships which his words divulge.
My third reservation is minor, and has to do with the small boy writing privy inscriptions on the wall…. My complaint is meant to be technical; most of the dirt is not well enough managed to reach the level of either gesture or disgust, but remains, let us say, coprophiliac which is not a technical quality. (pp. 76-7)
Special attention should be called to the development of fresh conventions in the use of prepositions, pronouns, and the auxiliary verbs in the guise of substances, and in general the rich use of words ordinarily rhetorical—mere connectives or means of transition in their ordinary usage—for the things of actual experience. There are questions which may be asked of which the answers will only come later when the familiarity of a generation or so will have put the data in an intimately understandable order. How much of the richness depends on mere novelty of usage, the gagline quality? How much depends on the close relationship to the everyday vernacular, the tongue in which Who and Why and How and No and Yes and Am, for example, are of supreme resort, and are capable of infinite diversity of shading? How much depends perhaps on Mr. Cummings' sense of the directional nubs, and the nubs of agency and of being, in his chosen words; a sense that resembles, say, the dative and ablative inflections in Latin? How much, finally, depends on the infinite proliferating multiplicity of available meanings in his absolute commonplaces made suddenly to do precise work? The questions would not be worth asking did not each furnish a possible suggestion as to the capacity for meaning and flavor of his usage; nor would they be worth asking if there were not a major residue of his verse, as standard as death, which his oddities only illuminate without damaging. (pp. 77-8)
R. P. Blackmur, "Review of '50 POEMS'," in The Southern Review (copyright, 1941 by Louisiana State University Press), Vol. 7, No. 3, Summer, 1941 (and reprinted in E. E. Cummings: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Norman Friedman, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1972, pp. 75-8).
A lifelong addict of the circus, vaudeville, and burlesque, Cummings loves to puncture words so that he can fling their stale rhetoric like straw all over the floor of his circus tent, to take a pompous stance that collapses under him, to come out with an ad-lib that seems positively to stagger him. But the very point of all this is that it occurs within a vocabulary that is essentially abstract and romantic, and that the performance is by a man who remains always aloof, whose invocation of love, spring, roses, balloons, and the free human heart stems from a permanent mistrust of any audience.
This duality of the traditionalist and the clown, of the self-consciously arrogant individualist and the slapstick artist, makes up Cummings' world, and it is this that gives special interest to the autobiographical sections of [i: Six Non-lectures,] a book that otherwise, though as delightful as anything he has ever written, tends to lapse into defensive quotations from his own writings and opinions. For in coming to Harvard he came back to his own—to the town he was born in, to the university whose intellectual inheritance he so particularly represents, to the memory of his father, a Boston minister and onetime Harvard instructor, whose influence is so dominant in his best work. The remarkably exalted memories Cummings gives us of his Cambridge boyhood … is the background of his familiar opposition between the idyllic past and the New York world in which he has to live. Cummings is not merely a traditionalist in the mold of so many American poets, a mold that recalls those other American inventors and originals, such as Ford and Edison and Lindbergh, who are forever trying to reclaim the past their own feats have changed; he is the personification of the old transcendentalist passion for abstract ideals. In his knowingness with words, in his passion for Greek and Latin, he takes one back to Emerson and Thoreau, who were perpetually pulling words apart to illustrate their lost spiritual meaning. Underneath the slapstick and the typographical squiggles, Cummings likes to play with words so that he can show the ideals they once referred to—and this always with the same admonitory, didactic intent and much of Thoreau's shrewd emphasis on his own singularity.
It is these old traits that give such delightfulness, and occasionally something of his hoped-for disagreeableness, to Cummings' "egocentricity," which he pretends in these lectures to apologize for yet which is actually, of course, not a subjective or narcissistic quality at all but the very heart of his Protestant and fiercely individualistic tradition. (pp. 169-70)
In the new American scriptures, fathers don't count. But Cummings' cult of his father is, precisely because it will strike many Americans as wholly unreal, the clue to all that makes Cummings so elusive and uncharacteristic a figure today. For just as the occasional frivolousness of his poetry is irritating because it is not gay, because it is snobbish and querulous and self-consciously forlorn in its distance from the great urban mob he dislikes, so the nobility and elevation of his poetry—which has become steadily more solid, more experimental and moving—is unreal to many people because of the positive way in which he flings the true tradition in our faces with an air that betrays his confidence that he will not be understood.
Cummings' wit always starts from the same tone in which Thoreau said that "I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well." It is both a conscious insulation of his "eccentricity" and an exploitation of his role. But Emerson and Thoreau, even in the rosy haze of transcendentalism, were resolute thinkers, provokers of disorder, revolutionaries who were always working on the minds of their contemporaries; Cummings' recourse is not to the present, to the opportunities of the age, but to the past. And that past has now become so ideal, and the mildly bawdy satires he used to write against the Cambridge ladies of yesteryear have yielded to such an ecstasy of provincial self-approval, that we find him in these lectures openly pitying his audience because it did not have the good sense to be born in his father's house. (pp. 170-71)
Cummings' poetry has ripened amazingly of recent years, but it has not grown. And charming and touching as he is in this little autobiography, he remains incurably sentimental. This sentimentality, I hasten to add, is not in his values, in his dislike of collectivism, in his rousing sense of human freedom; it is in his failure to clothe the abstractions of his fathers with the flesh of actuality, with love for the living. The greatness of the New England transcendentalists was their ability to reclaim, from the commonsensical despairs of a dying religion, faith in the visionary powers of the mind. More and more, in Cummings' recent books, one sees how this belief in imagination, this ability to see life from within, has enabled him to develop, out of the provocative mannerisms of his early work, a verse that is like lyric shorthand—extraordinarily elastic, light, fresh, and resonant of feeling. At a time when a good deal of "advanced" poetry has begun to wear under its convention of anxiety, Cummings' verse has seemed particularly felt, astringent, and musical. But it is precisely because Cummings is a poet one always encounters with excitement and delight, precisely because it is his gift to make the world seem more joyful, that one reads a book like this with disappointment at hearing so many familiar jokes told over again, while the poet escapes into a fairyland of his fathers and points with a shudder to all who are not, equally with him, his father's son. (p. 171)
Alfred Kazin, "E. E. Cummings and His Fathers," in The New Yorker (© 1954 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), January 2, 1954 (and reprinted in E. E. Cummings: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Norman Friedman, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1972, pp. 168-71).
[Cummings] has used language with no concession to conventional recognition; he has always wanted his reader to drop all the accoutrements of the grammarian and the rhetorician that he may be wearing as protective clothing and to approach his poems, as it were, naked and unafraid. The reader should be free of preconceptions about English poetry, unafraid to "reconsider his standards of acceptance."
This is not to say, however, that Cummings does not know rules and tradition. He is instead a prime example of the old adage that an artist must know all the rules before he can break them. Cummings is no primitive, though he sometimes uses words as a child does; he is no Walt Whitman with a barbaric yawp, no untutored child of the prairie working in what is essentially an alien medium…. His first book of poems, Tulips and Chimneys (1923), revealed the fact that he had had a classical education, although the poems in it that looked forward to his later writing were much more noteworthy than those which were traditionalist. And although he continues to work in the sonnet—perhaps his most memorable poetry is in this form—he long ago abandoned the language of Rossetti and Keats for one which fits his highly personal insight into experience. At its most highly developed state, in his later books, Cummings' language becomes almost a foreign one, usually possible to figure out for a reader who knows English, it is true; but he will get its full meaning only if he has read a great deal of Cummings and if he "knows the language."
It is unfortunate that most of the critical appraisals of Cummings' poetry were made early, shortly after his first books were published. Since those days—the twenties—were full of literary and artistic ferment, and a new poetic talent was to many people at least as exciting as a new baseball player, it is natural that he should have received a great deal of attention then; it is perhaps also natural that as the first shock caused by his poetry died down into acceptance of what seemed a fixed technique of an established poet, the critics should have turned their eyes elsewhere. Cummings, too, was somewhat out of the mainstream in the thirties. He was not popular with the New Critics because he was too personal and unintellectual; he did not think or write in their groove. Nor was he popular with the critics of the left who demanded their own variety of social consciousness in a writer. His "immorality" was too blunt for the Humanists, and his verse was too uncommunicative for the attackers of the cult of unintelligibility. When his last three volumes of verse came out, no one took the trouble to give Cummings the reappraisal that his poetry needed and deserved; very few people noticed the fundamental change of attitude which manifested itself in his growing reverence and dedication to lasting love; even fewer noted the development in his use of language. Thus in 1955 an essay, "Notes on E. E. Cummings' Language," by Richard P. Blackmur, written in 1930, remains the only extensive treatment of the subject; and too many people think of his language, as they think of the subject matter of his poetry, as if it were all of a piece, which it most emphatically is not. (pp. 80-2)
Many of the things that Mr. Blackmur said are still accurate descriptions of some of the phenomena of Cummings' language; the trouble is that his remarks are incomplete. They do not consider Cummings' later practices of using one part of speech as another, of leaving out words so that the resulting condensation is so dense as to be almost impenetrable, of thoroughly scrambling English word order with the same effect. Mr. Blackmur was instead occupied with such things as Cummings' tough-guy attitude and his romantic egoism, with his overuse of certain favorite words to which he seemed to assign private meanings, and with the question of whether such diction did not make his poetry impenetrable. Mr. Blackmur concluded unequivocally that it did; and, if in 1952 he saw no need for modification of his note [in his Language As Gesture], one assumes that he still thinks so. (pp. 82-3)
Although his language, especially in the later books, is intricate and difficult, what [Cummings] asks of his reader is, as always, the frank approach of a child; and it is this attitude which he himself takes to his mother tongue and to its tenets and rules. Of course, such an approach is consistent with that most salient feature of his viewpoint, his glorification of the child (or the "maturely childish" adult); he is, when he fashions language as a child would, merely practicing what he preaches. It is doubtful whether he ever said to himself, "I shall form and use words as if I have not completely mastered the idiom of the English language, although I know its rules"; but this is precisely what, in his first ventures into unusual language, he began to do. He divested himself of the literate adult's prejudices against such things as double negatives, redundant superlatives and comparatives, and non-dictionary words. (p. 83)
[In] Tulips and Chimneys, although the greater part of his language is conventional and sometimes even banally "poetic," one finds such unusual usages as unstrength, purpled, Just-spring, eddieandbill, puddle-wonderful, almost-ness, greentwittering, quiveringgold, flowerterrible, starlessness, fearruining, timeshaped, sayingly. Except for sayingly and almostness, which are among the first examples of his changing one part of speech into another, and unstrength, there is nothing very startling about most of these words. The mere printing of two words together, as in greentwittering, might be considered more a typographical technique than a linguistic one, although it is apparent that when Cummings combines two words to form one adjective he usually creates a new concept by the juxtaposition of two unlike descriptives: flowerterrible, timeshaped. (It is such language as this that Mr. Blackmur objects to; he would say that it is impossible to determine the exact meaning of such words as flowerterrible and timeshaped, and undoubtedly he is right.) Tulips and Chimneys abounds with such words and with phrases that are made up of conventional words in unconventional juxtapositions….
These phrases that (one must agree with Mr. Blackmur) convey a thrill but not a precise impression swarm through the book but are not able to occupy it exclusively. In contrast to them are many images which depend for their power upon the unexpected but which manage to convey an accurate reproduction of the poet's thought, which show, indeed, that the poet had a thought and not merely a rush of words. (p. 86)
The language of Tulips and Chimneys,… like the imagery, the verse forms, the subject matter, and the thought, is sometimes good, sometimes bad. But the book is so obviously the work of a talented young man who is striking off in new directions, groping for original and yet precise expression, experimenting in public, that it seems uncharitable to dwell too long on its shortcomings. (p. 88)
Cummings' linguistic usages in Tulips and Chimneys and in the two books which soon followed it & [AND] and XLI POEMS [are similar]. These books were published within three years and are fairly much alike (although the typographical distortions that reach extremes in & [AND] were barely hinted at in the first book), in style and in subject matter the three books are the work of the same youthful poet. (p. 89)
Although … the early books are punctuated with favorite words (thrilling, flowers, utter, skillful, groping, crisp, keen, actual, stars, etc.) almost as copiously as another author would use commas, an awareness of these words is not unrewarding if one wishes to understand Cummings. The words flower and stars are, as he uses them, not mere substantives representing a thing in nature but are metaphorical shorthand for concepts which Cummings finds admirable: the flowers, for example, representing growth, being, aliveness; the stars standing for the steadfastness of beauty in nature.
Such adjectives as he continually uses …, though they are admittedly overworked in the early books to the point of tiresomeness, are nevertheless indicative of his viewpoint: he admires phenomena that can be described as crisp, keen, actual, gay, young, strong, or strenuous, and dislikes the groping, the dim, the slow, the dull. In reading the early poetry, it is often necessary to know which of Cummings' words are, in Hayakawa's terms, "purr words" and which are "snarl words" in order to get any meaning from the poem. As Cummings progressed, he outgrew his penchant for such expressions as "thy whitest feet crisply are straying" … and grew into his mature style, which is something infinitely more precise, often more concrete, and which relies more on such straight-forward words as nouns and verbs than on piled-up adjectives for its effects.
To refer, however, to Cummings' words as nouns and verbs is to make things sound much simpler than they are, for the one outstanding characteristic of his mature style is his disrespect for the part of speech. It would be more accurate instead to say that he uses words as nouns, for instance, which are not normally so; it would be hard to find any one of his later poems which does not utilize a word in a sense other than its usual one. Yes is used as a noun to represent all that is positive and therefore admirable, if to stand for all that is hesitating, uncertain, incomplete. The style thus becomes spare; the later books contain many poems written in extremely short lines, lines which, utilizing the simplest words, say a great deal. (pp. 89-90)
[By] accepting the fact that the poet may be saying something worthwhile and may be seriously trying to convey both truth and beauty as he sees it, one will try to look through the poet's eyes. To understand Cummings fully, more so than in understanding most other poets, it is necessary for one to have read much of Cummings. To a reader familiar with his techniques such a statement as "yes is a pleasant country" is as penetrable as a deep, clear pool; it might, however, seem more opaque to one reading him for the first time. Such words as yes and if take on a historical meaning within the body of his poetry, a meaning not divorced from their traditional ones but infinitely larger: yes, for instance, conventionally is used in a particular situation; as Cummings uses it, yes represents the sum of all the situations in which it might be used. And such a technique as "who younger than / begin / are" is not too complicated to be used by some practitioners of the art of writing for mass consumption, as witness the first line of a very popular song from South Pacific: "Younger than springtime, you are." (pp. 90-1)
Babette Deutsch has described Cummings' use of these words as follows [see CLC, Vol. 3]:
His later poems make words as abstract as "am," "if," "because," do duty for seemingly more solid nouns. By this very process, however, he restores life to dying concepts. "Am" implies being at its most responsive, "if" generally means the creeping timidity that kills responsiveness, and "because" the logic of the categorizing mind that destroys what it dissects. Here is a new vocabulary, a kind of imageless metaphor.
Why, Miss Deutsch might further have explained, generally means to Cummings a state of uncertainty, a searching for direction from sources outside oneself, an unspontaneous demanding of reasons and causes in the face of life. A person who is a why is generally a subject for ridicule, being, like an if, a timid creature who thinks, fears, denies, follows, unlike an all-alive is. (p. 92)
Right though she is in assigning meanings to Cummings' am's, if's, and because's, Miss Deutsch does not get to the root of the technique used in these words when she describes them as examples of "imageless metaphor." Metaphor has as its base the use of comparison and analogy, of the verisimilitude within dissimilitude that exists between two images, actions, or concepts. Actually, a closer insight into the real nature of these words is found in Mr. Blackmur's study, though, in contrast to Miss Deutsch's commitment to the technique, his definition of the process comes within a general attack on Cummings' language. He says at the end of his essay that all of Cummings' "thought" (the quotes are Mr. Blackmur's) is metonymy, and that the substance of the metonymy is never assigned to anything. "In the end," he concludes, "we have only the thrill of substance." Metonymy is based on reduction rather than comparison: an object associated with a thing is substituted for the thing itself (as crown for king), or a corporeal object is used to represent an abstract concept or idea (as heavy thumb for dishonesty). When Mr. Blackmur says that Cummings' metonymy contains only the "thrill of substance," he means that in the case of such a word as flower, one of Cummings' favorite metonymical vehicles, the substance—flower—is there but the idea of which it is a reduction is neither present nor ascertainable. If the reader receives a "thrill" from such a word as flower, well and good; but Mr. Blackmur asserts that a thrill is all he will receive.
It must be remembered that Mr. Blackmur's essay was written after only the earliest of Cummings' books had appeared; none of them exemplify his mature style—in those days flower and star were about as far as he had gone in the direction of metonymy. In his use of why, however, he has extended not only the uses to which a particular word can be put but also the accepted limits of metonymy: he has taken an abstract word and made it stand for a host of ideas, the negative characteristics mentioned above. Mr. Blackmur's "thrill of substance" is therefore not applicable to Cummings' present use of metonymy, for such words as why do not represent a substance and certainly, if they are isolated, convey no thrill. That it is possible for why to induce a thrill is seen in the lines quoted above, but the thrill comes not from the "substance" of why but from the uniqueness of its use; perhaps also there is a thrill of comprehension which comes when the implication of the metonymy strikes the reader.
Again, if one accepts Mr. Blackmur's argument it is unanswerable; he would say that to derive an implication from a metonymical concept is not enough, that the idea or object which the "substance" represents must be precisely known. However, there must perhaps have been a day when heavy thumb was not a universally accepted reduction for dishonesty; the person who created this particular metonymy must have been doing a rather original thing, and his created expression must have had to go through a process of recognition into acceptance before it came to be unquestioned. That Cummings' metonymical usages are unlikely to go through this particular process is immaterial; such metonymies as why and yes are a little too subtle, too closely based on a poet's private convictions, to find a place in ordinary language. It should not be concluded, however, that their meaning cannot be understood…. (pp. 92-3)
To understand a Cummings metonymy, one can bring his plain common sense to bear first, and, in the case of such expressions as "who younger than / begin / are" or "and should some why completely weep," common sense is often enough to establish a correct meaning. (p. 93)
[His] technique in creating new uses for such words as if, why, because, which, how, must, same, have, and they on the one hand and now, am, yes, is, we, give, and here on the other is to accumulate meanings for each of them that total up to the same kind of positive and negative oppositions that are set against each other throughout his work…. (pp. 94-5)
[He] makes each of these words self-subsistent in terms of the context in which they appear, and, by varying the meanings in each usage, makes the words metonymical reductions for a whole set of concepts. In a way he is creating an easy cipher of meaning, penetrable but not completely so at first sight. And is this not also the case of any author who utilizes a few dominant symbols in order to express his special insight into experience, who must make each use of a symbol function in its context and yet adds to its meaning with each repeated use? (Hawthorne's repeated use of light and shadow in his works might be cited as an example of this method.) The success of a metonymous or symbolic system of this sort depends partly upon the degree to which the poet objectifies and clarifies his conception of the world, partly upon the effects of freshness and vitality his language produces; when one comes across such lines as the following there can be no doubt that Cummings is successful in both respects:
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone's any was all to her
Using a traditional rhetorical pattern in the second line (little by little serves as a model for it), he superimposes a metonymous structure: bird and snow are reductions of summer and winter; stir and still, of all manner of activities. The net result of such a line is a new and delightful sense of linguistic invention, precise and vigorous.
To say that Cummings is successful in objectifying his conception of the world and in achieving a freshness and vitality of language is not to diminish the difficulty of many of his poems. Nor is it meant to say that his metonymical usages are not overworked, just as were his favorite adjectives in Tulips and Chimneys. What was originally a fresh idea, and what still has great power if used with discrimination—his utilizing abstract words to be the "substance" of a metonymy—can become boring, tiresome, and even meaningless if called upon constantly to carry the whole weight of a poem. Just as the word flower, which obviously was a symbol for something, when used in every poem became a mere word, to be accepted and passed over, so a constant succession of which's and who's and why's and they's begins to roll off the tongue too quickly for the mind to make the transference from the "substance" to the idea for which it stands; and the force of the metonymy is lost. A poem written almost exclusively in these words loses, too, its beauty and grace; one-syllable abstract words are not particularly melodious, and a poem in which they are not frequently interspersed with words which are more interesting in themselves, or more concrete, is likely to plod along (like Pope's "And ten low words oft creep in one dull line"), one metonymy after another, never skipping or dancing or singing.
However, at the same time that Cummings developed the metonymy to its ultimate use he was growing in another direction: many of his poems became much more, not less, musical than his earlier ones. In the earlier books he had placed his dependence upon the sonnet form, often upon a grand manner, and sometimes upon free verse; but he very seldom wrote a poem which cried out to be sung, which could be read only with a joyous, pronounced rhythm. Such poems as these occur frequently in the last three books. Cummings has given up being grand and derivative and become simple and himself. If he utilizes old verse forms, they are more likely to be of the nursery rhyme than of the Spenserian stanza. His lines, as has been mentioned, are often short; his meter is usually iambic; his words—when they are not metonymies—are colloquial. As a result, one can read these poems with a sense of the child's pure delight in poetry; Cummings himself has become more maturely childish as he has grown.
The rhythmical poems do utilize the typical abstract word metonymies—it is a rare poem in his later books which does not; even his satires make use of them to some extent—but the metonymies are likely to be placed in the context of concrete words and lively happenings. (pp. 95-6)
[A] progression from the external to the personal, from the outer world of "mostpeople" to the inner world of "us," finds its expression, sometimes quietly, sometimes with childish innocence, sometimes with a dauntless courage, in poem after poem in the volume 1 × 1…. And, as he begins one of the most beautiful of his sonnets: "one's not half two. It's two are halves of one:"…. This whole conception of i-you-we (or my-your-our) becomes one of Cummings' most frequently used metonymies. Its impact, to anyone who knows that "two are halves of one," is immediate…. In the i-you-we metonymy the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and the metonymy itself becomes a prime example of Cummings' ability to use the simplest words as a shorthand for concepts which represent his own convictions. It is fitting that his most musical poems should be the ones … in celebration of i-you-we; for to Cummings love is still the most joyous of all things. Mature love to him becomes not more sober and settled but more intensely lyrical, less tortured, more a thing for singing and dancing and child-like delight. We takes its place along with yes and now and is as the metonymies for all that is best in this "really unreal world." (pp. 98-9)
Robert E. Maurer, "Latter-Day Notes on E. E. Cummings' Language," in The Bucknell Review (© 1955 by The Bucknell Review), May, 1955 (and reprinted in E. E. Cummings: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Norman Friedman, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1972, pp. 79-99).
E. E. Cummings probably used Bunyan's Pilgrim Progress as an organizing principle of The Enormous Room because he suspected that for most people in his generation its spiritual power and moral lessons were either forgotten or misunderstood. The Enormous Room is surely an intentional Pilgrim's Progress…. (p. 121)
A retrospective reading of the contemporary notices dramatizes the general response of reviewers that The Enormous Room was pretty strong meat. Readers felt compelled to take sides on the crucial issue of the book's "gratuitous filthiness." Yet it was not apart from its crudities, we feel today, that the book was "quite worthwhile," but because of them. Like a number of his younger contemporaries, Cummings had intuitively divined the efficiency of filth as metaphor, and like Swift before him, succeeded in conveying an excremental vision of life with unmistakable power. In addition, by ringing changes upon the allegorical structure of conventional pilgrimages, he evolved a Paradise within an Inferno, a Celestial City upon the ruins of the City of Destruction. In short, if Christian could no longer journey to the Delectable Mountains, Cummings would bring the Delectable Mountains to Christian….
The parallel journey is spiritual, not literal, yet the identification of the narrator with Christian is illuminated at crucial instances in such a way as to reflect a fundamental dependence upon the earlier allegory. (p. 122)
The Enormous Room manipulates the images of the erotic, urinary, and excremental to symbolize the most precious mysteries of Christian brotherhood. In not perceiving Cummings' extraordinary use of the "excremental," earlier critics of The Enormous Room have misunderstood its intention.
Cleanliness is next to ungodliness in Cummings' ludicrously inverted scheme of things. The only physically clean beings are the non-prisoners. The "very definite fiend," Apollyon, who is the director of the prison, is an impeccable dresser, a terrifying little monster whose most disgusting feature is his inhuman fetish for personal cleanliness…. It is a perfectly obvious irony that, behind his puppetlike facade of cleanliness, Apollyon is responsible for the filthiest of prisons. (pp. 124-25)
The theme is at once revolting and transcendent: human excrement, normally the object of universal disgust, symbolizes human brotherhood and, eventually, Christian Salvation. The most prominent feature of The Enormous Room is its odor…. (p. 125)
Cummings' violent dismissal of the ordinary forms of things does not imply that he has rejected the ultimate spiritual meanings which the forms should symbolize. Civilization itself is unspeakably corrupt; it is reflected in the injustices of governments, the ironies of power-struggles between nations, and the horrors of a chaotic and meaningless war. In the microcosm of The Enormous Room it is represented by Le Directeur, by the Black Holster (brutal chief of the plantons), and by the "Three Wise Men" and their Inquisition. Above all, civilization's least satisfactory product is the unthinking and insensitive American, the incommunicative, middle-class, self-satisfied average-man, represented here as "Mr. A."…. Cummings' "war-time" Mr. A.—section-chief of an Ambulance Service subsidized with Morgan money—reappears in the post-war poems in civilian clothes as the prototype unthinking-American immortalized, in all of his fastidiousness, in the cynically-portrayed subject of "POEM, OR BEAUTY HURTS MR. VINAL," defecating (with a hun-dred-mil-lion-oth-ers) on a "sternly allotted sandpile," emitting a "tiny violetflavored nuisance: Odor?/ono." (pp. 126-27)
What most disturbed Cummings in the immediate post-war years was a mass insensitivity to the distressing and, relevantly, stinking conditions of war (and, by extension, of civilization). Those who refused to use their noses except to avoid the actual smell of life became, like the Cambridge ladies of the sonnet, possessed of furnished souls and comfortable minds merely; their daughters, like their lives, were "unscented" and "shapeless."… The Enormous Room was addressed to this unscented majority in the hope that it would be not merely shocked but would somehow sense … that Christian brotherhood existed among human odors, not beyond them. (p. 127)
In choosing for his prototype fool an overcivilized, anal American with a supersensitive nose, Cummings discovered an essential symbol. Inevitably, therefore, his own pilgrim would need to be able to smell his fellow-human beings in order to progress with them toward the Delectable Mountains. In contrast, the impostor Count Bragard, who cannot tolerate the stink of his fellow-prisoners, is clearly identifiable with the worst excesses of modern civilization: he prostitutes his art; his real god is not Cezanne, but Vanderbilt. (pp. 127-28)
"In the course of the next ten thousand years," wrote Cummings after his return to New York, "it may be possible to find Delectable Mountains without going to prison."… While he was in captivity, however, he found that communication was only possible with those "common scum" who had not been hopelessly indoctrinated by civilization. Bunyan's Worldly Wise-men, for Cummings, constituted the majority of the "monster manunkind."… "The Great American Public," he wrote, had a "handicap which my friends at La Ferté did not as a rule have—education…". Communication, then, in The Enormous Room, if it were to exist among the prisoners at all, had to be established upon some deeper principle than spoken language. The principle was that of a communion of the Elect. Words were inadequate…. Cummings is careful to make the point that The Zulu spoke no conventionally communicable language, and yet "I have never in my life so perfectly understood (even to the most exquisite nuances) whatever idea another human being desired at any moment to communicate to me, as I have in the case of The Zulu." (pp. 128-29)
The emphasis, as in any rite of passage, is upon what the initiate has learned from his journey. In this instance, the maimed hero can never again regard the outer world (i.e., "civilization") without irony. But the spiritual lesson he learned from his sojourn with a community of brothers will be repeated in his subsequent writings both as an ironical dismissal of the values of his contemporary world, and as a sensitive, almost mystical celebration of the quality of Christian love.
Even if we admit the ingenuity of Cummings' device in The Enormous Room, we may still ask if the enormity of the conceit, developed so fully as it is, succeeds. Until one returns directly to Bunyan's allegory, he may forget just how scummy the Slough of Despond actually was. Bunyan implies that a virtually inescapable condition of man's spiritual salvation is that he "wallow for a time," and become "grievously bedaubed."… [The Slough of Despond] is a necessary part of the journey. Similarly, Cummings implies that The Enormous Room is "necessary," although he hopes that "In the course of the next ten thousand years it may be possible to find the Delectable Mountains without going to prison." (pp. 130-31)
There remains the question of obscenity in The Enormous Room. Could Cummings have succeeded, as reviewer D. K. Lamb put it, "without being so gratuitously filthy"? Had William Thackeray lived to read The Enormous Room, he would unquestionably have called it "filthy in word, filthy in thought, furious, raging, obscene," as he described Gulliver's Travels to a group of nineteenth-century ladies. But happily, such a view of "filthiness" has been demonstrated to be superficial, and despite the persistence of a few critics in reading Swift as personal history,… [we have learned] that to regard Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World as evidence of coprophilia in Swift is itself madness. Thus, while it is important to comprehend the meaning of the excrement in Houyhnhnmland, it is trivial to be offended by its odor.
Without insisting upon the parallel between the pilgrimages of Bunyan's Christian and Swift's ironic Gulliver [although this point has been critically discussed], I would nevertheless agree with [Samuel Holt Monk], who sees a "grim joke" in Gulliver himself being "the supreme instance of a creature smitten with pride."
The significance of such a view for readers of Cummings is this: Gulliver, in his rationalistic pride, is no longer able to smell his fellow human beings without experiencing a wave of nauseating disgust. Having lived in the super-rational "civilization" of the horses, he finds the odor of human beings altogether repugnant. Cummings' twentieth-century pilgrim provides us with an alternative. In a world of rationalistic, super-scientific, deodorized, Nujolneeding Gullivers, he found it necessary for his salvation to escape into a community of odorous human beings. He discovered them by being imprisoned among them in The Enormous Room. (pp. 131-32)
David E. Smith, "'The Enormous Room' and 'The Pilgrim's Progress'," in Twentieth Century Literature (© 1965 by IHC Press), July, 1965 (and reprinted in E. E. Cumming: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Norman Friedman, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1972, pp. 121-32).
Although he is not generally accorded any attention as a religious poet, E. E. Cummings did, on occasion, produce poems which can only be classified as "divine." Most of these poems were published during the last decade of his career when, according to Norman Friedman [in e. e. cummings: The Growth of a Writer], "the image of the actual world faded in favor of the visionary core." Although the poems which may be termed religious without qualification are not numerous, it seems inevitable that a poet who devotes so much of his career to depicting the transcendence of the mundane by human lovers should in time turn to transcendence with the active assistance of a loving God….
Cummings's approach to God is of a tentive nature, in keeping with his view that anything or anyone either measurable or completely definable is of little value. This approach is evident in a number of Cummings's poems, such as "no time ago," "to start, to hesitate; to stop," Number 42 of 95 Poems, and Numbers 51, 53, and 55 of 73 Poems.
The sonnet "when you are silent, shining host by guest" serves as a celebration of the love of an essentially unknowable God for the individual, for "every" man and for nature. (p. 70)
[For] all its heartfelt humility and tentativeness, this sonnet presents an essentially optimistic celebration of God's love and its effects in the awakening of the one, of the "every," and of nature. In the all-inclusiveness of the transcendence it depicts, the poem mounts a cogent counterargument to the view enunciated by [some critics] that Cummings is capable of finding joy only in the self. (p. 75)
G. J. Weinberger, "E. E. Cummings' Benevolent God: A Reading of 'when you are silent, shining host by guest'," in Papers on Language and Literature (copyright © 1974 by the Board of Trustees, Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville), Winter, 1974, pp. 70-5.
As cummings makes clear, there are apparently two plays in [him]. One is a markedly personal play and another, seemingly less personal, consists of a series of vaudevillesque skits embodying the environment or moral climate in which the writer (the central character) dwells. This person may be taken to be cummings himself in painful dismay amid the jungle of our civilization, especially as it manifested itself during the 1920s. He was inspired by feelings of utmost tenderness and tormented by the horrendous tumult and fatuity of the time. If his "hero" talks crazy, with a touch of the adolescent and certain intimations of Pirandello it is pretty much as the inebriate cummings himself talked, as if he were trying to thread his way through the impediments of inner disturbance and overstrained nerves without descending to platitude.
This emotional confusion leads to both stylistic and structural discrepancies. The play begins (and in large part continues) as a series of feverish images of a girl undergoing anaesthesia during an abortion. She is "me," who thinks of her lover as "him": they have no other names in the play. But the play constantly shifts its focus; many of the scenes are inconceivable as emanations of "me's" spirit.
The play's purest element is contained in duos of love. They are the most sensitive and touching in American playwriting. Their intimacy and passion, conveyed in an odd exquisiteness of writing, are implied rather than declared. We realize that no matter how much "him" wishes to express his closeness to "me," he is frustrated not only by the fullness of his feeling but by his inability to credit his emotion in a world as obscenely chaotic as the one in which he is lost.
That world is fantastically reflected in comic spiels of commercial publicity in the second and longest act of the "other play." There is, too, an extraordinarily grotesque travesty of Americans in Gay Paree, the paradise of tourists in the 1920s. In another scene, Fascist bombast is lampooned; in still another, evangelical hot air as a solace to the impoverished and hungry—the depression was just around the corner—is scathingly mocked.
But in the end we return to the "unfinished" play which "him" is trying so desperately to write, the play with heartbreak at its core, in which "him" proclaims, "I am an Artist, I am a Man, I am a Failure." In this manner, the play's dichotomy achieves unity. Just so, the play, disjointed and flawed, still breathes with imagination and lyric life. (pp. 604-05)
Harold Clurman, in The Nation (copyright 1974 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), May 11, 1974.
Cummings' early poetry and art [bore] affinities with that of the Decadents: sensuality abounded, often gratuitously, and the will to shock the complacency of bourgeois arts and letters went hand in hand with an art-for-art's-sake undercurrent. But as the self-conscious lushness of his early poems dropped away, a new firmness took its place: the impulse towards economy replaced the temptation towards prolixity. It is no accident that long poems disappeared from his later volumes. Neither is it an accident that as Cummings progressed he became more representational in his painting and drawing. The immediacy of the outer world impinged more and more upon the inner fantasies; satire replaced luxurious sensuality, and the artist who began with the interests of a Beardsley drew closer to the viewpoints of a Daumier.
Yet throughout this period of growth and development there remain constant similarities between poems and drawings. In each, he is seeking to convey the delight and humor which his own quick wit found in the world around him. And in each, he is seeking the most economical means to convey ideas and feelings about ideas. In each, too, he is seeking precision. At times that precision comes (as in sonnets and early drawings) from a synthesis that incorporates rhyme and meter or weighs each stroke of the pencil and calculates its effect on the whole. At other times the precision is more intuitive—the quick accurate sketch of a walking man or seated girl, or the swift description of a character aided by an arrangement of words that is less reasoned than felt. Above all, in both poetry and drawing, he seeks movement and life. His word of supreme praise—applied, for example, to Eliot's poetry and Lachaise's art—is "alive." Perhaps his own early work in The Dial is best summarized by a comment he made on the work of the latter man: it is "the absolutely authentic expression of a man very strangely alive." (p. 504)
Rushworth M. Kidder, "'Author of Pictures': A Study of Cummings' Line Drawings in 'The Dial'," in Contemporary Literature (© 1976 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Vol. 17, No. 4, Autumn, 1976, pp. 470-505.