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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. Cummings's poetry is noted for its innovative handling of grammar, punctuation, and typography. Some of Cummings's best known works are The Enormous Room, The Balloon Man, and Fifty Poems. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76.)
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In the 1920s Cummings was known as a conspicuous member of the avant-garde, an arch-experimentalist, a modernist, and a bohemian. The New Criticism, which was just beginning to germinate in the writings of T. E. Hulme, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and I. A. Richards, had not yet noticed any serious discrepancy between its own principles and the writings of Cummings. The real hostility he aroused was among the antimodernists … and, in later decades, critics such as John Sparrow and Ivor Winters—men who were attacking Pound and Eliot as well. There is no real problem here, for, while it cannot be said that the critics, favorable or otherwise, really understood what Cummings was about, neither can it be said that he himself had altogether found his way. It was suspected—and it was probably partly the case at the time—that he was a poet of sensations rather than of thoughts, and this notion has continued to haunt his reputation ever since, despite the obvious truth that he did in fact develop a vision of life as he matured. (pp. 1-2)
Although Cummings is no mere "romantic" love poet and has written some of the most effective poems about sex in the language, the fact remains that he does not always depict the worm within the rose, the skull beneath the skin. His characteristic love poems are based on a single wholeness of feeling—praise, reverence, joy, passion, devotion—rather than upon the mixed feelings favored by the New Criticism. He is perfectly aware that his lady is mortal, that she sweats, and that she performs the natural functions, but he prefers to go beyond that awareness toward moments of affirmation. If we compare his "somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond" [in Poems 1923–1954] to Auden's "Lay your sleeping head, my love," we find that Cummings' emotion is not "qualified"—but that does not mean that it is sentimental. His singleness comes not from exclusion, but rather from transcendence, which is a different thing altogether.
When it comes to the means by which such an emotion is embodied—structure, technique, style—Cummings is indeed an innovator and, as such, is in line with the predispositions of contemporary critics. Although he is more traditional than he often seems at first glance, he was never content to rest easily within inherited conventions. Here again, instead of favoring the more usual devices of the modernists—juxtaposition, self-mockery, reflexive meanings, complex symbols, learned allusions—Cummings went on to develop many of his own. Thus he juxtaposes words and parts of words instead of images, anecdotes, and incidents, and his chief structural invention is typographical—or perhaps linguistic—rather than compositional. He distorts grammar and syntax by changing word order and parts of speech instead of exploiting the many levels of meaning in the connotations of words.
He aims at simultaneity and instantaneousness, then, rather than at irony and ambiguity; at reawakening encapsulated meanings rather than at multiplying them. He often writes lyrics that are truly lyrical—poems that are, in the best sense, like songs—for he aims at joyfulness rather than at meditativeness, and the result is more musical and melodious, while at the same time authentic, than any love poetry since the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
On the other side, of course, there is hate. It would be hard to find satires as barbed and brilliant as his after the eighteenth century, for there is exuberance and joy too in Cummings' hate, and with a few exceptions his satires are spirited, witty, and large-hearted. A good lover will be a good hater, and a transcendentalist will regard the descendental with full-bodied dismay. In comparison, Pound is mean and Auden is clever. (pp. 3-4)
The characteristic modernist genre is … either the meditative lyric or the meditative archetypal-mythic "epic" (or some combination of the two), and Cummings has written neither. He is not, however, a simple one- or two-note man. In addition to the love lyric and the satire he works typically with the descriptive and reflective nature poem—which, significantly, deals as often with urban as with rural landscapes—and with poems about, and in praise of, people. (pp. 4-5)
[The] impression has gained currency that he has not changed, not matured. There are different kinds of growth, however, and one can develop and deepen along a single course as well as reverse oneself or take up a new tack; one way is not necessarily more mature than the other. Stevens, although more sophisticated and ambivalent than Cummings, developed pretty much along the lines he had laid down early in his career. So did Frost, Marianne Moore, and D. H. Lawrence.
The fact is that Cummings changed quite markedly all through his life. His love poetry, for example, became less erotic and more transcendental. His typography exploded—and then imploded. His linguistic distortions became more meaningful and luminous. Most important of all, his vision of life deepened and crystallized to a degree not yet sufficiently appreciated by the critics, for the current expectations about vision are the most excluding of all. (p. 5)
The reason … that Cummings does not display the self-mockery, ambivalence, struggle before affirmation, and other characteristics prized by the New Criticism is that his vision is directed toward a state of unified awareness beyond, outside of, and apart from such conflicts. This is not to say that it is easy, for it is a rare and difficult thing and not to be confused with promiscuous self-abandonment. Giving up the principle of categories, surrendering to a reality experienced directly, daring to act out one's deepest and innermost being: these attainments are not to be confused with what many do today who think of themselves as spontaneous and original when they are only skimming the top off themselves and evading rather than facing the actual job of self-realization and self-transcendence. (pp. 9-10)
In Cummings' own terms, while it might be appropriate to reject the non- and antitranscendental, it is not appropriate to despise it. A man who has gone beyond ambivalence is obliged by his own attainment to feel sympathy for those who have not yet made it. A man who is at peace with himself may not suffer fools gladly, and he may energetically work toward correcting the abuses of society, but he should not betray that self-congratulatory reaction, concealing a lack of self-confidence, that is sometimes found in Cummings. For his own teachings amount to a rejection not only of stereotypes and categories but also of spite. (p. 10)
Either this, or you must be ambivalent—you must see that what you hate in others is also in yourself. If you do not transcend the categories, then you must play the category game wisely and humanely. Complacency, spite, and defensiveness are a false combination as well as an unattractive one…. Cummings was not always strong enough himself to surrender, love, and forgive, and one needs an especial strength to surrender, love, and forgive oneself. (p. 11)
Cummings was shy, sensitive, and self-protective in the extreme: it must have been very difficult for him to strive toward the givingness and openness he sang of so often and so well—as indeed it is difficult for any of us. It is a sign of the magnitude of his achievement that he got as far as he did…. (pp. 11-12)
What then has Cummings left us? On the simplest and most basic level, he has significantly expanded the language, not so that we may imitate his tricks and devices, but rather that we may develop a greater sense of its possibilities for ourselves. Few poets have done more with words than he: his sense of and delight in style were extraordinarily vivid, musical, and almost tactile. Further, he carried on and developed, as we have seen, the tradition of the lyric, of lyric style and structure, to an extent which has not been surpassed in our time even by Yeats. In his satires, whatever their occasional failings, he was among the first to point out and diagnose the most dangerous features of our society—features which, alas, seem to have gotten worse as he wrote, and which have been provoking more and more desperate reactions among us. Finally, when he reaches those moments of pure transcendence—as he does often—he gives us something more important than any merely clairvoyant social criticism. He gives us a vision of what it means to achieve, beyond achievement, our full and fully human potential:
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
Norman Friedman, in his introduction to E. E. Cummings: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Norman Friedman (© 1972 by Prentice-Hall Inc.; reprinted by permission of Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey), Prentice-Hall, 1972, pp. 1-14.
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"For more than half a hundred years," wrote E. E. Cummings in 1954, "the oversigned's twin obsessions have been painting and writing." (p. 342)
[Recent exhibitions of Cummings' art], along with an increasing number of scholarly and journalistic pieces on his art, have made several things clear. First, Cummings was entirely self-taught…. Second, he treated his art as profession rather than avocation: he set himself, especially in his early years, to solve problems of composition and color in his canvases, he regularly sought opportunities to exhibit, and he earned some much-needed funds by selling work to The Dial. Third, he was drawn to theorize extensively, in his private and largely unpublished notes, on the practice and the aesthetics of the visual arts, ranging in his studies from detailed self-instruction in human anatomy to esoteric investigations into color relationships. Fourth, he constantly probed into the parallels among painting, literature, and music, challenging himself to adapt into literature the principles of the other arts.
This fourth point is of central importance for students of his poetry and for those concerned with the relationships between literature and the other arts…. For Cummings, it seems, not only thought and heard his poems but saw them as well. Not surprisingly, his best poems tend to be short, of a length readily contained on a single page and easily "seen" in a single glance. In dealing with publishers, in fact, he sometimes referred to his work in visual terms, on one occasion writing his editor that "what I care infinitely is that each poempicture should remain intact. Why? Possibly because, with a few exceptions, my poems are essentially pictures." (pp. 344, 353)
[There] are distinct stylistic relationships between Cummings' paintings and his poetry, and an understanding of them can help us to a sounder sense of his work. (p. 354)
Perhaps it will be most useful to begin with a poem and a painting between which there is an evident connection in subject matter. The poem is "Paris; this April sunset completely utters."… (pp. 354-55)
The poem appeared in the section of & subtitled "Post Impressions," which may suggest that it was done "after" the manner of Impressionist painting, or perhaps in the style of Post-Impressionism. Like such paintings, it is of a specific place (Paris) and time (April evening). It deals, as Impressionism does, with colors ("rose," "cobalt," "mauve," "silver"); it provides detail about shape and movement ("upward," "lean," "spiral," "descends"); it centers upon objects which, although generalized, are nonetheless recognizable commonplaces ("cathedral," "streets," "people," "houses"); and it calls attention to the atmosphere ("rain," "mauve / of twilight," "gently / arriving gloom") as something affecting visual impressions. Its argument—although that is too strong a word for such an essentially imagistic method—is that night is superseding twilight. In the increasing darkness the forms, losing their clearly perceived outlines, are becoming progressively more personified. This dissolving of shape because of the impact or absence of light was a phenomenon much studied by the Impressionists and their followers. Taking their lead, Cummings suggests this dissolving by a dissolution of rigid metrical structure. The first three lines, although more than decasyllabic, are in pentameter. Thereafter the meter, while touching on trimeter and tetrameter for a few more lines, abandons itself to free verse.
It would, however, be unwise to assume that Cummings' intention here was to write a verbal equivalent of a visual image. In fact, the poem goes beyond visual description, articulating ideas which are outside the reach of the painter…. The poem, then, can hardly be called a simple translation of visual into literary devices. It is much more accurately viewed as a piece of literature which draws something of its subject and imagery, and one of its strategies (dissolution of form), from the visual arts.
The painting which most readily suggests this poem is an oil of Paris rooftops done in 1933 [Paris Roofs with Sunset]…. Is is a general view across the city with a cathedral in the distance. Compositionally the piece is not without merit: the balustrade of a balcony in the foreground, set at an angle to the horizon, leads the eye into the painting and parallels the general line of clouds angling downward to the setting sun. The colors, too, are somewhat balanced, with the mass of red rooftops at the lower left balanced by the reddish-purple clouds in the opposite corner. But the buildings themselves, while sketched with some attention to detail, are really rather uninteresting: the light is undirectional, and no shadows break the humdrum recording of the forms. The sky, by contrast, is commanding, as the yellow sun (seen low on the horizon over the shoulder of the cathedral) lights up the clouds with what does indeed, in the language of the poem, suggest "spiral acres" of "coiled" color. Here, after all, is where Cummings' heart is; like Monet's waterlilies and Cézanne's mountains, Cummings' sunsets were to become a preoccupation in his later paintings as well as in some later poems.
Aside from this similarity of place and time, however, the painting and poem are hardly parallel. The movement of the poem from dusk to evening, the image of moon and stars, the allusions to beggars and lovers and prostitutes, and even the general tenor of Impressionist "atmosphere" all drop away in the painting, which, focusing on the sky, makes of central importance something which in the poem was only a few lines of description. Whether or not Cummings had the poem in mind as he painted the scene is immaterial. What is significant is the difference between these two treatments of a common scene. The painting simply represents a landscape, thereby doing what has long been thought proper to paintings. The poem reaches out to incorporate ideas and attitudes from painting; yet, in compelling the visual stuff to subserve literary ends, it becomes more than a mere description of a painting. The painting presents an image. The poem presents a sequence of images suffused with extra-visual attributes. Cummings, it seems, knew that he had two different media on his hands; rather than using them for the same ends, he respected their differences and employed them, even with common subjects, in different ways.
Common subject matter, then, is no guarantee of stylistic relationship. If an individual subject is engaging enough, however, it may determine in the artist's thought a particular mental set that even in different media produces similar results. Such is the case with the painting of burlesque entertainer Jimmy Savo [Jimmy Savo] and the poem "so little he is" . (pp. 355-57)
[There is a sense of] motion suggested in the poem—a motion arising not so much in the meanings of the words as in their punctuation, spacing, tmesis, and so forth. Cummings includes some of these peculiarities of structure, of course, largely for semantic reasons. (p. 358)
Much of the poem's impact, however, can only be explained in visual terms. In his drawings of stage and ballroom dancers, both male and female, Cummings sometimes suggests motion by catching his figures in the act of landing lightly on one toe. In these drawings, and in many of his paintings, he also seems to favor verticality over horizontality. These two devices come into play in this poem, which is a tall and slender construction of very short lines, balanced precariously on the toe of its last comma. These final punctuation marks move from period to colon to semicolon and finally to comma: they become, in other words, progressively less final…. The marks are, in some ways, the major symbol in the poem. Like Savo, they are small, delicate, provocative—and, like any good comedian, possessed of a carefully rational sense of order. While not usually essential to meaning, they permit the addition of worthwhile nuances—just as Savo, hardly an indispensable figure in the world of high or low art, adds to it a "little" but significant grace note. And, in their cyclical movement away from, towards, and away from finality, they suggest the tentative and uncertain nature of this statement, and, by extension, of Savo himself.
The oil painting … is also—even by Cummings' standards—small. He applied the pigment to the 10″ × 8″ canvas-board in methods ranging from a wash with occasional bare spots all the way to thick impasto, laid on in quick and rather broad strokes of numerous hues. The only unambiguously detailed feature is the face, with bowler above and necktie below. Less defined but still apparent are the outstretched arm (holding some kind of paper or sign), the legs, the feet, and the suggestions of lapels and pocket on his coat. Beyond his body, however, all is conjecture…. The general movement of the line, evident in Savo's body and echoed in the swatches of color in front of and behind him, is from lower right to upper left. It is the same angle produced by the punctuation closing the poem—which is, of course, the angle always produced by progressive indentation.
Like the Paris poem and painting, these two works show a common subject. Unlike the earlier poetry, however, they also exhibit a significant correlation in manner. Each is "little," a central quality (according to the poem) in Savo's appearance. Each is constructed of fragments which need some sort of reassembly to produce the whole figure. Each presents a number of obscurities which, as we stretch ourselves to comprehend them, suggest much more than could ever be told by a straightforward exactness of visual detail or a prosy precision of descriptive language. Each is "jumpy"—a word Cummings once used in his private notes to describe the effect produced on the viewer by a sequence of unrelated colors. In the poem, the jumpiness results from dislocation, sudden unexpected intrusions of punctuation, odd spacings, and parenthetical insertions. In the painting, it results partly from the seeming randomness of shapes and more emphatically from the surprising collections of color laid down side by side…. Finally, the rhythmic passage on Savo's first name ("& j & /ji / & /jim,jimm / ; jimmy"), with its echoes of a chant or cheer, depends on a technique (familiar to readers of Psalms) known as incremental repetition, in which a statement is expanded in restatement until it reaches completion. It is a technique corresponding, perhaps, to what Kenneth Burke, in defining the "innate forms of the mind" that underlie thought and art, calls "disclosure." The Savo painting may also suggest a kind of disclosure: it is as though Cummings assembled, around the periphery of his canvas, the raw materials out of which the figure would finally be constructed, knowing that, as we progress from any direction closer to the central point (the face), obscurity would give way to recognizable forms.
This recognition amid obscurity, while it may suggest no more than the visual appearance of a well-lighted figure in a dimly-lit and smoke-filled hall, may also indicate something of the figure's identity. With his body blending imperceptibly into his environment, Savo seems so integrally related to the world in which Cummings finds him that any disengagement of figure from ground—of the sort usually necessary to focus attention in a portrait or a poem—would do him injustice. Separate neither from the raw vigor of his visual background nor, in the poem, from the tangle of letters, syllables, and punctuation marks which are the raw materials of intelligible discourse, Savo remains in a demimonde of half-formed images struggling towards articulation. It is the milieu that characterizes and identifies him.
Subject matter, then, may give us the impulse to search for more meaningful parallels. If there is a genuine stylistic unity in the works of a poet-painter, however, it ought to show up even in the absence of common subjects. And so it does. The comparison of a third pair demonstrates underlying principles of construction which, even in the absence of blunt similarities of subject, make themselves felt in both media.
The poem "brIght" … is the penultimate one in No Thanks (1935). Here, progressive disclosure combines with a remarkable symmetry of design. Cummings, it seems, set himself the challenge of writing a poem with only eleven different words. Each three-letter word ("big," "yes," "who") appears three times; each four-letter word ("soft," "near," "calm," "holy," and "deep," along with "star" in its various incarnations) appears four times; "alone" appears five times; and "bright," in various ways, six times. In addition, capital letters compose additional appearances: a different letter is capitalized each time "yes" appears, assembling materials out of which the reader can construct, by rearrangement, the word "YES." Similar capitalization appears in "who" and "bright."
The poem is also carefully wrought in its stanzaic pattern. Each of the five stanzas becomes one line longer than the previous one, and—because each stanza extends farther to the right than its predecessor—the layers of stanzas take on the shape of a right triangle. The poem, about the gradual appearance of a bright star, imitates the star's progressive disclosure in the movement from "s???" to "star": the question marks, here and in the last two mentions of "bright," suggest not only the ambiguity of missing letters but also the more provocative question of the nature of this star. Given its description as "big," "calm," and "holy," this may be the Star of Bethlehem—an interpretation not unreasonable in view of the poem's location, in No Thanks, among a group of poems on transcendental themes.
The last line—"Who(holy alone)holy(alone holy)alone"—appropriately concludes this poem of balance, a balance perhaps reflecting the halcyon peace of Jesus' appearance, and suggesting the orderliness which a transcendent ethic brings to an otherwise chaotic world. (pp. 358-60, 365-66)
Different in subject but related in design is Cummings' large Autumn Landscape…. (p. 366)
Like the poem, the painting is almost perfectly symmetrical; yet, again like the poem, its symmetry is not obtrusive. The central shape, the pond, is that of a triangle standing on its apex. The rising foreground foliage closes in the pond on either side, providing a self-containment reinforced by the predominantly left-leaning lines in the lower left and right-leaning lines in the lower right. Towards the center foreground, however, the predominant lines shift, and the foliage points towards the large red maple on the pond's far shore. These lines, along with the obvious path that opens the near shore's foliage and lets the vision through to the pond, direct the eye inward, across the reflection of the tree, across some whitish lilypads, and on to the tree itself.
That tree, like the word "holy" in the last line of "brIght," focuses the scene. Like Wallace Stevens' famous Tennessee jar, it brings into order the sprawling wilderness by providing a center. At the far left, and at the extreme edge of the pond on the right, it finds an echo in smaller red trees. Between these exact repetitions of color and the central tree there are, on each side, significant patches of the related color orange. Like the last line of "brIght," then, the painting may be "read" horizontally as a central figure flanked by other figures. It has, however, a second dimension. In the advance of the color from the tree towards the viewer something of the same symmetry appears…. This schematic pattern is not so rigorously applied as to be abstract; Cummings never loses sight of the landscape in his dedication to the principle of symmetry. Nevertheless, the design is clearly here, the evidence of a compositional foundation underlying the painting just as it did the poem.
To touch these three examples is hardly to master Cummings' aesthetic. The examples, nevertheless, should alert us to several things. On the one hand, we do Cummings a disservice if we erect into a principle of parallelism the easy and superficial relations between poetry and painting that are based solely on subject matter. On the other hand, we read only a part of his meaning if we refuse to assess the more complex relations between these arts. Cummings, a restless seeker of unity within or beyond the diversities of human experience, saw so clearly the underlying relations between these arts that he could hardly keep from embodying in one the principles he discovered in the other. (pp. 367-68)
Cummings' individuality resides in his assimilation of the principles of two arts into a single unified aesthetic, an aesthetic which quite naturally gave rise to common devices of style whenever it was put into practice. To underestimate the effects of this aesthetic is to misread a good deal of his poetry. (p. 368)
Rushworth M. Kidder, "'Twin Obsessions': The Poetry and Paintings of E. E. Cummings," in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1978, by the University of Georgia), Vol. XXXII, No. 2, Summer, 1978, pp. 342-68.
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At the heart of E. E. Cummings' most characteristic work is a keen sense of the mystery and miracle of life. But this American poet has a great deal to say about death as well, not only in the lyrics, but also in a morality play [Santa Claus] in which Death is one of the leading characters…. [Cummings'] concept of death is many-sided, manifesting itself in widely varying contexts and under differing lights. For example, death may be shown to have positive value as an experience that is natural to and inseparable from the ongoing process of life. Considered in this vital sense the concept is, in this paper, designated by the verbal form, "dying." On the other hand, death may be revealed as a negative, life-denying condition, one that is associated with the conventions of society which, Cummings believes, oppress the individual and inhibit his intuitive and spontaneous impulses. In this negative aspect the concept is here named by a more static word, the noun, "death." (p. 243)
Cummings' expressions are not always concrete. Indeed, the poet does, frequently and deliberately, use general concepts and abstract ideas, particularly in his later works. Paradoxically, however, Cummings enlists abstractions in the service of proclaiming his unchanging gospel of the concrete and the unique.
One of the most obvious examples of Cummings' use of general ideas is discovered in his morality play, Santa Claus. In this poetic drama Cummings follows the traditional method of allegory, that of presenting characters that are abstractions, in order to point to a moral…. Since the character Death is a kind of walking definition, this drama is a reasonable beginning point for an inquiry into Cummings' concept of death. (p. 244)
It seems at first that the play presents chiefly the negative aspect of Cummings' concept of death. But it soon becomes apparent that there is considerable complexity in the character of Death; he is not a simple morality figure…. And Santa is also complex, for he is said to have understanding, but he is also extremely naive. (pp. 246-47)
Both Death and Santa are in disguise at the play's beginning, a fact which suggests that they have both assumed identities other than their natural ones. Much criticism assumes that Death is only a deceiver, while Santa is a "good" character. Both, however, exist on more than one level, and in their costumes they have become something like institutionalized versions of their true selves. The importance of this view lies in the fact that it shows each character to have at least two natures. Death's underlying character allows him to speak, at times, with friendliness and even with wisdom, perplexing the reader who expects Death to be only a villain. Death in his true character is indeed wiser than Santa, who is only a young man under his disguise. Death's costume [a skeleton suit and a mask] is a crude imitation of the appearance of natural death, or "dying." He has become a caricature of himself, and he has become evil. His two identities, then, the assumed one and the true one, correspond with the death-dying dichotomy already suggested. (p. 247)
What, then, is included in the notion of "dying," the aspect of death that is "natural" in Cummings' work? First of all, this term suggests the experience that is commonly called physical death. In Santa Claus, Death is speaking, at least in part, of the physical death of the individual when he tells Santa that, if people really existed, then he, Death, would not be such a skeleton. He seems to be suggesting that those who live fully will not find dying so formidable, so skeleton-like, as do those who live in an "unworld."…
But although "dying" is natural, Cummings does not look upon it as the doorway to another conscious existence, for he writes, "death, as men call him, ends what they call men."… (p. 248)
In Santa Claus the interchanging of masks and costumes suggests that the true natures of the characters representing "living" (Santa) and "dying" (Death) are very closely identified. But in closely associating "dying" and "living," the poet is not thinking of "dying" chiefly as an aging process, as the steady growth toward maturity which is simultaneously a move toward death. Cummings places his emphasis upon renewal rather than upon a process whereby energy is "consumed with that which it was nourished by." The rejuvenating power of death is foremost in this view…. In the play, as the Woman gives herself to "dying" (physical death), she pictures symbolically the act of love, with Cummings' emphasis upon the renewal which follows self-giving. (pp. 249-50)
Thus far the forms of death described are those of which Cummings would approve. They are associated with the character called Death in Cummings' play, but they belong to him in his natural identity, that which is covered up by the costume symbolizing his corruption. But his masquerade creates a character who is the spirit of death in a different sense. He is the prefix "un" that precedes the words "world" and "life" in Cummings' custom-made vocabulary. A thoroughgoing deceiver, he is the one who ruins the world of Santa Claus. He represents everything that is opposed to spontaneity, to joy, to life, and to love. (p. 250)
In analyzing the static, rigid side of Cummings' concept of death, one may recall Death's description of the "unworld" of Cummings' play. There death has a blurring effect upon the people, so that they "are one another." They are so completely governed by social conventions that individuals are no longer to be found among them…. Cummings writes that such a monotonous existence makes birth into a kind of death, for there is nothing ahead but lifelessness for one born into such a world. (pp. 250-51)
[In Cummings'] writings it becomes evident that modern science and technology belong to his kingdom of death. For it is knowledge (science) that provides the nonexistent commodity that the crowds in Santa Claus buy so eagerly. It is Death who is responsible for the suggestion that Santa become a "knowledge salesman" and that the knowledge sold must be free of understanding. For Cummings, thinking without feeling is "dying thinking / huddles behind dir / ty glass mind."… (p. 252)
All of the manifestations of the static, evil side of Death's character have this in common: they are all forms of denying and suppressing life. Even more fundamentally, perhaps, they directly oppose love, which Cummings calls "the every only god / who spoke this earth so glad and big."… Death comprises the evil in a universe in which love is foundational…. [What] is then to be done with the evil manifestations of death so that love and life may triumph? The answer is that, paradoxically, death must die. This is the meaning of the execution of Death at the conclusion of Santa Claus. It is innocence in the person of the Child that causes the mob unwittingly to put to death the real villain. This ending shows symbolically that vitality and love (allied with innocence rather than with knowledge) are capable of defeating the death which threatens to suppress all that is natural. (p. 253)
Death must be destroyed in the practice of art and also in ordinary living. In The Enormous Room Cummings writes that "for an educated gent or lady to create is first of all to destroy."… Here the form of death to be destroyed first is obviously some of the dead material of education. Cummings is, however, referring also to his poetics, by which he destroys not only ideas of the past, but also traditional syntax, spelling, meter, rhyme, punctuation, and verse forms. The result of his violent attack upon language, ideas, and forms is a body of work which offers much superb poetry abounding in fresh ideas and exciting new techniques. (pp. 253-54)
Edith A. Everson, "E. E. Cummings' Concept of Death," in Journal of Modern Literature (© Temple University 1979), Vol. 7, No. 2, April, 1979, pp. 243-54.
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It is important to recognize … that the spatial arrangements of [Cummings'] poems are the work neither of a whimsical fancy nor a lust for novelty. Poetry and visual art grew, in Cummings' mind, from one root; and while their outermost branches are distinct enough, there are many places closer to the trunk where it is hard to know which impulse accounts for a piece of work. Throughout his life he labored to articulate, in his essays and especially in his unpublished notes and journals, the relationship between literature and the visual arts. A number of his poems, too, deal verbally with visual ideas—not only with transcriptions of visual patterns (a common enough phenomenon in poetry) but with attempts to articulate visual thinking and bring into poetry the aesthetic principles of the painters.
The portrait that gives us the man in the round, then, must include proper emphasis on Cummings as a man of feeling and as a man of visual responsiveness. But it must do more. Primarily and essentially it must also portray him as a man of thought. For underneath the antirational guise, which delights or disgusts readers according as they see in it the purely childlike or the merely immature, lies a core of knowledge and a capacity for abstract and analytic thought strongly buttressed by something that can only be called scholarship. (pp. 3-4)
[Cummings gives a strong place] to feeling: to intuition, to the sensibilities, to the human capacity for responding to metaphysical reality in ways that are beyond the rational…. [But Cummings also possessed a] lively sense of the dangers inherent in the antirational. These are the sort of dangers that surface when what Eliot called "the general mess of imprecision of feeling" and the "Undisciplined squads of emotion" find expression in forms that are commonplace and sentimentalizing. The fact is that Cummings uses logic, thought, and a great deal of calculated skill in writing poems which assert that feeling is first. Surely there is a paradox worth investigating here. And surely the investigation must consist of a close and thorough reading of individual poems—word by word, syllable by syllable, and in many cases letter by letter. Such a reading recognizes that there is much that cannot be grasped by limiting our study to syntax and semantics alone. But it also recognizes that we can only touch the substance of the poet's feeling by beginning with the structure of his thought as it appears in the arrangement of his words. That arrangement is all a poem gives us to look at; we cannot reach through to feeling by ignoring structure. (pp. 7-8)
To make such a choice is not to affirm, however, that Cummings is to be seen only as an intellectual. His importance lies in the skillful combination of feeling and intelligence in his work. Always laboring to be as articulate as possible, he nevertheless refused to allow the thrust toward articulation to sweep aside the delicate moments of feeling. (p. 9)
One other detail needs to be added to the portrait here. Cummings wrote—it will not do to mince words—some bad poetry. Moreover, he occasionally published it. The same is true in his painting. He seemed unwilling to consider the wastebasket his ally. Perhaps he was not a sound critic of his own work—which may mean no more than that he could not take the proper distance on it…. The task for the reader, then, is one of sorting. If he is willing to trust his own discriminations, and if he is willing to read carefully, he need not be put off by the occasional inferior piece as he locates and appreciates the many excellent ones, nor need he labor to defend the indefensible. (pp. 9-10)
Tulips and Chimneys (1923), Cummings' first collection, gathered together only some of his many early poems. (p. 16)
[His choice of title] suggests a number of oppositions: the country to the city, the organic to the lifeless, the natural to the manmade, and the beautiful to the ugly, as well as (in shape) the female to the male and (in the pun on tulips and the waste-disposing function of chimneys) the oral to the anal. It may well suggest, too, the essential division in the book: the section headed "Chimneys" comprises only sonnets, while "Tulips" includes a good deal of free verse.
Beyond this major division, Tulips and Chimneys is further segmented into fourteen sequences, each containing from one to ten poems. Cummings' interest in conjoining short individual poems into larger sequences persists throughout his career; his practice of identifying these sequences by separate titles, however, continues only through is 5 (1926)…. His interest in these patterns is nevertheless instructive. Always fascinated by the happy accidents of individual words—the puns, the multiple meanings, the words-within-words—he was also fascinated by the ways in which whole poems, since they always appeared to a reader within a context, inevitably and somewhat accidentally interacted with that context. In his collections of poems, sequence determined context and provided a means for making larger statements. A thoughtful examination of his sequences reveals that Cummings had much more to say than could be said in individual short poems.
It is equally clear, too, that Cummings' talent did not run to long poems. Tulips and Chimneys begins with "Epithalamion," an extended poem as traditional in its structure as it is classical in its reference. Here Cummings … proves his mastery of the poet's traditional domain of rhyme, rhythm, metaphor, assonance, consonance, and a host of other literary devices listed in most handbooks of prosody. Here, too, he tactfully opens his assault on the conventions of poetry with an uncontroversial overture, saving the shock and dazzle for later. (pp. 17-18)
For all its propriety, the poem is nevertheless a kind of cold frame for Cummings' later style. The overt subject (praise of sensual delight) and the metaphor (spring) will grow up to become Cummings' favorites; even the suggestion in the final lines that this is a poem about poetry has parallels in numerous later pieces. (p. 19)
"Tulips" gathered together a rather broad cross-section of Cummings' early work…. "Chimneys," however, is a tightly composed work. The seventeen sonnets, most having something to do with love, are divided into three groups: "Sonnets—Realities," "Sonnets—Unrealities," and "Sonnets—Actualities." (pp. 31-2)
The best of ["Sonnets—Realities"] … is the first, "the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls." "Cambridge," here, is a word charged with significance. Having grown up under the shadow of Harvard, Cummings knew well the kind of old New England intellectual strain represented by these arbiters of social life. Apparently espousing the liberal humanitarian causes, they remain rigidly conservative…. [The] poem is essentially about the failure to make distinctions between the significant and the trivial. (p. 32)
The next sequence, "Sonnets—Unrealities," comments on the idealized and sentimentalized aspects of love. It moves toward the metaphysics of its concluding poem ("a connotation of infinity" …), which anticipates Cummings' later transcendent bent so well that it seems oddly out of place in this early work….
"Sonnets—Actualities" is a sequence which, ostensibly praising love and the lover, is really rather acidulous. To speak of a kiss in so anatomical a phrase as "the little pushings of the flesh" …, and to speak of love as "building a building" … where, in a kind of dungeon, the lover's "surrounded smile / hangs / breathless," is surely to treat the lover with more mockery than affection. (p. 34)
Early in 1925 the remainder of the poems from the original Tulips and Chimneys manuscript were published in two volumes, & [And] and XLI Poems….
XLI Poems is [as described by Cummings] "harmless"—a charming, if slightly effete, collection. While it indulges in some experimental word disruptions and typographical oddities, it presents none of the extraordinary curiosities of &…. (p. 36)
The other 1925 volume, &, spells its title in the names of its three sections: "A," "N," and "D."…
[While] it is not entirely accurate to classify the poems in & as either new, prurient, or poor, it is apparent that the sensual poems are among the liveliest here. If the overall tone of XLI Poems tended to pale into polite comment, the tone of & errs on the side of ribaldry: neither had the other for balance.
Essential to the interpretation of many of these poems, especially those in "Sonnets—Actualities," is a recognition of the importance of Cummings' dedication of the volume [to Elaine Orr]. (p. 44)
The first fourteen poems [in &], comprising the "Post-Impressions" sequence, have no convenient common denominator. Some are clearly impressions of scenes; some seem more like portraits; and some are love poems or meditations. They are difficult poems from the outset…. (p. 46)
The twelve poems in "Portraits" suggest what later volumes will make clearer: Cummings rarely wrote about sexual relationships in a wholly approving manner. While most of these poems are explicitly sensual, none is in any way a love poem or a poem of praise. He seems to have glimpsed rather vividly the death's-head at the feast of the flesh: even those poems ostensibly celebrating sensual endeavors frequently employ an imagery and diction that undercuts the praise. (p. 48)
In respite from the prevailing sensuality, two of the best poems in the sequence take up quite different topics. The portrait of the barroom pianist ("ta" …) is in subject simply a quick imagist impression. Once the fractured words are reassembled, it reads: "tapping toe—hippopotamus Back—genteelly lugubrious eyes LOOP-THE-LOOP as fat hands bang rag." But the poem no more appears through such paraphrase than a Cubist portrait can be approximated by a photograph of the sitter: the effect is less in subject than in execution. A poem about rag, it captures the dislocations of jazz in its first stanza:
The individual sonnets in the "D" section of & generally require little explication. The larger statements they make, however, deserve analysis. The two sequences in the section, "Sonnets—Realities" and "Sonnets—Actualities," are, superficially, of opposing tones and attitudes…. "Sonnets—Realities" are, for the most part, poems of plain venery, withholding no detail of the sexual act; and they are so intentionally gross as to repulse the reader by their very surfeit of sensuality. (p. 55)
"Sonnets—Actualities" is no less explicit about sexual relations. But the blatant repugnance toward the act is lessened. These are more meditative sonnets, poems about "i" and about "my love" which are less patently ironic in their praise. The imagery, nevertheless, casts a peculiar pall over the subject of love. Buried in the most apparently complimentary catalogues of the lover's attributes are images surprising for their animality or … notable for their unfeeling hardness. (p. 56)
The fact that the vast bulk of his sensual poetry in these years blended the sexual with the repulsive suggests that his attitudes were far more complex than they are usually taken to be. A careful assessment of the imagery in these early poems reinforces the conviction that, while they are obscene, ironic, and often very witty, they are hardly to be written off as the graffiti of a goatish mind. To misread them and view Cummings as a youth unashamedly mesmerized by eroticism is to convict him of a tastelessness and an immaturity which neither his age—he was thirty when & was published—nor the genuinely affectionate tone of his letters at this time can support. It is also to erect formidable barriers to an understanding of his later development toward a transcendence that moved him leagues beyond the worship of unrelieved physicality—because such a misreading posits a personality that changed rather suddenly from prurience to refinement. In an odd and inverted way, these poems are pleas for purity and balance, stifled cries for a higher vision of human love coming out of a wildnerness of sensual indulgence. Much as his diatribes against conformity reinforce his celebrations of individuality, these assertions that flesh is at worst gross and at best slightly unsatis-factory prepare the way of his later metaphysic: to show the repulsiveness of carnality is to prove the need for its opposite. For even in his most sensual early work, the seeds of his mature ethic were planted—sometimes too deep, and sometimes upside down, but planted nonetheless. (pp. 58-9)
[Cummings' forward to is 5] addresses itself to "my theory of technique." Comparing his art to that of burlesque, he observes that he is "abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement," and notes that the poet is "somebody to whom things made matter very little—somebody who is obsessed by Making." Here, too, he confesses his "Ineluctable preoccupation with The Verb." Behind these statements lies his concern for the active and living over the fixed and inert…. (p. 60)
The ramifications of his "theory of technique" show up in is 5 somewhat more clearly than in his earlier volumes. Here, as Norman Friedman says [in his E. E. Cummings: The Growth of a Writer], "there is an organic relation between the poet's technique and his purposes." Noting that the satirical vein is mined to a new depth in is 5, Friedman also observes that "in general Cummings uses metrical stanzas for his more 'serious' poems, and reserves his experiments by and large for his free verse embodiments of satire, comedy, and description. Parody, pun, slang, and typographical distortion are called into being by the urgencies of the satirical mode, which requires the dramatic rendition of scorn, wit, and ridicule. Violence in the meaning: violence in the style." The poetry may, as Friedman points out, have taken some flavor from Cummings' concurrent prose writings: he had published a number of satires in Vanity Fair during the eighteen months preceding the publication of this volume. The requirements of writing for that monthly, noted for its debunking manner, had quite naturally sharpened the satirical edge of Cummings' style. (pp. 60-1)
[Cummings] discovered in is 5 a voice distinctly his own. The freshness of that discovery informs these poems….
Satire enters forcefully in "One," the first of the five sequences in the volume. Earlier poems, taking their tone from Eliot and the Ash Can painters, had been content to present physical degradation with neither praise nor blame; these poems do not hesitate to condemn, in unmistakable terms, physical and moral corruption. They are generally more complex and thoughtful poems than the earlier ones: the same verve and élan characterize the language, but the thought behind them now extends into various dimensions. Here, more regularly than before, we are reminded that the poet is at work trying to sort out and articulate the tremendous diversity of responses facing him. (p. 62)
War and its effects are the subjects of the ten poems in the next sequence, "Two." The first ("the season 'tis, my lovely lambs") begins with a fine sarcasm on topical allusions…. Cummings' objection here is not so much to the specifics of [social control of vice] … (although he inalterably opposed literary censorship and prohibition) as to the progressive interference by government in the lives of individuals. (p. 71)
The poems in the next sequence, "Three," are interrelated by their interest in distinctly European scenes and by their references to sunsets or sunlight. Each is in some way a meditation on the significance of a natural scene. (p. 73)
The last three poems in "Three," in which the narrator questions the nature of existence and moves toward a tentative resolution, also form something of a set. Poem V asks searching questions about why the poet is where he is. In poem VI ("but observe; although") he considers the difference between an inner and an outer life…. The final poem ("sunlight was over" …) sees in sexual consummation a kind of resolution: bright sunlight turning to sunset, two lovers becoming one, and "what had been something / else carefully slowly fatally turning into ourselves." These two last poems strike a significantly new note: without being sonnets, they praise sexual love with little of the undercutting so noticeable in &. In this way, they provide a fitting introduction to the fourth sequence.
The eighteen poems in "Four," a well-knit cycle of love poems, come into clearest focus when seen through the lens of Cummings' relationship with Elaine Orr, his former wife. They form a loose progression in subject (innocence through sexual experience and on to separation) and in imagery (night through daylight and on into evening)…. (pp. 74-5)
In "since feeling is first" ("Four" …), Cummings brings to ripeness the ironic carpe diem mode in one of his surest pieces. Taking grammar as his metaphor, the poet notes that those who pay attention only to "the syntax of things"—the logic, the intellectual aspects of experience—can never involve themselves so thoroughly in love as to "wholly kiss you." (p. 76)
The last poems in the sequence [are] perhaps too full of sentiment to convey real feeling…. Taking themselves a little too seriously, they have neither the distancing self-awareness nor the grandeur of vision that inform his better poems. They are interesting confessional statements for the biographer; but even their convolutions of syntax and surprises of diction cannot overcome their somewhat soft-boiled moistness.
By contrast, the five sonnets composing the last sequence, "Five," are less mawkish and more resolved. (pp. 78-9)
The final poem in the volume, "if I have made, my lady, intricate," shows Cummings at his finest. Although written before his divorce from Elaine, it takes on an added poignancy by its placement at the end of a book dealing so centrally with that separation. Tinged with regret, it becomes a gallant valediction to a lady no longer his. Yet as an ending to the volume it provides resolution: it is, after all, a poem about poetry, a poem which redeems his experience by transforming it into art. (pp. 80-1)
Even in such a poem, however, the underlying irony is apparent. I cannot write poems of praise, says the poet, who, saying so, manages to write one of the finest poems of praise in the century. And if the poem seems less than that, it is perhaps because of the success enjoyed by certain of its devices in more recent verse. The technique behind such phrases as "the ragged meadow of my soul"—the coupling of a concrete substantive with a modifying phrase containing an abstraction—has become the staple of current song-writers, and our sense of the purity of this poem may be a little jaded by jukebox verse built on such lines as "the bright illusive butterfly of love" and a hundred similar phrases. (p. 82)
[The topics of the poems in ViVa] are characteristic: there are love poems, portraits, impressions, low-life sketches, and a generous helping of satires. The collection was similar enough to his earlier volumes that William Carlos Williams dismissed it as "definitely an aftermath" and objected that Cummings sounded too much like Cummings, that he "reminds one very much of him." (p. 84)
ViVa reveals, in fact, a great deal more patterning than at first appears…. The design he builds into the second half reflects his tribute to the individual, and the lack of cohesion (indeed, even of coherence at times) in the first half manifests his low estimate of man as a social animal. (pp. 84-5)
The literary community in which Cummings lived in the early thirties had, almost to a man, sworn allegiance to socialism…. [It] had expended too much of its own rancor in denouncing capitalism to listen openmindedly to alternatives. Into this context came Eimi, Cummings' account of his thirty-six-day trip to the Soviet Union. There, for those willing to unravel its remarkable prose, was a report of the grim inhumanities of the Soviet system, of repression, apathy, priggishness, kitsch, and ennervating suspicion.
Shortly after its appearance there came, to various publishing houses, a manuscript of poems by its author. The rejections that followed could hardly have been based on quality alone. No Thanks is no less competent a collection than ViVa. It makes more progress toward experimental forms; but it provides nothing so radically different nor indefensibly bad as to justify rejection on merit. It is, in many ways, standard Cummings: the age, not the man, had changed.
Like ViVa, No Thanks [printed privately in 1935] is designed on a numerological pattern, with sonnets occurring at regular intervals…. There is … a general thematic development throughout the volume, which progresses in the first half downward toward the poems of defeat at its center, and thereafter moves upward into more transcendent ideas. (pp. 105-06)
Collected Poems  begins with an introduction, a prose statement akin to but much more extensive than the one introducing is 5. Here he identifies his villains, the "most-people" who prefer inertia to activity. Describing them, he happens upon a word for their essential attribute—"passivity." The metaphor characterizing their behavior is of the womb. What "mostpeople" want is "a guaranteed birth-proof safetysuit"; what they fear most is being born. For "ourselves," on the other hand, "birth is a supremely welcome mystery," and "We can never be born enough." The entire introduction is built on this opposition—as, indeed, are many of his poems. Apart from the diction (which is his own particular invention) and the sometimes pretentious or condescending tone (which is his own occasional failing), the piece has an odd flavor of the pulpit…. The introduction builds to its culmination in reaffirming the poet's commitment "never to rest and never to have: only to grow." And it ends with an ambiguity worthy of his poems—"Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question"—a sentence which means both "[there is] always the beautiful answer [for him] who asks a more beautiful question" and "the beautiful [people, ideas] always answer [the person] who asks a more beautiful question." (pp. 125-26)
Unlike the bulk of his contemporaries in the arts, [Cummings] never saw in government subsidies an answer to his [financial] problems, but felt instead that the preservation of individuality and the acceptance of New Deal handouts were irreconcilably opposed. This opposition is the burden of 50 Poems (1940), which contains some of his best-known poems praising individuality and condemning the state: "as freedom is a breakfast-food," "the way to hump a cow is not," "anyone lived in a pretty how town," and "my father moved through dooms of love." (p. 134)
[The justly famous poem] "my father moved through dooms of love"—presents a figure expressly heroic. Like "anyone lived," it too is introduced by a poem ("one slip-slouch twi" …) which anticipates some of its themes and prepares the way. (p. 146)
The world, in "my father moved through dooms of love" …, needs redemption: it is a place of "scheming" and "passion," of stealing, cruelty, fear, and doubt, and of "maggoty minus and dumb death." Unlike some of Cummings' poems, however, this one emphasizes not primarily this corruption but the nature of the individual who redeems it. And unlike other poems, this one presents an individual who finds answers not in transcendent escape but in direct engagement and correction of the world's wrong. It is a poem about love. But like the Gospels—in which the word "love" appears with surprising infrequency—the poem does not so much explain as demonstrate. Defining the attributes of love not in exposition but through narrative, it echoes the technique of the Gospel writers by showing how love is exemplified in the works of a single man. Fittingly, the word "love" occurs only twice in the poem—in the first and last lines.
Commentators have generally assumed that the poem is biographical…. Certainly the poem describes in some ways the Reverend Edward Cummings. Essentially, however, it describes qualities of feeling and habits of mind which have fathered Cummings' own mental set. Not simply recording the ideals of a real man, the poet chooses to embody his own highest ideals in a fictionalized character, describe him in action, and claim a sonship with him which makes clear his own intellectual and spiritual heritage. (pp. 147-48)
Where some of Cummings' poems are aggressively complex and others patently simple, this one erects a smooth facade which, significant in itself, reverberates inside with more profound meaning. Apparently simple, it nevertheless rewards close reading. (p. 149)
Most of the remaining poems develop themes raised in "my father moved through dooms of love": individuality, love, and redemption from the world's assertive evils. (pp. 150-51)
With the publication of 1 x 1 [One Times One] in 1944, Cummings' format returns to the explicit divisions that marked his first four books of poetry. The fifty-four poems in this volume are grouped into three sections, titled "1," "X," and "1," and arranged in progressive seasonal imagery. (p. 154)
While using this seasonal framework as a strategy for organization, Cummings was not enslaved by it: several poems in the second section ("dead every enormous piece" and "when god decided to invent" come to mind) seem equally at home among the satires in the first section. Generally, however, the sense of direction here is more evident than in earlier volumes, which either had no obvious structural scheme (as in 50 Poems) or a pattern of recurrent sonnets (as in ViVa and No Thanks) sometimes more ingenious than helpful. The volume demonstrates that Cummings, having outgrown the simpler divisions ("Post Impressions," "Portraits," "Sonnets—Realities," and so forth) in the original manuscript of Tulips and Chimneys, now focuses his discernment more finely. (p. 155)
Behind these poems lies Cummings' evident interest in arithmetic significance. Throughout his work he pays great attention to numbers, letting them determine the formats of some of his volumes and founding some of the poems on a strict counting of lines and even, at times, of syllables. This volume, in fact—the work of a poet generally thought of as rebelling against the restraint of reason—includes no completely free verse. Even poems whose lines appear most casual—"a-," for example, or "ygU Duh"—are arranged in stanzas. It is perhaps this achievement of design in matters large and small which leads Friedman to assess 1 x 1 as "a distinctively crystallized book, both in art and in vision—a highly-wrought and mature achievement." Where the earlier Cummings was satisfied by gathering poems into self-contained sections, the poet here interweaves the sections themselves, anticipates and recalls their images, and appears to conceive of the volume less as a bricked accretion than as a fluid whole. (p. 156)
The final poem [of 1 x 1] ("if everything happens that can't be done" …) restores the lyric to its predominant position. Natural process, whereby things simply "happen," asserts itself over the human "doing" of things. If miracles arise, that only proves that the lovers are "one times one." Each of the five stanzas puts down "books" as it sets up experience: not unlike the Wordsworth of "Up, up, my friend, and quit your books," the poet here notes that "anything's righter / than books / could plan." The irony, of course, is that he says so in a book; but a deeper irony may be directed at the reader who fails to notice that this is the last poem before the book quits. Having come through poems of autumn, winter, and spring, through satires, meditations, and lyrics, the poet closes the book and sings the praises of the world beyond books, the summer itself where life is not for reading but for living. The deepest irony of all, however, is that even this exhortation to plunge into experience is made through words. Our very capacity to experience life, after all, is conditioned by the language through which we come to terms with life. And if we have in any way absorbed Cummings' poems, we are to that extent incapable of putting aside the book: some part of us will see experience through his insights. The "we" in this poem, then, refers not only to the lovers. It may also stand for the reader and the poet, "one times one" in their common outlook. (pp. 173-74)
[Xaipe, a Greek word meaning "rejoice" or "greetings," is the title of Cummings' next volume of verse, published in 1950. It is an appropriate title], for the book registers a decrease in poems that scorn and satirize and a corresponding increase in poems of praise. Here, for the first time, is the Cummings who writes of the religious and transcendent not as an antidote to the evil of the world but because it alone is coming to seem the most real. The change in emphasis affects his choice of subjects. Of the seventy-one poems, only one addresses itself directly to the "infinite jukethrob" of seamy city life. The values and images of country life are increasingly attractive to the poet…. (p. 175)
One of Cummings' best-known sonnets, "i thank You God for most this amazing" …, is good enough that one wishes it were better. Revealing itself cleanly on a single reading, it has been dismissed, in Robert Graves' words, as "intrinsically corny." A religious poem, it has neither the vibrant intellectuality of Hopkins, the cool ambiguity of Eliot, nor the resonance of Thomas. It depends, especially in the third stanza, on assertion rather than demonstration, and is finally a bit too facile. Nevertheless, it has some very good moments. The first line, for example, makes excellent use of the transposed adverb. We expect "most" to modify either "thank you" ("i thank you most, God") or "amazing" ("for this most amazing day"). Splitting the difference, Cummings places the word in a position where it does double duty. And the progression in the fourth line—"everything / which is natural which is infinite which is yes"—crescendoes toward abstraction, affirmation, and simplicity all at once. Perhaps for Cummings it is what "And death shall have no dominion" was for Thomas: a statement of faith that is too clear, too simplified, and hence too dishonest. In any case, it stands as a significant marker in the path of Cummings' development of transcendental and religious themes. (pp. 193-94)
95 Poems (1958), Cummings' longest volume, brings together eight years' work. Earlier volumes had come more frequently, never more than six years apart. Here, as he exercises more patience, he expresses a quieter and more meditative outlook. Turning his attention largely to things held in high regard (Joy Farm, Washington Square Park in the rain, the less physical aspects of love), he does not shrink from those things—the cosmeticized mother, the apathetic reader, the bickering housewife—which deserve ridicule. But it is to Horace rather than Juvenal that the few satires here owe their allegiance: only "THANKSGIVING (1956)" recalls the rancor of earlier years…. It is a volume full of praise for human goodness and wonder at nature's marvels.
As such, it is Cummings' most risky volume. Praise, as a glance at the best of modern literature attests, does not come easily to our age. (p. 197)
Yet Cummings, after years of practice at distinguishing the merely sentimental from the genuinely affirmative, the "pansy heaven" from the "heaven of blackred roses" …, had learned his balance well. Refusing to give over his skills at organization, his ear for nuance, and his fertile metaphoric imagination, he welded this book into a collection which helps demonstrate Robert Creeley's proposition that "FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXPRESSION OF CONTENT." Here, it seems, is proof that a poet can refuse conformity to the "poetical" subject matter favored by his age and still attain a high standard of craftsmanship. (p. 198)
Cummings' last volume was published the year after his death in New Hampshire on September 2, 1962. Like earlier volumes, 73 Poems intermixes new work with poems previously published in periodicals. Unlike earlier volumes, the contents were not arranged by Cummings but by his bibliographer, George Firmage. (p. 219)
While nothing of Cummings' intentions can be deduced from the sequence, the volume does mark a certain progress beyond 95 Poems. Although it levels its share of satiric darts—at "mrs somethingwitz / nay somethingelsestein" …, at the "fearlessandbosomy … / gal" of eighty …, and even at Aphrodite, Hephaestus, and Ares …—these pieces tend to be soft at the tip, written less in biting anger than bemused aversion. The world, with its "Mostpeople" who scream for "international / measures that render hell rational" …, is still a "sub / human superstate" … descending on "the path to nothingness."… But that world, for Cummings, is no longer too much with us; he looks with increasing serenity at a better one. (pp. 219-20)
As conviction increased, so did limpidity. Syntax here is less demanding, vocabulary less challenging, and words are less often fragmented than in earlier volumes. There is a growing proportion of extremely short poems, poems with no more than thirty words and sometimes no more than ten. It is a simplicity born not of senility but of wisdom, a capacity for concise statement coupled with lyric evocation. Fittingly, a number of these poems recall earlier ones: Cummings in these years was of a mind, it seems, to reexamine his earlier successes. In many ways it is a poetry of triumph, marking the victory of the feeling he always preached over the thinking he struggled to refine. (p. 220)
The two last poems in the volume are, in very different ways, among the finest in the canon. The three pentameter lines of "wild(at our first)beasts uttered human words" … compress into twenty-four words a compendious history of the world. Ascending from "beasts" to "birds" and on into "stars," the images move progressively upward and away from earth. In the beginning, says the poet, we were children uttering strangely wordlike sounds. In maturity our presence made "stones sing like birds"—made the inanimate universe take on the qualities of animation, joyousness, and freedom. Cummings, again, implies that the things of the world—stones, in this case—have no expressive qualities of their own. Hence they have no meanings until given them by the user of language who, like the banished duke in As You Like It, finds "sermons in stones." The first two lines, then, account for human life; but the poem has a third line, moving on to considerations of immortality. Where life for the early Cummings was a matter of birth, maturity, and decay, for the late Cummings it consists in birth, maturity, and transcendence. The "starhushed silence" is our third state, an ascendent condition in which, words and songs quieted, the silence of a deeper communion prevails. This is the silence that appears at the end of "all which isn't singing is mere talking" …: there, "the very song … / of singing is silence," for as singing is superior to talking, so silence is the very essence of the power of song. (pp. 232-33)
As silence is the keenest quality of sound, so a vision of love is the sharpest focus of sight. And just as no human ear will be adequate to the first, so mere worldly seeing will not encompass the second. That is the message of the last poem, "all worlds have halfsight, seeing either with."… For Cummings, "worlds" are limited and loveless places inhabitated by mostpeople and utterly without grace. Worlds are places made not by fact but by consent, not by matter, society, or time but simply by belief. Seen for what it is, the world can be rendered harmless…. (p. 234)
This sort of poem demands a reading in context. Isolated from the slowly developing themes that progress through Cummings' earlier poetry, it appears somewhat plain. But in that context there are very few words used here that do not come to this poem charged with significance. The idea of halves versus wholes, the distinction between the seeming and the real, the words "steep," "beauty," "truth," "timelessly," and "merciful," derive their impact from use in numerous prior poems; each draws sustenance and originality from the accretion of definition built up throughout Cummings' entire career. Most notable is the word "love." If Cummings has one subject, that is it. It begins in Tulips and Chimneys as an echo of popularly romantic notions, and it grows in early volumes to a sometimes amorphous phenomenon seasoned by a not entirely unselfish lust. By these last poems, however, it has come to be a purified and radiant idea, unentangled with flesh and worlds, the agent of the highest transcendence. It is not far, as poem after poem has hinted, from the Christian conception of love as God. It is this sense of God that Cummings' poems of praise have celebrated, this sense that his satires have sought to protect. It is this sense that Cummings, whose entire body of work is finally an image of himself, would have us see as the source of his own being. (pp. 235-36)
Rushworth M. Kidder, in his E. E. Cummings: An Introduction to the Poetry (copyright 1979 Columbia University Press; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Columbia University Press, 1979, 275 p.
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