Perhaps only Dylan Thomas, of twentieth century poets, has had the impact upon youth which has been E. E. Cummings’. There is scarcely a single American college student today who has not read and often even memorized at least one poem by Cummings, and this outside class, on his own, with a sense of immediacy and identification bordering on ownership. This kinship with youth is no surprise, for even his last poems, the work of a man nearing seventy, celebrate the here and now of being, the eternal present in which limitless future pivots to limited past. It is this moment of aliveness and pure being that youth experiences most fully without regard to the relentless flow of time, and it is that experience which Cummings believed to be living, the only moment of truth.
What IS is the present, and living fully requires that one expand to fill the moment, to experience it spiritually as well as physically. Cummings was a Romantic and a Transcendentalist, and he felt that the truth that is always here can only be found by love.
E. E. Cummings gave himself in his poetry fully to the life of the now and the love that gives that life its meaning. His thinking is certainly not new; it is as old as thought itself. Poetry is, however, an art of making new, of giving new life to the ideas that have always been, the eternal verities; and Cummings set out to refresh his Romantic ideas, to make love itself all new anew. His verbal pyrotechnics and typographical eccentricities are products and tools of that quest. By making language look new on the page, he forces his reader to engage the poem at a new level of concentration and, hopefully, to follow that engagement through to the moment of living which Cummings tried to catch up in the poem.
For example, the first poem in 95 POEMS is a definition of loneliness. Its devices are one metaphor, loneliness as a falling leaf; use of the similarity of the letter l to the numeral 1; use of the one in loneliness; a typographical pattern emphasizing the long, narrow numeral 1 and the lone fall of a leaf; and a final definition of loneliness as I-ness. That is all, and yet it does make a simple metaphor into a small poem and it does demand the reader’s involvement in that metaphor, if only to puzzle it out. It is a poem to be read silently on the page, a poem for the eye, but Cummings wrote most of his poems for the ear as well. The cool elegance of the opening of “All in green went my love riding” is an example of this smooth ballad style.
But he often went to the other extreme, to the almost unintelligible language of the streets, to the poetry of the very common man, as in the poem “oil tel duh woil doi sez,” in the volume titled W (pronounced ViVa).
He also changed the language itself, using parts of speech in unexpected ways, forcing verbs to work as nouns, making new words grow from the everyday words of the language. The poem “so isn’t so small one littlest why,” in 1 X 1, for example, is cryptic only until the parts of speech shed their usual functions and take up new ones.
This technique is tricky like that of so much of the “experimental” poetry of the 1920’s. But of all the experimenters of those years, only Cummings found a radically new technical approach which was appropriate to his ideas; only Cummings and William Carlos William matched new form to content and wed matter to manner so thoroughly and well.
The bold technique gave him notoriety and finally fame, but he was not a poet without content, a poet of hollow surfaces. His Romanticism led him on a quest for the truth that shines in the moment but is eternal beyond it, and, like a true Romantic, he scorned those who lived in the material world as if it were the final end of things. He scorned the political world which he saw as a breeding place for greed and violence. In a poem in 1 X 1, he defined a politician as an ass that only man did not ride, and in “THANKSGIVING (1956),” he was overcome by revulsion at America’s role in the Hungarian uprising. The violence of that poem reflects the hate which is so much a part of the Romantic mind, a hate for the betrayal of an idea and an ideal by practical necessity, of the eternal by the temporal.
Cummings wrote many good political poems, witty and sharply critical of a society which he felt had betrayed its own ideals and its true nature so very often. There are “i sing of Olaf glad and big,” “as freedom is a breakfastfood,” and “it was a goodly co,” and there is “pity this busy monster, manunkind,” in which “Progress” is a disease giving comfort to its victims and the only hope seems to lie in leaving the whole mess behind.
There are those poems and the many comic poems about people who fail to live fully and whose spirits are dead, like “the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls” and “nobody loses all of the time.” But the real variety and wonder of Cummings’ talent is most clearly figured in his love poetry, the body of poems in which he makes love itself new in the freshness of his eye and voice. Only Robert Graves and Theodore Roethke in the twentieth century have written love poetry with the skill and artistry of Cummings, perhaps because only those three poets had the personal exuberance and vision to celebrate both love of the flesh and of the spirit in a fashionably existential and disillusioned age. His love sonnets are as delicate, controlled, and genuinely lyrical and loving as any in the language. No puritan, he celebrated at times the honest joy of lust, of purely physical love which achieves the spiritual by making no hypocritical pretense of having it.
There are also love poems of another nature, such as the love poem to his father, “my father moved through dooms of love,” or the many loving poems about simple people like “dominic has” in 95 POEMS. These are love poems to man, capable of so much love and so much pain; they celebrate the love which has its most intense and moving expression in “Jehovah buried, Satan dead.”
The spirit of love and the spirit of man, interwound pure and whole but forever grounded in the world of hate and fear, define Cummings’ vision, which is a vision worthy of any true poet.
Like most poets, Cummings had his weaknesses. There are many poems which have become merely cute with the passage of the years, and often he is sentimental rather than tender, nasty rather than angry in spirit. But he did capture a young vision of life as a truly vital and growing experience. If we outgrow that view of things, we will have outgrown youth and much of life itself. If E. E. Cummings never gave us a poem of the magnitude of FOUR QUARTETS or PATERSON, he did give us lyrics which are truly lyrical, love poems which are truly loving, and poems of the living moment which are truly lively and alive. He taught us new ways of using words and made us see the old ways anew. He was an honest and passionate poet, and his poems celebrate the honesty of passion and the often painful world redeemed by love.
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