To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Rethinking E.E. Cummings: An Appeal for a New Reading (Part One)

[Prepared for an all-day E. E. Cummings symposium at the American Literature Association meetings on June 5, 1994, while I was working with Pierre Joris on Poems for the Millennium, but never published thereafter.]

Every time I prepare a new anthology or go over the writings of the twentieth century from the perspective of the present, I wonder where (and how) it was that we lost E. E. Cummings. In my own coming into poetry at all – but that was long ago – his was a central presence. I knew his poems, could recite a good number of them by (almost) heart, was on to all of his tricks, had Cummings lines and phrases (always) at my fingertips, and found his voice entwined with mine in writing. If my own punctuation or upper cases fell away it was with reference to him; if my margins trembled, turned to rags, it was with his as early model; if my adverbs shifted into verbs or my conjunctions turned to nouns, it was clearly him behind it. At sixteen I had no other guides but him and Stein (and shortly Joyce) into new ways of language. By a decade later, the works of others lingered or came newly into mind, but Cummings (for all intents and purposes) had disappeared.

It baffles me – not only because his poems still resonate for me (and I have always been careful to include him in the assemblages, the gatherings I’ve made) but because one would have expected him to hold for the generations of latterday modernist (later called postmodernist) poets. Think back to the roots of my own generation. In his great initiatory essay, “Projective Verse” (that was in 1950) Charles Olson presented not only a new way to make the poem but found that there existed older (American) poets who had already (“each after his way”) moved in that direction, who had established (he wrote of them) “the already projective nature of verse.” From that identifying statement, to which I was already late in coming, the two poets who come inevitably to mind are Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, and yet, when Olson comes to name them, it is a third one – Cummings – whom he mentions and credits first.

There is no question of an inequality here, no lower ranking or disfavor shown to Cummings, and no hedging about his place beside the others. Olson in fact is strikingly particular in what he attributes to Cummings as a lesson for poets then emerging. The discussion is of notation via typewriter as it relates to breath. “If a contemporary poet,” Olson writes, “suspends a word or syllable at the end of a line” (and here he adds: “this was Cummings’ addition”) “he means that time to pass that it takes the eye – that hair of time suspended – to pick up the next line.”

“[Mostly] Cummings’ addition” he means, not only or uniquely his – for it was shared even then with Williams and would be later with countless others as well, but listen, e.g., how clear it sounds in something like Cummings’ tribute, circa 1925, directed to Picasso:


you give us Things
bulge:grunting lungs pumped full of sharp thick mind

you make us shrill
presents always
shut in the sumptuous speech of

(out of the
black unbunged
Something gushes vaguely a squeak of planes

between squeals of
Nothing grabbed with circular shrieking tightness
solid screams whisper)
Lumberman of the Distinct

your brain’s
axe only chops hugest inherent
Trees of Ego, from
whose living and biggest

bodies lopped
of every

you hew form truly

Or again, in one that we all know, and that I used to (and still do) carry in my head or heart:


Buffalo Bill’s
vvvvvvvwho used to
vvvvvvvride a watersmooth-silver
vvvvvvvand break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
he was a handsome man
vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvand what I want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Mister Death

It is, looking back at it now, a beautifully paced and articulated short poem – as spoken and as seen – and a key to what became increasingly possible for others after Cummings’ own works.



JP Craig said...

When I have to offer indents, I use hyphens that I then color white. It's a bit of a kludge, but it works. If you're specifying a standard web font (like Times) with your CSS, which I believe you are, then you should be able to get some pretty accurate results.

Joseph Donahue said...

Would love to see what you would consider the essential cummings. Any chance of you editing a selected?

TC said...

Interesting post.

Many of us have a complicated history with this poet.

Names and bodies of work fall in and out of fashion and favour, sink or swim as the winds of vogue and trend pass over the waters.

Arbitration of reputation always a dangerous endeavour. To err is human.

Doubtless Palgrave was confident he knew what was what, & c.

Lyle Daggett said...

Cummings (or cummings) was large in my early poet life also, and likewise I have snatches from poems still in memory.

"somewhere i have never traveled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:"

"...the Cambridge ladies do not care,above
Cambridge if sometimes in its box of
sky lavender and cornerless, the
moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy"

[Ellipsis above is in the original. Also the sometime absence of letterspaces after commas is per the originals.]

"i'd rather learn from one bird how to sing
than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance"

[In case the lines don't break right in the comment box: the first quote above is two lines, with the break after "beyond"; the second quote is four lines, with breaks after "above," "of," "the," and "candy"; the third quote is two lines, with the break after "sing".

I read cummings's work at length and in depth (what I could) also at about 16 years old, for a good year or more, then likewise it faded as a presence for me, in some respects -- I only occasionally read cummings now. Though in other respects persists: in my own poems I use mostly lowercase, and irregular margins on both left and right sides. Plus whatever lingering in my general sensibilities, difficult to say.

Though a central visual "model," for lack of a better term, that I consciously worked/work from in that regard -- rather than cummings -- was/is Ginsberg's "Wichita Vortex Sutra," along with poems by a few other poets with similar visual effect: Will Inman and Walter Lowenfels come to mind, and there were surely others.

First came to cummings when my first (classroom) poetry teacher John Caddy (summer 1970, during high school years) brought a few of cummings's poems into class for us to read, among other specimens.

My second poetry teacher, Wally Kennedy (1971-72, last year in high school) on one occasion said from memory cummings's Buffalo Bill poem, the same you've given here. For anyone interested, the poem (with cummings's visual layout) is available online in the Poets & Writers website, here.

Thanks for posting this.

Michael Webster said...

It may seem like a minor matter, but since Cummings took such care with the upper and lower case, I'd like to point out that the E. E. Cummings Society recommends that the poet's initials be capitalized. For the case for capitalization, see Norman Friedman's "NOT 'e. e. cummings' " at .

christopher higgs said...

Hi Jerome,

I'm a long time reader, first time commenter (as they say).

Enjoyed this post...very much a fan of e.e.

Wanted to let you know how to post poems in blogger in a way that maintains their original structural composition, it's pretty easy...

All you have to do is click the tab for "Edit Html" instead of the tab "Compose". Then, put this code in front of the poem:

(less than symbol)PRE>

and then at the end of the poem, just put:

(less than symbol)/PRE>

(sorry, comment box won't let me put the actual code, so you'll have to replace where it says "less than symbol" with <

That command will tell blogger to publish that section as it appears, maintaining the format.

Cheers! And thanks for maintaining such a great website.