October 31, 1997
E.E. Cummings has always been a bit of a cipher, especially to those who would seriously analyze him. Those who like him, love him. Those who don’t, can’t quite figure out what to make of him. There is a certain undefinable quality to his poetry that makes his poetry easy to enjoy, but hard to interpret. Many influential critics of his era found that, "although they like the poetry...they have difficulty taking it seriously" (Friedman 3). Cummings has been, and always will be loved by millions. He has cemented a place in America’s heart much as Frost, Whitman, Longfellow, and Poe have cemented their place in our pantheon of poetry. He was one of the two most popular poets of his time, he has been honored by numerous awards throughout the world, and perhaps most importantly, "many well known writers--Pound, Dos Passos, Williams, Auden...have always thought very highly of him" (Lane 4). But the most influential critics of the age "have never known quite what to make of him" (Lane 4).
Cummings’ poetry is unique. There hasn’t been anything quite like him, before or since. Examining Cummings’ works demands a different eye for poetry than examining the works of Longfellow, Lowell, Whitman, or Frost, for example. For while Cummings was equally as popular as these, he had an entirely different style. Cummings writes with both the eye of an artist working on sculpture; for his works truly are works of dimensional art; and from the eye of a poet trying to get past an emotion or a picture through words. But whether he’s painting with the structure of his poetry, or dazzling us with the images of his words, his message is unavoidable. He is clearly trying to "tell us always, either explicitly, or by implication, how to live" (Lane 4), and more importantly, why we should live. Whether he does this through direct means; "sonnet entitled how to run the world)", or through the painting of the glory of the world, his message comes shining through.
E.E. Cummings speaks from a different world than the poets who went before him. He speaks from a world torn apart by the Great War, from a world searching for new truths. E.E. Cummings comes from a world touched by the Lost Generation. This is not to say that Cummings is an actual member of the Lost Generation. Far from it. Cummings never demonstrated the loss of hope characteristic of the Lost Generation. His work never took on the relentless despair of Hemingway, nor the bleakness of Eliot. He never spoke of the futility of life found in so many of the writings of those times. In fact, Cummings struggles to tell us that life has meaning beyond simply waiting for death. His poetry tested the very limits of modern technique, while employing modernistic, cubist, and romantic language.
Cummings took glory in nature, writing with eloquence reminiscent of Emerson. In his poem "who are you, little i," he writes of a young boy (himself) witnessing a November sunset "(and feeling:that if day/has to become night/this is a beautiful way)" (CP 824) On the surface, this poem shows the beauty of nature. Hidden just below the surface, as well, there is the feeling of the completeness of life. The image of the day needing to become night; of our lives coming to the inevitable end, is not a negative image. It is not represented as a fight against the night, the anguish of the dying day, as Dylan Thomas does. "Do not go gentle into that good night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light." Rather, the image is of a gentle close, the "beautiful way." Death is not the horror of the inevitable end, it is the beautiful culmination at the end of our ‘day’.
E.E. Cummings is a complex poet to work with because of his eccentricity. His poetry moved at right angles to the way we normally read poetry. But he was still on the same plane. He still wrote "poetry," a distinction that was occasionally overlooked by even his admirers. A famous poet of his day, Marianne Moore believed that "it is useless to search [Cummings’ work] for explanations, reasons, becauses" (Lane 4). In Norman Friedman‘s book e.e. Cummings; the art of his poetry, he writes: "To look in his work for the signs of a tragic vision, for an ambivalence of structure, for a studied use of verbal ambiguity, for the display of metaphysical wit, for the employment of mythic fragments, for the climax of a spiritual conversion--that is to look for things that are simply not there" (Friedman 3). But Friedman simply isn’t looking in the right places. He has become so attached to the "art of Cummings’ poetry"; the arrangement of the words on the page, that he has become blind to the poetry of Cummings’ art; the meaning of the words on the page. To imply that his work lacks tragic vision implies that there is no point to his poetry, and yet with every step, his poetry is filled with his vision of life. His poetry "retained a firm commitment to the substance of his personal truth--he never ceased telling his readers how to live--but he discovered quite early on that poetry works prior to intellection, that it communicates feelings rather than ideas, and that only through the imaginative organization of the poet--the inspiration and hard work that underlie structural coherence--can a poet generate significant intensity" (Lane 9). Cummings’ meaning, his "tragic vision," is expressed through both the poetry of his words and the art of his structure.
As for his ambivalence of structure, and his studied use of verbal ambiguity, Cummings’ poems are seeping with the ambivalence of structure, and his verbal ambiguity is evident in nearly every poem. When he uses nouns as verbs, nouns as adjectives, verbs as adverbs, etc., he creates an elegance of ambiguity. As for the other aspects of poetry that Cummings "lacks," there are contradictory poems just waiting to be found. The poem "in heavenly realms of hellas dwelt" (CP 799) employs very definite mythic fragments, "if everything happens that can’t be done" (CP 594) employs metaphysical whit, while the aforementioned "who are you little i" (CP 824) has a spiritual conversion in the heart of that boy who watched the sun set. While Cummings writes in a different style than most poets, with the flair of a visual artist, he still writes with the magic, language, and gift of a poet.
Nothing can wholly put into words the experience of reading E.E. Cummings. They are visual as well as aural; no description or recitation can give them the full credit due. To understand Cummings, you must actually read Cummings. No discussion of his style will quite prepare you for what you may find. And so, we will look at some of the poems of Cummings to illustrate some of his basic comments on human nature, both the good and evil side aspects:
when god decided to invent
everything he took one
breath bigger than a circustent
and everything began
when man determined to destroy
himself he picked the was
of shall and finding only why
smashed it into because (CP 566)
Right from the beginning we see that this poem is written in free verse. The only form of "punctuation" lies in the separation of stanzas. The first stanza is a single sentence, and the second is another. There are no capitalized words to make any one thing stand out. Every word starts off at the same level, and it is only through placement that importance is clarified. Rhyme exists, however it isn’t always perfect rhyme. Invent-circustent (circus tent) and was-because have perfect end rhyme, but one-began and destroy-why only rhyme weakly.
Perhaps the most important visual aspect of this poem is the placement of words at the ends of lines. The first words at the end of each stanza show the definite contrast between the two stanzas. The power of god is to "invent," which is a solitary act, as shown in the placement of "one" at the end of the second line. This is also a simple act of power. God need only take one enormous breath (bigger than a circus tent), and everything begins. It is through the simple power of imagination that the universe begins. In contrast, man tries not only to imagine, but to explain. Man tends to over-analyze the universe. The "mind infects man with the disease of asking and of dissatisfaction" (Friedman 20). This is evident in the last stanza, where man, "determined to destroy/himself," attempts to abstract and rationalize the universe. Man tries to create an absolute answer, a "because" when only a "why" exists. Man tries to force the ‘answer’ out of the creation, when in fact all that he can do is experience it.
This is a poem that relies on telling, rather than showing. But it works in this case. This poem is supposed to be about a concept, and not about any particular picture. It is an allegory where the idea is what is supposed to shine. The only possible image in this poem is built around the concept; God creates, man destroys. It is a short poem, where Cummings wants to make sure we get the message, and so does not leave much ambiguity on the moral lesson of the poem. Cummings is telling us how we live, and in doing so, shows us how we should strive to experience, rather than explain. His message is very similar to the Christian concept of taking things on faith, rather than rational evidence. This is part of what being ‘human’ is to Cummings.
His next poem also deals with the same concept of experiencing and feeling being more important than rationalizing.
since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
;will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world
my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
lady i swear by all the flowers. Don’t cry
-the best gesture of my brain is less than
;your eyelids’ flutter which says
we are for each other:then
laugh,leaning back into my arms
and life’s not a paragraph
And death i think is no parenthesis (CP 291)
Cummings has a personal philosophy on life that makes his poetry very similar in voice, if not in style, to the Transcendentalists of the previous century. He placed his "primary emphasis on feeling rather than thinking" (Kennedy 97), and he treated beauty as a dependent on the feelings of the viewer or reader at that time. He did not believe in such a thing as "empirical beauty," an instance that is automatically beautiful, unreliant on the thoughts and feelings of the observer. Feeling first and foremost with wisdom and thought secondary. This is demonstrated in the third stanza: ". . . kisses are a better fate/than wisdom" The experience of spring, the experience of love has more importance to him than wisdom ever will. Francis Bacon in his essay Of Love, states, "It is impossible to love and be wise." Cummings would go even further; he goes onto state that wisdom is immaterial. It’s not even the entirety of love that’s more important that wisdom. He diminishes wisdom by saying that even one simple aspect of love, the kisses, are a "better fate" than wisdom. The phrase ‘better fate’ appears to imply that to be wise is in some way a curse.
It is "wholly to be a fool/while Spring is in the world." These two lines are important for two reasons. The double meaning of the word wholly (holy) is one of the subtle ways that he shows the emphasis on feeling, as opposed to thinking. The emphasis upon being a fool, not caring about wisdom, but simply experiencing spring shows the romantic in him. The other reason for these lines is how Cummings treats the spring. Cummings treats spring as a tremendous concept in this poem. Spring is one of the two words capitalized in the poem, and the phrase "in the world" should not be overlooked. These two characteristics of the word, the art of the word on the page, lend special weight to the word. Spring is a mammoth experience, which overshadows everything else in the world when it happens. Spring is something that reminds us of the cyclic nature of life. The line "i swear by all the flowers" shows the simple beauty that has returned to life after winter. Winter seems like death...it seems like the end. But spring reminds us that everything is circular. Winter is not the end, it is not the beginning, and it is not the middle, it simply is. The years continue on and on. The final two lines hammer out this point. "for life’s not a paragraph": Life does not have a beginning, middle and end. The lack of punctuation in this sentence shows that life is a steady stream with everything connected, instead of a gathering of arbitrarily broken up and pierced together fragment. Life is not a paragraph with established sentences dividing it up into parts as sentences in a paragraph. It has no beginning, a middle, nor an end. "And death i think is no parenthesis": This sentence starts out with a conjunction, ‘and’ which normally shows an continuation of a sentence. The word parenthesis, a break in a sentence, shows Cummings’ view that life has no ending. This links directly back up to the first stanza, where Cummings warns about the dangers of "pay[ing] any attention/to the syntax of things." Cummings is blatantly advocating the importance of experiencing, rather than examining life.
The next poem gets even deeper into the balance between experiencing life and gathering wisdom:
life is more true than reason will deceive
(more secret or than madness did reveal)
deeper is life than lose:higher than have
-but beauty is more each than living’s all
multiplied with infinity sans if
the mightiest meditations of mankind
canceled are by one merely opening leaf
(beyond whose nearness there is no beyond)
or does some littler bird than eyes can learn
look up to silence and completely sing?
futures are obsolete:pasts are unborn
(here less than nothing’s more than everything)
death,as men call him, ends what they call men
-but beauty is more now than dying’s when (CP 592)
This develops even further Cummings’ conception of the relationship between experiencing life and rationalizing life. At the very start, the poem is restating Cummings’ outlook on life. "life is more true than reason will deceive" This is a simple statement, expressing through simple language the importance of experiencing life. Life is truth, every changing, while reasoning and rationalizing will deceive you by attempting to cement the fluid. The "mind wants to make static the moving and finish the never-ending, [and in doing so] creates for man an artificial world" (Friedman 21). We should not trust the deceitful nature of our imperfect reasoning, but rather just live life. By living, we experience truth. The next lines show the unexplainable nature of life. Life is "more secret" than we can discover through simple rationalization, and even madness will not reveal its truth. "deeper is life than lose:higher than have": Life is deeper than loss, and it is of a higher importance than the simple possession of objects. "--but beauty is more each than living’s all": Each individual instance of beauty in life is more important than all of life itself.
"multiplied with infinity sans if/the mightiest meditations of mankind/canceled are by one merely opening leaf": This line connects to the previous line, showing how beauty overshadows everything. The line implies that if life were multiplied with infinity, it should be without "if." If is a question; it is the extension of our minds asking and trying to explain the universe. But the ‘mightiest meditations,’ the very epitome or our powerful thought, is not worth the simple majesty of one solitary opening leaf. The following line "(beyond whose nearness there is no beyond)" goes on to show how the nearness and majesty of nature will overshadow and block out the entire world. The language is very specific. It’s not stated that the beauty of nature will cause you to forget about the world outside; it states that the world outside will cease to exist for you. There will be "no beyond."
The next stanza continues "or does some littler bird than eyes can learn" showing the act of seeing the bird and just experiencing it. There is no active learning or becoming wiser in this statement. It is quite simply an act in the now. There is no thought to what we have experienced before, or will experience since, the bird just is. The act of describing the characteristics of the bird as "littler" shows that we can see. But it is a sight very much akin to standing in a field and watching the sun rise. You are not doing it to learn anything from it, it’s just happening. The experience of watching the bird is so majestic that it need not sing a word, and yet it will "completely sing." The bird’s existence if the important part, not what practical thing it may do afterwards.
"futures are obsolete;pasts are unborn": This shows us the benefits of viewing the world as Cummings does. Obsolete implies that the future is no longer important. It was had significance in your life once before, but something better has now overshadowed it. "pasts are unborn" can be viewed as making the past immaterial. The pasts are not-born. It is an unraveling act of what once existed, being canceled out. The future has ceased to be important, and the past no longer exists. All that matters is the here and now. "here less than nothing’s more than everything": The contradictory nature of this statement shows that, no matter how insignificant the experience you are having right now seems, it is the whole of your existence. When there is no future, and there is no past, now is all you have. In a very real sense, you have been living your entire life for this moment.
"death,as men call him, ends what they call men": Someday we will die, and the now will cease to exist for us. But we are not to get hung up on this. Our lives should not be lived out in anticipation and dread for the end. We are to remember "Seize the day" and value it for what it is, not what it will eventually become. ". . . beauty is more now than dying’s when" This reminds us that the simple beauty of this instant is far more important than the far off ‘when.’
Throughout all his poetry, E.E. Cummings reminds us that life is fluid. His constant lessons on how to live teach us one simple thing. We should not get caught up trying to explain and rationalize our existence and our universe. There is no concrete "because" in the world, because things are always changing. The act of experiencing is all that we need to do. Beauty exists all around us, and trying to analyze why it’s beautiful is unnecessary. "since feeling is first," we should not try to explain our way through life, lest we not experience the entirety of it. "life is more true than reason will deceive." Cummings is restating Keats’ belief that " ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’-that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." In essence, Cummings believes that we need to live in the present, experiencing rather than examining life. He believes wisdom to be immaterial, and the true importance of life to be experiencing beauty. Life is beautiful enough without wisdom.
. . . (and anything’s righter
. . . (and birds sing sweeter
. . . (we are everything greater
might mean) (CP 594)
Cummings, E.E. Complete Poems: 1904-1962. Ed. George J. Firmage. New York: Liveright Publishing Co, 1994.
Friedman, Norman. E.E. Cummings: The Art Of His Poetry. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1960.
Lane, Gary. I Am: A Study of E.E. Cummings’ Poems. Wichita: The University Press of Kansas, 1976.
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