ee cummings fora $

Why should Cummings’ poetry be a somewhat guilty pleasure for me? True, he’s not so very cool to admire these days, when his formal and typographical playfulness seems, out of historical context, old-fashioned or gimmicky, and especially with a focus on the identity of the poet being so common today. But I have never cared overmuch for contemporary trends. It’s not his politics (a kind of aristocratic Libertarianism) or his dalliance with anti-Semitism (ugly in any age) that makes me shy. Unlike Pound these kinds of characteristics did not overwhelm his life and like Céline knowing about them does not spoil the work, for me.

Is it because he’s sentimental, or because his youthfulness isn’t a purely positive quality, but suggests willful immaturity? Perhaps that’s it.

On the other hand, he wrote an awful lot of awfully good poems. Like many others, I was attracted to them as a confused, angry, nature loving and human society hating teenager. I read him at a time when I was deeply involved in experimentation in the visual arts. I wrote Cummings-like poems. It was fun. But I seemed to get my fill rather quickly and moved on to more absorbing and longer lasting interests. Years later when deciding how to spend a bookstore gift card from a store that has always had a large collection of things I don’t want, I settled on an expensive edition of Cummings’ complete poems, knowing I’d never buy the book with my “own” money. Likewise, seeing Susan Cheever’s 2014 biography of Cummings (at less than 200 pages apparently intended for a popular audience) last week for one dollar I was pleased, knowing I’d never spend full price for it. But as I began to read the biography I was surprised by how well I remembered the poems. I could quote many of the lines from memory. Cheever produced a quick paced and engaging read that deserves to be bought and read.

It seems to me now that I need not be embarrassed to say I like the poems, although I think Cheever’s notion that Cummings’ Buffalo Bill poem contains “some of the most powerful [lines] ever written in English” is way off the mark (p 48). She writes that, “Cummings is more famous for style than for substance” (p 99) and I say for good reason. What exactly is the substance of the Buffalo Bill poem, for example—apparently Cheevers’ favorite since she singles it out for praise repeatedly throughout her book? The poem is a mood—irrevocably bound to its expression—of stinging astonishment at death. Its only intellectual content is that which points to the manner of its expression—its style. When you read a lot of Cummings’ poems it becomes apparent that he did not have a whole lot to say, but what he did say is indistinguishable from his style—the one could not exist without the other—and the best of them, while they might be among the brightest artistic achievements of the 20th century, still may not count as among the most profound or socially significant ones.

Now and then it’s hard to resist something bright and shiny. Candy can be good (even angry candy) even if it’s not good for you. And Cummings is so good that I forgive him things I’d be unable to overlook in other poets—sentimentality for example, or pathetic fallacy.

One of the last poems Cummings wrote goes:

Me up at does

out of the floor
quietly Stare

a poisoned mouse

still who alive

is asking What
have i done that

You wouldn’t have

The mouse isn’t really talking; the poet is asking himself the question. He reverses his process, seeming to give the mouse his own lower case i and himself, through the mouse, an upper case “You”. The tenderness evoked in so few carefully chosen and placed words for the mouse’s plight is so palpable that this tiny mouse looms like a giant. This poem, appearing posthumously in Cummings’ last collection, could have appeared in his first. Cummings never evolved as a poet. He emerged after a few years of study fully formed and remained consistent his whole life. Because of his consistency, Cummings went in and out of fashion his whole life. Right now he’s out of fashion, but who knows he may come back. It should be remembered how astonishing and radical that style must have looked when it first appeared—like the collages of Kurt Schwitters: What! Art out of garbage? It’s outrageous! And it should not be forgotten how influential it was. But as with Warhol the influence has been so ubiquitous and so abused that it’s hard to imagine what a good contemporary poet can do with it these days. Today, Cummings’style looks like a cliché.

One of my favorite parts of Cheever’s book is the disagreement between Cummings and Pound over blue jays that took place in an exchange of letters written in their silly invented dialects. I love that in such a short book Cheever devoted two whole pages to it. On the other hand, and appropriately, she covers Cummings’ anti-Semitic poem from Xaipe on the following page. That’s Cummings in a nutshell: talk about schizoid. It should be pointed out though that, while there’s a lot of anger in his work, this as far as I know is the only trace of racism in it. Therefore the best part of the book, in the context of understanding what kind of person Cummings was, is the passage about his acceptance to write a poem on the theme of Thankfulness and read it at the 1957 Boston Arts Festival. Enraged by the Russian takeover of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and outraged by the failure of the United States to do anything about it, he wrote THANKSGIVING (1956). The final verse goes:

so rah-rah-rah democracy
let’s all be as thankful as hell
and bury the statue of liberty
(because it begins to smell)

The committee writes back and says, uh, that’s not quite what we had in mind, Mr. Cummings. So he’s like, no problem, and sends them i am a little church(no great cathedral) and they’re all, that’s more like it, Mr. Cummings. So double e goes to the festival and gets up in front of the assembled guests and arts lovers and what does he do? He reads both poems!

Edward Estlin Cummings, or ee cummings, as he preferred it, was passionate, stubborn, relentless about preserving the child within him. Now, when adults say about another adult they are “childlike”, they invariably mean only the lovely, delightful and angelic aspects of a child entwined with an open-eyed wonder at the world. But children can be cruel and violent and irrational. The child that Cummings preserved was an angel as well as a demon. He had his loves that opened him up, and his hates that shut him down.

There’s always an “on the other hand” when I think about Cummings. How far, or how long, can you carry his poems through life? An ee cummings poem, to me, is like a beautiful memory from youth that is put away for a long period of time. When you get it out it still sparkles but it’s not meant for daily use. You put it back until you need it again. On the other hand, aren’t all poems to some degree like that? Yes, but some are more durable, they work harder and make the reader work harder: there’s more “substance” to carry and to carry you through. A Cummings poem is a very delicate, precious thing. It’s bright and shiny and seems to require replacing in its protective box. The world, it seems, can tarnish it. On the other hand, the world can do that to any art work. Even a slab of steel that weighs tons. Richard Serra said in an interview that culture “eats up artists like popcorn”. How right he is.

After this I might not revisit mr ee for another five years, and that’s ok. I’m sure when I do I will be just as delighted as the first time.

Posted in book review, poetry essay | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Nature Is Cruel, Staros

In terms of fashion, the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever is fixed in time and place. Its disco beats, big collar polyester shirts, bellbottoms and platform shoes place it squarely in late 1970’s big-city America. The economic milieu of the film situates it less. The time we’re living in now bears some similarity: young working class people living with their parents skeptical of the future. Beyond purely artistic considerations, which are prodigious (fine performances and cinematic flow, stellar dancing from John Travolta and music), the enduring power of the film comes from universal human characteristics. It is not some peculiarity of 1970’s America that determines characters like those we see in Saturday Night Fever—dancing joyously one moment, plunging into abysses of self-doubt the next. This is the human experience itself. Continue reading

Posted in film essay, poetry essay | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Note On John Ashbery and Charles Sanders Peirce

I was reminded of Ashbery’s phrase, “notes from the air”, the title of a poem from Hotel Lautréamont and part of the title of a selection of his poetry published in 2008, while reading an essay published in 1878 by Charles Sanders Peirce. Continue reading

Posted in poetry essay | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Karin Roffman On the Young John Ashbery

In the summer of 1992 while traveling out west I lingered in Austin Texas long enough to go to a club and see a rock band called the True Believers. Continue reading

Posted in book review, poetry essay | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Paul Auster’s 4321



In an essay from the mid-1970’s on the poet Charles Reznikoff, Paul Auster wrote of the poet’s ability to

choose the exact detail that will say everything and thereby allow as much as possible to remain unsaid. This kind of restraint paradoxically requires an openness of spirit that is available to very few….
–from The Art of Hunger

Paul Auster wrote that before he had written the novels that would make him famous. And while I have not read the poetry he had written, I’m willing to grant—because of those novels—that he was writing here from experience. He knew, from the inside, what he was talking about. The New York Trilogy proved it.

Another attribute available to few: the ability to write a successful long novel, long in my estimation being more than 400 pages. Auster has written brilliant short novels, surely some of the best of our time. Could he now, pushing 70, write a successful long one? And why would he want to? Isn’t that like moving backwards? Isn’t leaving out a greater challenge than putting in? Those are the questions that drew me to 4321, Auster’s new novel of nearly 900 pages. Why in God’s name would he want to do it? Continue reading

Posted in book review | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

54 Ice Crystals

Learn to accept a thing before it is named, they say, since the act of naming curtails the potential of process without end

It will neither dress me nor reveal me

If the sentence you’re on breaks in half

It’s just survival, but it can be more

How is one to journey in safety

Thrusting his life-force out of his body with every earth-clogged step

I blind myself to it

Polished floor

Back to the game of polishing

Emotions are never wrong/Reactions to them often are

If you’re too young

That much I’ve learned

Like a gear disengaged

My doppelgänger I am again

A whale

One black one white

Inner space is not infinite

They wave still

And you can do nothing for it

On a tumbling shore

To black memories of crow

For new detergents to try

And you don’t know me at all?

Felt, no, lived, by such bugs

In thought, in thinking, in swatting away

Until they are cast

That man also learned, as a boy

Paint the daisy chain that rushes the four borders much too fast for ordinary eyes

My knees

You could dare to add one more

Ah, ladies

Beyond the black edge of brow

Seeing him eye a Picasso, Rockefeller took the man’s hand and placed it on the impasto

His soul rolled over

Set my wheel to the clock of rain

In the void the opportunity

Your eye

Will surely shine

Sea foam sugar meringue

Take your vitamins, get your exercise

In your pursuit of wholeness

Tremors back and forth gently sawing

Run rough with a god-awful sound

Just like you

A multitude of familiar paths lead off in every direction

Every street in this city is known

The limits of matter

But home was on the Champs-Elysées

Like a color wheel in the hand


One half dangling by a vowel, use that

Form is unavoidable

Taste for waste

And staring out at the neighbor’s tree


NOTES: Continue reading

Posted in poem | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Conrad Aiken and the Anthropological Machine

Titian, The Three Ages of Man, 1511-12

Linnaeus’s genius consists not so much in the resoluteness with which he places man among the primates as in the irony with which he does not record—as he does with the other species—any specific identifying characteristic next to the generic name Homo, only the old philosophical adage: nosce te ipsum (know yourself)…. It is worth reflecting on this taxonomic anomaly….

If the anthropological machine was the motor for man’s becoming historical, then the end of philosophy and the completion of the epochal destinations of being mean that today the machine is idling.
—Giorgio Agamben

It seems to me the “idling machine” that Agamben writes about in The Open is illustrated in the works of Conrad Aiken. In the circle of consciousness that operates in all of Aiken’s works, we see an imaginative articulation of the human as adjustments in his relationships are constantly made, next to, or interrupted by more or less florid, more or less beautiful passages one might describe as “poetic” or more unflatteringly as a deer granted the gift of language caught (willingly or no) in a beam of light. Continue reading

Posted in poetry essay, visual art essay | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment