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
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.