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Cummings Centennials (1913)

Brancusi's "Mademoiselle Pogany"

Brancusi’s “Mademoiselle Pogany”

This rather belated post begins a series that will mark the events in Cummings’ life one hundred years ago. (The post for 1914 is forthcoming.) In 1913, the young (18-19 years old) E. E. Cummings finished his sophomore year and began his junior year at Harvard College. The young poet was still living at home, commuting to school by making the short walk from 104 Irving Street to Harvard Yard. In the spring semester, he was finishing up the second year Greek course and Latin B. Cummings’ Greek professor, C. P. Parker, was so impressed with his student’s translation of the first choral ode in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus that he mailed it to Cummings’ mother (Kennedy 56). In his Latin course, Cummings especially enjoyed translating Horace, producing, as Richard S. Kennedy notes, “three of the best poems he had yet written” (57). Also this year, the young poet took a course in Tennyson, whose Victorian moralism soon became tiring. Cummings jotted down these satirical couplets to express his displeasure and to amuse his classmates:

Dear God, be kind to Tennyson,
He did no harm to anyone.
For queen, for country, and for Thee
He wrote for all eternity.
He led an exemplary life
Having children by his wife.
Dear Lord: let Keats and Shelley wait.
Make Tennyson thy laureate. (qtd. in Kennedy 64-65)

Also in this spring semester, Cummings was writing more formal verse for a student audience: in March, he published two poems in The Harvard Advocate, “Summer Silence (Spenserian Stanza)” (March 7) and “Sunset” (March 21). In his discussion (in Spring 20) of the first poem, William Blissett says that it “puts one in mind of Keats more than Spenser, and of Rossetti more than either, as is evidenced by “immemorial” and “untranslated” (25). Blissett astutely points out how Cummings imitated Rossetti’s habit of “emphatically” placing “the long negative word” and how he later adapted this Pre-Raphaelite mannerism to his own special vocabulary in coining words like “unworld.” The mannerism, however, also helped to produce the last line and a half of the poem, which no doubt mightily impressed the Harvard aesthetes: “No whisper mars / The utter silence of the untranslated stars” (CP 858). The second poem, a sonnet, shows the influence of Keats in images like the “one pure-browed / White-fingered star” that stitches “the dead day’s shroud” (CP 859). After a classical allusion that imagines Night shaking “the day’s fillets [ribbons]” out of her “locks,” Cummings ends the poem on a more modern note: “Hark! the cold ripple sneering on the rocks!”

In May, 1913 Cummings appeared in a production of the Cambridge Social Dramatic Club, Jerome K. Jerome’s The New Lady Bantock, or Fanny and the Servant Problem (Kennedy 86). He played one of the problem servants, a second footman named Ernest Bennet. A graduate student in philosophy who had recently returned from a year in Paris played Vernon Wetherell, Lord Bantock. This tall and rather aloof student was named Thomas Stearns Eliot. Whoever cast the play must have been a clairvoyant genius, at least as far as predicting the two poets’ subsequent roles in Anglo-American poetry, for E. E. Cummings was destined to play the eternally snickering footman of modernism, while T. S. Eliot was fated to wear the mask of the lord of poetic erudition and arbiter of poetic reputation.

The new Lady Bantock was played by Amy de Gozzaldi, and in real life Cummings had a crush on her, so when the plot called for the two to kiss, he was shy of doing so. On opening night, however, as he remembered some 30 years later, their kiss struck sparks: “Amy de Gozzaldi kissed me;and her mouth came off on my mouth,and billions cheered:I shall never forget.” He also never forgot the fellow who played Lord Bantock, even if he did not remember his name: “let’s see:a snob,cold,older than me,aloof,never sat with the rest of the cast at rehearsals,immaculately dressed;you know,a type ‘the frozen jeuness[e] dorée’” (P/C 182). Since Eliot had met Emily Hale the year before, presumably he was not Cummings’ rival for Amy’s affections; however, it was the custom for the gentlemen in the cast to present the leading lady with a gift. Eliot brought Amy “a gorgeous bouquet of roses”; Cummings gave her a poem that was published in the June issue of the Harvard Monthly (Kennedy 86-87). The poem tells of dusk sinking “with faint wild wings . . . with Night’s arrow in her heart!” and of the lovers escaping from “the awful rant and roar of men and things . . . into Silence” (CP 863).

May was a busy month for Cummings. On May 11, he sent a letter to Scofield Thayer, “expressing . . . admiration” for one of Thayer’s love poems, writing: “I shall be very proud and happy indeed when I can say the thing so completely, so purely, and with such a true and fine ring” (qtd. in Dempsey 16). Thayer responded on May 13, inviting Cummings to join the editorial board of the Harvard Monthly. Among the editors at the time were Cummings’ friends Arthur Wilson, Cuthbert Wright, and Gilbert Seldes, future cultural critic and assistant editor of The Dial. Cummings is listed on the masthead as “E Estlin Cummings.” Looking at George Firmage’s Bibliography, it is apparent that Cummings cut down on his contributions to the Monthly after he became an editor, publishing no more poems in 1913 after the June appearance of his poem for Amy de Gozzaldi.

Perhaps Cummings turned his focus elsewhere for a time, for he had begun exploring Boston night life as well as the new developments in modern art and poetry, thanks to tutelage of S. Foster Damon, who introduced him to the music of Stravinsky and Debussy, as well as loaning him copies of Poetry magazine (Kennedy 78). It may have been in late 1913 when Damon “took Cummings out drinking for the first time in his life” at Jacob Wirth’s “sawdust-strewn restaurant on Stuart Street” in Boston (Kennedy 79). When the Armory Show was in Boston (from April 28 to May 19, 1913) Damon took Cummings to see it. Officially called the International Exhibition of Modern Art, the Armory Show was designed to introduce the American public to the latest trends in modern art, both European and American. As Kim Orcutt writes, the Boston version of the show “was whittled down from upwards of fourteen hundred to less than three hundred objects, and American works were eliminated, so Bostonians saw only the avant-garde European paintings, sculpture, and works on paper that had startled visitors in New York and Chicago.” Boston critics were not impressed, saying that the art was “branded with the mark of cocaine” and that it represented “charlatanism and insanity combined” (qtd. in Troyen 382).

In his 1920 review of T. S. Eliot, Cummings noted the Boston reaction to the show in this way:

The last word on caricature was spoken as far back as 1913. “My dear it’s all so perfectly ridiculous” remarked to an elderly Boston woman an elderly woman of Boston, as the twain made their noticeably irrevocable exeunt from that most colossal of all circuses, the (then in Boston) International. “My dear if some of the pictures didn’t look like something it wouldn’t be so amusing” observed, on the threshold, the e.B.w., adding “I should hate to have my portrait painted by any of those ‘artists’!” “They’ll never make a statue of me” stated with polyphiloprogenitive conviction the e.w.o.B. (26)

Cummings was especially taken by the Cézanne paintings and by Brancusi’s sculpture Mlle. Pogany, which, two years later in his graduation speech at Harvard, he termed a “triumph of line for line’s sake over realism” (“New Art” 6).

 

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Michael Webster

Grand Valley State University

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Works Cited

 

Ahearn, Barry, ed. Pound / Cummings: The Correspondence of Ezra Pound and E. E. Cummings. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1996. Abbreviated P/C.

Blissett, William. “E. E. Cummings: A Surprising Spenserian.” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 20 (2013): 24-36.

Cummings, E. E. Complete Poems, 1904-1962. Ed George J. Firmage. New York: Liveright, 1994.

—. “The New Art.” The Harvard Advocate (June 1915). Rpt. in E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised. Ed. George J. Firmage. New York: October House, 1965. 5-11.

—. “T. S. Eliot.” The Dial (June 1920). E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised. Ed. George J. Firmage. New York: October House, 1965. 25-29.

Dempsey, James. The Tortured Life of Scofield Thayer. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 2014.

Firmage, George J. E. E. Cummings: A Bibliography. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan UP, 1960.

The Harvard Monthly 56.1-5 (March-July 1913). Google Books. Web.

Hopkinson, Sarah. “The Early Advocate: e.e. cummings.” Notes from 21 South Street. The Harvard Advocate Blog. 17 Oct. 2012. Web.

Kennedy, Richard S. Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E. E. Cummings. New York: Liveright, 1980.

Kushner, Marilyn Satin and Kimberly Orcutt, eds. The Armory Show at 100: Modernism and Revolution. New York: New-York Historical Society / London: D. Giles, 2013.

Orcutt, Kim. “The Armory Show Lands with a Thud in Boston.” Blog post. The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution. New-York Historical Society. 13 April 2013. Web.

Troyen, Carol. “ ‘Unwept, unhonored, and unsung’: The Armory Show in Boston.” The Armory Show at 100: Modernism and Revolution. Eds. Marilyn Satin Kushner and Kimberly Orcutt, with Casey Nelson Blake. New York: New-York Historical Society / London: in association with D. Giles, 2013. 379-391.

 

Links:

EEC in Harvard Advocate: http://theadvocateblog.net/2012/10/17/from-the-archives-ee-cummings/ Published in The Harvard Advocate, Vol. XCV, March 7, 1913.

EEC poem in June, 1913 Harvard Monthly: http://books.google.com/books?id=q7onAAAAYAAJ&q=Cummings#v=onepage&q=fluttering%20dusk&f=false

Armory Show at 100: http://armory.nyhistory.org/about/

Orcutt, Armory Show in Boston: http://armory.nyhistory.org/the-armory-show-lands-with-a-thud-in-boston/

Natalie Merchant’s Performance of “maggie and milly and molly and may”

Here is a video of Natalie Merchant performing her setting of “maggie and milly and molly and may” (CP 682).  A studio recording of the song is one of the tracks on Merchant’s 2010 double CD Leave Your Sleep (Nonesuch), which contains her musical adaptations of poems both famous and quite obscure, many of them children’s poems.

____________________________

Michael Webster

Grand Valley State University

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In Memoriam: Norman Friedman (1925-2014)

Norman Friedman, 1960

Norman Friedman, 1960

Anyone who begins a rigorous study of Cummings soon realizes the crucial contributions of Norman Friedman. In a spirit of celebration of his life, and in memory of his death, Michael Webster has created a webpage, which can be found here.

The links and tributes below (which are also included on Spring’s website) help give an indication of the extensive and generous life’s work of this beloved scholar.

Links:

A Norman Friedman Bibliography

From Spring 14 & 15 (2005 / 2006) [Special Norman Friedman Double Issue]:

Tributes to Norman Friedman.” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 14-15 (October 2006): 9-30.

Friedman, Norman. “The Other Cummings: The Private Side.” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 14-15 (October 2006): 31-45.

—. “Cummings, Oedipus, and Childhood: Problems of Anxiety and Intimacy.” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 14-15 (2006): 46-68.

Lewis Turco, “The Passing of Norman Friedman

Michael Dylan Welch, “Tribute to Norman Friedman

Tributes to Norman Friedman

Here are some tributes to Norman, in reverse order in which they were received (e-mail fashion):

**********

I never met Norman Friedman, but his books, his deep understanding of Cummings’ spirit greatly helped me to translate the poems of “our nonhero”.
My sympathy to his wife, family and friends.

jacques demarcq

**********

I never had the chance to meet Norman, but in reading through your emails, I have been struck by how his spirit of generosity lives on in the Cummings Society. I gave my first conference presentation at a Cummings panel in 2008, and I felt very much welcomed and encouraged by Mike, Gillian, Etienne, and everyone in a way similar to how many of you shared how Norman welcomed you and your work. The Cummings Society has been a major influence in where I am today, and I now have a much clearer understanding as to why the Cummings Society is so unique: Norman was and is a nonhero, and like EEC, a nonhero’s spirit contagiously affects the people around him.

for the leaping greenly spirits of trees,

Aaron Moe

**********

I was shocked and dismayed to learn of Norman Friedman’s death. He has been very important to me as I have in recent years continued my work on the writings of E. E. Cummings. I recently reviewed all my past correspondence with him and realized that I did not always respond to his suggestions – and even invitations! I plan to remedy that, partly as a thank you for his invaluable service to all of us for many years.

Bethany Dumas

**********

Yes, I agree, we are all obviously uniting our voices here to remember Norman as a philanthropist and great lover of people and literature.

Personally, I’ll always remember his enthusiasm and warmth when welcoming me in New York as a PHD student on EEC. That day gave a new and truer dimension to my work as Norman had known EEC and had been there till his last day. I hope that Zelda can be reassured as now it is EEC in turn who is welcoming him over there, their fingers not writing or painting but uniting and dancing,

“the impressed fingers of sublime
Memory,of that loveliness receiving
the image (all our) proud heart(s) (will forever) cherish as fair”

(Sonnets, Unrealities, II, 137).

Claudia Desblaches
France

**********

Zelda and Norman have been in my thoughts all week.  It was a shock to be in the middle of a conference last week and hear about Norman’s passing.  It took me back to my first ALA conference in the late ‘80s and all the ALA Cummings sessions after that.  I felt welcomed by them both—even when I was a very young, awkward scholar of perhaps 23 years.  Norman was always helpful and encouraging.  I am so proud to tell everyone that I meet that I am part of this wonderful group of EEC scholars. Even if I have been absent in recent years, Norman, Zelda and all of you are part of who I am.
I too look forward to many reflective pieces in Spring. He cared deeply about this work, so it is time for me to return to EEC in his honor.  I will think of him as I write!

Sincerely,

Taimi Olsen

**********

Norman was the Chair of the Cummings Society when I started attending ALA as a graduate student in the 1980s.  He and Zelda took me under their wings immediately and made me feel like my fledgling work was valued.  They set the welcoming tone that characterizes this group to this day.  What fine founders all of those early Cummings scholars were.

Best,
Rai Peterson

**********

From Madrid in Euroland,

I think that we all should write something about our relationship with Norman and Zelda for the next issue of Spring. That’s the best tribute for a generous person who, in my case, helped so much with my PhD and later publications and, considering the time difference, patiently woke up in the middle of the night when in the 1990s I sent him faxes asking questions about Mr. Cummings.

Thanks a lot, Norman.

Teresa González Mínguez

**********

Norman was a fine scholar and a gentle, kind man.  It says something about your scholarship when you write not only the first critical monograph on a major poet, but one that remains, after many decades, the best single study of Cummings’s poetry.  I had the honor and pleasure of meeting Norman and Zelda several times at Cummings sessions of conferences and when we each lectured at the other’s university during the Cummings centennial.  Each meeting, professional or social, reinforced my feeling that they were a gracious, charming couple.  Many of you know that Norman (and Zelda too, I believe) was a practicing psychologist.  I had a chance to see and benefit from this side of his wisdom when he kindly advised me on some problems I was having with my adolescent daughter.  The advice, like all of Norman’s insights, was offered gently–and gratefully received.  That was Norman.  We’ll miss him.

Milt Cohen

**********

I have never been more grateful for a friendship or more honored by one than that with Norman and Zelda. I’m happy to have expressed that to them while Norman was still with us, and it was always with the greatest sincerity. I know that Zelda will be sustained now by the bonds shared in those final years, even as I offer my sympathy for the inevitability of her loss. I hope she finds comfort in the outpouring of shared memories and tributes that I read online this evening, as I add my voice to that chorus.

Gerry Locklin
Gerald.Locklin@csulb.edu

**********

Thanks for letting me know, Mike.  Very sorry to hear.

After finding out about Norman, I had a yen to read up on him at Wikipedia and was shocked to be unable to find an entry on him.  Is there one?  I’m not a big admirer of Wikipedia but it can be handy for surface views of various subjects, so I’d like it to have entries on all the writers I admire–including, for certain, Norman.     Would any of our society’s younger admirers of Cummings be interested in making an entry on him?  I wish I had time to myself, but . . .

all best, Bob Grumman

**********

Like Todd, Norman was my first connection to the Cummings Society, and he became a sort of mentor to me, as I’m sure he was to many. I always felt honored to be part of the society and to have the great Norman Friedman comment on my work. Through his encouragement I was able to accomplish and achieve more than I ever thought I could.  He was not only a brilliant scholar but an inspiring teacher, a generous colleague, and an unforgettable person.

Millie Kidd

**********

Norman was the editor of Spring when I submitted my first work on E. E. Cummings.  He was very encouraging and supportive.   I only met him once during a conference panel that I participated in, but as so many others have noted, his work and its influence is indisputable.

Todd  Martin

**********

In Memoriam Norman Friedman

a great

man
is
gone. (#14 73 Poems  CP 786)

how generous is that himself the sun

(never a moment ceasing to begin
the mystery of day for someone’s eyes)

with goldenly his fathering
nearness awakened
and our night’s thousand million miracles (#84 95 Poems  CP 756)

over us if(as what was dusk becomes
darkness)innumerably singular
strictly immeasurable nowhere flames

to call the stars, Norman and Cummings,  (#69 95 Poems  CP 741)

whose absence would have made your whole life and my
(and infinite our)merely to undie  (#45 73 Poems  CP 817)

Norman,
“i carry your books with me(i carry them in my heart”; you’re with stars now and we remember.  Our thoughts and prayers are with Zelda and family,

Gillian Huang-Tiller and Ken Tiller
University of Virginia-Wise

**********

Norman’s influence extends across boundaries here into South Africa, where I’ve been carrying him, carrying him in my heart. To read his work has been one of those turning-point experiences. To have met him in Boston was the most gentle mind-blow. He and Zelda like that, beautifully smallish within a very tangible aura of living well, in touch with each other and life. You could feel his big, gentle, clear heart from a distance. I will never forget him, and it actually hurts, stings, to think that he won’t be lightly treading this Earth with us any further. Not to mention missing his further writing on our non-hero.

Words fail, and so they should.

Etienne Terblanche

**********

Dick Bailey, who hired me at the University of Michigan in 1985 and also died just recently, was Norman’s student.
Over my 27 years here of teaching at Michigan, before I retired last year, this lead to many spirited conversations between us about Norman, E.E, etc.
So sorry to hear of Norman’s passing.

I admire everything Norman wrote about E.E.

Everything.

The body of work is beautiful.

On this point, what more can you say?

Beautiful.

–Rich Cureton

**********

Norman once told me he wanted “forgetting me, remember me” to be thought of at his passing. So, I imagine, would most of us.

David V. Forrest

**********

Thanks for your input on Norman. We were colleagues for years. As you say
He lives on.
George Held

**********

Thanks, Michael.  N. lived the EEC spirit.
Bill Harmon

Cummings as a Descendant of Whitman

Image from Ed Folsom's "Whitman Making Books"

Image from Folsom’s “Whitman Making Books”

Quite awhile ago, Michael Webster learned that I was exploring the connections between Cummings and Whitman, and he shared with me a sheet from the Cummings archive. At an early time in Cummings career, he took a handful of Whitman’s lines, scanned their rhythmic stresses, and yet also arranged them typographically on the page. Provocatively, Cummings experiments with both visual and aural dynamics all while using Whitman’s lines.

In Zoopoetics: Animals and the Making of Poetry, I provide an image of the sheet and I discuss it further (see 60 ff.). I also point out that Whitman saw “Sex, Amativeness, and Animality” to be the three overarching themes of Leaves of Grass (Whitman 1891–92, 436; Moe 60)—three themes that pervade Cummings’ oeuvre as well.

Here, I want to explore further the connections between Whitman and Cummings. Directly or indirectly, the seed for Cummings’ Protean poetics can be found in the way that Whitman morphed the letters Leaves of Grass. As Ed Folsom observes in “Whitman Making Books / Books Making Whitman,” Whitman hand stamped the letters Leaves of Grass so that the letters morph into luscious vegetation. In another version, Whitman drew the letters so that they morph into sperm (see image above). There is this erotic and organic energy in language—almost an agency—that Whitman celebrates. The alphabetic forms of letters seem to want to shapeshift into something more not unlike sperm joins with an egg to become a zygote, then explodes into millions of cells and several systems and organs. Whitman foregrounds how this kind of energy exists in language as well.

As an aside, I am reminded of Ronald Johnson’s “earthearthearth” poem. He places three earth’s together in each line, for six lines, and the organic, erotic, and Protean energy of language takes over. Several words and phrases suddenly emerge: art, hear, hearth, ear, hear the earth, heart, heart the earth.

I suggest it is helpful to see Cummings’ Protean poetics—where letters shapeshift into seedlings, snowflakes, flowers, bees, flies, grasshoppers, leaves, confetti, and so much more—in the context of Whitman’s poetic vision. This suggestion calls for several pages of close reading in order to substantiate, which is beyond the scope of this blog post. Suffice it to say that Whitman took seriously Emerson’s call for the “architecture” of a poem to be “alive” like the “spirit of a plant or an animal” (290). He revolutionized poetic form by returning to the elemental forces of the earth and of the body.

And Cummings’ work—far from being an anomaly to the poetic tradition—continues that work.

 

_________________________________________

Aaron M. Moe

Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, IN

_________________________________________

 

Works Cited

Emerson, Ralph. The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. Brooks Atkinson. New York: Modern Library, 2000. Print.

Folsom, Ed. “Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman: A Catalog and Commentary.” The Walt Whitman Archive. 2005. Web. 31 Aug. 2011.

Johnson, Ronald. Songs of the Earth. Presented by Kaligram Magazine, Kaldron On-Line, and Light and Dust Mobile Anthology of Poetry, 2000. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.

Moe, Aaron. Zoopoetics: Animals and the Making of Poetry. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2014. Print.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass in the Walt Whitman Archive. Lincoln: Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, University of Nebraska, 1995. Web.

“SOME [of my poems] are to be seen & not heard”—EEC

Retro Microphone

Retro Microphone

SOME of them. This quote comes from a letter Cummings wrote late in his life—July 4, 1960—to Miss Lawrence, and has often been cited in explorations of Cummings’ visual poems. In the letter, Cummings provides a brief gloss of several of his poems that hinge on the visual dynamic (Letters 267–68).

Now, Cummings will most likely always be thought of the poet of the EYE (and the i), and I agree. Cummings did, though, appreciate Gertrude Stein’s work (see “The New Art” in Miscellany 5–11), and his oevree suggests he gave much more than a passing glance at what is possible with language and the ear. My point? Cummings’ poetics of the eye should not overshadow his avant-garde-poetics-of-the-ear.

Some of his poems ought to be heard—and then some should be heard and seen together.

Take “ygUDuh” for instance—otherwise written as you gotta (CP 547). Cummings’ phonetic spellings, combined with the visual spaces of the indentations and stanza breaks, encourage the reader to perform the poem with the full body. The line “ydoan o nudn” is normally written as you don’t know nothing. The line “LISN bud LISN” is normally listen, bud, listen—but the capitalization calls for more emphasis by the performing reader, and the following stanza break calls for silence before the speaker utters his bigoted statement. One sees the gestures of the poem, but those gestures are translated into gestures of the performing body—as if seeing is part of listening. And make no mistake about it. This poem must begin in the mouth for the strange “spellings” to begin to make sense.

Larry Chott has helped circulate another of Cummings’ avant-garde-poems-for-the-ear through many audiences: “oil tel du woil doi sez” (CP 312), that is, I’ll tell the world I says. In “The Sight of Sound: Cummings’ ‘oil tel du woil doi sez’” Chott contextualizes the poem as taking place at a bar. I won’t recap his brilliant close reading except to say that that the bar falls silent, all faces turn toward the speaker, who, becoming increasingly exasperated, hollers out “HAI / yoozwidduhpoimnuntwaiv un duhyookuhsumpnruddur / givusuhtoonunduhphugnting,” which reads HEY! you with the permanent wave and the uku-something rather . . . give us a tune on the fucking thing.

Chott applies Rai Peterson’s insight that Cummings’ blank spaces often generate an “audible silence” or a “chaotic white noise,” and he sees such a dynamic in the way the final three lines are spaced (see his article for the typography of the poem). The visual dynamic is important in this poem, but the poem, like “ygUDuh,” begins in the mouth. True, we look at the letters first, but the letters do not make sense until the mouth begins performing them. It must be heard.

Many more examples of Cummings’ avant-garde-poetics-of-the-ear exist, including, for instance, a poem about a super-moon rising. In “!” (CP 722), the assonance of the diphthong r-O-U-n-d crescendos in various forms until the mouth is full of roundness.

But even in his more “accessible” poems, the ear matters. Poetry, by and large, must be read aloud in order to understand the texture and tone of the language. “‘next to of course god america i” is one such poem (CP 267). If read in monotone, all seems lost. Many readers will discover and emphasize various dynamics of the poem—and there are, of course, multiple ways to envision the poem’s speaker. I see the speaker begin in sarcasm which augments into hysteria and desperation. The phrase “even deafanddumb” comes like an epiphany.  Here is a link to my reading of Cummings’ “next to of course god america i.” Students often “get” the poem much more readily when it is performed rather than read, even if “read aloud” in monotone. Hearing the poem leads one back into seeing it, into tracing the instability throughout the sonnet: broken words, missing periods, and so forth.

(I should mention that The Poetry Foundation launched an online project to house audio files of people reading poetry aloud. Concerning Fair Use, they set the precedent that circulating audio files of one’s reading of a poem is all good.)

The EAR and the EYE ought not to be seen as oppositions. Rather, they can be profoundly related in the reading of Cummings’ poetry. Etienne Terblanche, for instance, explores the sounds in one of Cummings’ most visual poems: “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r” (see “’That Incredible Unanimal/Mankind’”).

What other poems (or passages from EIMI) epitomize Cummings’ avant-garde-poetics-of-the-ear?

In what other provocative places in Cummings’ oeuvre do the EAR and the EYE merge?

 

_________________________________________

Aaron M. Moe

Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, IN

_________________________________________

 

 

Works Cited

Chott, Larry. “The Sight of Sound: Cummings’ ‘oil tel du woil doi sez.’” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 6 (1997): 45–48.

Cummings, E. E. Complete Poems, 1904-1962. Ed. George J. Firmage. New York: Liveright, 1991. Print.

Nuez, Jessie. “Retro Microphone on Stage.” latinabloggersconnect.com. 24 Jan. 2013. Web Image. 17 Nov. 2014.

Terblanche, Etienne. “That ‘Incredible Unanimal/Mankind’: Jacques Derrida, E. E. Cummings and a Grasshopper.” Journal of Literary Studies 20.3-4 (2004): 218–247. Print.

 

EEC . . . A Major Modernist Poet?

cummings2Should EEC be considered as a Major Modernist poet?

Yes, by all means. Wallace Stevens thought modern poetry had “To construct a new stage” (Stevens 240). Cummings constructed his new stage through the modernist principle of fragmentation.

Indeed, in “From a Play,” William Carlos Williams articulates his desire to make the “sensuous / qualities” of a poem—the poem’s gestures—“express / as much as / or more // than the merely / literal / burden of the thing / could ever tell” (II:45). Cummings brings this seed to fruition more than any other modernist poet. His poems are PLAYS in that the actors (the shapes of letters, fragments, words, lines, stanzas) constantly perform.

In “The Poem as a Field of Action,” Williams calls for “sweeping changes from top to bottom of the poetic structure” (51). Cummings did this through the modernist principle of fragmentation like no other modernist poet.

Yes, whereas T. S. Eliot tells us “Words strain, / Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, / Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, / Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, / Will not stay still” (Eliot 180)–Cummings shows us, time and time again, through his “precision which creates movement” (CP 221).

He even has a meta-poem about how each broken piece of a mirror is “whole with sky”–and that breaking a mirror, or breaking language, ought to be considered lucky (CP 623). His fragments are whole with poem.

Like the hydra, a word cut in half instantly grows two or more semiotic possibilities. The possibilities emerge not only through the semiotic connotations of the fragments, but also through the ways that the fragments gesture on the page.

Yes, because like all great modernist poets, he is difficult. He also has his long, difficult work, EIMI, that rivals James Joyce’s Ulysses. EIMI integrates multiple languages as it celebrates fragmentation and typographical experiment in a blending of multiple genres (travelogue, diary, narrative prose, poetry).

Moreover, Cummings’ poetics have roots in Whitman, one of the headwaters for Modern American Poetry. In “A Backward Glance o’er Travel’d Roads,” Whitman suggests that the three pervasive themes throughout Leaves of Grass are “Sex and Amativeness, and even Animality—though meanings that do not usually go along with those words are behind all, and will duly emerge; and all are sought to be lifted into a different light and atmosphere” (Whitman 1891–92, 436). Those three themes pervade Cummings’ oeuvre as well, and he contributes to the process of exploring the meanings that do not usually go along with those words.

Cummings’ poetics are also very Emersonian. In “The Poet,” Emerson calls for a poem’s “architecture” to be “alive” and to move with the “spirit of a plant or an animal” (290). Whitman did this as his poems partake in the organic agency of plants, highlighted by the way he morphed the letters Leaves of Grass into a sprawling vegetation (scroll down on Folsom’s “Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman”). Cummings continues this process. Countless poems are Protean as the form—the “architecture” of letters, words, lines, stanzas, poems, and the spaces between these constellations—shapeshifts into leaves, snow, grasshoppers, cats, bees, flies, flowers, petals, seedlings, smoke, bird calls, moons, confetti, and more. The bottom line?—Cummings brings one of the seeds of modern poetry to full fruition. His poems morph into iconic shapes just like Whitman’s letters in Leaves of Grass morph into plants.

BUT THEN AGAIN, Cummings should NOT be considered a major modernist poet. His life’s work explores, revisits, and sustains all things concerning the lowercase i. To cast Cummings as a Major Modernist poet misunderstands the point of a “nonhero,” and inflates the i to being that which Cummings eschewed: the ego-filled I.

True, Cummings is a trickster. Tricksters flourish in the margins, not in the center. Even if one tried to place Cummings in the middle of the modernist movement, his work would undo that centered-placement in order to get back “home” to the margins.

This is to say that Cummings is like Feste in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Feste, who thrives in the margins and in the instability of language—(“A sentence is but a chev’ril glove to a good wit—how quickly the wrong side may be turned outward” [III.i.10–12])—could NEVER marry Olivia, who lives in the stable center of society. Even though Olivia appreciates Feste’s wit, he could never live with her. It would suffocate him.

Ah, but this is precisely why Cummings should be considered a major modernist poet just as Feste is seen one of the CRUCIAL characters who, as the wise-fool, illuminates even as he plays with the dungeon of darkness (Shakespeare IV.ii.20 ff.).  

Hold on. Major modernist poets often gravitated toward high modernism. Cummings based his poetics on circus tents and rollercoaster rides, as shown by “The Adult, the Artist, and the Circus” and “Coney Island” (Miscellany 109–114; 149–153). He is not SERIOUS ENOUGH to be a major modernist poet.

Oh, so you suggest that Cummings reveled in “low culture,” you mean like postmodernists?

I guess.

True, Cummings thought the “AUDIENCE IS THE PERFORMANCE” (Miscellany 151), which anticipates the postmodern principle that the dynamic between the reader and the text is one of creation. And yes, he implies his poems are “competing” with the roller coasters at “Coney Island” (CP 221)—talk about low culture! His point is well taken, though. Why should someone read a poem when they could ride a rollercoaster?—unless the poem takes the reader’s imagination on a rollercoaster of movement. But I digress. My point is that being a proto-postmodern poet ought to further the case that Cummings is a major modernist poet. In many respects, he was ahead of his contemporaries and more at home in avant-garde ecopoetics of today’s writers like Brenda Hillman and Evelyn Reilly.

Additionally, when Cummings made a poem, the process of poiesis often entailed 30 to 40+ drafts. Even as a trickster at play, he took his makings very, very seriously—not unlike Feste.

But even if the play hinges on Feste, he will never garner more applause than Viola, Olivia, or the Duke. That’s just not how it works. He just cannot be a major actor in the play.

Thoughts?

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Aaron M. Moe

Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, IN

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Works Cited

Cummings, E. E. A Miscellany Revised. Ed. George J. Firmage. New York: October House, 1965. Print.

—. Complete Poems, 1904-1962. Ed. George J. Firmage. New York: Liveright, 1991. Print.

Eliot, T. S. Collected Poems, 1909-1962. New York: Harcourt  Brace & Company, 1991. Print.

Emerson, Ralph. The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. Brooks Atkinson. New York: Modern Library, 2000. Print.

Folsom, Ed. “Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman: A Catalog and Commentary.” The Walt Whitman Archive. N.p., 2005. Web. 31 Aug. 2011.

Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1986. Print.

Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems. New York: Vintage Books, 1982. Print.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass in the Walt Whitman Archive. Lincoln: Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, University of Nebraska, 1995. Web.

Williams, William Carlos. “The Poem as a Field of Action.” Twentieth-Century American Poetics:  Poets on the Art of Poetry. Ed. Dana Gioia, Meg Schoerke, and David Mason. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004. 51–57. Print.

Williams, Willian Carlos. The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams. Ed. Christopher MacGowan. 2 vols. New York: New Directions, 1988. Print.

 

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