EEC Society Blog

for the leaping greenly spirits of trees

Tag: EEC

love are in we

Heart IIAmong the myriad of textual operations E. E. Cummings performs so masterfully on every single imaginable level of language, a particularly elegant one is changing the word order of an otherwise “normal” sentence or phrase. Of course Cummings is not the first poet to take liberties with word order, but, as Norman Friedman remarked already in 1960, Cummings’s “distortion of the normal sequence of a sentence goes far beyond mere poetic inversion” (108). Linguist Irene Fairley, in a book devoted to Cummings’s ungrammaticality, deals extensively with his various “dislocations” or scramblings. And Richard Cureton cites scrambling of normal word order as “one of Cummings’s favorite iconic strategies,” iconic because it can convey “thematic disorder” (196).

Just taking one word out of its place and repositioning it within a sentence can have a dramatic effect, though in the best cases it is dramatic only in as much as it is subtle. The “original” unscrambled sentence is evoked, and the scrambled version does not so much conflict with it, but rather opens up new semantic possibilities. It also opens up the very possibility of reading new possibilities. In that sense Cummings celebrates not just a new order or a re-ordering, but the potential of dis-ordering an existing order.

I’d like to demonstrate the possibilities of this operation using one simple example, taken from the poem “the great advantage of being alive” (CP 664), a poem that celebrates loving and living, indeed loving-as-living. The poem is worth reading in its entirety, of course, but here I just want to focus on the locution “love are in we,” which recurs five times in the poem. To arrive at “love are in we,” we may surmise, Cummings switched the first and last words of the familiar and grammatical “we are in love,” a locution that is also found in the poem, in the second stanza:

we are in love (conventional order)

love are in we  (scrambled version)

What are some of the advantages, then, of “love are in we” over “we are in love”?

  1. First, perceptual freshness. This is always important to Cummings, but it is particularly important here because “we are in love” is so often used in everyday discourse that it is in real danger of being trite. Switching its words around invites us to stop and rethink each of the words that make up this string of words, rather than take it as a whole, which runs the risk of barely taking it at all.
  2. When we attempt to make sense of this fresh sentence, we note that “love” is positioned now as its subject. “We” is no longer the subject; the sentence is not about us (and even less about “me,” as in “I am in love” or “I love you”), but about love itself. Love is elevated syntactically to the position of subject, and this elevation is part of the way the poem celebrates love.
  3. Since the verb following “love” is “are,” we may be encouraged to understand the noun love as plural, suggesting that it is not a single thing but a plurality of possibilities, matching the plurality of “we.” This further freshens and elevates love.
  4. While “love” seems to be the subject, “we” is of course also a subject pronoun, and so maintains something of the subject status it had enjoyed in the original sentence (compare to the theoretical, and grammatically more correct “love are in us”). This new formulation thus cleverly keeps both “love” and “we” as potential subjects, and reinforces the relation, even equation, between “we” and “love.”
  5. Finally, ending with “we” leaves the sequence “love are in we” open-ended, amenable to receiving additions. Cummings uses this openness later in the poem when he adds to it and writes “love are in we am in i are in you.” In this well wrought sequence of words “we” doubles as both the ending of “love are in we” and the opening of “we am in i,” and the same is true of “i”:

 

love are in we am in i are in you =

love are in we

we am in i

i are in you

Cummings ends the poem with another variation, switching “you” and “we” to get: “love are in you am in i are in we.”[1] In these two longer strings, it is the intertwining of pronouns (you, I, we), and verbs (are, am), all (dis)organizing under the sign of love, which is foregrounded.

So, how can one still say, and say freshly and meaningfully, “we are in love”? Cummings shows us that by an alteration of word order, we can say that, and so much more, but differently.

 

_______________________

Roi Tartakovsky

New York University

_______________________

 

[1] Fairley analyzes the poem’s last line as an example of “repetition that involves the compounding of parallel sentences,” so that her reconstructed reading yields: You are in love; I am in love; We are in love.” Though I reconstruct the sentence differently, I am in complete agreement with Fairley when she writes that a secondary interpretation embedded in the sequence is for love is in us, and that the overall result “is a much more memorable statement than the standard ‘We are in love’” (32).

 

Works Cited

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

Cureton, Richard D. “E. E. Cummings: A Case of Iconic Syntax.” Language and Style 14.3 (1981): 183-215. Print.

Fairley, Irene R. E. E. Cummings and Ungrammar: A Study of Syntactic Deviance in His Poems. New York: Watermill Publishers, 1975. Print.

Friedman, Norman. E.E. Cummings: The Art of His Poetry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1960. Print.

 

 

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“Each Age a Lens”: Cummings and Ecopoetics

The Poets light but Lamps –
Themselves – go out-
The Wicks they stimulate
If vital Light
Inhere as do the Suns –
Each Age a Lens
Disseminating their
Circumference – 
Emily Dickinson

(available on Poetry Foundation)

In the 1930s, not all readers knew what to do with Cummings, let alone appreciate the “vital Light” of his poems. In 1931 for instance, R. P. Blackmur compared Cummings’ innovations to nothing more than “baby talk” (340). Ironically, Blackmur’s scathing essay on Cummings ended up in his book titled Language as Gesture (published 1952)—he just did not see the ways in which Cummings’ poems gesture in all of their materiality. Nor did he revise his stance over the course of 20 years of thought.

However, Blackmur did recognize that future readers may value Cummings’ work more than he:

Excessive hyphenation of single words, the use of lower case “i,” the breaking of lines, the insertion of punctuation between the letters of a word, and so on, will have a possible critical importance to the textual scholarship of the future; but extensive consideration of these peculiarities today has very little importance, carries almost no reference to the meaning of the poems. (320, italics added)

Now that we are in that future age, Cummings, so it seems, may hold a crucial place in ecocritical scholarship.

A growing number of Cummings scholars see this age of ecopoetics to be the lens that gives us traction in Cummings’ most avant-garde moments. The challenge, though, for many of us Cummings people is to write and teach in such a way so as to invite readers into the shapeshifting acrobatics of Cummings’ ecopoetics.

In order to invite readers into the world of happenings in Cummings’ poems, I draw on Scott Knickerbocker’s 2012 Ecopoetics: The Language of Nature, The Nature of Language. Amongst the emergent definitions of ecopoetics, Knickerbocker’s concept of sensuous poiesis helps pinpoint the dynamic in Cummings’ craft: “the process of rematerializing language specifically as a response to nonhuman nature” (2). Knickerbocker provides an in-depth exploration of the sensuous poiesis of four poets, thereby leaving room for other readers to explore the dynamic elsewhere.

Though a hearty claim, I suggest that no other American poet so thoroughly “rematerialized language in response to nonhuman nature” than Cummings. His poems shapeshift into rain, moons, grasshoppers, cats, leaves, snowflakes, bees, stars, air, hummingbirds, seedlings, and many more species and forces in the more-than-human life environing us.

Precisely the same dynamic that made Cummings unreadable to Blackmur opens up infinite possibilities for a textual scholarship attuned to the materiality of language and its dynamic relationship to the earth.

To illustrate and substantiate these claims would take much more space than a blog post, but lively discussions are taking place formally and informally as we unleash at the vital light of Cummings’ poems that inheres as do the suns when a community of readers disseminate its circumference.

The starting place, though, is recognizing how Cummings’ poetics undergo a thorough rematerialization of language. This rematerialization has and continues to alienate some readers (like Blackmur), but during today’s turn to new materialisms and ecopoetics, Cummings seems to have found a home.

grasshopper2

___________________________

Aaron M. Moe

Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame

___________________________

Works Cited

Blackmur, R. P. Language as Gesture: Essays in Poetry. New York: Harcourt  Brace & Company, 1952. Print.

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

Knickerbocker, Scott. Ecopoetics: The Language of Nature, the Nature of Language. U of Massachusetts P, 2012. Print.

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CFP for ALA Conference | Boston, MA | May 21-24, 2015

E. E. Cummings Sessions at American Literature Association’s 26th annual conference at the Westin Copley Place in Boston, MA on May 21-24, 2015

Deadline January 25, 2015

The E. E. Cummings Society will co-sponsor one collaborative panel with the John Dos Passos Society at the American Literature Association conference in Boston on May 21-24, 2015. In addition, the Cummings Society will sponsor one to two sessions on E. E. Cummings.

Intersections of E.E. Cummings and John Dos Passos

This collaborative panel invites varied approaches to examining the intersections between E.E. Cummings and John Dos Passos. Their careers overlap and in striking ways: both authors went to Harvard, were visual artists, wrote experimental dramas, served in ambulance services during World War I, endured the horrors of warfare and the censorship of the government, and engaged in the activism of the radical political environment of the early 20th century and the resulting hardships of the literary marketplace. In the 1930s, Cummings and Dos Passos both visited the Soviet Union and wrote about their experiences and impressions of the culture, and both experienced drastic shifts in political beliefs during that period.

We welcome submissions related to form and genre, modernism and modernity, war, gender and sexuality, transnationalism, print culture, archival study, politics, activist writing, and related topics. Collaborative papers and pedagogical approaches are also welcome.

300-500 word abstracts and a brief CV to Victoria Bryan, President of the John Dos Passos Society (vbryan@clevelandstatecc.edu) and Michael Webster, President of the E.E. Cummings Society (websterm@gvsu.edu) by January 25, 2015.

E. E. Cummings Sessions Honoring Norman Friedman

In memory of the first and finest Cummings scholar, Norman Friedman (1925-2014), we encourage everyone to relate their proposals and papers in some way to Norman’s work. (A Norman Friedman bibliography may be found here.) We invite proposals for papers on any aspect of Cummings’ life or work. Proposals on topics that Norman pioneered will be especially welcome:

  • Formal qualities of Cummings’ poems and prose, including manuscript studies
  • Cummings’ reputation in the academy and beyond
  • Teaching Cummings
  • The maturity of Cummings’ childlike vision
  • Cummings’ transcendental vision and its Asian and New England sources.
  • Psychological aspects of Cummings’ life and work

Submit 250-400 word abstracts to Michael Webster (websterm@gvsu.edu) by January 25, 2015.

For further information on the American Literature Association conference, please consult the ALA conference website at www.alaconf.org.

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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

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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.

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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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