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Tag: T. S. Eliot

Shatter a Mirror: Teaching EEC in a Survey Course

20141114_123534Sometimes, to teach a poem, you just have to go outside and shatter a mirror. For Cummings, shattered mirrors, and shattered language, are not unlucky. Far from it. More on this in a moment.

Teaching a survey of American literature has its pros and cons, to be sure. In order to provide a survey of the literature from 1865-1945, one ends up spending only a day on T.S. Eliot—and maybe only half-a-day on Gertrude Stein—in order to allow the space and time for novels and short stories (and perhaps one play). Most modernist writers are difficult, and even the “more accessible” writers like Robert Frost have their own “vast chaos” that ought to be explored (12). It is beyond challenging to do justice to the difficult poetry and poetics throughout modernism, and EEC is no different.

Unfortunately, Cummings often gets pushed aside. Anthologies may include only one (or two) of his more avant-garde pieces because of their strangeness, their difficulty, and the sense of WTF do we do with that? The Norton anthology I use includes only some of his “more accessible” experiments like “Buffalo Bill’s” which is a marvelous poem, but it does not quite demonstrate the way that Cummings brings to fruition the modernist principle of fragmentation. The selection of poems in an anthology often do not give students a chance to venture into Cummings’ difficult poetics, and as a result, his work is often overlooked or dismissed.

This year, I decided to end our unit of Modernist poets with Cummings. As we explored Stein, Eliot, Williams, Stevens, I intentionally foregrounded their statements about what modern poetry is all about—especially the statements that had to do with words breaking apart (Eliot), and the poem being a new stage (Stevens), and the need to undergo a complete recasting of poetic structure (Williams) and so forth (for details and citations, see EEC—A Major Modernist Poet?).

And then, in the last ten minutes of the class before our day on Cummings, we went outside and shattered a mirror. I placed a mirror in a box, and then placed a rock over it. For safety, we taped the box shut. This way, no one gets injured and no one sees their face in the mirror the moment that it shatters. I suggest to students that it is only unlucky to break a mirror if you actually see your face in the mirror the moment it breaks, because then you see your reflection shatter, and that could give you bad luck for seven years.

Outside, a brave volunteer, who vows not to sue me if she gets bad luck anyway, picks the box up and drops it. Then we open it up, and see each fragment, and read “pieces(in darker” (CP 623). Here, Cummings wonders why people think it is “un / lucky” to shatter a mirror, for each piece, each fragment, is “whole with sky” (CP 623).

I encourage students, then, as they read Cummings’ more difficult poems, to pay attention to the ways that the fragments are whole with their own poem, so to speak. To use Etienne Terblanche’s phrase, each fragment becomes its own “micro-ideogram” (Terblanche 73)—full of a wild semiosis.

William Blake’s “Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand” helps draw out the implications of Cummings’ use of fragmentation. The fragments become their own “sky” full of infinite potential. Instead of having “one sky,” we now, through the fragments, have multiple skies and multiple infinities. How? The fragments often generate several semiotic possibilities not only through connotations but also through their material gestures on the page.

I assure students that I know they can “get” the metaphor of “shattered language” and “shattered mirror” without going outside and seeing it in action, but there is something existential and phenomenological about actually experiencing the metaphor. Seeing the sky reflected in several fragments is uncanny and refreshing.

The exercise not only gives students traction as they venture into the difficult world of EEC, but it also serves to bring our discussion of fragmentation in Modernist poetry to full fruition. It shows that EEC is not an anomaly, or a break, from modernism, but much the opposite. He is the one who brings the principle of fragmentation to fullest fruition.

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Aaron M. Moe

Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame

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Works Cited

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

Frost, Robert. “The Figure a Poem Makes.” Twentieth-Century American Poetics:  Poets on the Art of Poetry. Ed. Dana Gioia, Meg Schoerke, and David Mason. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004. 11–12. Print.

Terblanche, Etienne. E. E. Cummings: Poetry and Ecology. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2012. Print.

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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 the 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.

—. “Do you remember when the fluttering dusk,” The Harvard Monthly, 56.4 (June 1913): 128.

—. “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 68 (June 1920): 781-84. Rpt. in 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.

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 poem in June, 1913 Harvard Monthly:  “Do you remember when the fluttering dusk,” (scroll down).

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/

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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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