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Tag: Wallace Stevens

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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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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