The Poets light but Lamps –
Themselves – go out-
The Wicks they stimulate
If vital Light
Inhere as do the Suns –
Each Age a Lens
(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.
Aaron M. Moe
Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame
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.