Cummings: an Appreciation


Jack Foley



Sometimes one has to go to the dead to find the refreshment one needs.

E(dward) E(stlin) Cummings lived from 1894 to 1962; the book reviewed here,
E. E. Cummings, 100 Selected Poems (Grove Press), first appeared in 1954.
But as I look over the many books of poetry that come my way, I find myself
going back to Cummings and asking: Why don't they write as well as he?

Marianne Moore, who lived from 1887 to 1972, described Cummings as "a
concentrate of titanic significance," and he may well be that. The
selections in this book range from Tulips and Chimneys (1923) to Xaipe
(1950). One can open it almost anywhere and find something of value. This
is number 93:

                  to start,to hesitate;to stop
                  (kneeling in doubt: while all
                  skies fall) and then to slowly trust
                  T upon H,and smile

                  could anything be pleasanter
                  (some big dark little day
                  which seems a lifetime at the least)
                  except to add an A?

                  henceforth he feels his pride involved
                  (this i who's also you)
                  and nothing less than excellent
                  E will exactly do

                  next (our great problem nearly solved)
                  we dare adorn the whole
                  with a distinct grandiloquent
                  deep D;while all skies fall

                  at last perfection,now and here
                  —but look:not sunlight?yes!
                  and (plunging rapturously up)
                  we spill our masterpiece

"Spill our masterpiece." Is that some sort of pun on "Spell our master-
piece"? It takes a moment to realize that the protagonist has spelled
"DEATH" backwards, starting with "T upon H." (Is that a Kabballistic
impulse? Does the reversal of the letters of a word imply the reversal of
its meaning?) Cummings has evidently been kneeling, not in prayer but "in
doubt." Interestingly, "hesitatation," "stopping" and "doubt" are replaced
by "trust"—-though it is not trust in God. Throughout the poem the poet
piles the letters of the word "DEATH" on top of one another until, at
the end, noticing the sunlight, he suddenly arises (though Cummings
writes "plunging rapturously up") and knocks the letters down.  Death is
not only "spelled" but "spilled"(from the Old English spillan, to destroy).
The poem is playful, a game of letters like the child's game it describes.
But the stakes are high: "some big dark little day / which seems a lifetime
at the least." The poet "feels his pride involved"; he says, "we dare."
His "masterpiece" is a little tower of Babel; the moment "perfection"
is reached, the entire structure topples. Yet the tone of the conclusion
is not regretful but jubilant: "plunging rapturously up." In the "rapture"
of sunlight, the carefully-constructed categories by which the poem has
proceeded suddenly fall away. Cummings can begin again—and so can we. The
concluding couplet of the book is 

                teach disappearing also me the keen
                illimitable secret of begin

Here, the repeated phrase "all skies fall" suggests rain, as does "some
big dark little day." The child-poet is stuck inside playing with blocks.
With the appearance of sunlight, he can leave these games and take
up others.

Who but Cummings would write like that, with such a mixture of the playful
and the deeply serious ("our great problem"—death)? "A distinct grandil-
oquent / deep D"—what a wonderful phrase and what a wonderful illustration
of the possible sounds of "d"! With its deliberate avoidance of capital-
ization where we would expect capitalization and its expressive syntax,
the poem is clearly modernist in its impulses. Yet it is written in a rough
ballad measure (tetrameter / trimeter) and—it rhymes: "all / smile,"
"day / A," "you / do," "whole / fall," "yes / piece." (Cummings is in fact
counting syllables exactly: lines of eight syllables alternate with
lines of six.) More subtly: the word "up" at the end of the poem echoes-—
and opposes-—the word "stop" at the beginning. The poem is descriptive
and narrative—just what we would expect a good modernist to oppose—-
but, at the same time, its linguistic playfulness is reminiscent of James
Joyce. How easily Cummings cuts across all sorts of debates in current
poetry! Does he "foreground" language, as the language poets say? Yes,
he does, but it is not the only thing he foregrounds: the poem remains
opaque until one realizes that Cummings is describing a child playing
with blocks. One might say that everything is foregrounded in this poem.
The "i who's also you" (the reader) is awakened to all sorts of possi-
bilities. Surely the "we" of the concluding lines (which follows upon
"he" and "i") refers to the poet and the reader together as they construct
the poem:

                  —but look:not sunlight?yes!
                  and (plunging rapturously up)
                  we spill our masterpiece,

just as the line, "—but look: not sunlight?yes!" echoes and answers
the opening line, "to start,to hesitate;to stop." The poem requires
the reader to complete it, to make it a "masterpiece." But the instant
after the poem is concluded, the reader's eyes, having momentarily
neared the bottom of the page, will be "plunging rapturously up" to
contemplate the next poem. The poem is immensely serious, and it forces
us to be aware of what we are doing—i.e., reading—but it is also great fun: 
almost a mode of vers de société. It is complex, but it is also "light":
"—but look:not sunlight?yes!" It is, indeed, child's play.

Number 93 is not even one of Cummings' most famous poems. 100 Selected
Poems, has, among others, this much-anthologized piece:

              in Just-
              spring     when the world is mud-
              luscious the little
              lame balloonman

              whistles     far     and wee

              and eddieandbill come
              running from marbles and
              piracies and it's
              spring

              when the world is puddle-wonderful

              the queer
              old balloonman whistles
              far     and     wee
              and bettyandisbel come dancing

              from hop-scotch and jump-rope and

              it's
              spring
              and
                   the

                      goat-footed

              balloonMan     whistles
              far
              and
              wee

It's only—"just"—spring. And the children are spring-like: playful,
"new."  But for an old man—especially a lame old man—spring might well be
a time of "in Just"-ice: the child can "come dancing" but the old man is
"lame." For the old and infirm, spring is a reminder that they are not
young. Is the world "mud"--as it is at the conclusion of the second
line--or is it "mud- / luscious," "puddle-wonderful"? Though the poem is
descriptive and even sentimentally nostalgic, Cummings' deliberately
unstable language is constantly alive to naming the situation in different
ways: by the conclusion, the balloon man has become not only Dionysus
("goat-footed") but "the...balloonMan"—man the species as a balloon
(possibly full of hot air).  The poem is masterful in its interplay between
sentiment and possibility: all sorts of things inform it and play out their
patterns in its limited but constantly open consciousness.

These days, young poets seem to be far more interested on Cummings'
friend, William Carlos Williams than they are in Cummings. It's a shame.
The "good bald poet," as Cummings once called himself, has much to offer--
not least of which is his considerable sense of humor. What leaps of the
mind are captured in this book! What brilliance he gives off!

Like the movie cowboy in the old joke, Cummings jumps on a horse--the
horse is Pegasus—and rides off in all directions. For those who can stay
on, it's a wonderful experience.

Do you remember this one (Number 18)?
         nobody loses all the time

         i had an uncle named
         Sol who was a born failure and
         nearly everybody said he should have gone
         into vaudeville perhaps because my Uncle Sol could
         sing McCann He Was A Diver on Xmas Eve like Hell Itself which
         may or may not account for the fact that my Uncle

         Sol indulged in that possibly most inexcusable
         of all to use a highfalootin phrase
         luxuries that is or to
         wit farming and be
         it needlessly
         added

         my Uncle Sol's farm
         failed because the chickens
         ate the vegetables so
         my Uncle Sol had a
         chicken farm till the
         skunks ate the chickens when

         my Uncle Sol
         had a skunk farm but
         the skunks caught cold and
         died and so
         my Uncle Sol imitated the
         skunks in a subtle manner

         or by drowning himself in the watertank
         but somebody who'd given my Uncle Sol a Victor
         Victrola and records while he lived presented to
         him upon the auspicious occasion of his decease a
         scrumptious not to mention splendiferous funeral with
         tall boys in black gloves and flowers and everything and

         i remember we all cried like the Missouri
         when my Uncle Sol's coffin lurched because
         somebody pressed a button
         (and down went
         my Uncle
         Sol

         and started a worm farm)

Or this (Number 75), with its complex rhyme scheme?
            what if a much of a which of a wind
            gives the truth to summer's lie;
            bloodies with dizzying leaves the sun
            and yanks immortal stars awry?
            Blow king to beggar and queen to seem
            (blow friend to fiend: blow space to time)
            —when skies are hanged and oceans drowned,
            the single secret will still be man

            what if a keen of a lean wind flays
            screaming hills with sleet and snow:
            strangles valleys by ropes of thing
            and stifles forests in white ago?
            Blow hope to terror;blow seeing to blind
            (blow pity to envy and soul to mind)
            —whose hearts are mountains,roots are trees,
            it's they shall cry hello to the spring

            what if a dawn of a doom of a dream
            bites this universe in two,
            peels forever out of his grave
            and sprinkles nowhere with me and you?
            Blow soon to never and never to twice
            (blow life to isn't:blow death to was)
            —all nothing's only our hugest home;
            the most who die,the more we live

This is the concluding couplet of Number 39, a sonnet beginning
"little joe gould has lost his teeth and doesn't know where":
       (Amérique Je T'Aime and it may be fun to be fooled
       but it's more fun to be more to be fun to be little joe gould)

That's what Cummings says again and again. Why belittle Joe Gould when
you can BE "little joe gould"?

There's much more to 100 Selected Poems: satire, comedy,
sentiments of all sorts ("not so / hard dear / you're killing
me"). But I want to end with a simple, beautiful poem—Number 79:
                    let it go—the
                    smashed word broken
                    open vow or
                    the oath cracked length
                    wise—let it go it
                    was sworn to
                                 go  

                    let them go—the
                    truthful liars and
                    the false fair friends
                    and the boths and
                    neithers—you must let them go they
                    were born
                              to go

                    let all go—the
                    big small middling
                    tall bigger really
                    the biggest and all
                    things—let all go
                    dear
                         so comes love

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

My review received this response from poet Harold Norse: thanks for the...cummings review. a thin book of his poems has lain beside my bed on the floor for a year until i put it back on the shelf so now i cant find it. we all quoted cummings when i was a youth in new york & of course i knew him when i lived in the village & visited him often in his frame house on patchin place off 8th st. & 6th ave. he was pleasant & wry and funny about other poets, esp. dylan t. whom i also knew. cummings said the lst time dylan was there he stared in the mirror fixedly (drunk) & said, migod, i look like a lesbian poet! now he's gone, patchin place is gone, the women's detention prison next door to him is gone. i don't even recognize the streets anymore. i was there last at the nyu beat generation celebration in 1994, & was sick with nostalgia & lost youth. the one foto that catches 2 village newyorkers on that visit is of me & gregory on the cover of the kerouac connection, winter 95 issue. i was also not just heartsick with memories but sick with the heart physically & kept getting acute angina pains. lord, my return to my native town & stamping grounds was too much.

                        let's keep DeAtH 
                        doWn
                        & ouT 
                        WhiLe wE
                        aRe
                        uP      
                        & aBoUt

brilliant lovely review, full of insights & masterful comments on a master
who'd have loved it. cummings tho paid little or no attention to reviews
of his work. i recall that tho everyone respected him he was regarded
as a sideshow rather than mainstream pioneer. 

And this from poet Bob Holman: "we all love ee, why not allow him back in?"




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