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a disappearing poet of always: e.e. cummings and his language

Editor’s note: This article has been abridged to remove references to some of Cummings’s more explicitly sexual poetry. Read the extended version of this article hereCaution: contains strong language.

October 14 marked the anniversary of the birth of the American poet and artist E. E. Cummings. If you know anything about Cummings, it is probably his habit of using lower case letters where convention dictates he should have used capitals. This practice has so entered people’s understanding of Cummings that his name is often written with no capitals. I have decided not to follow that convention in this article, since there’s no good evidence that it’s the form Cummings preferred (and, more pragmatically, since my word-processing software keeps insisting on auto-correcting the lowercase form.) But if this is all you know about Cummings, you’re missing out on one of the great poets of the English language. And although I’m doubtful of my ability to do him justice in a single article, I’ll try to explain why I consider Cummings to be a poetic genius.

fearlessly obscene but really clean get what I mean

In many important ways, Cummings can be compared to his contemporary, T. S. Eliot. Like Eliot, Cummings was well educated at private school and later at Harvard. Like Eliot, he began writing as a child and would later experiment with modernist approaches to literary form. And like Eliot, he came from a family of Unitarians. His father, Edward Cummings, was a Unitarian minister and a Temperance man.

Yet Eliot and Cummings’s writings could, in many ways, not be more different. Whereas Eliot was drawn from his puritan roots into High-Church Anglicanism, developing something of an English stiff upper lip and an aspiring upper-class sensibility that led him to scorn and deride American low culture, Cummings rebelled during his time at Harvard, gaining a reputation as someone who drank to excess and visited strip joints and other dubious places. Appropriately, the Oxford English Dictionary cites Cummings as the first to use party as a verb (in the sense to give or attend a party), when he claimed in a 1922 letter to have “extensively partyed” with the editor of Vanity Fair.

Cummings’s poetry has an exuberant engagement with the body and its functions. His explicitness made for difficulties with publishers who were wary of material that could lay them open to prosecution for obscenity, and yet the sexual content of his work in particular places him squarely in an American poetic tradition, the heir of Walt Whitman and the elder brother of Allen Ginsberg. He proclaims that “myself is sculptor of your body’s idiom”, assigning the body its own language and making himself the privileged artist who is permitted to represent it. His adoration of the female form in particular is evident, as in the sensuous eroticism of one of his earliest published poems, Puella Mea, in which he describes the details of his lover’s body in language reminiscent of the biblical Song of Songs. Cummings was no romantic idealist, though, and the crudeness of his language at times broke right through the boundaries of contemporary taste.

Note: this section of the post has been edited. For more on Cummings’s erotic poetry, read the extended version of this article. Caution: contains strong language.

France death my prison, all pleasant things

It was not only his erotic poetry that caused Cummings to be viewed with suspicion; he met with rather more dangerous disapproval of his political writing. Having enlisted as a volunteer ambulance driver in France in 1917, Cummings developed anti-war views which he expressed in letters to friends and which were instrumental in his arrest later that year by French intelligence on suspicion of carrying on treasonable correspondence. He was released after a few months, having been kept with other prisoners in a large, guarded room, and his experiences formed the basis for his 1922 novel The Enormous Room. Despite this, Cummings had come to love France, and spent a lot of time there over the following decades. The influence of the country on him is evident in the number of French words and phrases which appear in his writing. The OED cites Cummings as evidence for the use of words such as vespasienne, veuve , and bidon in English contexts. He also punctuates his writing with French interjections: “I am not self-sufficient do I hear you say? Merde!”; “Vive la bourgeoisie, I said to myself.”

In contrast to his love of France, Cummings was repelled by his experience of Soviet Russia when he visited the country in 1931. He became a passionate opponent of Communism and the way in which the Communist state ran roughshod over its subjects: “The red train starts and nothing shall stop it”. For a man who prized his right to freedom of expression and the ability to say what was offensive or unpopular, the repression and regimentation of the Soviet system were horrifying: “obey says toc, submit says tic, Eternity’s a Five Year Plan”. As America became more and more panicked about the threat of Communism, Cummings  came to despise those intellectuals and artists who flirted with Communist ideology, becoming a supporter of Senator Joseph McCarthy in his infamous witch-hunts. The irony is that, in his disgust at the suppressive nature of Soviet politics, Cummings became a supporter of a campaign of suppression. But he seems sincerely to have believed in the danger of Communism: “whoso conniveth at Lenin his dream shall dine upon bayonets”, he claims, using an archaic register which gives his pronouncement the weight of a Biblical proverb.

all into whom darkly nouns descend

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, what most people know about Cummings is not his eroticism or his politics, but his experimentation with typography, language, and poetic form. His use of predominantly lower-case letters in his poetry is only one small sign of this approach. Cummings lived at a fortunate time for poets: the early twentieth century saw the inauguration of a wealth of new approaches and ideologies which revolutionized literature. With a line such as “One brief convulsive octopus,and then our hero folded his umbrella”, for example, we can see the influence of surrealism on Cummings; the juxtaposition of unrelated and somewhat absurd images has the dream-like quality that is found in the visual art of Dalí and Magritte. He was also influenced by Dada, an early twentieth-century artistic movement which emphasized the illogical and absurd, rejected social and artistic convention, and used montage and collage as key forms of expression.

Cummings’s scrambled syntax is also characteristic of his avant-garde approach to writing. Many of his poems treat word order as something almost entirely fluid:

if night’s mostness(and whom did merely day
if more than silence silent are more
flowering than stars whitely births of mind

Disconcerting as this technique is, it nonetheless offers the reader a unique engagement with the poet and the poem. The words are precisely placed so as to present Cummings’s impressions, unmediated even by the conventions of language. This deliberate disavowal of convention is also seen in words like “mostness” (Cummings provides OED’s only modern example of this word), and his weird and wonderful compounds: “cloud-gloss”, “swordgreat”, “swiftlyenormous”. Even more radical is his technique of breaking words up into little pieces, as in the poem “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r”:

,  grasshopper;

He presents the grasshopper in flight in a jumble of letters, mimicking the moment when it transforms from a jumping streak back into the compact, still insect. The word become is woven into the word rearrangingly; the two words exist simultaneously, of equal importance to the course of the transformation. Cummings viewed poetry as a process rather than a product, and through his innovative typography and vocabulary he involves the reader in the process. The poem is, essentially, remade each time it is read, because reading it requires such active reassembly.

neither of us is really an intellectual cus

Plenty of critics would disagree with me in my interpretations of Cummings’s poetry. Over the years, he has been judged irritating, pretentious, foolish, or simply illiterate. One review in 1932 called his poetry “an intolerable annoyance”; another from 1928 found only the “puerile imbecilities of pseudo-sophisticates”. And it isn’t only the professional critics who have objected to Cummings. I tried teaching his poetry to some undergraduates once, and was really quite shocked at the level of scorn and disapproval they felt for it. Beauty, I suppose, is in the eye of the beholder; yet I can’t help but find beauty in lines like these:

i will wade out
till my thighs are steeped in burning flowers
I will take the sun in my mouth
and leap into the ripe air

With his experiments and verbal inventions, Cummings is a lexicographer’s nightmare; a dictionary could never tie him down. But given the splendour of his poetry, even I couldn’t hold that against him.