Stride Magazine - www.stridemagazine.co.uk

  WHO WINGS HIS WHY: REVIEW BY MATT SIMPSON

73 POEMS
by E.E. Cummings, 92pp, £8.95, W.W. Norton & Company Ltd., Castle House, 75-76 Wells Street, London. W1T 3QT.

In case anyone objects to the capitals above, let me say at once that E.E. Cummings indulged his publishers’ lowercasing, while he himself always signed his name in the orthodox fashion and used it that way on title pages of original editions of his works. It is printed so in the present volume.

An American poet, E.E. Cummings died forty-one years ago at the age of 68. The poems here are not being printed for the first time. What we have is in fact the first paperback version, published by his New York publisher, Liveright and made available in the U.K. via Norton, comprising 29 poems in manuscript found after his dearth plus 44 previously uncollected pieces from various periodicals. And though they by no means represent Cummings at his best, they are, to say the least, ‘characteristic’. Fans will not be disappointed. Those who want him at his best or who are coming at his work for the first time should perhaps go to the author’s own selection, the Selected Poems 1923-1958
which Penguin first issued the year after his death. There they will find poems like ‘In Just-spring’, ‘Buffalo Bill’s defunct’, ‘nobody loses all the time’, ‘next to of course god america i’, ‘my sweet old etcetera’, ‘may i feel said he’, ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’, ‘what if a much of a which wind’, ‘yes is a pleasant country’ ­ I name my own favourites. It is necessary to know that Cummings wrote an important novel, arising out of his First World War experiences, entitled The Enormous Room, published in 1922.

When I started reading and writing poetry Cummings represented something excitingly avant-garde, iconoclastic, wildly innovative, and amazingly playful with punctuation and typography. Like Picasso, he broke all the rules in the quest for a new technique, which at its worst was crazily, wilfully idiosyncratic and at its best amusing, delightful, poignant ­ a new way of looking. But it was one that was silly to take on board as an influence. I remember crassly writing something in my teens called ‘poem for typeWRITER’. But there were phrases that stuck indelibly in the mind and help me to maintain an admiration: the children’s world that was ‘puddle-wonderful’, the orchid ‘whose velocity is sculptural’, eyes described as ‘big love-crumbs’, a pebble from the beach that is ‘as small as a world and as large as alone’, the Uncle Sol who failed at various kinds of farming, then

              (and down went
              my Uncle
              Sol

              and started a worm farm)

He was clearly a love poet, one who, in the words of the critic Babette Deutsch, writing in 1963, celebrated ‘romantic love with a lack of embarrassment available to our time.’ He was also enticingly anti-intellectual, anti-middle-class a sort of link between the Romantics and the Modernists, in that he set great store by the life of the senses. Like Keats, he preferred a ‘life of Sensations rather than Thoughts’. He could also pour scorn on and express disgust at authority, at anything that threatened his sense of individualism, at what he was to call ‘mostpeople’ ­ something that has linked him to the strand of ‘Emersonian Self-Reliance’, part of the American sensibility. Though Cummings’ version of this was the pastoral of the city dweller. It is fair to say, however, that he could fall into a mode of boyish sentimentality and provoke accusations of slightness and sheer awkwardness.

But Cummings does shake up all our preconceptions and make us see the world differently. The velocity of his poems is sculptural. M.L..Rosenthal talks of how ‘punctuation and line arrangement control the pace at which the (poem’s) connotations come into view.’ His highly unorthodox punctuation, spacing and the constant use of lower case are all meant to read functionally. The visual and read-aloud sound of the poem are meant to complement each other. But it is not always meant to work that way: sometimes the visual takes precedence or takes over altogether. This fact demonstrates something almost oriental at work and links Cummings to the Imagists and the early twentieth-century interest in the Chinese ideogram and Japanese haiku.

What has Cummings to offer us today? Have we the patience to read him? Are the challenges he offers passé? Do his complexity and technical ingenuity look like things that had once to be done but now no longer matter and can be consigned to literary history? He is not the sort of poet, as I suggested earlier, that can be a good influence… except on those poets who affect the lowercase ‘i’.

Well, yes, of course there’s still pleasure to be had from reading Cummings, as the collection under review demonstrates. Always best when the message is simple, as in poem16:

              e
              cco the uglies
              t

              s
              ub
              sub

              urba
              n skyline on earth whose d

              hou
              se
              s

              l
              ooms an eggyellow smear of wintry sunse
              t


Or this, one of the several poems in the collection contemplating death ­ number 53:

              of all things under our
              blonder of blondest star

              the most mysterious
              (eliena,my dear) is this

              ­ how anyone so gay
              possibly could die

As Marcus Cunliffe says ‘No one has been better able to convey the light, lilting gaiety, wittily abstracted, of the world as he has kept recommending it to us.’ Lucky those who are coming to him for the first time.


                           © Matt Simpson 2003