can’t see the forest

e. e. cummings on nationalism and other topics

Posted in Literature, Poetry, Uncategorized by Curtis on 10/2/06

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Edward Estlin Cummings (1894-1962) was an American poet, essayist, and painter. I can safely say that he is my favorite of all American poets, but I would be at a loss were I to try to explain exactly why.

e.e. cummings - self-portraitCummings was born in Massachusetts, the son of a prosperous, artistically minded, but rather disciplinarian Protestant minister. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Harvard before travelling to France to serve in the ambulance corps in 1917, during the First World War. While in France he began a lifelong association with the city of Paris, and Cummings often incorporated the French language into his poetry. Much of the narrative of his early work seems to take place in, or at least to evoke, that city. Cummings and a friend were accused of pacifist sentiments during their wartime service and were sentenced to 3 1/2 months service in a concentration camp in France; this is the subject of Cummings’ novel, The Enormous Room.

In addition to his literary talents, Cummings was an astute visual artist. The image seen here is a self-portrait.

Much of Cummings’ work can be viewed as an argument for romantic individualism in the context of industrialized society. In his poetry, he tended to fiercely satirize what he viewed as the at least partially fallacious and tragic notion of individual sacrifice for the greater good, with his views on this subject doubtless much influenced by his “right proper” upbringing and his wartime experiences in France. Cummings wrote often of sex in a manner that is both frank and symbolic, and he extolled the glory and beauty of the natural world while harshly condemning the despoiling impact of humankind upon nature.

He is famous for using idiosyncratic spelling, punctuation, phrasing, and typesetting to increase the visual aspect of the experience of his poetry; it is commonly said that most of Cummings’ poems lose a great deal of effect when read aloud. Generally they are meant to be viewed in much the same way as paintings are meant to be viewed, although this is undoubtedly more essential to some of his works than others.

In some instances he made masterful use of traditional forms such as the sonnet. In others he liberally parodied them. Cummings was highly creative in his word choice, combining and juxtaposing elements of language in unusual ways to create mood or to convey hazy ideas not easily expressible through conventional means. This “playfulness” with language is regarded as the most defining characteristic of his poetry—to him, the rules and formalities of communication through language were always secondary to precise delivery of an intended message. If Cummings felt he could best impart a certain feeling or idea by bending the rules, then he did so, and the effects of this can take some getting used to but tend to produce unique, spectacular, and profound results. In this way he approached poetry much as Debussy approached music.

Cummings’ poems were very rarely given titles. They are conventionally referred to by their first lines. Here is a little jewel on the subject of nationalism and war, from 1926’s is 5.

George Bush - To Whom Be the Glory?“next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn’s early my
country ’tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions into the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?”

He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water

The effect of the last line is devastating. We aren’t told anything about the speaker (though he sounds suspiciously like a right-wing politician) but we are shown in the last line that he is every bit as human as the men who “did not stop to think” but “died instead.” The speaker can only go on with this crap for so long before he has to stop for a breath and a whole glass of water. The implication is that the speaker does not want his audience to stop and think any more than did the dead men he is glorifying, and Cummings means for us to draw inferences from this observation about the morality of sending others to die for a nation’s glory. The lack of a period at the end of the poem implies that the speech is going to continue in much the same vein. Is the glory really based on anything other than the speeches of politicians? To me, that is the question posed by this poem. Thus, in a very subtle and poetic way, Cummings shows the hypocrisy exemplified by any living soul who would dare to clamor for war and to extol the virtues of sacrifice “for god and country.”

Here is a very different poem from the same collection. Cummings allows us to eavesdrop on a conversation between the narrator and his girlfriend; possibly the narrator is making overtures which have just been rebuffed, and he means to win over the object of his desire with these words:

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world
my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don’t cry
—the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids’ flutter which says
we are for each other: then
laugh leaning back in my arms
for life’s not a paragraph
And death i think is no parenthesis

It may be the oldest pickup line in the book, but Cummings says it like no other. Did you catch the two contiguous usages of the word ‘wholly?’ In the second instance, Cummings is creating a clever pun: ‘wholly’ works, but he means something much more like ‘holy.’ This kind of tiny hidden message or double entendre is very common throughout his work. Here the poet is also mocking his own art form, stating that “the best gesture” of his mind cannot compare to his love’s beauty, that “life is not a paragraph.”

Here’s a poem from a later collection, W [ViVa] (1931). The poet has grown more adventurous in his wordplay and his unconventional typography:

but mr can you maybe listen there’s
me &
some people
and others please

‘s future is toothsome like
(they got
pockets full and may take a littl
e nibble now And then

fly, their;puLLing:bright
against the deep sky in

May mine’s tou
ching this crump
led cap mumble some
thing to oh no
body will
(can you give
a)listen to
who may



This is the mostly—but not completely—incoherent babble of a beggar in the street. The beggar’s target has apparently already refused to donate, so the less fortunate soul is trying his damnedest to make a case for himself, even if it might be worth only a nickel in the end. He explains that some beggars are really not so unfortunate as they might let on, that others have no sense of purpose and will be beggars forever “pulling bright futures against the deep sky,” but that he himself—and that’s where his dialog kind of trails off into nothing. The narrator feels sure he is more deserving of alms than anyone else, yet he cannot logically explain why this is so. In this way, this seemingly nonsensical poem is actually an extremely intelligent and efficient description of the ethics of capitalism. It’s just focused on the end of the spectrum we’re supposed to ignore.

Though I have a hard time choosing favorites, I might cite the following as one of Cummings’ most appealing poems, to me:

this is the garden:colours come and go.
frail azures fluttering from night’s outer wing
strong silent greens serenely lingering.
absolute lights like baths of golden snow
This is the garden:pursèd lips do blow
upon cool flutes within wide glooms.and sing
(of harps celestial to the quivering string)
invisible faces hauntingly and slow.

This is the garden. Time shall surely reap
and on Death’s blade lie many a flower curled,
in other lands where other songs be sung;
yet stand They here enraptured,as among
the slow deep trees perpetual of sleep
some silver-fingered fountain steals the world.

I can’t read that without getting chills and tearing up a little. And I’m a guy, for crying out loud. You will notice a marked difference in style from the previous poem; “this is the garden” is from a very early collection, 1923’s Tulips and Chimneys. The form of this poem is that of an Italian sonnet (as opposed to a Shakespearian sonnet) and the meter is perfectly observed in contrast to Cummings’ more mature style in which formal considerations were generally disregarded altogether. The message of this poem, as explained in the second stanza, is that as human beings our business keeps us from ever being acutely aware of the ephemeral and precious nature of life. Cummings compares human beings to flowers which are cut down by death, and he compares the natural world to looming trees that perpetually sleep through it all. The imagery could not be more beautiful. Cummings describes a world of such stark gorgeousness with such languid verbiage that it at first seems alien. It is only at the end of the poem that we are meant to realize that “the garden” is the very planet we call home.

I’ll conclude with an example from Cummings’ last published collection, 95 Poems (1958). This one I think is really genius—a tiny pond, but more than waist-deep to be sure. As Cummings approached the end of his life his satire grew more rabid and his romanticism more evangelical. A common criticism of his work is that he never seemed to waver from the philosophy and the aesthetic with which he began his career as a writer. As he developed and matured he did not change, apart from his superficial style. He only grew more intense, like the light of Millay’s candle burning at both ends. It could be argued that, for an artist true to himself and his sense of individuality, this rigidity of message and purpose was more a virtue than a fault.

a total stranger one black day
knocked living the hell out of me—

who found forgiveness hard because
my(as it happened)self he was

—but now that fiend and i are such
immortal friends the other’s each

Moreso than any other of Cummings’ works, 95 Poems concerns itself with themes of mortality and transcendence. Near the end of his life, Cummings is telling us in this poem that he has reconciled his own conscience to the best of his ability. There is enough philosophical fodder contained in these lines to fill a whole volume. Note the density of wordplay in this little marvel: ‘knocked living the hell;’ the juxtaposition of ‘fiend’ and ‘friends’; and his deconstruction and rearrangement of ‘each other’ to ‘the other’s each.’ Cummings seems to be hinting that, for him, facing and confronting the most unpleasant aspects of his psyche by embracing them even as they might have been working to undermine him was a defining moment in his life. Cummings didn’t want to forgive his own trespasses on principle, but he found in the end that the unifying principles of love and forgiveness were ultimately the keys to “getting over himself,” as we might say today. Also note his description of the friendship of his two halves as “immortal,” implying that this reconciliation has imbued him with a sense of transcendence he might have felt lacking before.

Well, I, for one, am glad that the poet didn’t come to this realization until near the end—because the internal tumult for which E. E. Cummings was so famous produced some of the most honest, most thoughtful, and most entrancing poetry in the history of mankind.

E. E. Cummings - with cigarette


17 Responses

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