Petal by Petal

C.K. Stead

  • E.E. Cummings: Complete Poems 1904-1962 edited by George Firmage
    Liveright, 1102 pp, £33.00, January 1993, ISBN 0 87140 145 2

In the Woody Allen movie Hannah and Her Sisters Eliot (Michael Caine) contrives to cross paths on a Manhattan street with his sister-in-law. Lee (Barbara Hershey), with whom he has fallen in love. He pretends to be hunting for a bookshop: she shows him the way to it and there he finds, as if by chance, E.E. Cummings’s Collected Poems, which he insists on buying for her. Putting her into a taxi he tells her, twice, to be sure to read the poem on page 112, which he says makes him think of her. Later we see her lying on a bed with the book, and hear her, voice-over, reading the second and the final stanzas of ‘somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond’:

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully, mysteriously) her first rose ...

(I do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

Along with the poem whose opening two lines must have stuck like burrs to the memory of everyone who ever heard them

anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)

the love lyric Allen uses to convey his character’s foolish and unstable passion is probably Cummings’s most widely known. I find it in four of the five anthologies on my shelves that represent him. It is his ‘Break, break, break ...’, his ‘Lake Isle of lnnisfree’, his ‘Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. As with all good anthology pieces, its cadence sweeps right past the intellect on its way to the emotions, ignoring as beneath contempt such questions as why rain should be thought to have small hands rather than, for example, large feet.

Also much-favoured is the elegy on his father, beginning,

my father moved through dooms of love
through sames of am through haves of give,
singing each morning out at each night
my father moved through depths of height

where the reader makes a sense (any one of several will do, since they are all the same) of the thing line by line, lulled into unawareness that the primary linguistic action is not towards meaning but towards the patterning of sounds – ‘move’ echoing ‘love’, ‘have’ and ‘give’, ‘doom’ echoing ‘same’ and ‘am’, for example, in the first two lines. As for meaning – ‘My father was a good man’ is what the lines are reiterating through 17 samely-inventive, and for that reason ultimately wearying, stanzas.

This, though he is not fairly called a sentimentalist, is the Cummings who appeals to sentimentalists, and was cited by them against the detractors (in his lifetime – 1894-1962 – there were many) who jeered at his formal experiments, his lower-case poems, his inventiveness (or perverseness) with grammar, punctuation, typography. Armed with the assurance his capacity for strong and wholesome emotions provided, Cummings’s supporters saw him, as perhaps he came to see himself, as one of Modernist poetry’s victims in the vanguard.

He also saw himself as a victim of the political left who he believed controlled American poetry-publishing and did not forgive him for EIMI, the eccentric prose work of 1933 in which he recorded his angry-contemptuous response to five weeks in the Soviet Union; and this sense of victimisation added to the curmudgeonly tendency of his later years. Cummings was not a political poet, but there are at intervals (and reading through the 1100 pages of this new Collected Poems 1904-62 they are important in creating variety and widening the picture) satiric or other kinds of ‘engaged’ poems reaching outside his usually closed circle into a larger world. These are anti-war (‘i sing of Olaf glad and big’, ‘my sweet old etcetera’, ‘plato told / him’), anti-commerce (‘a salesman is an it that stinks Excuse’), anti-bourgeois (‘the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls’), anti-left (‘kumrads die because they’re told’), even anti-American (‘next to of course god america i / love you’): but, it has to be said, they could also be antisemitic in the plainest Poundian way (‘a kike is the most dangerous / machine,’ ‘Ikey (Goldberg)’s worth I’m / told’).

Between the love poet and the satirist there is a third, the experimentalist, overlapping with the other two but distinguishable by the fact that in this mode his energy source is not primarily in the love or the hate but in the language:

Buffalo Bill’s
defunct
    who used to
    ride a watersmooth-silver
                            stallion
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlike-
                                 that
                                 Jesus
he was a handsome man
                   and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Mr Death

This, too, is an anthology piece. (Cummings once went to read at a girls’ college in Vermont and the whole school rose and chanted it in unison.) Its success lies in its spareness – how much more it signals than it says – and in the way it both utters and rounds upon its own romanticism.

Cummings grew up in a Cambridge, Mass academic and Congregationalist sanctuary, with vacations in the New Hampshire countryside, cosseted by a mother who kept everything he wrote and painted from his earliest years, confident he was destined to need an archive. He had literature from family as well as from (and before) schooling, his ear reading including a great deal of uplifting New England poetry (Longfellow, notably) along with a list of traditional English poets and novelists that would have put most of his English contemporaries to shame.

At Harvard he learned, not from courses but in the way exceptional students learn from one another, about the new art (Cézanne, Matisse, Duchamp, Brancusi), the new music (Satie, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Scriabin), the new literature (Amy Lowell, Stein, Pound, Eliot, Joyce), and was bold enough to give a graduation address in 1915 referring to most of these and insisting on ‘the unbroken chain of artistic development during the last hall-century’ which ‘disproved the theory that Modernism [was] without foundation’.

In 1917, when America entered the European war, he joined an ambulance corps in France, embarking on what was to be the great adventure of his life. Remarks considered by the French censor to be anti-French and pro-German in letters by his friend William Slater Brown, and Cummings’s staunch refusal to dissociate himself from them, or even to say that he ‘hated the Boche’, resulted in their being incarcerated together for three months while the possibility that they were spies was investigated. The Enormous Room, the ‘faction’ Cummings made of this experience, has been, over the decades since, a writers’ book, praised by T.E. Lawrence, Robert Graves, Ernest Hemingway and many other notables, but always selling modestly. Hemingway describes it in his letters as ‘the classic example of the really fine book that could not sell’, and suggests that its problem was ‘a style that no one who had not read a good deal of “modern” writing could read’. In fact, its style, shifting effortlessly between conventional past-tense narrative and a present-tense, occasionally verbless impressionism is not the problem; nor are the events and characters in the least uninteresting. The limit lies, I think, in Cummings’s lack of what the narrative writer needs before all else – a clear direction forward, the promise hidden in every sentence of an outcome, an upshot. The Enormous Room, interesting, admirable, alive with that charming and sometimes irritating chutzpah which informs the best of the poems, is too easy to put down.

Cummings’s poetry is full of intuitive felicities (‘the mind is its own beautiful prisoner’), or felicitous accidents:

Humanity i love you
because you would rather black the boots of
success than enquire whose soul dangles from his
watch-chain

That deliberately naive opening line could be Frank O’Hara (and probably signals an important O’Hara source); but the lower-case voice of the little nobody, the Chaplinesque charmer, together with the strong cartoon-image of Success (boots and a watch-chain), half-conceal, without spoiling its effect, the ambiguity of the statement, which means ‘Humanity I love you for your moral failure’ – with the further implication ‘because it matches my own’.

When unvisited by whatever mysterious servitor it is that lays their rare and brilliant best effortlessly out for poets (and it is a facility which deserts him as often and for as long as it deserts anyone who writes regularly throughout a lifetime), Cummings spent much of his energy in constructing what I think of as puzzle poems. In some of these there was a system of typographical gates locking one statement inside another.

Others, like the one below, were simpler,

               (fea
               therr
               ain

               :dreamin
               g field o
               ver forest –;

               wh
               o could
               be

               so
               !f!
               te

               r?n
               oo
               ne)

The statement is not too difficult to unravel (‘Feather rain dreaming field over forest – who could be softer? No one’). It is in itself rich, evocative – words conjuring a world. So why the complications of typography? Only, I think, (but an important ‘only’), to delay arrival at what lies beyond language: to ensure we are prevented from doing what we do in most of our reading – rush straight through the medium without noticing it. Language is what brings out of us a world we already possess (mimesis depending upon recognition), and Cummings’s tricks of style force us to work with it, as he has done, experiencing it as plastic and malleable. We have been given a kit-sot, not in order to become carpenters, but to learn the feel of wood. He also likes to conceal small rewards for those alert enough to notice them. So in this example we have uncovered, in fact, a haiku:

feather rain dreaming
field over forest and who
could be softer? no one

Challenging in a different way are those densely textured poems in which some kind of inner, and not always penetrable, struggle goes on between drive and discipline, sense and form:

by god i want above fourteenth

fifth’s deep purring biceps, the mystic screech
of Broadway, the trivial stink of rich

frail firm asinine life

                           (i pant
for what’s below. the singer. Wall. i want
the perpendicular lips the insane teeth
the vertical grin

                    give me the Square in spring,
the little barbarous Greenwich perfumed fake

Man and Manhattan, location and lust, seem interlocked here. What is less obvious is that this is the octave of an irregular sonnet, rhyming a b b c c d e f (the a d e and f will find pairings in the sestet). One’s uncertainly about meaning may be less important than the conviction that there is one, a conviction which springs, paradoxically, from the poet’s difficulty in taking hold of it. The language is alive, active; and it is in that sense of action, more than in ‘meaning’, that verbal composition becomes poetry.

In fact, Cummings must be one of Modernism’s most notable sonneteers; it’s interesting to compare him with Lowell, whose ‘open sonnets’ did away with rhyme altogether. Cummings fought free of the old iambic (though often it echoes, like a ghost on the stairs), put the form into casual dress and let it speak in such a way that it could (and did) pass, in any crowd of modern poems, quite un-recognised. Only a second and practised look revealed that this relaxed and informal language had been wrestled into a tight traditional scheme of rhymes or half-rhymes. Here, for example, is his tribute to Ford Madox Ford (to whom Lowell also has a sonnet):

possibly thrice we glimpsed –
                             more likely twice
that (once crammed into someone’s kitchenette)

wheezing bulgily world of genial plac
-idity(plus, out of much its misbutt-
oned trouserfly tumbling, faded five
or so lightyears of pyjamastring)

a(vastly and particularly) live
that undeluded notselfpitying

lover of all things excellently rare;
obsolete almost that phenomenon
(too gay for malice and too wise for fear)
of shadowy virtue and of sunful sin.

namely(ford madox ford) and eke to wit
a human being
              – let’s remember that

It hasn’t come easily, and it isn’t perfect; it may depend a little too much on the reader possessing some knowledge of Ford; but no practitioner could be uninterested in the tussle that has gone on between linguistic informality and that perfect sonnet form, rhyming a b a b, c d c d, e f e f, g g.

In such a large output as this book represents there is inevitably a great deal that is weak, unsuccessful, unsatisfactory. It is also, even for the reader who knows Cummings reasonably well, full of surprises, discoveries, unanticipated pleasures. One for me is his translation of Louis Aragon’s long poem, Red Front, where the effect is rather like some of Pound’s translations. The original provides the material, which is therefore beyond question, and all the poet’s considerable skill goes into the writing-into-English.

Other pleasures are fortuitous, and challenge one to question one’s own response. On pages 426,427, for example, I find two poems, very different except that by the standards of 1993 one is sexist, the other racist. One is a tightly packed set of stanzas:

the boys I mean are not refined
they go with girls who buck and bite
they do not give a fuck for luck
they hump them thirteen times a night

one hangs a hat upon her tit
one carves a cross on her behind
they do not give a shit for wit
the boys I mean are not refined

And so on. I can imagine a defence which would argue that Cummings deplores his subject, but that would be only half-true less – than half. He also celebrates it. The fifth and final stanza reads:

they speak whatever’s on their mind
they do whatever’s in their pants
the boys i mean are not refined
they shake the mountains when they dance

It might be called ‘The Song of the Football Hooligans’. It is, I suppose, to a Brechtian boldness that must give rank offence to so much that is moralising, inauthentic, canting, Neo-Victorian in the air of our time, that I find myself responding positively.

The poem on the facing page is a rhapsody on how ‘alive’ that group are which in my lifetime have been negroes, then Blacks, and are now African-Americans. The poem calls them (unacceptably in all these phases) ‘niggers’ –

                    Not jes
                  livin
                not Jes alive But
              So alive (they
        s
    born alive) ...

So the lines enthusiastically continue, concluding:

                niggers
             is
          all
       born
     so
   Alive)
             umpt-A-tum
                        ;tee-die
                  uM-tuM
                        tidl
                              -id
                umptyumpty(00––––––
                              !
                ting
             Bam-
           :do)
        ,chippity.

Why do I (and should I?) laugh at this inspired nonsense, and frown at his two or three anti-semitic poems? Not, I’m sure, because I think one kind of racism is deplorable and another not, but because (or so I explain to myself) in the one case it is Jews who are the object of his scorn, whereas in the other its object is not Blacks but white romanticising of them.

Cummings suffers from the Arnoldian paradox. Life may be a bitch, but poetry’s business is with beauty – to manifest it, register it; or if not beauty then energy. Even tragic death must be at least ennobling – or as Yeats has it, ‘joyful’: even elegy affirms life by regretting that it passes. Where circumstances bear too hard on the Arnoldian poet, life is squeezed out, energy fails, and so does poetry. This is not so much a philosophical position as the expression of a temperament. Even at his rare best (and that means perhaps two or three dozen poems) a poet like Cummings will always be half-resented by those of a less positive cast, to whom his buoyancy will suggest, quite contrary to the facts of his life, that suffering was beyond him.