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.

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