Little Lame Balloonman

August Kleinzahler

  • E.E. Cummings: The Complete Poems, 1904-62 edited by George James Firmage
    Liveright, 1102 pp, £36.00, September 2013, ISBN 978 0 87140 710 8
  • E.E. Cummings: A Life by Susan Cheever
    Pantheon, 209 pp, £16.00, February 2014, ISBN 978 0 307 37997 9

E.E. Cummings is the sort of poet one loves at the age of 17 and finds unbearably mawkish and vacuous as an adult. But in the mid-20th century he was the most popular poet in the United States after Robert Frost, and from early in his career, among the most admired by writers and critics. It wasn’t just the usual modernist suspects like Pound, Williams, Stevens and Marianne Moore who sang his praises, but other, very different kinds of poet too: Robert Graves, Dylan Thomas, Octavio Paz, Louis Zukofsky and Charles Olson. As did any number of critics: Edmund Wilson, Harry Levin, Jacques Barzun, Lionel Trilling, Guy Davenport. Were all of them hornswoggled, taken in by the surface polish and acrobatics of Cummings’s style and, those who knew him, by his great personal charm, unable to register the paucity of content, limited range and shallowness of his work? The short answer is yes.

Cummings’s innovative style was a perfect reflection of the modernist Weltanschauung: he dismantled, fractured and reassembled traditional forms; cocked a snook at the canon and at received opinion; he was radical, not only in technique but in his challenging of contemporary notions of propriety, status, decorum; above all else, he made it new. He arrived at his mature style early, by the age of 23 or so, in 1916, and his approach to form didn’t alter or develop in any significant way. And perhaps it wasn’t that new after all: there are examples of visual poems in English as early as the Elizabethan era, many of which he would have known. It’s less clear how well he knew Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (1897), or the work of Apollinaire, who by 1916 had almost finished his Calligrammes, perhaps the closest thing to Cummings’s poetry, if more pictorial in emphasis – the caligrams form images of a bunch of flowers and a bird, or the head and front legs of a horse.

As Guy Davenport pointed out in the 1980s in an essay terribly entitled ‘Transcendental Satyr’, Cummings’s ‘eccentric margins, capricious word divisions, vagrant punctuation, tmeses and promiscuously embracing parentheses’ resemble the texts he read as a Greek major at Harvard. The first passage here is by Sappho; the second by Cummings:

[        ]
Her[
Man[
And see[ms
These girls al[l
Topmost [
Wanders [
[            ] these [
[                ]
Partner [
Own cousin [
Elbows [
Laughing away [

(Fields Elysian

the like,a)slEEping neck a breathing a ,lies
(slo wlythe wom a pa)ris her
flesh: wakes
            in little streets

while exactlygir lisHlegs;play;ing;nake;D
and

chairs wait under the trees

Many commentators have suggested that Cummings’s use of the lower case was intended as a populist move, an announcement that he, like Chaplin, was a little guy, an everyman. Davenport speculates more convincingly that Cummings got the notion from Don Marquis’s comic newspaper column Archy and Mehitabel, which first appeared in 1916 and featured Archy, a former vers libre poet who had been reborn as a cockroach, and wrote poems and stories on an old typewriter. Since Archy couldn’t use the shift key at the same time as the letters, his poems were, of necessity, in the lower case. The column was illustrated by George Herriman, creator of Krazy Kat, a comic strip that first came out in 1913 and that Cummings was mad about (he wrote the introduction to the first collection of the strip in book form in 1946). He loved the mad, Dada-inflected burlesque as well as the unique, phonetically spelled patois which incorporated any number of dialects and languages. Cummings himself was a tireless mimic, both on the page and in performance among friends. He could do low-life street talk or a delicious impersonation of T.S. Eliot.

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