Thursday, October 14, 2010

Happpppp-ee B'earth-dee ee.cummings

seeker of truth

follow no path
all paths lead where

truth is here

Not one but two long-ago girlfriends insisted that E.E. Cummings was poetry. I scoffed, being young and inculcated with the bigotries of the village, which regarded him as a sentimental humorist with lexographical dyslexia located in the poorer part of poetrytown, on the block with Ogden Nash and Rod McKuen. One of the bracing things about growing older is having to acknowledge that they were right, I was wrong, for Cummings, born 116 years ago today, remains one of the most underappreciated poets of the 20th century.

While the most celebrated poets of the American century—Frost, Stevens, Eliot, Pound, Williams—were emotional cripples perplexed by the way life was lived by actual people, Cummings met us where we are, with real fondness for the way we emotionally connect with the mysteries of existence:

Such freedom such intense digestion so much
greenness only dying makes
us grow.”

And while those “serious” writers couldn’t joke their way out of a wet paper bag, Cummings approached the grandest of subjects with light and generous wit, not the private, hyper-hip variety of a Frank O’Hara (lionized in part because he was so LMAO funny), but something approaching universality:

“pity this busy monster, manunkind,
Not. Progress is a comfortable disease:
your victim(death and life safely beyond)
plays with the bigness of his littleness”

How easy-going he makes the strange, how readily the eccentric becomes, in today’s parlance, the new normal. And this word “manunkind,” was there anyone better at coining words through combination: “ultraomnipotence,” “talentgang,” “mud-luscious” “togethercoloured” “breakfastfood”? For all the whimsical, seemingly random arrangement of words here, is there really a better or more perfect way to say this thought? Doesn’t it draw a vivid picture, despite the abstraction, of how we are really children trapped in an inexplicable machine?

One of my pet theories about Cummings is that his poetic rebellion, not waged against rhyme, meter, story, theme, coherence or any of the other bugaboos of modern poets but against the rules of grammar itself, was actually aimed at the typewriter machine, that infernal co-creater (a point highlighted when I try to reproduce his poems through a modern PC – it’s like putting illuminated writing into typeface - I won’t even try). Brad Leithauser traces his innovations to Gertrude Stein, and in Cummings’ hands her screams of ennui are transformed into perfect, almost mathematical puzzles that are—wonders never cease—solvable, because he wanted us so very much to solve them:

“whatever mind may comprehend,
remember seek(forgetting find)
and in a mystery to be
(when time from time shall set us free)
forgetting me, remember me.”

He reminds me in many respects of a cheerful double of another New Englander, the dour EA Robinson, in the way failings are celebrated and an assortment of oddballs are given a platform to bravely trumpet their lost ambitions. Cummings is far more gentle, of course, with poems like “anyone lived in a pretty how town” he truncates the Spoon River-like townsfolk into appealing archetypes accessible to us common folk:

"someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake hope and then)they
said their nevers they slept their dream"

Cummings peeks his head into numerous modes. As a love poet:

“the upward singular deepest flower which she carries in the gesture of her hips”

As spiritual seeker:

“my prayers are prayers of earth’s own clumsily striving”

As aphorist:

“the most wasted of days is one without laughter”

As chronicler of the seasons (he was born in October, but quite clearly a poet of early spring, “when the world is puddle-wonderful.” His poems abound with new love, childhood discoveries, messy complications that are breezily resolved):

“From hopscotch and jump-rope and /it’s/spring/and/ the// goat-footed//balloon-Man whistles/far/and/wee.”

As philosopher:

“knowledge is a polite word for dead but not buried imagination”

As humorist:

“I’m living so far beyond my income that we may almost be said to be living apart.”

Even as poet about poetry:

“I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing than to teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.”

He was even, at times, political:

“At least Pilgrim Fathers used to shoot Indians: the Pilgrim Children merely punch time clocks.”

Son of a Unitarian Minister/Harvard Professor, Cummings retained that gentle paternalistic Brahmin affection for that strange place called America, but his lineage was mugwump free-thinker, and he could not help being an apologist for freedom. His insistence on mangling typography to suit his expression speaks of the strictures to which we all willingly submit to leave an impression. He was the preacher who prophesied go out there now, all ye children of Plymouth, and violate some of them grammar rules for thyself!

But it appears that grammar won out in the end (not that it was ever really a battle). We see precursors (in the Borgesean sense) of Cummings in everyday speech – the stammers and shifts of syntax, the artful repetitions (just right now, in fact, I heard someone say: “I’m the guy behind the guy behind the guy behind the guy”) – but Cummings has few followers of his formal yet experimental, jarring yet musical style beyond outliers like Ferlinghetti:

“The pennycandystore beyond the El/is where I first/ fell in love/with unreality//Jellybeans glowed in the semi-gloom/of that september afternoon//A cat upon the counter moved/among the licorice sticks/and tootsie rolls/and Oh Boy Gum”

But Cummings was never content to stay with shiny surfaces. He was always going for the moment when one can “imagine that yes is the only living thing”:

“love is a place
& through this place of
love move
(with brightness of peace)
all places

yes is a world
& in this world of
yes live
(skilfully curled)
all worlds.”