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E.E. Cummings: Part modernist, part traditionalist

A terrible crisis has overwhelmed poetry — but before we come to that, a clarification about typography. It's E.E. Cummings, and not ee cummings. Cummings preferred the conventional spelling of his name, which reminds us that his experiments with language were more than gimmicks. The lower-case i, for instance, was his way to become like a little child, as he implied in one of his last poems:

who are you,little i 

(five or six years old)
peering from some high

window;at the gold
 
 
of november sunset
 
(and feeling:that if day
has to become night
 
this is a beautiful way)
 
It takes a lifetime's work to be able to write so simply. Cummings composed his first rhyming couplet at the age of three. Aged 10 or 11 he is writing: "O flag of the nation! O Red, White and Blue! / O symbol of liberty, waving anew!" In his late teens, he is translating Horace: "And what is Piety's imploring glance / To Age and Death, the dauntless charioteers?" The crisis which overwhelmed poetry — to return to my theme — was that this kind of high poetic diction came to seem rather unpersuasive and desperate. Modernism swept it away, and Cummings was swept along with it. "To destroy", he announced in a letter to his sister, "is the first step in any creation." It is a matter of taste, but I find the early experimental poems hard to enjoy, simultaneously hectic and depressing, and you can sympathise with Cummings's English versification professor at Harvard, who wrote on one piece of work: "Please don't forget that a clean subject is never harmful."

What happens next, though, is truly exciting. Cummings begins to put the two ways of writing together. A good modernist, he carries on breaking up language to make it new: not just showing the reader that "loneliness", for instance, is composed of the word "one", the quality of "iness", and two lonely l's, but making the reader feel that this matters. A good traditionalist, he carries on using rhyme and metre, knowing that some things just cannot be said without them. And bringing together the ancient and the avant-garde, he converges on a style as natural sounding as ordinary language, but able to express what ordinary language falls short of:

 

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence: 

 

Anyone who recalls Michael Caine's character embarrassing himself in Hannah and Her Sisters will also remember this poem's closing line, one of the sweetest and strangest compliments in all poetry: "nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands". Cummings had an unusual gift for love poems, and a near unheard — of gift for happy poems. "Happiness writes white," said Montherlant, an axiom quoted with predictable approval by Philip Larkin. Yet Cummings's best-loved lines, frequently as memorable as Larkin's, have a gravity-defying carefreeness about them: "wholly to be a fool / while Spring is in the world / my blood approves"; "the thing perhaps is / to eat flowers and not to be afraid"; "I'd rather learn from one bird how to sing / than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance".

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