Both Ancient and Avant-Garde

A new expanded edition of E.E. Cummings’s Collected Poems demonstrates that, despites his brief sojourns in the avant-garde, the poet always found his way to a profound simplicity

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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 dayhas 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 beyondany 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”.

Sensitive types can, of course, have a dark side of self-indulgence and evasion of responsibility — and if you doubt that, try reading a biography of E.E. Cummings. On the other hand, his Romanticism saved him from several of the intellectual mistakes of the age. Just as his generation was falling for the Soviet Union, Cummings visited the place and saw straight through it. And the only thing he loathed more than Communism was the belief-now known as scientism-that the supreme kind of knowledge comes from scientific measurement. It was for others to show why this is bad science and worse philosophy. Cummings just launched himself against it, armed with love, gratitude and sheer contempt. As far as he was concerned, a flower in springtime, a kiss, a newborn child are each intrinsically more valuable and interesting than every scientific investigation put together. He overstated his case magnificently:

 what time is it?it is by every star

a different time,and each most falsely true;or so subhuman superminds declare

— nor all their times encompass me and you: 

The scientific obsessives, “subhuman superminds”, are welcome to their theories about the paradoxes of astronomical time, but “me and you” are beyond such idle talk. The poem, a sonnet, goes on:

when are we never,but forever now

(hosts of eternity;not guests of seem)believe me,dear,clocks have enough to do

without confusing timelessness and time. 

Cummings has squeezed into that parenthesis one of the great questions: are we “hosts of eternity”, that is, the place where immortal forces meet, and where we make decisions which resonate forever? Or are we “guests”, here today and gone tomorrow in a universe which only “seems” to have any meaning? And he gives his answer while keeping up the tone (“believe me,dear…”) of a kitchen-table natter.

It has sometimes been alleged that Cummings’s poetry failed to develop. Certainly, he carried on until the end writing about love, sex, God, beauty and eternity: for some bizarre reason, he never discovered any more interesting subjects. But this new expanded edition of the Complete Poems demonstrates that he was always moving forward, often taking long detours in experimentation, but finding his way to a profound simplicity. Moreover, it is beautifully printed, and large enough to be used as a murder weapon on any “subhuman superminds” you happen to run into.