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Tuesday, February 14

E. E. Cummings

Jump half a century from Dickinson to e. e. cummings and you’ll see more similarities in their poetry than differences. Both thumbed noses at traditional punctuation; both used capital letters (or lack thereof) to reinforce meaning; both exulted in Nature’s glory; both wrote passionate love poems; and if Dickinson occasionally forced a word into a different syntactic category, cummings did it all the time; if Dickinson was occasionally ambiguous or “difficult,” cummings was most of the time. Cummings, though not as great a poet as Dickinson, Whitman, Frost, T. S. Eliot, or any number of others, was in his day and still is today one of the most popular poets who ever put reason to rhyme. He’s just so damned much fun.

In a non-traditional love poem, one illustrating the Twenties’ move toward free love, the speaker (cummings?) presents this argument to a reluctant lover:

yes is a pleasant country:
if's wintry
(my lovely)
let's open the year

both is the very weather
(not either)
my treasure,
when violets appear

love is a deeper season
than reason;
my sweet one
(and april's where we're)

Note the lack of capital letters, his way of saying that he and most others aren’t important enough to deserve capitalization. Note the way he takes words from one function and forces them into another: yes and if become nouns, suggesting that the country of “yes” is pleasant whereas the country of “if” is cold and wintry; the state of “bothness” (two together as one) is the wonderful (“very”) weather of spring whereas the state of “eitherness” (two but separate) is not the weather of spring. And in the last stanza, his argument is that love should be a matter of feeling, not reasoning, and they are at the beginning (spring) of their relationship. So, let’s do it, he says.

There now, isn’t he a fun poet? Here’s another love poem that’s simply a variation of this theme of feeling over reason:

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;

wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a far better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don't cry
--the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids' flutter which says

we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life's not a paragraph
And death i think is no parenthesis

What does he seem to be saying in the final stanza, that life is not a paragraph and that death is no parenthesis? A paragraph, by its very nature, suggests that there is another paragraph to follow, that life has another unit after this life is over. A parenthesis is only the first mark in the pair we call parentheses, so he seems to be saying that there won’t be another mark following the first one. Two ways of saying that this life is all there is and we’d better make the most of it. “Then laugh,” he says, “leaning back in my arms,” and we’ll make love.

How about one that exemplifies the ambiguity and difficulty of much modern poetry. This one uses the same tricks of capitalization and word function as the first two, and it seems to be telling the reader not to be like the ones he describes in each stanza—greedy, wary, busy, cunningly cowardly, tenderly shy people. We should note steeple bells, the glorious moon, the silent stars, the sun, and the wonders of spring.

the greedy the people
(as if as can yes)
they sell and they buy
and they die for because
though the bell in the steeple
says Why

the chary the wary
(as all as can each)
they don’t and they do
and they turn to a which
though the moon in her glory
says Who

the busy the millions
(as you’re as can i’m)
they flock and they flee
through a thunder of seem
though the stars in their silence
say Be

the cunning the craven
(as think as can feel)
they when and they how
and they live for until
though the sun in his heaven
says Now

the timid the tender
(as doubt as can trust)
they work and they pray
and they bow to a must
though the earth in her splendor
says May

The poem has a unity that’s effective in communicating his theme. Each stanza employs a parallel structure that reinforces the meaning of each separate stanza. Where the lines may be too obscure in one stanza, clues to the meaning and syntax are given in the equivalent lines in other stanzas. And just as the reader accustoms himself to this parallelism throughout the poem, Cummings plays with the language of the last stanza, surprising the reader with a pun and aptly concluding with one last succinct statement of theme. The last word of line four of each stanza contrasts directly with the last word of the stanza (because-Why, which-Who, seem-Be, until-Now, must-May). The reader observes this and expects this contrast to hold true throughout the poem. And it does, at least on one level. In the last stanza the auxiliary verb “must” has become a noun suggesting that “the timid the tender” live in the belief that they must conform to unbendable and unbreakable rules and conventions, either social or divine. The last word “May,” also an auxiliary verb, suggests the opposite, a permissiveness, or at least our ability to shape our own destinies to some extent. The joy we receive in the double meaning of “May” comes when our minds register that the poet also means the month of May, “the earth in her splendor” giving the lie to the greedy, the chary, the busy, the cunning, the timid. Cummings’ theme is concentrated in that last word—spring, love, and joy of life.

If you’ve never been a fan of cummings and his poetry, you should give him a try. He really is a fun guy.

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