Books: The Metropolitan Critic — An Instrument to Measure Spring With |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

e. e. cummings : An Instrument to Measure Spring With

The plush Harcourt Brace volume of Cummings’s verse (Poems 1923–1954) carries a line of caps on its dustcover immediately above the Marion Morehouse closeup of her husband’s head: FIRST COMPLETE EDITION. These two volumes MacGibbon and Kee are now putting out in this country constitute the second complete edition, which so far as the poetry is concerned will probably remain the essential compilation of the master’s work. It adds 95 Poems (1958) and 73 Poems (1963) to what appeared in Poems 1923–1954, which ended with the last poem of XAIPE. The layout is an improvement: much more open, so that any poem, no matter how small, gets its own page. The typesetting is modelled directly on the old standard forms worked out by Cummings with his personal typesetter at Harcourt Brace and in fact the new face is so close to the original that it looks for a while like a laterally squeezed and longitudinally stretched photograph of it until you compare the fine detail of the serifs. Poem 44 of No Thanks is still blank after more than thirty years: it is still asterisked as being available ‘in holograph edition only’. I have never seen this poem. I imagine it was originally knocked out of No Thanks as being too sexy (the original edition of No Thanks was dedicated to the fourteen different publishing houses who turned it down, Harcourt Brace being among them), but how it could still be considered so is beyond me. The copyright of the whole body of poetry remains in the possession of Marion Morehouse, which, on the assumption that only the beautiful deserve the brave, is just as it should be. Doubtless more poems will be unearthed in time, and strictly there are whole stretches of Cummings’s prose (especially in Eimi) which are poetry in all but name, but for the nonce this is it: the poetry collection of the year and for that matter the decade.

There is no reliable public picture of Cummings and it is doubtful if there will ever be one now. The only full-length study which existed up until the time I stopped following the secondary literature was desperately naïve, wide-eyed in worship, and as a PhD subject he is too ‘easy’: ideas-wise, he can be wrapped up in a couple of thousand words. He exists ‘only’ as a poetic personality, in the sense that the small amount of information available concerning his life fails to enrich (i.e. contradict) the picture you get from the attitudes he strikes in his work. As a figure eating ordinary food and breathing the air of this green earth, he can be reliably caught only in age-old sketches by Edmund Wilson and a few lesser figures, sketches in which he makes momentary appearances to talk faster and more brilliantly than anyone else before abruptly departing. No argument for the essential unity of art and intellect, the compatibility of the intuitive and the considered statement, and the schematic goal-achievement of an extended creative act, is complete without a consideration of Cummings’s ability to resist any such notions. His relevance to formal intellect was the relevance of a high-speed tap-dancer or a totally committed whore, both of whom he could admire and celebrate, with each of whom he was temperamentally at one.

As ideas, Cummings’s themes lead to immobility when they don’t lead to Broadway. He pushes a concept of individuality which would render civilization impossible to carry on, and his formulae for sexual spontaneity attained their apotheosis with Carol Lynley reading aloud from Puella Mea to her straight-arrow boyfriend in the movie version of Under the Yum-Yum Tree. But of course the ideas were never meant to be ideas. Like Lawrence, Cummings was extremely insistent, and often tedious, on the opposition of sexual expression and abstract thought but, unlike Lawrence’s, Cummings’s statements on the subject can’t be picked off the page without going off in your hand. They are present in this life only as art, and rarely try to stop being art: where they do, as in his blurbs for his own books and the burlesques he once contributed to Vanity Fair, the hyperbole is monotonous and the conflated language tiresome.

As a poet Cummings is not open to the accusation that he neglected to bar the way to people who might get him wrong, but it is certainly a pity that the emphasis of his work makes it easy for the superficial critical mind to line him up with the genuinely irrational writers in our time. Cummings never proposed that intellect should be swept from the world. His retort to such a statement would have been ‘What world?’ and his response to a further elaboration: ‘You call this a world?’ As far as Cummings was concerned, the artist’s responsibility to the world cannot be discussed, since it cannot even be proposed. Cummings presumed to test and report the quality of life directly, without reference to ideology of any kind. The results were not necessarily naïve. His purely artistic, wholesale rejection of the Soviet Union in the early thirties proved in the end to be personally less damaging than the piecemeal intellectual withdrawal of his contemporaries. Eimi is at least the equal of Gide’s Retour de l’U.R.S.S. for prescience based on the creative instinct, and contains by implication everything that Cummings valued in the America he was to needle for the rest of his life. Anyone still rocking with disgusted amusement after Mr. Muggeridge’s extraordinary Observer review of the re-issue of The Enormous Room might like to compare Eimi with Mr. Muggeridge’s own achievements of that period and decide whether dandies are ever right, even when they are not wrong. The two men reached the same conclusions, but look at the generosity of Cummings’s book, the sweep of its pity, the prophetic urgency of its demand for the poetic in the affairs of everyday — you need to have kept your innocence to write like that.

What little we do know about Cummings’s life ties in tightly with his work, and he is like Camus or Pavese in that you think of work and life together. Where they expressed doubts, he expressed certainties, but he is like them in suggesting that the writer’s life must shape itself to his art or else crack open. The important thing, when your art makes claims of this kind, is that in your private life you do nothing to contradict them. And in fact Cummings never did sell himself or align himself with any dogma, was kind, was proud, was individual. That anyone should find this unity of life and work difficult to accept reveals two things, one intellectual, one temperamental, about the age in which we live. Intellectually, the fundamental modern aesthetic concept divorcing the artist’s ‘actual’ and creative personalities has been successful to the point where the academic mind has difficulty in speaking at all when faced with an individual case in which the two personalities in fact match: a two-faced, vicious phoney like Verlaine not only seems more fruitfully complicated than a man like Cummings, but also more artistic. Temperamentally, the age is scared stiff of being taken for a sucker: deafened by the crash of fallen idols, it scans unblinkingly for the tell-tale signs of a splitting image. Believing that faults make men human, it eventually finds corruption admirable.

Cummings wrote little confessional poetry and it’s permissible to assume that this was because he had little to confess. He had seen in advance the temptations his era would offer the artist and had armoured himself against them. One tends to ascribe this invulnerability to an innate primitivism — the lucky fool — but it is probably more correct to say that it was the result of a conscious act of dedication and courage, of highly developed mentality. It isn’t easy nowadays to accept the suggestion that the man of honour is not the man who exquisitely analyses his capitulation, but the man who never surrenders at all. Far easier to write Cummings into a secondary category of inspiration in which his heated simplicities can be appreciated as a kind of inspired foolishness. (Some of Cummings’s love poetry looks pretty naïve, of course, beside Lowell’s: Cummings has few doubts, few fears, spills few beans and doesn’t seem to suffer much. What century did he think he was living in, for Christ’s sake?) These elementary themes of Cummings might have begun as a pose, but with some men the attitudes begun as a pose are confirmed by practice into a constitution of the mentality. Not necessarily a meretricious process: the brave men whose braveness counts usually have to talk themselves into being brave. From eccentricity to individuality, from self-assertion to a massive vocational presence, Cummings simplified and hardened his attitude to life until it supported him all by itself: he could stand up in it like a steel suit.

Cummings’s poetry splits up into two main lots: poetry celebrating love, and poetry defining, satirizing and discrediting the forces trying to attack it. In the first lot, the love itself ranges from the crystal-clear concentration of a child roller-skating on a sidewalk all the way across to the titanic image of his father,

so naked for immortal work
his shoulders marched against the dark

a picture of honour directly comparable with the figure of Farinata. But the bulk of this side of his work is taken up with poetry about the love between men and women, and this is the poetry most intelligent people think of when they think of Cummings. It, too, splits up: into the frankly randy and the close to holy. Almost everybody is acquainted with at least one Cummings poem of each kind. But Cummings is no nearer being two-faced here than he is anywhere else. He has no Victorian component to his mind and doesn’t suffer from a pulsating pornographic vision continually bursting through to sully the serene adoration of the beloved. Nor is there any post-Victorian component: no compulsory freedom, no screwing to prove a point. It is all as unstudied, yet fully as entranced with itself, as the little girl roller-skating over the expansion strips between the slabs of cement. He simply thinks (or simply writes, if you prefer to believe he is fibbing) of a continuum between the lady lusted after as pure gash and the lady contemplated as a divine revelation: the same lady, and, in some of his really remarkable poems, at the same moment. And it seems to me that he is very successful at this, that his raunchy poems are as cleanly good as Herrick’s, that his sacred ones have an affinity with the dolce stil novo in its most highly refined form, and that he succeeded during his long creative life in joining something up which before his advent had seemed irreparably broken. In the best of the latter-day love sequences in English — Meredith’s and Hardy’s, to take two outstanding examples — you are given the lady on the human scale, and on the whole human scale, and are glad for the boldness. But Cummings managed something different and more difficult.

Whether deeply versed in, or merely acquainted with, the sacred tradition in the love-song (I suspect deeply versed: he was well-read in several of the modern languages as well as both the classical) he succeeded in duplicating its singing voice of dedication, and produced love poems of which the greatest are comparable, even in divinity, with Dante and Petrarch. It is well known by now that Cummings’s randier poems are in constant use on campuses across the English-speaking world for seducing girls. But there is a possibility, too, that his sacred poems might first seduce the seducer, making him realize that what breathes beneath him has a soul. Cummings was powerfully influenced by the figure of Beatrice and disguised as a child, a dancer or a disintegrating old slag she is in his poems often: camouflaged but not secularized. When, in ‘She being Brand’, he describes a deflowering in the terminology of a test-drive in a Rolls, you are immediately in roaring company with the Herrick who dreamed of his own metamorphosis into a laurel and woke to find himself the proud owner of an erection and the copious results of a wet dream. But when he writes, in ‘it may not always be so, and i say’,

Then shall i turn my face, and hear one bird
sing terribly afar in the lost lands.

you are not far from the Dante who had pushed the thematic frontier of the stil novo all the way to the staggering moment when Beatrice turns her silent smile from the poet to the Godhead. Whether Cummings in real life did or did not experience this continuity of feminine matter and universal spirit I have no means of knowing (Mr. Muggeridge uniquely suggests that Cummings might have been a queer), but in the best of his love poetry his implacable creative drive towards establishing exactly that continuity ignites a cluster of stellar points numerous and radiant enough to form a Milky Way of divine good will. Like Yeats, he learned a good deal from Dowson about how to write majestically: majesty means pomp and pomp needs drill. Sonnet III of ‘Sonnets — Unrealities’ in Tulips and Chimneys is a concentration of every effect in Dowson’s technical book and it can be recommended as an example of how one great poet masters another’s mechanics in order to be with him in spirit. Cummings turned Dowson’s tone of voice away from doom towards exaltation and from frustration to fulfilment. Also he liked big girls. But the sense of dedication is the same.

As an example of toughly articulated benevolence, the pagan love-song elevated to sublimity through tenderness, there is hardly anything in this century which will bear comparison with Cummings’s love poetry except the very best products of Tin Pan Alley. And as his successes are Tin Pan Alley’s successes — simplicity, self-definition, formal drive, the phrase pointed to revivify the words within it — so his failures are Tin Pan Alley’s failures — sentimentality, self-parody, the limpidity that gels too soon. Reading Cummings through now, I skip about 60 per cent of his love poems, since they are adequately covered by the other forty. It’s a failure-rate considerably smaller than that with which any song writer is content to live: eventual repetitiveness is the inevitable penalty for being plain from the beginning. In his love poetry alone he wrote himself at least seven tickets to immortality: ‘when thou hast taken thy last applause, and when’; ‘it may not always be so, and I say’; ‘this is the garden: colours come and go’; ‘who’s most afraid of death? thou art of him’; ‘somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond’; ‘you shall above all things be glad and young’ and ‘hate blows a bubble of despair into’. Scores more of his poems parallel, and scores more again merely parody, these few, but that doesn’t make the few vulnerable or the many extraneous. A slim selection of the best wouldn’t be much help, since you need to be acquainted with a couple of hundred of the lesser poems to sort out the language difficulties in the thirty or so (counting in the satires) which are really tremendous. In short, Cummings needs real studs — not the fake kind, but the kind with generosity built in. It’s not enough to be able to trace Cummings’s debts to Baudelaire, Flecker and Krazy Kat, although that helps.

Cummings’s other poetry is mainly a defence of the thematic unity I have just described. Eliot once defined humour as the weapon with which intelligence defends itself: a profound statement in that it described the dynamics of the business, by suggesting that humour moves always from a base. Cummings’s humour (and his satire is usually funny enough to be dignified by this categorically superior word) moves from a base in his fertile territory of love, and by gruesomely specifying the enemy forces helps convince the reader that the home base is not Cloud Cuckoo land but the only viable actuality: you must live in love or else nowhere.

take it from me kiddo
believe me
my country, ‘tis of

you, land of the Cluett
Shirt Boston Garter and Spearmint
Girl With The Wrigley Eyes (of you
land of the Arrow Ide
and Earl &
Collars) of you i

And so on in a thousand details, all of them aimed at establishing ‘real’ as the false: politics, the army, the police, the academy, the science whose microscopes ‘deify one razor blade into a mountain range’. None of this is literary news now, of course, but Cummings paved the way and nobody since has done the job better. The real objection to the bulk of the work of Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and the rest is that the man who started it all could squeeze their scattered effects into a form and make the whole thing travel like a skilfully aimed custard pie. The technical difference mirrors the difference in mental make-up, not to say mental intensity: Cummings isn’t kidding. He really loathes what they are half in love with. His field of observation is broad enough and deep enough to get the detail right, but the detail is not loving detail: a concentration of Menckenese at its very best, his invective is a roar of pain. And again like Mencken’s, Cummings’s pain is founded on a knowledge of the past, of what has always been valuable. Cummings was superbly educated, he had his measures of excellence and he was not at sea. He knew exactly what he did not want. There is no element, in his condemnation, of complicity in what he condemns. Unlike his successors, he is deeply rational and it is only through complete trust in his own rationality that he is able to condemn intellect. There is not an atom of mysticism in him: he proposes no dualisms, but simply asserts the divine as the sole level of reality and perpetual revelation as the only mode of vision. Cummings, as well as bringing a tradition into being, was winding one up: a New England tradition, and hence a European tradition, and hence a tradition of civilization in the West. He is far closer to Catullus than he is to a man like Ginsberg. The old way was all perizia, and Cummings takes that to pretty near the limit. The new way is all Dummheit: a new start, a new rate of speaking for a world growing to look like Los Angeles — a speech clumsily spectacular, semi-constructed, half articulate, a bit thick. In this world the intensity, and above all the velocity, of an intelligence like Cummings’s will be close to incomprehensible.

Cummings’s love poetry is beautiful on the one hand, and his attacking poetry explosive on the other, because of a sense of form trained up high and punishingly maintained. He rewrote the sonnet-form as a jazz solo in which the tag phrase jolts what you have been hearing into rhythmic intelligibility. Treating the whole sonnet as a rhythmic unit and using its traditional inner partitions only to lean against for a quick intake of breath, he avoided the usual caboose effect of squeaky couplets, quatrains or sextets tugged along behind. His sonnets finish so strongly that it is a fair guess to say he wrote them from the bottom up: certainly he hardly ever let the formal requirements trap him into a forced thought. Working for him always, in this and in any other form, was a strictly sensational capacity to propel a line: the special feature of Cummings’s technique is not typography but kinetics.

when every thrush may sing no new moon in
if all screech-owls have not okayed his voice
— and any wave signs on the dotted line
or else an ocean is compelled to close

The packed stresses at the end of the first line are the knuckles of the hand which unrolls the second like a bolt of cloth. Cummings’s diction was often self-indulgent (as Edmund Wilson pointed out at the beginning, Cummings overworked the long ‘i’), his super-precise-looking adverbs were often only padding, but the impetus of his line remained a miracle from first to last. Except for some largish poems early on, he never used a form bigger than he could control in a single rhythmic breath, but the alterations of pace within that rhythmic unit were, in the jazzman’s sense of the word, ridiculous. In a sense he was too good. Able to move anything at any pace, he was tempted to move hunks of nothing like a rocket, and you come across fast-travelling assemblages which have velocity but no momentum.

Cummings’s true technical triumphs were all sonic. Except where they freed him into new areas of audio effect, his typographical tricks — the Apollinaire-raids — were an irrelevance. They gave courage to a generation of bad poetry, they give courage to bad poetry still, but they came from the graphic, merely talented side of his mind and were very limited in their poetic usefulness. The ‘concrete’ effects can always be related to the theme, but only mechanically. ‘Moon’ is just as suggestive a way as ‘mOOn’ of writing moon. Cummings was dedicated to typographical innovation all his life and set great store by meticulously indirect layout. He will be remembered for little of this: he can no more be credited with it as an invention than held responsible for the damage it has since caused. Several of Cummings’s pages of alphabet soup (now seen in this country for the first time, since Faber & Faber, who handled his work here in previous years, never took them on) are really exploded sonnets. Put them back together and you quickly find they are not as good as the sonnets he was careful to leave in one piece.

A more troublesome technical point concerns his syntactical effects, which are numerous enough to constitute a private language and render his poetry virtually untranslatable. One of Quasimodo’s translations illustrates this point well. Cummings has written

the great advantage of being alive
(instead of undying)

and Quasimodo renders this as

il grande privilegio di essere vivo
(anzi che immortale)

exactly reversing the sense, since by ‘undying’ Cummings doesn’t mean ‘immortal’ at all, but means the ordinary existence which everybody except his chosen people lead and (mistakenly in his view) dignify with the name ‘life’. Questa voce ... potremmo paragonare a un canto a bocca chiusa o a un canto lontano di cui non si percepiscano le parole* writes Quasimodo hopefully. In fact Cummings is quite clear and quite consistent in his untiring use of such effects, which are misleading only if you attempt to do a prac. crit. on single poems and neglect to read him entire. The real trouble with his syntax starts when whole poems are made up of nothing but negatively or tangentially defined concepts hemming in a falsely thrilling platitude. This poem is one of the neater examples:

when god decided to invent
everything he took one
breath bigger than a circus tent
and everything began

when mandetermined to destroy
himself he picked the was
of shall and finding only why
smashed it into because

The circus tent saves the day for the first stanza, but it takes more than a passing acquaintance with Cummings’s work to make sense of the second, and by the time you have acquired a certain familiarity you are well aware that this is the side of Cummings which needs to be left alone to die off by itself. Probably it will be pummelled to death in brainless articles for PMLA circa 1990. But this is an extreme example and with steady reading his use of such devices becomes perfectly clear. As it becomes clear, it tends to become tedious. Like his typography, this component in Cummings’s use of language did its work by making him feel special as he slogged on. Now that he is dead its importance should very much lessen. Young poets who admire him will always betray themselves by echoing this sort of thing, but really it is a mannerism and can’t be followed. Caught up in his commitment to the unique, Cummings was often a mannerist — but at least it was his own manner.

Cummings’s satirical poems, with their crazy-quilt diapering of billboard slogans, campaign buttons and patriotic clichés now long forgotten, have a receptivity to the emergent American idiom which reminds us that his vital development was contemporaneous with the gradual appearance of that great repository of informal poetry, Mencken’s American Language. As Valéry once suggested, the language itself is the real poem. As a contributor to this poem any bus-conductor with an authentic gift for swearing has the edge on the darling of the literary society. Cummings measured himself against the anonymous contributors to the language, to joy, to the traditions of skill: balloon men, good-time girls, strippers on the ramp, whores, acrobats who climb on ladders of swords, dancing elephants. Of the small amount of his poetry which is perfect we can say that it is good enough for its author’s name to be forgotten in safety. Of the large amount which is less so, we can say that it needs understanding in the light of its author’s manifest intentions, and that these intentions were life-giving, basically sane, lyrically inspired, and good. He also measured himself against the finest poets of the near and far past, prepared himself to join them, and is with them now.

(The Review, 1969)

* ‘We might compare this voice to a hummed song or to a song far away whose words we can’t make out.’   To quote Italian without translating it was definitely showing off — C.J., 1994.

Postscript, 1994

If the book’s components had been arranged chronologically, this piece would have had to be placed first, no doubt with off-putting consequences. I was still at Cambridge, and still nominally studying for a PhD when Ian Hamilton asked me for a contribution to The Review on a subject of my choice. I chose Cummings because I wanted to get my hands on the glossy new two-volume complete edition. There might also have been an urge to transfer a piece of academic work to the public realm: Cummings had been the subject of my required long essay for an honours degree in English at the University of Sydney in the late-Fifties, and some of the notions there imprisoned seemed too brave not to be set free. The style, though, was all new, and frenzied beyond anything I had perpetrated as an undergraduate in Cambridge or even as a culture-vulture contributing arts editor for Sydney’s student newspaper honi soit. In 1958 I had sounded merely facetious. In 1969 I was over the top like a regiment. I forget what I had against Verlaine to call him a ‘two-faced, vicious phoney’, a term more appropriate to Hermann Goering. My use of the word ‘lady’ must have sounded like Hugh Hefner talking, even at the time. It was still possible to call a gay man a queer in those days and in conversation I still would; but in print an editor would not now let me, and would probably be right. As always when falsities of tone were around, falsities of argument weren’t far away. One bad example is ‘not an atom of mysticism in him’. Whatever mysticism is composed of, it isn’t atoms, and anyway Cummings was as mystical as they come. Some American anti-communists went nuts in the opposite direction, becoming pro-Fascists. Cummings deserved points for not wearing any brown or black shirts: he was so averse to all forms of collectivist politics that it was impossible to imagine him as anything except an individual. But a right-wing ideologue he certainly was, so to use such phrases as ‘without reference to ideology of any kind’, or to suggest that he ‘never did ... align himself with any dogma’, was to court being struck by lightning. ‘Apollinaire-raids’ was reasonable pun, but still a pun, and there are no good puns, even though Professor Ricks has devoted so much energy to proving the contrary. When younger colleagues started bringing out their own first books of collected casual prose — Martin Amis was the most daunting example — I was struck by a mixture of envy and remorse at how stable, punctilious and unembarrassing an expository prose they had achieved early on, as if their styles had gone straight from childhood to maturity without a single outburst of adolescent pimples. As can be seen in this piece, my own adolescence was long delayed. But there are some points in it that presage a more sententious future. When I wrote ‘majesty means pomp and pomp needs drill’ I was at least dealing in quiddities, if not aphorisms; and to go overboard in praise of a poet’s energy was better than to hedge my bets by pointing out his manifest but nugatory drawbacks.