[Spring 2 (1993): 40-47]
When Norman Friedman granted me a virtual carte blanche in the selection of a topic to present as a member of the Cummings panel at the November 1992 Symposium on American Poetry of the American Literature Association in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, I decided I should draw upon my strengths. These are conspicuously narrow in range, but I do have the advantage of having kicked around in (and having been kicked around in) the world of the poetry presses and little magazines for the same thirty years that I have been teaching university courses in, as often as not, contemporary poetry. I decided to make use of the opportunity to write or call those living American poets whose works I most enjoy and to solicit from each a few words on what they perceived as the relationship between their own work and that of Cummings. I shamelessly let my own taste govern which poets I selected. I made no pretense of scientific objectivity, statistical analyses, or affirmative action. I gave as little direction to the correspondents as possible. I simply followed a hunch that what I would receive from them would prove stimulating and might even point toward some general conclusions. The reaction of those in attendance at the session seemed to indicate that such was indeed the case.
From the internationally notorious Charles Bukowski, author of, among dozens of volumes, the script of the film Barfly. "On E. E. Cummings, I don't think he was that much of an influence. He did catch me at a time when I was romantic about those guys. So many of them working out of the 20's and into the 30's. It seemed a lively time to me. Like now, I don't feel like there's any liveliness in writing, nothing cutting, new, interesting. People just...write...but it's more like a task. In Cummings I liked the way he placed his words [end page 40] on the page. He had a painter's eye, a gambler's eye. Others try it, it doesn't work. There was a joy, and a rareness in the way he placed the word. That's all. I don't really believe he said too much but the WAY he said it lit things up. High interest. It was a good reading. That's all I know."
It seemed to me that Bukowski had said more than he realized in indicating the folly of attempting a close imitation of Cummings and in pointing to the simple fun of his work. He would not be the last to touch on these points. From, for instance, the New York poet Billy Collins, twenty years Bukowski's junior, came, "I don't think of Cummings as an influence in the sense of a stylistic model, but I do remember his poetry opening my eyes to something new when I first read him in the 1950's during my teenage beatnik period. He made the page look different by his violation of the typographical etiquette of writing. Suddenly, what was once a white blank place to record something became a field you could play in with words, breaking them, making them go sideways, strewing their letters across the page. This irreverence, which is what I took it to be then, was inspiring. It broke the mold of 'school poetry' (Tennyson and the Lads) and opened up many new directions....It is difficult to assess Cummings' influence on me more specifically because it has been my experience from reading college literary magazines (and editing one ages ago) that only the worst, most insufferable poets imitate Cummings directly. Like Hemingway, Cummings is too easy to imitate. Anyone can write something like 'We sat at the cafe and drank wine and it was good' just as anyone can type out the word rain fifty times slanting down the page. But finally Hemingway and Cummings and all other true originals are impossible to imitate. One can only make bad reproductions. And again, with Cummings, it's as easy as ignoring the shift lock on your typewriter. But as the first person to write poetry in purely lower case, he inaugurated the dominance of the typewriter (cf. Kerouac 'typing') and the death of the pen and inkwell. In lower case, his poems looked childish, playful, almost modest, as if whispered by a gnome with a sense of humor. This fool, trained on Eliot, Housman, and the Victorians, rushed in." [Cummings, of [end page 41] course, uses caps as well, but not conventionally. Ed. note.]
Collins does not write much like Charles Olson at all, but the founder of "Projective Verse" might have drawn similar attention to the poem as at-play-in-a-field and to the revolution wrought by the typewriter. I contacted Richard Kostelanetz as representative of that branch of the literary avant-garde which breaks down the boundaries between the verbal and the other art media. Cummings seems clearly in those poems such as "a leaf falls/loneliness," which can only be apprehended visually rather than linearly spoken, to have been an early example of, if not a precursor of, a "concrete" poet. Kostelanetz noted briefly that he was "at a loss to identify Cummings' precise influence" on his own poetry, but he did direct me to his essay on Cummings reprinted in The Old Poetries and the New (U of Michigan P, 1981). Kostelanetz here continued the work of Norman Friedman in precise delineation of Cummings' technical and linguistic innovations and concludes, "If you favor the lyric verse...while excluding the radical poetry, Cummings is indeed a minor figure. However, there is another, better Cummings--the most inventive poet of his time, the truest ancestor to Whitman and in poetry the peer of Charles Ives and Frank Lloyd Wright. If you focus upon Cummings' more extraordinary poems--those that distinguish him from everyone else, before or since--you are more likely to recognize him, as I do, as the major American poet of the middle-twentieth century." (230)
Edward Field's reply to me was, well, vintage Edward Field. His letter speaks eloquently for itself:
Back in the forties, when I started writing, E. E. Cummings was the only American poet who could get away with humor in his poetry (even if it was bitter humor), and still not be classed as Light Verse. Even more sensational, he used the word fucking, which was actually printed in anthologies, as in "I will not kiss your f.ing flag." How I loved him for it. Also, the fact that it was a political poem the line appeared in, when it had already been declared [end page 42] gospel, in the area of witchhunts and loyalty oaths, that politics and the arts were incompatible. Robert Lowell even went around enforcing this dictum by reporting to the F. B. I. anybody who broke the rule. Besides Cummings, I could of course look to W. H. Auden with his own sassy or funny lines and jingles, as in "He's marvelous / he's Greek. / When I see him / my knees go weak." Liberating in the otherwise stuffy age of the New Criticism. But he was British. American poets couldn't get away with being openly queer back then. Or funny.Gradually but distinctly a major theme emerges from these letters Cummings gave these poets by example a form of permission, not the permission to like him but write in the ways they could write the best, in the ways they could have fun writing. They could not find these blueprints of permission in the work of the other prominent poets of generation. To borrow a couple of pop cliches Cummings "validated their parking stubs" and freed them" to be all that they could be."
I was immediately attracted to Cummings and any poet who sounded like a recognizable, fallible human being, even occasionally--and in this category I do not include Marianne Moore, T. S. Eliot, John Crowe Ransom, Allan Tate, et al., whatever their other virtues. Pound sometimes sounded human, if obnoxiously so, when he wasn't putting on a fake archaic tone or thundering like Jehovah. Ugh! Hart Crane, poor sick guy, was a legend for being a known gay and a wild cruiser among a bunch of stuffed shirts, though only in his moments of self pity did he come through.
W. C. Williams didn't and still doesn't impress me. Frost had a folksy voice I did not cotton to until later, after I dropped my own snobbery and decided I would never make it with the snobs of the poetry world. And Wallace Stevens, even with his marvelous unadorned style, belonged with "spiritual" snobs and anti-semites--that left me out. In fact, it was antisemitism that made me know that modern poetry was alien territory for me. E. E. Cummings may have been as anti-semitic as any of them, in fact was reported to be, but unlike T. S. Eliot, he didn't write [end page 43] it into his poetry. Among the less famous, Kenneth Fearing had a nice thirties commiesardonic quality subject matter, but I did not like the rambling lines.
I finally gave up on Cummings because of the typographical idiosyncrasies. I dislike the idea of poetry as word play, though I yield to it myself once in awhile. But I remain loyal to the E. E. Cummings "I will not kiss your f.ing flag," who helped my own way. [This line now appears in full in Complete Poems: 1904-1962 (1992), p. 340. Ed. Note]
Perhaps no one writing today exhibits more of a sense of fun and sentiment than Ronald Koertge.
I read Cummings in graduate school when I was supposed to be reading somebody else. He was fun to read. Not only did he write great poems like Buffalo Bill's / defunct" but he wrote lines like "my Uncle Sol's farm / failed because the chickens / ate the vegetables so." He wrote a lot about kissing -- a subject I wanted to major in -- not to his lines on the jostle of breasts and the slobber of thighs. In "I sing of Olaf" he used the kind of words I used every day, but he used them better. Naturally I used to write as he did which was about as successful as any drum-and-bugle corps rendition of [end page 44] "Ave Maria." But more than nearly anyone from those days he gave me a sense of permission to be foolish and carnal in print; he taught me to value the off-hand, and to listen attentively to any messages from the kingdom of the off.Marvin Malone, the legendary editor of the Wormwood Review, now in its fourth decade of continuous quarterly publication, turned out to be an avid, longtime collector of Cummings' books and art: "One of my first signed books was EIMI which I got from Gotham Book Mart at a ridiculously low price. I still rate that book well above Stein in style, innovation, and depth. A totally American book in spirit. I suppose I like it more than Finnegans Wake which I also have. I expect my weakness for humor/wit is probably due in part to Cummings/Joyce although I think Twain is my primary inspiration."
That's about it, Gerry. I don't know, (and couldn't find) the poem that the jostle of breasts and slobber of thighs lines came from ["spring omnipotent goddess" Complete, p. 89. Ed. note.], but they're pretty accurate. I once had some stuff about obvious influence à la Bukowski, Field, et al, but they seemed tepid and out of step somehow. As I looked over some Cummings poems in the library today, I remembered being less entranced by the allegedly weird typography and more by what a goofy fucker he could be.
Malone was impressed upon hearing Cummings' read at MOMA in spite of (or because of) "his rather stiff-necked delivery". I have myself never gotten over having heard Cummings deliver a formal one-hour (with intermission) reading at the Worcester Public Library when I was a freshman at Holy Cross in 1958-59. Here was a writer, I still feel, who had no need (as I certainly do) to leaven or spice his readings with "performance" or interlocutory comments. The young poet-editor Mark Weber also comments upon the extent to which Cummings' work was given a new dimension for him after hearing the [end page 45] poet read it on a Caedmon record.
Some responses were received (my fault) after the seminar. Denise Duhamel wrote of her admiration for the "visual, the word paintings" and of her adaptation of Cummings' device of the "hyphened double-dose adjective...'puddle wonderful' and 'mud-luscious'." Nick Carbo recalled having been moved "to a pubescent erection" by "may i feel said he": "In retrospect, I can see why this poem moved me so much. It deals with its subject directly, with plain language which any middle school teenager would understand. My concept of the poem, at that time, was drawn by studying the great poets of England. I had no idea that this other branch of poetry was available to the reader. E. E. Cummings opened up the modern branch of poetry for me and I began reading it for all its wonderful display of leaves, waiting for poems to blossom every time."
The young poet-editor of Chiron Review, Michael Hathaway, had not tried to imitate Cummings because "he was one of a kind" but had been intrigued that his poems seemed "more like paintings than poems. "
To summarize, then: Cummings' surface experimentation did have an obvious influence on those "concrete" poets who chose to take poetry in a visual direction, and even for those who were less interested in radical experimentation, Cummings' liberation of capitalization, punctuation, typography, and so forth became taken for granted (in the way, perhaps, that the once-Freudian vocabulary has entered common usage).
It seems to most poets, however, as fruitless to imitate Cummings closely as Hemingway. Both styles are dead giveaways.
Nonetheless, most of these poets queried seemed to have been moved some combination of his sense of fun and play, his open sexuality, his individualism, his political assertions and satires, his innate Americanness (a New England inheritance?), his thumbing of his nose at the establishment--the literary establishment by no means least of all--and his basic vivifying humanity.
Most of all they found in his work the permission to venture in new directions that were exciting to them and that allowed them to [end page 46] employ talents for which they had found no models among the poets from whom they were supposed to be learning. If anyone wishes, incidentally, to sample the work of the poets from whose letters I have quoted, most of them are represented in The New Biography of Poets, edited by Edward Field, Charles Stetler, and myself, published by the University of Arkansas in September, 1992.
--California State University, Long Beach
[end page 47]
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