[Spring 3 (1994): 16-20]
Two substantial reasons have made me eager to participate in this celebration of Cummings. The first, and the stronger one, is of course his poetry: I go on cherishing his work and especially for its lilt, its lightheartedness (in his case both "light" and "heart" deserve emphasis), its unmitigated wit and gaiety Or a quality poetry is always in danger of losing--play and playfulness. Whether he addresses a favorite woman or a happy go-lucky spring, his lyricism excels that of most of the poets of our age. Recovering single-handedly something of poetry's purest nature, now and again he reminds me in his everlasting freshness of Herrick; reminds me also of Catullus and Martial in his love poetry and his sardonics.
His instrument relied mainly on two or three strings, but at times he played them with the plangency of a full-sized orchestra. Or of a lone cricket, its music brimming every cranny of late summer and early autumn. And though like most prolific poets, he frequently repeated himself or wrote beyond his means, what is amazing is the abundant variety he achieved, through a fecund lifetime of writing, with three or four persistent themes.
In addition, he renewed our language, to its happy surprise, tickled it wide awake in its sleepiest corners namely, its adverbs, prepositions, articles, and adjectives. These words, most of them usually regarded as lowly, anonymous menials, in the dancing democracy of his discourse, as they kicked up their heels, often proved themselves lovely, shining Cinderellas. We have to go back to Shakespeare with his "But me no buts" and "he out-Heroded Herod," and to Hopkins with his "I am a lonely began," to find something like Cumming's dapper, free-and-easy employment of diction. In his hands, pulling all the staples, language once again enjoyed its original, seemingly illimitable suppleness: verbs become nouns, nouns become verbs, the whole flowed with an angelic nonchalance.
The other reason for my being pleased to be here is much more subjective and local. Through the Quarterly Review Of Literature, my wife Renée and I came to know EEC personally. One of his lyrics occupied the first page of our first issue over fifty years ago. That lyric was an announcement of what we hoped QRL would stand for. Over the years we published a good number of his poems. And once in a great while, I'm happy [end p. 16] to say we had a little finger, if not a hand, in their making. I quote one of the Cummings' poems we printed:
(XAIPE [19503: #46)
Through all this a correspondence naturally ensued (a most colorfu1 one, with his numerous notes and postcards inscribed in blues and reds), as did several visits to his Patchin Place apartment. He was a lithe, handsome man, an amiable combination of Puck and Ariel, with a talent for aping-- when not goading--the Caliban in us all. Being with him, we could well understand his work's passion for flowers and a frequently recurring word like "fragile." (The last time we met, this after some years, as I approached him he flinched: "Oh that you should see me the way I look now!" One expected such self-awareness from him.)
Long before the flower-children arrived on the scene, Cummings was a flower-man. Out of fragility, he knew, tremendous strength can be forged. And out of a total, impassioned, intrepid individualism. As he put it, "When skies are hanged and oceans drowned/the single secret will still be man"(l X 1 : XX), and I'm sure he meant woman at least as much.
During his lifetime Cummings belonged to the company--and was considered an equal, in his own inimitable fashion--of Pound, Eliot, Moore, Williams, and Stevens. But after his death his work seemed to diminish beside theirs, in considerable measure, I would suggest, because his poetry's seemingly transparent purity hardly lends itself to the theorizing and systematizing favored by academic critics. As far as Cummings was concerned--and he certainly was--all such system makers were the enemy.
And in an age always more mechanized and anonymizing, his work and what it stands for--the uniqueness of the individual--is always more relevant and precious. For that and for the sheer, immediate pleasure of his work. he deserves more than ever the attention we are giving him today. If [end p. 17] Pound urged poets to "make it new," Cummings--were he able to put up with any slogan--might well have recommended "Make it NOW." Celebrate the present unique moment and make something permanent out of its very evanescence.
As for his influence on my writing, I must admit I find it difficult to establish. Usually, in such matters of indebtedness, we detect the obvious: the borrowing of the surface mannerisms and devices of a predecessor. The deeper the influence, the more significant, the less visible it is. As I see it now, his work encouraged me to larger freedom and, at the same time, to an appreciation of the look of a poem, its comely shape, on the page. An artist as well as a poet, for him the posture a poem assumed, its address, was immensely important. Also, realizing the multiplicity as much as the instantaneousness of experience, he showed me how a poem can produce a sense of simultaneity, the whole poem happening at once. Or how to convert writing's temporality to the spatial.
I would like now to read a poem of his and then one of my own, not so much an imitation of as a response to him. He often enjoyed borrowing others' voices. Here, in this particular instance, for amusement and relevancy, he assumed a machismo character. I'm impressed Cummings made him as witty as he did, and sensibly crisp, with a rhyme like "match youse" and "statues," but Cummings couldn't help giving some of himself to whomever he employed:
Romantically charming it is, and tongue-in-cheeky too, to make a poem out of the superiority of nature over art.mr youse needn't be so spry
concernin questions arty
each has his tastes but as for i
i likes a certain party
gimme the he-man's solid bliss
youse ideas I'll match youse
a pretty girl who naked is
is worth a million statues
(is 5 : ONE, XVIII)
My poem takes the opposite tack. It remarks the ardors, the dif- [end p. 18] ficulties of nakedness. I might say, not too relevantly, that the poem was prompted by a conversation with Gore Vidal. We were arguing, I recall, about modern American drama, its poverty beside other genres. And particularly about Tennessee Williams, whom Gore defended against my reservations. That argument inspired the poem's first section. In it, something you cannot know except as I tell you, I am referring to a cluttered, scattered monologue in one of Williams' plays. One of the best lines in the poem, just between you and me, I owe to Vidal. But I won't tell you which it is or put it in quotation marks; since we were arguing, why should I give him credit?
The poem's latter part considers Goya's two Maja paintings, one dressed and one naked, with the latter in a deal of trouble, as though incomplete without clothes. In short (or long), clothes maketh the man, especially for the woman wearing them. I'll do my poor best to satisfy the poem's epigraph.
How hard it is, we say,
how very hard. Clearly no one can say
these cluttered lines and make them
stride or make them stay. No actress
in the land--the best have tried_
can find a pattern or a rhythm
in our day's befuddled monologue.
Concede, I say, a role to test the mettle
of a Bernhardt, who, wigged, without a leg
and in a ragged voice, could--so they say--
strike any rock-like audience to tears,
this with only the alphabet.
you say, maybe. But then the alphabet
by Racine, no less.
And I am depressed.
Ah me, l am depressed to think how we, [end p. 19]
with many more outspoken words, submit
to mumblings, silence, only answer
fitting our despair.
How hard it is,
we say, how very hard, to find ourselves
stuck in such muck.
Oh well, I say,
maybe when we haven't understood
each other long enough, that muck will
harden into a stuff that we can carve.
Already Goya knew the sharp rebuff
of nakedness. With nothing between
he almost wrung his naked Maja's neck,
as though he'd stuck the head of one girl,
a much beloved, on the body of another
(for less aesthetic uses, say), and they
would not set, not in the daring solvent
of his paints.
His Maja draped was
a far different matter. I say, I never
thought I'd prefer a dressed girl to one
undressed. Even for me, I see, it's later
than I guessed.
So let's go home to bed,
Renée, and dress and dress and dress.
© Theodore Weiss, The Medium (1965)
[end p. 20]
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