David Chinitz


[Spring 5 (1996); 78-81]

The following paper was read at the Newberry Library in a panel discussion called "The Poetry of E. E. Cummings: Public Affection - Academic Disaffection," a part of the Cummings Centennial Celebration in Chicago during the fall of 1994. The panel also included Professor Lawrence Lipking and Paul Breslin of Northwestern University, poet Ron Mills, and, as moderator, Cummings Society member June Finfer, who organized the centenary events.

As an academic admirer of Cummings, I’d like to raise the question of whether it’s not the "academic disaffection" with Cummings rather than the "public affection" for him that is misplaced. When I call myself an "admirer," I don't mean that I find the usual critical objections to Cummings' poetry to be entirely groundless. But these objections raise other questions for me about just what it is that one values in a poet. In order to be securely canonized, what criteria must a poet meet, or what function must he or she perform for us? I want to suggest that the case of Cummings may expose a certain bias in the process by which poets gain academic approval. [1]

It is argued, for example, that "major" poets develop in technique or philosophy over the course of their careers, and that by the standard set by our leading poets, Cummings developed insufficiently. For my part I'm willing to concede that there's something to this. It's not that Cummings' 73 Poems is interchangeable with his Tulips & Chimneys—but the progression from "In a Station of the Metro" to the Pisan Cantos, or from "Down by the Salley Gardens" to "Sailing to Byzantium," is considerably more striking. The passage of time, the course of history, cultural shifts, aging and experience do affect Cummings' later poetry—but they altered the way Pound and Yeats wrote poetry while Cummings remained more or less his old self.

But if we accept, even if only for the sake of argument, that Cummings was relatively static—and even if we go so far as to grant that this stasis marks a limitation in his sensibility—we can still ask how much this matters, and to whom. For what laurel crown do we demand from a writer a chronological progress rather than a body of excellent work, irrespective of when and how it was written? The laurel crown that demands this, I think, is a scholarly one: poets whose careers follow a long and intricate trajectory commend themselves to critical study. But are we willing to grant that poetry is best judged as an object of study? As an academic, I have reasons to take [end page 78] particular interest in poets who repay scholarly analysis, yet I'm not at all sure that this is a reasonable measure of artistic success.

Another complaint about Cummings is that his poetry lacks the profound ideas that one finds in other modernists—say in Auden, or Stevens, or Eliot. Here again, I don’t know that I’d care to dispute the point, but I wonder what conclusion to draw from it. Is poetry that is not the medium of complex or startling thought necessarily minor poetry? Once again, Cummings is at a disadvantage within the academy, where because of the very nature of the institution, ideas are emphasized. Ideas can be analyzed in critical essays; one can trace their genealogies, debate their merits, explore their social and cultural contexts, explain them to students. It’s easier to respond to Stevens or Eliot by saying something than it is with Cummings. But is that a legitimate measure of a poet’s value? And if legitimate, is it the only measure?

I find that my own relationship to Cummings is different from my relationship to other modernist poets—it is perhaps, in a sense, less professional. So far, I’ve felt Cummings’ poetry has given me pleasure as a reader for many years. Every time I open his Complete Poems I feel daunted by their typographical intricacies and by their sheer quantity; I find that in compensation I never read the poems consecutively. Instead I hunt around in the book, reading poems here and there as a line catches my eye. I don’t know if others prefer to experience Cummings differently, but this is how I’ve always enjoyed reading him. Whenever I open the book I find a few more unnoticed poems that surprise and attract me—another poem or two that I’ll remember and return to later with pleasure. As I read, I don’t much care whether Cummings developed as a writer, or whether he was as deep and complex a thinker as Stevens. His art has other rewards.

Even if Cummings and his work resist scholarly approaches—as I think to some extent they do—there are or ought to be other avenues by which Cummings can enter the academy. As a teacher I’ve already found him useful. Cummings offers a way of introducing students less painfully than The Cantos or The Waste Land to important aspects of twentieth-century poetry. This is not an original idea of mine; in fact it goes at least as far back as 1928 in Laura Riding and Robert Graves’s Survey of Modernist Poetry, an early New Critical defense of modernist aesthetics Though they cite Eliot with approval and William Carlos Williams with a certain contempt, Riding and Graves chose Cummings as their chief example of the modern in poetry. For them, Cummings represents the concentration of modem poetry, its attention to detail, its resistance to conventional poetic language and literary cliché, its formal and linguistic experimentation, its attitude of rebellion. I believe that Cummings remains a useful exemplar for these qualities—the more useful, in fact, because his idiosyncrasies are so obvious at first glance and so penetrable after some study and instruction. [end page 79]

Cummings served exactly that purpose for me when I came across his poem "i thank You God for most this amazing / day" (CP 663) in a high-school textbook. The poem wasn’t assigned reading, and I’m not sure I know now what drew me to it as a freshly agnostic sixteen-year-old. But Cummings’ language caught my imagination: his vivid "leaping greenly spirits of trees"; his use of "yes" as an adjective and "no" as a noun; the paradoxical force of his hypothetical "tasting touching hearing seeing / breathing any . . . human merely being" who somehow doubts the "unimaginable" creator. Although I can’t remember when I discovered that the poem was a Shakespearean sonnet, I can’t forget the sense of revelation I felt when I noticed this. The ease with which Cummings dominated the form, the freedom of his rhythms, and the vernacular naturalness of his rhetoric gave me genuinely valuable insights into the possibilities of a modern poetry—and in fact I now trace my professional interest in modernist poetry to my reading of this particular poem.

Mentioning my age at that time brings me perilously close to another anti-Cummings argument, probably the most damaging of all: the idea that Cummings is a writer of adolescent sensibilities who appeals mainly to adolescents. Once we mature as readers, the argument runs, we grow away from Cummings as a pretentious and self-congratulatory spirit who delights in his own sensitivity and open-mindedness while sneering at the shallowness and hypocrisy of others—much like ourselves as adolescents. Cummings is to poetry, in other words, what Tchaikowsky is to classical music: the artist who first attracts us—the one with his nonconformist posturing, the other with his histrionic emotionalism—but whom we soon outgrow.

But after some years of taking pride in our ability to recognize that the 1812 Overture doesn’t hold a candle to Brahms’s Fourth, we get over our initial counter-reaction to Tchaikowsky. The pleasure one had in him originally was not entirely illegitimate after all. And the same, I think, goes for Cummings. His poems are lyrics, almost all short and deliberately limited in scope. And yes, he lacks the philosophical complexity we find in one poet, the intensity of another, the career-long odyssey of technical and personal discovery of a third. But what Graves and Riding said almost 70 years ago still holds: "Mr. Cummings expresses with an accuracy peculiar to him what is common to everyone" (63). One doesn’t go to Cummings for a profoundly new idea, but rather for a profoundly new expression of an old idea—an idea as traditional as spring or love or human folly. No one writes about these things in quite the way that Cummings does, and there’s always delight in seeing the way he does it. As Robert Frost puts it in his poem "The Mountain," "All the fun’s in how you way a thing." Cummings’ [end page 80] metaphors, images, and word-play are original, memorable, and often funny; they frequently have a brilliant and peculiar accuracy from a point of view that no other writer quite duplicates.

Above all, Cummings is a playful poet, with every element of language and of poetic technique, from orthography to syntax to form, making the stuff of his play. To quote Frost again, in his very last lecture he defined poetry as "an extravagance about grief." Cummings is less tragic than Frost; you might say that his poetry is an extravagance about life. But in his extravagance, or his playfulness, Cummings supplies—more than some poets who outrank him in academic reputation—the excitement, the originality, the accuracy of vision, and the fun that poetry ought to supply. It is the structure of academic study that sometimes leads us to overlook these virtues.

—Loyola University of Chicago


[1] Vernon Shetley’s recent review of Cummings’ Complete Poems and The Enormous Room (New Republic 15 August 1994: 39-42) sums up—and endorses—much of the anti-Cummings position.

[Editor’s Note: Many have also had the experience noted above re Tchaikowsky—and Cummings—in reading Whitman over a span of years, and for a similar reason: that what at first appeared as adolescent later takes on its true significance as a vision of transcendence, of discovering the spiritual in the everyday, the divine in the mundane. That we are peculiarly susceptible to this discovery in adolescence is no bad math against either it or adolescence. Nor, once we have begun to appreciate it, do we need to "develop"; rather, we need to allow ourselves to experience its myriad manifestations. No: as I have argued elsewhere, the only real bad math against Cummings that I can see is that he was sometimes uncharitable toward those who failed of transcendence. And the bad math against academic criticism is that its vision has not yet been able to really grasp the true meaning and significance of this "Oriental" sense of transcendence, despite the fact that it should be familiar to us through our own early examples—Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau.] [end page 81]

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