[Spring New Series 1 (1992): 37-45]

In a review of my book Dreams in the Mirror (Liveright, 1980), a British critic referred to Cummings as a "major minor poet." I was struck by the phrase, which seemed to me very apt, for during the work on the critical biography I had been torn between the feelings, on the one hand, of admiration for his distinctive, original achievement in modern poetry and, on the other hand, of disappointment for his lack of perception that much of what he published was ephemeral stuff. I had also been amazed to discover the difficulties he had in writing such things as a worthwhile college term paper or, later, a book review or an introduction to one of his own books. When I read the phrase "major minor poet, I began to meditate on what the terms "major" and "minor" really mean in literary history and what critical evaluations contribute to such terms.

What do we have in mind when we label someone a major poet? We usually mean one of two things. First and most important, we have in mind a poet who produces a large body of superior verse that does not fade from value passes, a body of work that includes variety of theme and expression and also some works of length and complexity. Easily we think of Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, Browning, and T. S. Eliot as major poets. The other kind of poet we regard as major may not have produced a large body of work, but what has come from his pen is a sufficient number of poems of such undisputed high quality that even his lack of bulk and variety or of work. of length and complexity does not matter. We think of Keats and Hopkins as major poets, our view of Hopkins being strengthened by the uniqueness of his poetic style.

Somewhere in between these two groups we find figures we regard as major because other elements affect their reputation. [end page 37] John Donne's work represents a school of poetry or an important tendency in verse: he represents the Metaphysical Poets better than any other figure who falls in that category. When we consider Herbert, Marvell, Vaughan, Crashaw, Cowley, we feel all are minor poets. Yet we think of them as important: worth anthologizing, worthy of study--we can call them major minor poets.

Or again, a major poet may be, in an overarching way, leading representative of his period, having written a good many important poems, others of mediocre quality, and some distinctly poor, yet the whole body of work is reflective of the themes, the sensibility, and the poetic expression of his time and nation. We think of Tennyson in this way. Sometimes our judgement of a literary practitioner will be as major literary figure, not as a major poet. A writer like Coleridge or Arnold comes to mind, someone whose poetic output is rather slim but whose voice in prose, especially literary criticism, has been important for his time and influential upon later times. Again, the poetry of Ezra Pound is insufficient support for our judgment of his major standing in twentieth-century literary history. It is his critical utterances, his entrepreneurship in fostering literary movements, his influence on the expression of his time that makes us pay attention to him as a literary figure. Certainly his high reputation cannot stand on his poetry alone, for what did he produce?--a few significant poems, a good many experiments in form, and the uneven, scrappy collection of improvisations that he called cantos. He is a major literary figure, but a minor poet.

Sometimes a limitation of national or chronological boundaries will allow us to be loose with the term "major." The two major American poets of the nineteenth century are Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, each because of his or her uniqueness of poetic expression and his or her influence on the development of American poetry, but in the world of literature in English, they are minor figures--poets who have their place beside Arthur Hugh Clough or Christina Rossetti.

With this series of considerations in mind, let us look at Cummings. We should begin with our awareness of his limitations. First of all, he wrote only short poems. Even the somewhat extended lyrics he did write, such as "my father moved through dooms of love" (CP 520-1), [end page 38] or his "Epithalamion" (CP 3-7), are poems that do not develop in their statement. They attain their length by padding: in the Epithalamion we find over embellishment, and in the poem on his other, we could drop out some stanzas and we would not miss them--in fact, the piece would be considerably improved by the omission of a few stanzas.

Although within short poems Cummings was able to work out patterns, he had no ability to develop real structural complexity. The problem is even more evident in his prose works. The only structural principle he was able to follow was an autobiographical one, of the sort we find in The Enormous Room (1922) and EIMI (1933). His play, Him (1927)--which he worked on for three years and for which he went through dozens of plans, outlines, schemes of ideas, and rough drafts for scenes ended up as, mostly, a vaudeville revue. His next play he was unable to finish even after years of intermittent work. Actually his best work in dramatic form is the brief Christmas play Santa Claus (1946), which is based on a simple joke and eventually falls into two distinct parts.

The difficulties Cummings had with structure are especially clear in his short prose pieces. When he tried to write a review of Eliot's Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), he went through several drafts and finally emerged with a very unsatisfactory series of impressions and quoted passages. When he attempted to write an essay on the art of his friend Gaston Lachaise, he went through a great many trial attempts, using enough paper, he said, "to fill a ragman's contract" (letter to his mother Jan. 9, 1920, Houghton Library bMS Am 1822-1 [156]), but in the end he failed to discuss the sculpture adequately: he produced instead quotations from and summaries of other people's critical assessments, plus a peculiar metaphorical rendering of his own simplistic theory of art (Miscellany 12-29; both essays originally published 1920). [1]

In his poems even when he employed rhyme schemes, he often did not make good use of that structural discipline. For instance, he seemed not to understand that the rhyme scheme of a sonnet imposes a framework on its thought. In some of his sonnets, Cummings would merely offer a lyric statement while mechanically following out the Petrarchan rhyme scheme or a haphazard variation of it. Thus, most of the time, the sonnet [end page 39] structure only forced him into the brevity, or length, of fourteen lines.

Where Cummings is most culpable as a poet is in his publication of a great deal of chaff throughout his career. There are pieces in every volume of his poems that are just verbal experiments, gimmicky puzzles, or linguistic jokes. There will also be verses that use slang or advertising terms that go out of date within a year, for example, in a serious love poem, his use of the word "pash" (CP 155, 175) for "passionate"; or in another, his phrasing, "we have got a bulge on death" (CP 160), meaning "we have an advantage over death"; or in a satirical piece his inclusion of the slogan "There's a reason" (CP 228-9), which once was used to advertise Post's Bran Flakes; or in another, "it's fun to be fooled" (CP 410), which was part of a Lucky Strike cigarette campaign. Sometimes there will be references that have no meaning for the reader because they can be understood only by Cummings' own circle of friends--for instance, in the sonnet "by god i want above fourteenth" (CP 119), when he alludes to the Baboon, Hassan, and the kanoon, all of which are a mystery to us unless some information has been supplied by one of Cummings' contemporaries. Again, what value can a hexameter sonnet about Joe Gould (CP 410) have for us, unless we know that he was a Harvard graduate who became a homeless street person whose urban primitivism Cummings viewed with romantic admiration and amusement?

Even Cummings' expression of important ideas can be a source of weakness: for example, one theme of his Romantic philosophy of life, namely, that feeling is more important than reason, gets repeated so many times in poem after poem that the restatement becomes wearying even to a sympathetic reader.

But enough about Cummings' limitations that restrict him to the rank of minor poet. What we must be aware of are his strengths and virtues--his extensive poetic output, his development of an original poetic style, and his continuing to publish works of distinction up to the seventh decade of life. Taken together, these constitute a unique and valuable literary achievement that make him a "major" minor poet.

Let us remind ourselves of some of the aspects of his work that give it its distinctive poetic character.

First of all, he was a painter as well as a poet, and as a result of his visual orientation, many of the effects of his poems come [end page 40] about because of the way they appear on the page. It is a mistake to call these "picture poems," as if they were like those of George Herbert or Jean Cocteau [2]; they are statements that develop because a visually directive arrangement of the words and line brings them into meaning. More than half of Cummings' poems use a visually directive presentation, although most can be read aloud. But some others cannot be read aloud. But some others cannot be read to hearers. For instance, one of his best known creations entwines the word "loneliness" with the phrase "a leaf falls," but the resulting literary complex must be seen on the page in order to attain its effect.






                                                (CP 673) Beyond this, Cummings is best known for his linguistic play. As we all know, this takes a variety of forms, from the typographical juggling with capitals and lower-case letters, to the fragmenting of words, the merging of words, the coining of nonce words, the creation of portmanteau words, the phoneticizing of spelling, the use of nouns as verbs or of adjectives and conjunctions as nouns. He describes timorous mortals, for example, as "wherelings whenlings / (daughters of if but offspring of hopefear / sons of unless and children of almost)" (CP 512). Thus in his best work Cummings wrenches language into new meanings.

The critic T. E. Hulme demanded that good modern poetry [end page 41] be marked by freshness and concreteness in its use of images dictum that Cummings perhaps encountered, but if not, he carried it out in his own creative fashion anyway. For example, in an early sonnet that has only recently been discovered, the poem addressed his lady love, telling her that his love for her was such that he was willing to suffer damnation for it on Judgement Day and join Paulo and Francesca in the Inferno. I will read it now (and we might also observe the ironical irreverence that is in tune with the spirit of modernism).

          the very, picturesque, last Day
(when all the clocks have lost their jobs and god
sits up quickly to judge the Big Sinners)
he will have something large and fluffy to say
to me. All the pale grumbling wings

of his greater angels will cease:as that Curse

bounds neat- ly from the angry wad

of his forehead(then fiends with pitchforkthings
will catch and toss me lovingly to
and fro) Last, should you look, you
'll find me prone upon a greatest flame,

which seethes in a beautiful way
upward;with someone by the name
of Paolo passing the time of day.

(CP 959)

In spite of his frequent focus on subjects that have no lasting quality, Cummings does produce enduring work in poems that often engage in making or employ archetypes, that is, imagistic concepts such as the poet, the clown, the innocent child, the chivalrous lover, the beautiful mistress, the happy wanderer, the figure of death, the threatening authority figure. And he will create poems which are concerned with the cycles of the natural world or the essential rhythms of human life, poems that deal with sunrise, sunset, snowfall, spring time, the life of plants, the changes of the moon, the eternal presence of the stars, and with [end page 42] birth, childhood, idyllic love, sexual fulfillment, communion with nature, the serenity of age, death and afterlife. For both framing material and for allusion, he can draw upon Hebrew Christian mythology (for he was minister's son) and upon classical stories (for he majored in Greek and Latin at Harvard). When he does so, he will refer to the Garden of Eden, Heaven, Hell, Judgement Day, to a man fallen among thieves or the dance of Salome just as easily as he will refer to Pan, Venus, Persephone, Xerxes or Plato. More than this, he will also create little myths of his own that have no connection with the classical or Hebrew Christian world, such as his story about "anyone" who "lived in a pretty how town (CP 515) or his observations on the conflict between "Old Age" who "sticks up Keep Off signs" and youth that "yanks them down" (CP 729).

But more frequently, especially in his early career, his work reflected subject matter that used to be considered "unpoetic," set in the streets of New York, the boulevards of Paris, or the haunts of Cambridge and Boston, and it involved such characters as politicians, salesmen, prostitutes, chorus girls, burlesque queens, drunks, street entertainers, bar patrons, waiters, or circus performers. Often they are satiric, and there are some critics who feel that Cummings will be best remembered as a satirist, a twentieth-century Martial or Juvenal in his epigrams and parables. However, it is the form and pattern of many of these satiric pieces that gives them their special quality, not just their content. Any poet can thrust or bludgeon in lines of verse, but Cummings will offer visually and phonetically witty attacks. For example, the stumbling outburst he puts in the mouth of a tough New Yorker that is reflective of the vicious attitudes of hatred and prejudice against the Japanese during World War II:



                ydoan o
                yunnuhstan dem
                yguduh ged

                yunnuhstan dem doidee
                yguduh ged riduh                                                   [end page 43]
                ydoan o nudn



    lidl yelluh bas
    tuds weer goin

duhSIVILEYEzum                                                                 (CP 547)
Cummings' anti-war poems alone constitute a memorable body of satiric poetry. We all remember "i sing of olaf" (CP 340) "plato told / him" (CP 533), "my sweet old etcetera" (CP 275), and others.

Then there are Cummings' love poems--ranging from the courtly love tributes to the expressions of erotic naturalness, that is, ranging from idealism beginning this way:

yours is the music for no instrument
yours the preposterous colour unbeheld...                                 (CP 160)
to the realism of i like my body when it is with your body.
It is so quite new a thing.
Muscles better and nerves more.                                             (CP 218)
Beyond all this there are, of course, poems that are unclassifiable, the products of genius, that in their phrasing and their patterning, in their rhythmic auditory appeal have given readers pleasure for eight decades: "Buffalo Bill's / defunct" (CP 19), "when god lets my body be" (19), "All in green went my love riding" (15), 'kitty'.sixteen,5'1",white,prostitute" (126), "what if a much of a which of a wind" (560). The list could be very long. [end page 44] The poems I have been speaking about today and others in his eleven published volumes add up to a huge accumulation having sufficient variety, so that with the dazzle of his unique style and the balance of his wit and sentiment, E. E. Cummings will always be included in anthologies of American Literature and of Modern Poetry, and he will continue to provide his readers with intellectual provocation, delight, amusement, titillation, emotional thrill, and occasionally that serenity of feeling that is the true, harmonious aesthetic response.

[1]. I am at present working on a study of problems in creativity posed by writers who have difficulties with structure--such writers as Cummings, Thomas Wolfe, Walt Whitman, and Herman Melville. I am speculating that brain lateralization is at the source: that these writers are all strongly biased toward right-brain activity and deficient in left-brain ability.

[2]. In two reviews of Dreams in the Mirror, critics remarked that I had omitted commenting on Cocteau's influence on the visual appearance of Cummings' poems. I did so because Cummings asserted to Charles Norman that his style was fully developed before he had ever seen Cocteau's poems. He also added that Ezra Pound's early poems did encourage him to use visual spacing.

Works Cited

[end page 44]


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