Michael Webster
Cummings, Kennedy,
and the Major / Minor Issue

[Spring New Series 4 (1995): 76-82]

When I first read Richard S. Kennedy's article on "E. E. Cummings, a Major Minor Poet" (Spring NS 1), I was irritated but didn't know why. I have now decided that, given his premises, Kennedy was correct about Cummings' "major minor" status. But doubts, irritations, and problems remain. While Kennedy's criteria for declaring a poet "major" are clear and defensible, they are nevertheless still subject to question. Both Cummings as a poet and readers as individuals and groups call into question Kennedy's criteria of what makes a poet "major."
Since they are concerned with making value judgements, those who would make major-minor distinctions have a large stake in asserting the existence of at least some permanence in poetry. Thus, Kennedy writes that major poets produce "a large body of superior verse that does not fade from value as time passes" (37), and that Cummings must be at least partially minor, because much of his poetry was "ephemeral stuff" (37), full of "outdated slang" and arcane biographical allusions (40). Furthermore, Kennedy complains that every Cummings volume contains poems "that are just verbal experiments, gimmicky puzzles, or linguistic jokes" (40). Kennedy is also disappointed that Cummings did not realize that some of his verse was inferior.

There are several ways of dealing with complaints and disappointments such as these. For one, poets may have no more insight into which works are "permanent" or "ephemeral" than their contemporaries do. Poets may be thinking more about speaking to their contemporaries or about being entertaining than about whether posterity will judge their poetry major or minor. Time, and the taste of the future determine which poems will continue to be read. As T. S. Eliot put it:

as things are, and as fundamentally they must always be, poetry is not a career, but a mug's game. No honest poet can ever feel quite sure of the permanent value of what he has written: he may have wasted his time and messed up his life for nothing. All the better, then, if he could have at least the satisfaction of having a part to play in society as worthy as that of the music-hall comedian. (Use 147-148)   [end page 76] Quite a bit of evidence suggests that Cummings was--at the very least--ambivalent about aspiring to major poet status. As Kennedy's excellent biography of the poet has shown, Cummings cultivated the persona of a minor, "a small eye poet" (Letters 109), insisting that a childlike innocence of feeling was the key to using words like "nobody but yourself." In the text I've just quoted, called "A Poet's Advice" and written for high school students, Cummings clearly indicates that only individuals who feel can become poets. Attaining the status of a feeling individual is extremely difficult "in a world which is doing its best,night and day,to make you everybody else" (Miscellany 335). As Cummings overstated it in one poem:
there are possibly 2½ or impossibly 3
individuals every several fat
thousand years. Expecting more would be
neither fantastic nor pathological but

(50 Poems [1940]: #28)

Notice that one could substitute "major poets" for "individuals" in the lines above. But for Cummings, while the poet must be an individual, he or she must also be a minor, someone with childlike innocence and honesty of vision:
who were so dark of heart they might not speak,
a little innocence will make them sing;

(XAIPE [1950]: #51)

Norman Friedman has shown how that childlike vision can grow and deepen (see Art 7-27 and Growth); nevertheless that vision remains essentially comic, iconoclastic, and awestruck at the wonder of life.

Cummings' vision severely tests any usual definition of the term "major." Friedman notes how that vision forces us to alter our expectations: "it is only our commitment to a sobered adult view that makes us minimize the importance of an imagination such as his" (Art 27). While it is dangerous and easy to allow the poet to set the terms by which he or she should be judged, nevertheless, poets do have a way of changing the rules. Without the "minor," childlike and even adolescent Cummings we do not get the "major" Cummings who satirizes, experiments, and celebrates. As Friedman puts it, "A sensual mystic, Cummings is not of this world. If he is immature, it is the immaturity of a visionary; his persona represents no mere aesthetic pose" (Art 35). [end page 77]

The limits of major-minor criteria are tested by two other factors besides a poet's own individual "profile." Simply put, they are individual expectations and group expectations. All readers bring expectations to the texts they read. Cummings' poetry consistently violates any number of group expectations (both of form and content) of what a poem should be or do. Indeed, the coexistence of the romantic, experimental, childlike, satirical, and downright quirky in his body of work is so idiosyncratic that it may be difficult to assign him a position according to any usual group criteria. Some critics may complain of Cummings' visual dislocations or of his syntactic and grammatical peculiarities, while others may deplore what they see as the poverty of his ideas or his sometimes conservative politics, or what seems worse, his sentimentality, but all probably expected to read something else.

These sorts of judgements about the value of a text or reputation, are what Robert Scholes calls acts of criticism (as opposed to acts of reading or acts of interpretation). Scholes notes that "criticism involves a claim that a certain literary work fails to achieve the purely literary norms of its mode or genre." Furthermore, Scholes says, "criticism involves a critique of the themes developed in a given fictional text, or a critique of the codes themselves, out of which a given text has been constructed" (23). Critics have faulted Cummings both for his failure to meet their generic expectations and for the ideological assumptions encoded in his poems. Early criticism of Cummings divides between those who have trouble fitting his poems within the genre of poetry and those who search for ways to include them in the genre. Later critics focus on the seeming division between the sentimental, romantic Cummings and the avant-garde visual innovator. Critics come to texts with norms and expectations and come away either delighted or disappointed according to how the text fulfills those norms and expectations.

Where do these norms and expectations come from? According to Scholes, they are shared like a common language: "criticism is always made on behalf of a group" (24). Like Cummings, though, I am suspicious of the idea of group norms because of the way they can deny individual feeling and response:

Huge this collective pseudobeast
(sans either pain or joy)
does nothing except preexist
its hoi in its polloi

(1 x 1 [1944]: 1, XIV)

[end page 78]

Group norms are preexistent, not spontaneous; the individual response (definite article hoi) disappears into the masses (polloi). (As a further irony, note that in Greek the definite article is forced to be plural because it modifies polloi.) While it is true that norms are shared by groups, the criteria--and the groups who supposedly share those criteria and norms--are so many and so varied that individual variations on judgements are virtually assured.

Nevertheless, norms may appear permanent if shared by enough people at any given time. Kennedy constructs a norm that we may assume represents the views of a good many critics of a certain generation. But other readers may have different individual or shared expectations. Let's return for a minute to the criterion of permanence. In the present climate of cultural relativism and economic determinism, it has become increasingly difficult for students and scholars to assert or even to access "the permanent value" in poetry. Nowadays, many scholars see all claims of permanence as culturally determined. Indeed, there are those who argue with Barbara Herrnstein Smith that far from being immutable, standards of literary judgement are always contingent upon the innumerable shifting dynamics of period, education, culture, and individual taste. For her, "the most fundamental character of literary value . . . is its mutability and diversity" (10). One can quarrel with this kind of relativism, but one can also quarrel with the ways in which Kennedy applies his criterion of permanence. For example, Kennedy complains that many of Cummings' poems contain dated slang and topical or personal references, and thus they are not the stuff of the ages. But since when did poets not include topical references and slang of the period in their poems? And some readers may value period or biographical references, congratulating themselves on their ability to understand and appreciate them.

Kennedy's other criteria could equally be questioned. For instance, he asserts that the major poet "produces . . . a body of work that includes a variety of theme and expression and also some works of length and complexity" (37). Kennedy adds one amendment to this stipulation: some poets, like Keats and Hopkins, may still be considered major if they make up in quality what they lack in quantity, length, or variety of works.) But T. S. Eliot asserts that it is not quantity or length or variety of works that makes a poet major, but a body of work that is unified and self-reflective: The difference between major and minor poets has nothing to do with whether they wrote long poems, or only short poems--though the very greatest poets, who are few in number, have all had [end page 79] something to say which could only be said in a long poem. The important difference is whether a knowledge of the whole, or at least of a very large part, of a poet's work, makes one enjoy more, because it makes one understand better, any one of his poems. That implies a significant unity in his whole work. One can't put this increased understanding altogether into words: I could not say just why I think I understand and enjoy Comus better for having read Paradise Lost, or Paradise Lost better for having read Samson Agonistes, but I am convinced that this is so. ("What Is Minor" 47) As an example of a poet who may not be among the "very greatest" but whose work nevertheless bears the stamp of a "unifying personality" (43) in which the "whole is more than the sum of the parts" (44), Eliot cites George Herbert. For Eliot, this unity seems to come from a writer's individual encounter with some major cultural or intellectual current of his time. Eliot says of Herbert: "What has at first the appearance of a succession of beautiful but separate lyrics, comes to reveal itself as a continued religious meditation with an intellectual framework; and the book as a whole discloses to us an Anglican devotional spirit of the first half of the seventeenth century" (42). One could claim that the whole of Cummings' work adds up to more than the sum of its parts, as Friedman does when he attempts to show how Cummings' individual vision deepened. And, according to Friedman, Cummings also discloses to us a variation on a different "devotional" tradition, that of American transcendentalism. It could very well be that for some readers, the "real structural complexity" (39) that Kennedy finds so sadly lacking in Cummings' short poems and prose pieces can be found if we look at his oeuvre as a whole. (For the record, Kennedy tags George Herbert, along with "Marvell, Vaughan, Crashaw, Cowley" [38], with the same "major minor" label he gives Cummings.)

Both Eliot and Kennedy think that a major poet should have something important to say about his or her period; the major poet should in some way be historically significant. But again, poets like Cummings may be so individualist that they fall outside of the (?) tradition altogether. As Robert Creeley noted in the last issue of Spring,

[Cummings'] poetry cannot be pinned down, so to speak, to an apparent chain of command or line of descent that will, historically, argue its necessary significance. Cummings was one of those few poets--Stein and Frost are anomalously two others--whose art moved out of the enclosure of validated "literature" to the common world of readers and writers and speakers of every kind, many of whom would not probably have known even his name" (15). [end page 80] That certainly is an "anomalous" trio (Stein, Frost, Cummings) which Creeley has placed outside the charmed circle of academic validation and in the hands of the general public, but his point about Cummings' popularity with "readers and writers and speakers of every kind" is well-taken. Different communities of readers will value authors for different reasons.
If that's so, then whose standards, norms, and criteria should we choose in order to evaluate poets? My answer is simple: don't worry about it. You see, I'm not so sure I want to play this major-minor game of shaping and juggling criteria so that a poet whom I happen to esteem and enjoy can be crowned with a laurel wreath labeled "Major." It seems that this business of evaluating and ranking canonical figures is another "mug's game," one that may not mess up your life as poetry will, but one that could end up wasting your time. It's a mug's game for two reasons, the first of which I've sketched out in this paper: poets are too various and idiosyncratic, and audiences, whether seen as individuals or as groups, bring so many differing expectations to a body of work, that it is virtually impossible to construct anything like a coherent set of criteria that will fit all cases. Secondly, I'm not sure I want to read poetry in this way, because putting a poet's work into boxes labeled "major" and "minor" may unnecessarily limit the ways in which we can approach it. For example, to call a body of work "major" already implies that you value high seriousness over playfulness, content over formal experiment, instruction over delight, and timeless permanence over historicism. Privileging a body of work as "major" may tend to turn it into a monument of received wisdom rather than a living expression that engages the reader. In saying this, I do not mean to suggest that I am against monuments of received wisdom; I'm just saying that there is more than one way to read a poem. In sum, to play the major / minor game is to risk becoming trapped in what Cummings called "impotent nongames of wrongright and rightwrong" (CP 462).
--Grand Valley State University, Allendale, Michigan
[end page 81]

Works Cited

[end page 77]

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