e.e.cummings: poet of the heart
EDWARD ESTLIN CUMMINGs' FATHER, a Congregational minister, shocked his staid parishioners in Boston's Old South Church one Sunday by crying from the pulpit: "The Kingdom of Heaven is no spiritual roof garden: it's inside you!"
Poet e.e.cummings, who died last week in New Hampshire at 67, spent a lifetime saying much the same thing. His tools were secular, but he practiced a religion nonetheless. It was the romantic individualist's religion of the heart, in which love is not an emotion but a deity. Its creed was faith in the miracle of man's individuality, his capacity for delight in beauty, in spring, in flowers, in girls. Its galaxy of devils, which grew as cummings observed the modern world ("a hoax of clocks and calendars"), included dry intellects, science, mass thought, security worship, Sigmund Freud—everything inside man or outside him that tends to limit his individualism, to reduce his sense of wonder. The opposition was total:
who (at a certain corner, suddenly) meets the tall policeman of my mind. Or, in more succinct cummingsese: "Not for philosophy does this rose give a damn." For cummings, the rose—and indeed the whole world—was a cause of wonder, and the words that he poured out in anger or tribute trace his lyrical journey through its mysteries. After his death, poets and critics were quick to speak of him as "the greatest innovator in modern poetry," as a man who perfected "the idiom of American common speech." Some placed him beside Thoreau and Whitman in "the pantheon of American letters." cummings would have disliked the portentous phrase. He was not the sort of artist who can easily be put in any resounding literary hierarchy.
He was popular—next to Robert Frost, by far the most popular contemporary U.S. poet. He won prizes, including the 1957 Bollingen, America's highest award for poetry. He was delightfully unpredictable. There was cummings the crazy syntactical iconoclast who rarely used capital letters and recklessly (often unintelligibly) strewed syllables, commas and other gimcracks around the page. On the next page, though, he would turn up as a solemn, sonnet-writing traditionalist—or as cummings the dreadful punster ("honey sworkey mollypants"), or the pseudo pornographer happily smirking from the decks of his ship, the S.S. Van Merde: "May i feel said he (i'll squeal said she . . .)."
At his best, he was capable of turning out this:
will never wholly kiss you; wholly to be a fool while Spring is in the world my blood approves, and kisses are a better fate than wisdom . . . then laugh, leaning back in my arms for life's not a paragraph And death i think is no parenthesis cummings' heart-for-heart's-sake view's were, and are, intellectually unfashionable—not to mention untenable—in today's world. Modern poets usually come armed with shields of sinewy realism or are modishly cloaked in intellectual complexity.
Critics, therefore, could and did point out that cummings was an outrageously simple-minded fellow and an anachronism—a misplaced Victorian romantic still running around a hundred years after the battle with science has been lost, shouting "They murder to dissect."
Yet in this, as in much else during his lifetime, it was hard to dispose of e.e.cummings easily—or, for that matter, to impress him with the modern world's displeasure. If he was limited as a thinker, cummings nevertheless spoke in an astonishing range of poetic tones of voice and mastered a wild variety of poetic rhythms—lines that crept, leaped, staggered, paced proudly, turned on a dime, flowed smoothly as a prayer. More than any other poet of his time, he dressed up the few ideas he had in all sorts of outrageous and engaging costumes, cheerfully presenting them again and again:
cummings came by his combined role as archromantic and Peck's bad boy of modern poetry naturally enough. Boyhood in Cambridge and Harvard ('15) gave him a New England intellectual's self-assurance and the Thoreauesque tradition of rebellious individualism. Just as cummings began writing verse, Ezra Pound and the Imagists had turned old poetic practice upside down. cummings was quick to follow them in tossing out high-flown poetic rhetoric and shucking off the straitjacket of traditional verse forms. Above all, the Imagist doctrine of quick impact was made for cummings. Explaining his own techniques, he said: "I can express it in 15 words, by quoting The Eternal Question and Immortal Answer of Burlesk. viz.: 'Would you hit a woman with a baby?—No, I'd hit her with a brick.' "
Beyond his more bizarre typographical whizbangs cummings lobbed most bricks at the enemies of individuality—what he called "so-called" humanity, "so-called" civilization, and everything commercial in America. Sample lines: "From every B.V.D. let freedom ring," and "a salesman is an it that stinks." Of statues in parks to commemorate wars, cummings wrote:
Brick-throwing is a young man's work. cummings wrote for nearly 40 years: eleven volumes of verse, two verse plays and two prose books, including The Enormous Room, ex-World War I Ambulance Driver cummings' precise account of prison camp life. Through most of all this, he continued to sound like a young poet alternately angry or moonstruck. It was an enormous limitation, and it made it easy to enumerate what he lacked that such poets as Frost and Eliot and Pound abundantly had. But it also led to cummings' unique satirical and lyrical achievement, which caused Critic Allen Tate last week to declare that cummings "had no superiors in his generation":
In the long run it is no easier to compare poets with poets than it is to compare peaches with blueberries. The epitaph that cummings probably would have liked best had nothing to do with the critical ranking of poets. It was spoken by Fellow Poet Archibald MacLeish: "There are very few people who deserve the word poet. cummings was one of them."