Friday, April 28, 2006

E. E. Cummings

Generally speaking, I don't "get" poetry, but those few poems I love, I really love a lot. Loving the poetry of Lewis Carroll is a gimme for a math geek. Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a little harder to explain. But by far my favorite poetry is all by E. E. Cummings. (The all-lowercase spelling of his name was not his affectation but that of his publishers, one of which he never approved.)

I think most people will hear about Cummings before they actually get exposed to the poetry, so by the time they do, they've already had it trivialized: "he's the guy who does that weird stuff with punctuation, right?" Or they've already been exposed to unorthodox styles in some way or other.

But for me, I was about 10 years old, and in school, and we turned to the next page in our English book, and... there it was.
anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn't he danced his did
I was floored. It sounds clichéd now, but all in an instant I was forced to question and re-examine all my preconceived notions about writing and poetry and form and structure and the role of syntax in expressing meaning. I went over the lines again and again in disbelief trying to figure out how they worked. Because every line made images and feelings and sounds come into my head and I didn't even know what they were sometimes, and I kept asking, how can this stuff with its grammatically-wrong structure, not even rhyming (yes, this was my first non-rhyming poem!), and almost sing-song rhythm, how can that be putting images into my head when I can't even figure out what it's saying?

And as I went over it again and again, there kept being more to find. And I kept being more astonished at how this poet had, essentially, discarded and then completely reinvented poetry from the ground up, not bound by any of the old rules but just choosing things solely because of the effect they'd have on me. Every word, every syllable was where it was for a reason, even though the initial impression was chaotic ("up so floating many bells down"?), but there was meaning and order and rhythm and images right there in the chaos and then behind them, even more.

I delighted in sifting through the poem like a puzzle trying to figure things out. Who were these people, why did they have the specific names they had? What did each word and each image represent? Why specifically did the author put each word where he did, not somewhere else? How did the words in this form have this particular effect? No matter how long I went over it there seemed always to be something new to discover.

And when I started looking at his other poems, it turned out this one was perhaps one of the simplest and most immediately accessible ones; others were even more rich and complex, even more afield from conventional poetry, and in every case beautiful. Sitting home with a book of his poems and no one at all to talk to about it, knowing nothing about what everyone else knew about him and his poetry, I managed to fall in love with some of the same poems that, I later found out, were his most popular. In particular, the eternally quoted somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond which is famous almost to the point of being overused and yet very much, in my estimation, deserving of every bit of its fame.

I think I need to go dig through my boxes of yet-unpacked books and find my book of E.E. Cummings poems now.


HawthornThistleberry said...

I should add, I have no gift for writing poetry, but I did once attempt a poem in the style of Cummings. A thread had come up on Straight Dope about what Lord of the Rings would be like if it'd been written by some other author, and unlike most such threads, this was sophisticated stuff written by very talented people doing spot-on impressions of the styles of particular authors, and not just by interleaving LotR references with other references, but really getting to matters of style. (In later pages, naturally, this devolved.)

I posted three efforts to this thread. The first was my attempt at a Cummings style poem telling part of the story of LotR, from the point of view of Gollum, and trying to really capture the style, not just its impression:

precious) downward
my) the heat rises
O) the mountain rises

like a mouth the earth

a finger without its hand
a body without its soul
an evil without its power

bright sun on us both)
bobbing forth and back)
my birthday(
he was greedy like the earth)
one life begins(
one life ends)
river like a mouth, cold, hot
ring like a mouth, devouring
consumed i must consume


the ring (O
and the body (my
are consumed (precious

Incidentally, the other two are a haiku (and yes, it's a real haiku), and a very silly one in the style of poorly-translated Japanese consumer electronics appliance owner's manuals. (This last one got quoted and linked in many blogs.)

litlfrog said...

I've been a big fan of Cummings since my high school days. I remember defending his merits to a particularly annoying classmate who was assigned several poems to report on. Surprisingly, many of the poems translate well to modern solo voice pieces.

I'm passionate about poetry in general, but tend to find my favorites across epochs and schools. The High Moderns (Eliot, Auden, Moore, etc.) are a particular favorite, but authors like Cummings who plays with notions of punctuation, grammar, and typography are fascinating.