Why to read E.E. Cummings.

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April 20 2005 2:59 PM

Is That a Poem?

The case for E.E. Cummings.

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from the sky. "No one else wrote like Cummings, and Cummings wrote like no one else" is how the poet's latest biographer, Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno, delivers the bad and good news in E.E. Cummings: A Biography. And a prescient Harriet Monroe tempered her praise by warning, "But beware his imitators!"

These days Cummings is rarely mentioned. He has become the inhabitant of the ghost houses of anthologies and claustrophobic seminar room discussions. His typographical experimentation might be seen to have come alive again in the kind of postmodern experiments practiced by Dave Eggers and Jonathan Safran Foer, not to mention the coded text-messaging of American teenagers. But the eccentric use of the spatial page that accounted for Cummings' notoriety must be seen in the end as the same reason for the apparent transience of his reputation. No list of major 20th-century poets can do without him, yet his poems spend nearly all of their time in the darkness of closed books, not in the light of the window or the reading lamp.

Editor's Note, April 28: The opening of this essay draws on information in Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno's recently published E.E Cummings: A Biography. Slate has learned that some of this information is incorrect: Mike Wallace and William Carlos Williams did not discuss the Cummings poem on Night Beat, but in an interview published in the New York Post ("Mike Wallace asks William Carlos Williams Is Poetry a Dead Duck?," Oct. 18, 1957). Sawyer-Laucanno, like other scholars, was misled by manuscript notations that inaccurately suggested the exchange took place on Wallace's television program. Part of the interview is also included in Book V of Williams' poem "Paterson." Collins also referred to Wallace's TV program as Nitebeat. In fact, the title is Night Beat. ( Return to the top.)

Billy Collins's ninth collection of poems, Horoscopes for the Dead, will be published in March.  He is a distinguished professor of English at Lehman College (CUNY) and a distinguished fellow of the Winter Park Institute of Rollins College.

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