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.

Time to bring Cummings out of storage. Click on image to expand.
Time to bring Cummings out of storage.

In 1957, on television's Night Beat, Mike Wallace asked William Carlos Williams if he thought that E.E. Cummings' poem "(im)c-a-t(mo) / b,i;l: e" was really a poem. (Television was different back then.) Williams said no. Maybe the question was too blunt; maybe the poet considered this print ideogram of a motionless cat too juvenile. But if William Carlos Williams, himself a leading experimental poet of the time, was not able to recognize that outburst of phonemes and punctuation marks as poetry, what hope was there for the average readers of the time—"mostpeople," as Cummings liked to call them—not to mention all the folks residing in Televisionland? *

Over the course of a 45-year career, Cummings wrote many traditional poems, at least poems that would look like poems if viewed at arm's length. He was capable of riffing on the ballad:

All in green went my love riding
on a great horse of gold
into the silver dawn

four lean hounds crouching low and smiling
the merry deer ran before.

He could be childlike ("maggie and molly and milly and may/ went down to the beach(to play one day)"), bitterly satiric ("the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls/ are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds"), as well as political ("I sing of Olaf glad and big/ whose warmest heart recoiled at war"). Many of his poems, especially the sillier ones, feature comical end rhyme ("the way to hump a cow is not/ to get yourself a stool/ but draw a line around the spot/ and call it beautifool"). The sonnet was such a favorite form of his that examples were included in every one of his collections. But it was his typographical high jinks that appealed to his fans and appalled his detractors and secured his broader reputation.

In the long revolt against inherited forms that has by now become the narrative of 20th-century poetry in English, no poet was more flamboyant or more recognizable in his iconoclasm than Cummings. By erasing the sacred left margin, breaking down words into syllables and letters, employing eccentric punctuation, and indulging in all kinds of print-based shenanigans, Cummings brought into question some of our basic assumptions about poetry, grammar, sign, and language itself, and he also succeeded in giving many a typesetter a headache. Like Pound, who never wrote an obedient line, Cummings reveled in breaking the rules of grammar, punctuation, orthography, and lineation. Measured by sheer boldness of experiment, no American poet compares to him, for he slipped Houdini-like out of the locked box of the stanza, then leaped from the platform of the poetic line into an unheard-of way of writing poetry.

That said, determining Cummings' influence and his present stature in the poetry world calls for a more measured view. Some honor Cummings as the granddaddy of all American innovators in poetry and ascribe to him a diverse progeny that includes virtually any poet who considers the page a field and allows silence to be part of poetry's expressiveness. Ferlinghetti and Creeley, Olson, Jack Spicer, Louis Zukofsky, and Marianne Moore—all would be among his many stepchildren. Others, ignoring the romantic sweetness and childlike wonder in his poems of love and nature, would have Cummings shoulder some of the blame for desiccated extremes of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry—at least Cummings would have enjoyed the equal signs. Whatever the claims for his influence, he is not widely enjoyed these days.

The life of Edward Estlin Cummings began with a childhood in Cambridge, Mass., that he described as happy, but he struggled in both his artistic and romantic exploits against the piousness of his father, an esteemed Harvard professor. He began his own student years at Harvard writing conventional imitations of Dante Gabriel Rossetti but ended up delivering a commencement speech on "The New Art," a declaration of the modernism he would spend the rest of his life exploring and helping to define. After a stint in the ambulance corps and a false, wartime imprisonment in France (the subject of The Enormous Room), he returned to New York and began a long, melodramatic affair with Elaine Thayer, wife of a friend and patron.

Cummings' career as a writer—and a painter—was as wobbly as his love life. He tried his hand at playwriting, satirical essays, and even a dance scenario for Lincoln Kirsten. Finding book publishers was an ongoing challenge, and his critical reception was uneven at best. By age 25, his poems had appeared in avant-garde magazines such as Broom and the Transatlantic Review, and he had published two books, ­The Enormous Room and Tulips and Chimneys. But as late as 1935 he was driven to self-publish a poetry collection—the title of which, No Thanks, echoed the responses of the 14 publishers who had turned down the manuscript and to whom, listed by name, the book is bitterly dedicated. Not surprisingly, the "small eye poet" was often embroiled in arguments over typesetting. He was annoyed that Tulips and Chimneys was published without the ampersand he had in the title. For most of his life, his book earnings never amounted to more than a trickle, and money worries haunted him; well into his 50s, he was still accepting checks from his mother.

Several major collections, however, advanced his reputation, and by the last decade of his life, Cummings had become a poetry star. His contracts for public readings—usually sellouts—even included "rules of engagement" meant to protect him from the throng of his fans. He would plan his escape through a "secretbackentrance." His books, particularly the hefty Poems 1923-1954 sold hotly for poetry. He delivered the prestigious Eliot Norton lectures (or "nonlectures," as he called them) at Harvard; he also received the Bollingen Prize and once read to a crowd of 7,000 at the Boston Arts Festival. In 1959, his new 100 Selected Poems sold 5,000 copies ($1.45 apiece) and, thanks to Grove Press, is still in print.

Since then, his reputation has suffered enough of a falling off to raise the question of what happened to his hard-won fame. For one thing, his most characteristic poems do not lend themselves to being read out loud; they are so embedded in print that to voice them is to sacrifice their visual integrity. Cummings himself called his poems "inaudible." A few of his poems such as "Buffalo Bill's" and "in Just-/spring" (the balloon man poem) are kept breathing due to the life-support systems of anthologies and textbooks, but except for these and a few other signature numbers, the body of his work has fallen into relative neglect. He is no longer mentioned in the same breath with Eliot, Pound, or Stevens; and because he is synonymous with sensational typography, no one can imitate him and, therefore, extend his legacy without appearing to be merely copying or, worse, parodying. Sadly but inevitably, his direct influence is most easily found in the pages of middle- and high-school literary magazines where rain, leaves, and snow are perpetually

                                                f

                                                   a

                                                        l

                                                            l

                                                                i

                                                                   n

                                                                       g

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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