Rethinking E. E. Cummings: An appeal for a new reading [redux]
[Prepared for an all-day E. E. Cummings symposium at the American Literature Association meetings on June 5, 1994, while I was working with Pierre Joris on Poems for the Millennium, but never published except for a posting three years ago on the blogger version of my own Poems and Poetics. The discussion here also goes back to a conversation with Louis Zukofsky (one of many) who I think shared most of these sentiments, as his frequent citations of Cummings would seem to confirm. My gratitude & admiration, like Louie’s, remain strong.]
Every time I prepare a new anthology or go over the writings of the twentieth century from the perspective of the present, I wonder where (and how) it was that we lost E. E. Cummings. In my own coming into poetry at all – but that was long ago – his was a central presence. I knew his poems, could recite a good number of them by (almost) heart, was on to all of his tricks, had Cummings lines and phrases (always) at my fingertips, and found his voice entwined with mine in writing. If my own punctuation or upper cases fell away it was with reference to him; if my margins trembled, turned to rags, it was with his as early model; if my adverbs shifted into verbs or my conjunctions turned to nouns, it was clearly him behind it. At sixteen I had no other guides but him and Stein (and shortly Joyce) into new ways of language. By a decade later, the works of others lingered or came newly into mind, but Cummings (for all intents and purposes) had disappeared.
It baffles me – not only because his poems still resonate for me (and I have always been careful to include him in the assemblages, the gatherings I’ve made) but because one would have expected him to hold for the generations of latterday modernist (later called postmodernist) poets. Think back to the roots of my own generation. In his great initiatory essay, “Projective Verse” (that was in 1950), Charles Olson presented not only a new way to make the poem but found that there existed older (American) poets who had already (“each after his way”) moved in that direction, who had established (he wrote of them) “the already projective nature of verse.” From that identifying statement, to which I was already late in coming, the two poets who come inevitably to mind are Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, and yet, when Olson comes to name them, it is a third one – Cummings – whom he mentions and credits first.
There is no question of an inequality here, no lower ranking or disfavor shown to Cummings, and no hedging about his place beside the others. Olson in fact is strikingly particular in what he attributes to Cummings as a lesson for poets then emerging. The discussion is of notation via typewriter as it relates to breath. “If a contemporary poet,” Olson writes, “suspends a word or syllable at the end of a line” (and here he adds: “this was Cummings’ addition”) “he means that time to pass that it takes the eye – that hair of time suspended – to pick up the next line.”
“[Mostly] Cummings’ addition” he means, not only or uniquely his – for it was shared even then with Williams and would be later with countless others as well, but listen, e.g., how clear it sounds in something like Cummings’ tribute, circa 1925, directed to Picasso:
you give us Things
bulge:grunting lungs pumped full of sharp thick mind
you make us shrill
shut in the sumptuous speech of
(out of the
Something gushes vaguely a squeak of planes
between squeals of
Nothing grabbed with circular shrieking tightness
solid screams whisper)
Lumberman of the Distinct
axe only chops hugest inherent
Trees of Ego, from
whose living and biggest
you hew form truly
Or again, in one that we all know, and that I used to (and still do) carry in my head or heart:
who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
he was a handsome man
and what I want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
It is, looking back at it now, a beautifully paced and articulated short poem – as spoken and as seen – and a key to what became increasingly possible for others after Cummings’ own works.
At the time of Olson’s Projective Verse manifesto (1950), Cummings was the most popularly recognized, most spectacularly experimental of the visible American poets (outside of Gertrude Stein, that is, who was herself very differently situated and rarely – except by Williams, say – acknowledged as, specifically, a poet). The extent of Cummings’ recognition is reflected in Pound’s titling of his own global anthology From Confucius to Cummings, or in Williams’ statement on Cummings, whom he places with Pound as “beyond doubt the two most distinguished American poets of today,” that “to me, of course, E. E. Cummings means my language.” A similar acknowledgement would come from Louis Zukofsky, who ranks with the others mentioned as among the American poets making “epics” as in Pound’s words, “poem[s] including history.” Thus Cummings appears a number of times in Zukofsky’s anthology/overview of English-language poetries, A Test of Poetry, and Zukofsky opens his summarizing essay (1930) on American poetry then entering its fourth twentieth-century decade with a linking of Cummings and Joyce as primary movers for his own “Objectivist” generation.
Now, there is no question that for many in my own generation and some part of what comes after, Williams, Pound, Olson, and Zukofsky can be viewed as the founders of a major line – not our only postmodern avant-garde but certainly one that any of us devoted to innovative or transformative writing would need seriously to consider. Here – apart from Olson and Zukofsky early on – I have found Cummings absent as a force or as a cited influence, beyond the admission (as in my case, above) of an enthusiasm dating back to adolescence. In other areas the recognition is possibly more direct or forthright – for those engaged, say, in concrete poetry and other forms of visually and typographically based writing. Here the locus is largely European, and in virtually any history or historical gathering of textart, word and image, poésure & paintrie, etc., Cummings is sure to appear as an acknowledged early American example. (So, by the way, is Pound, whose coined word noigandres became the name of the principal concrete poetry movement in Brazil.)
In the context of concrete and visual poetry, there is another interesting and useful thing that happens in our positioning of Cummings. Viewed alongside or within the early twentieth-century avant-garde he becomes no longer the unique instance but (as he truly was) the great American interpreter of the new visuality (and more) that was being developed on an international scale for two or three decades (1895 to 1920 roughly) before his own entry into poetry. If this makes him seem less original than heretofore (but the nature of such originality would itself be open to much question) it shows him as part of a larger work of transformation that was opening up new possibilities of language and of thought.
As a member of a lineage (rather than the sport of nature he sometimes preferred to be or to be seen as being) his predecessors go from Mallarmé through Apollinaire (that much is obvious) and reach a first and widely known cresting in the Futurisms (Italian and Russian both) around the first world war. (Marinetti’s “liberated words” and dicta regarding the “destruction of syntax” and the suspended use of punctuation and of captials would surely have been known to Cummings; Kruchenykh’s and Khlebnikov’s “word as such”/”letter as such” less likely.) The push comes closer to his own time with the works of Dada and De Stijl, of Kurt Schwitters’ Merz, of Paul van Ostaijen’s holographic/typographic writings in Bezette Stad in Belgium, of Anatol Stern and Alexander Wat in Poland; and beyond the visual and concrete, we see connections to works that are at once asyntactic and neologistic: the zaum experiments of the great Russian pioneers; the fractured grammar and proto-lettrism of Schwitters, Raoul Hausmann, and Theo van Doesburg; even the radical relanguagings of Joyce that clearly formed an instance known and admittedly absorbed by Cummings.
To say all of that is in no sense to diminish Cummings, much less to obscure him. For it is precisely in this light (I would suggest) that Cummings’ moves and differences can still be felt: as a developer of compositional strategies with sources and outcomes that are important for the real (not fabricated) mainstream of twentieth-century poetry and language art. At its most radical heart (not its extremities, its fringes, but its heart) the vocabulary is surely there – as it was with Olson a half century ago – to speak of and to precisely name his contributions. So, for example, the Noigandres poets of Brazil (Haroldo and Augusto de Campos, Decio Pignatari), in their “master plan for a new concrete poetry” in 1960, list their array of predecessors, among whom Cummings is cited for his pioneer work in “the atomization of words,” in “physiognomical typography,” and in his “expressionistic emphasis on space.” The assessment is all the more important as a set of working hypotheses by highly creative and intelligent poets in the act of shaping their own destinies.
To look at Cummings’ work, then, through Noigandres or other engaged movements and artists is to see it from a perspective that begins to approach the present. I would suggest (since we’re here at a meeting of those, I take it, who are well disposed to Cummings) that one could now assess, could reassess Cummings in light of those and still later practitioners, even some of those (I’m only guessing here) who would likely back away from the acknowledgement of too close a connection. What could be done in this instance might be to follow through on the 1950 Olson proposition (the voice’s suspension in the movement of the line, the hovering of voice or breath) and compare the work of Cummings to that of Black Mountain poets like Creeley or Paul Blackburn, where I had thought of it always as most notable, or to that of Olson himself. And again, with a look toward the verbovisual postmodern, I would consider such borderline poets as Jackson Mac Low and John Cage, often included in such listings, or even such later (so-called) Language Poets as Bruce Andrews, say, or Hannah Weiner, in relation to whom Cummings would no longer seem so marginalized and willful, but as a pioneer in those works of “lexical and orthographic atomization/fragmentation, physiognomical typography, and spatial reconfiguration” (whether “expressionistic” or not) that the Noigandres poets called to our attention.
In my own case – to return to that – Cummings first allowed me to see that language was more than an adherence to the rules we had imposed on it, that there was in fact a range of remaking that was not only possible but often necessary in all our language acts as poets. I began with that when I was very young, lost it for a time (along with others of my generation) into my early twenties, and began to recover it again at the time of our rebirth (our renaissance, to put it baldly) in the later 1950s. I have never gotten back to Cummings in that sense, but I know that many of his works (among the first I memorized without ever really trying) are a part of my own body and state-of-mind down to the present. I will hardly try to ferret out the traces of it in my writings, nor do I think that derivation functions in that way. But I will close this presentation with a shortened version of a poem in which I atomize or break up words and reconstruct them – not as Cummings did but in a way that he and others both before and after him allowed to happen.
The origins of what I’ve written here go back to practices of verbal composition that are widespread in oral traditions around the world and notably among the traditional Indian peoples in the Americas. In the early 1970s, fully aware of the experimental writings and soundings of my contemporaries (in America and Europe), I worked with the assistance of the ethnomusicologist David McAllester from a series of Navajo horse-blessing songs that had been part of the Blessingway of a Navajo hatali (medicine man or, literally, singer) named Frank Mitchell. In doing so I made the English accountable for all the word distortions and nonsemantic sounds and syllables that are characteristic of that kind of poem-song. The result on the page was a text with diminished readability but one that I could use to rescore a performance, not following a Navajo melody or rhythm but one that seemed to me to issue from the English words and sounds of my own poem. If this connects Cummings (and the rest of us) to a tradition deeper and older than the modern and postmodern present, it will have been part of my intention all along.
[reads or chants]:
(Nnnnn N ghan) because I was the boynging raised ing the dawn & nnnn but
some there are mine all (ghan) & some (gwing) there 'rrr mine there
(Nnnn N ghan) & in the howse the bluestone home & mmmrrrr but some there
're mine all (ghan) & some (gwing) there 'rrr mine there
(Nnng N ghan) & in the howse the shininggwingNdghan & some there are mine
all (ghan) & some (gwing) there 'rrr mine there
Poems and poetics