Sunday, March 5, 2017

when the world is mudluscious - looking at early E. E. Cummings

My prejudice was that E. E. Cummings was the author of Modernist Poetry for Dummies, assuming that “dummies” in that series is affectionately self-deprecating.  A lot of typographical fooling around for its own sake.  A voice but not a worldview.  Poems that are often adorable, a word not so often applied to Wallace Stevens.

here is little Effie’s head
whose brains are made of gingerbread
when the judgment day comes
God will find six crumbs (from &, Portraits, III)

But I had only read anthology pieces.  Now I have read Tulips & Chimneys (1923) and & (1925), the first book of real Cummings poem and a subsequent chapbook, and I discover that I was not that wrong.  Moderately wrong.

Tulips & Chimneys begins with what I take as a head-fake, twenty-one regular, rhyming stanzas on the marriage of Earth and Spring, I guess, packed with classical references – “Chryselephantine Zeus Olympian / sceptered colossus of the Pheidian soul” and so on – that is only a bit odd in that there are no spaces after internal punctuation.  “O still miraculous May!O shining girl,” like that.  The second poem is a pre-Raphaelite knockoff with, a little more, and thus more noticeable, punctuation.  Then something that sounds like 1890s Decadence.

It is as if Cummings is quickly moving me through his own development as a poet, the steps that brought him to this:

in Just-
spring          when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman

whistles          far          and wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s spring  (from “Chansons Innocentes” I)

And from this point anything can happen.  My attention was usually caught more by poems like "in Just-", with people in them, than descriptions of mood, but perhaps the latter poems just demanded more intense reading:

i was considering how
within night’s loose
sack a star’s
nibbling in-

ly devours

darkness [skip some stuff]
          when over my head a
Bur          s

                     into a stale shriek
like an alarm-clock)

I guess this is not so hard in substance but it requires some serious riddle-solving attention just to read the thing.  This time there are calligram-like clues, like “burst” bursting on the page.  Occasionally something took a long  time:

is,fond of tummy plums of tangerines and apples it will,Gorge indistinct
palishflesh of laZilytas tingg OO seberries,it,loves these better than,  (from &, A, VII)

It took me a long time to see “lazily tasting gooseberries.”  I had to work backwards.  I would not say that I read these poems all that well, but I sure looked at them.

The above is one of the many surprisingly explicit sex poems in early Cummings, especially in the little & book.  Anatomical explicitness, obscene words – did the censors not care what poets did? – and a great deal of lustful worship of the female body.

      I bite on the eyes’ brittle crust
(only feeling the belly’s merry thrust
Boost my huge passion like a business

and the Y her legs panting as they press

proffers its omelet of fluffy lust)  (from &, D, III)

Throughout the poem, the metaphorical language is somehow more explicit than if it were clinical.  He overdoes his romanticization of prostitutes, but otherwise brings a new freedom to American poetry.  “I like my body when it is with your / body” (&, D, VII).

I had no idea – making a note to myself – that Cummings wrote so many sonnets.  They often sound like they are from the 17th century, like Cummings is updating Robert Herrick.

it may not always be so;and i say
that if your lips,which i have loved,should touch
another’s,and your dear strong fingers clutch
his heart,as mine in time not far away;  (from “Sonnets – Actualities,” XI)

Revisit these.  Heck, read it all again.


  1. I've come to think of Cummings not as modernism for dummies, but for teenagers. He seems to me to have all the virtues and vices of adolescence: high spirits, lustiness, triteness, sentimentality, freshness, reactive rebellion. Adolescence isn't a bad thing, of course, but I did enjoy him more when I was younger.

  2. "Teenagers", that's good. Some of the sexual content had a strongly adolescent flavor, that I could tell.