Wednesday, June 3, 2020

it may be fun to be fooled - Dylan Thomas, E. E. Cummings, Louis MacNeice

I am in the process of writing up what I read in May, much like I did in April.  Is this a good idea?  When I finished up April, I did not write another word until more or less now.  So I have doubts.  Yet here I am.

Last month I read Dylan Thomas’s debut, 18 Poems (1934); this month, Twenty-five Poems (1936).  Why did he change the representation of the number in the title?  Was it to make me look up the titles over and over again, never getting them right the first time?

Two years later, Thomas is marginally more coherent, with the sound-to-sense ratio moving a little ways towards “sense.”  His biological metaphysics is presented more directly.  “Beginning with doom in the bulb, the spring unravels” and so on, from the first poem, “I, in my intricate image,” where the poet is born.  A conceit of D. H. Lawrence is that we are all, we humans, just another species of animal, however much civilization we build around ourselves.  Thomas goes a step back on the phylogenetic tree, believing that animals, and thus all of us, are specialized plants.  “My images stalk the trees and the slant sap’s tunnel… / I with the wooden insect in the tree of nettles” etc.  Not exactly the way biologists draw the tree now, but close enough for a poet.

These poems, like the last batch, are likely more fun to bellow than to read silently:

from Altarwise by owl-light, Stanza V

And from the windy West came two-gunned Gabriel,
From Jesu’s sleeve trumped up the king of spots,
The sheath-decked jacks, queen with a shuffled heart;
Said the fake gentleman in suit of spades,
Black-tongued and tipsy from salvation’s bottle.

This Dylan is beginning to sound like that other Dylan.


E. E. Cummings, No Thanks (1935).  More Cummings poems, like he had been writing for a decade, but carpentered onto a complex frame of four sections, each section built out of sequences of three free poems capped by a sonnet.  There is a snow, star and moon quarter, and also one more that I could not figure out.

There is plenty of this kind of fun – how much do you like puzzles, or grasshoppers:

And as I now expect from Cummings, there are some earthy poems (see #24, “let’s start a magazine”) and some sex poems, divided into the sensual and the silly, as in this excerpt from #16:

(may I touch said he
how much said she
a lot said he)
why not said she

We all enjoy mocking Hemingway, yes?  That’s #26:

what does little Ernest croon
in his death at afternoon?
(kow dow r 2 bul retoinis
wus de woids uf lil Oinis

And look, #27 is an authentic Joe Gould poem.  Someone should publish a Joe Gould sourcebook.  The Joe Gould Saga.  If you do not know what I am talking about, I urge you to read Joseph Mitchell, “Professor Sea Gull” and “Joe Gould’s Secret,” or at least watch the 2000 movie.

Cummings wrote the book on a Guggenheim fellowship, but such were the hard times of the Depression that no one would publish No Thanks, thus the title, except for his mother, who paid to have it self-published.  Shoulda called it Thanks, Ma!


Finally, I read the first sixty pages or so of Louis MacNeice’s Collected Poems, roughly up to or just past his trip to Iceland with Auden.  Unlike the poems of Thomas, Cummings, Neruda, and all of those Spaniards, MacNeice’s poems are about concrete, material things, with scenes and settings, and they make rational sense.  I love them, but have nothing to say about them.  Maybe the next batch.


  1. I read Autumn Journal & some others by MacNiece but didn't figure out anything to say about them, so I was hoping you would. Foo. ;-)

    Nice on Thomas & Cummings. (And Aleixandre & Neruda, previously) Bellow is the right mode for Thomas. Why does the metaphor drunk (drunk on words, is it?) keep occurring to me in re: Thomas. Must be apropos of something, right?

  2. All right, I promise to have something to say about Autumn Journal. I hope to get to it, well, this year. Looking forward to it.

    It was amusing, in London's Fitzrovia neighborhood, to see pub after pub with plaques saying Dylan Thomas drank there. I'll bet he did.

  3. i didn't know there was a movie made about Joseph Mitchell... i'm assuming he was the NY short story writer who wrote the one about being hit on the head by a cow?... Cummings' "poem" looks a cryptogram of some sort, maybe needing a key of some sort to decipher it?

  4. Yes, that's him. He wrote for the New Yorker for several decades, reported pieces about, oh, going out with the oyster fishermen. Some great writing. Up in the Old Hotel collects many of his pieces, including the ones about Joe Gould, who was a Greenwich Village "personality" with an interesting story. He was friends with E. E. Cummings, and that is not even a particularly interesting part of the story.

    Stanley Tucci plays Mitchell in the movie; he directed, too. Ian Holm plays Joe Gould.

  5. Yes, do say something about MacNeice - he's an author I'm keen to explore!

  6. MacNeice is easier than Auden, I can say that.

  7. I too would enjoy some comments from you on MacNeice.

    I like cummings (what little I've read) more than I always think I should given my usual aversion for gimmicky stuff with punctuation and capitalization. I think "it may not always be so" is just a beautiful poem, for instance.

  8. Reading one of Cummings's original books, it can be a little hard to see past the leaping grasshoppers. But he had many modes, like those lovely, sad, sensual love poems.

    Or I think of "i sing of olaf glad and big," which must be one of the greatest American political poems. Now that one, in the previous Cummings's book, ViVa (1931) leapt right over the grasshoppers.

    It would be possible to pick out fifty or so poems like the one you mention. I assume some of the "Selected" volumes look more like that, and clean out the typewriter games.

  9. kow dow r 2 bul retoinis

    I had to have the help of Professor Google to decipher this as "Cow thou art, to bull returnest," so I'm leaving this comment to save other puzzled persons the effort.

  10. Cummings assumes a facility with phoneticized Yiddish comedy.

  11. Yes, but phoneticized Yiddish comedy crossed with Longfellow may be a bridge too far these days.

  12. Ernest probably needs a footnote, too, these days. "Famous American bullfighter."

  13. Have to say I liked Thomas and Cummings in high school, but then I was a raging devourer of poetry back then, so...ate a great many poems by many people. Have not read either in a long time, though I did just order the Thomas stories, thanks to either you or Scott Bailey--can't remember who, but I blame one of you!

    MacNeice I met in my college years, though I don't remember much. But you made me go look up a batch of his poems again... "The earth compels, upon it / Sonnets and birds descend." "Down the road someone is practising scales, / The notes like little fishes vanish with a wink of tails" "There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses."

    I'm rereading some Herbert poems at the moment. And loving his ingenuity in forms more than ever.

  14. Thomas and Cummings are perfect poets for young readers. They are so energetic and unpretentious. I mean, they both have many pretensions, but not fussy pretensions. Everybody can join in.

    Those MacNeice lines are just the kind of thing I like.