E. E. Cummings: An Introduction to the Poetry

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Date: 1979
From: E. E. Cummings: An Introduction to the Poetry
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Reprint In: Contemporary Literary Criticism(Vol. 15. )
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,095 words

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[(essay date 1979) In the following excerpt, Kidder surveys Cummings's poetic career, focusing on the development of his themes and style.]

It is important to recognize ... that the spatial arrangements of [Cummings'] poems are the work neither of a whimsical fancy nor a lust for novelty. Poetry and visual art grew, in Cummings' mind, from one root; and while their outermost branches are distinct enough, there are many places closer to the trunk where it is hard to know which impulse accounts for a piece of work. Throughout his life he labored to articulate, in his essays and especially in his unpublished notes and journals, the relationship between literature and the visual arts. A number of his poems, too, deal verbally with visual ideas—not only with transcriptions of visual patterns (a common enough phenomenon in poetry) but with attempts to articulate visual thinking and bring into poetry the aesthetic principles of the painters.

The portrait that gives us the man in the round, then, must include proper emphasis on Cummings as a man of feeling and as a man of visual responsiveness. But it must do more. Primarily and essentially it must also portray him as a man of thought. For underneath the antirational guise, which delights or disgusts readers according as they see in it the purely childlike or the merely immature, lies a core of knowledge and a capacity for abstract and analytic thought strongly buttressed by something that can only be called scholarship....

[Cummings gives a strong place] to feeling: to intuition, to the sensibilities, to the human capacity for responding to metaphysical reality in ways that are beyond the rational.... [But Cummings also possessed a] lively sense of the dangers inherent in the antirational. These are the sort of dangers that surface when what Eliot called “the general mess of imprecision of feeling” and the “Undisciplined squads of emotion” find expression in forms that are commonplace and sentimentalizing. The fact is that Cummings uses logic, thought, and a great deal of calculated skill in writing poems which assert that feeling is first. Surely there is a paradox worth investigating here. And surely the investigation must consist of a close and thorough reading of individual poems—word by word, syllable by syllable, and in many cases letter by letter. Such a reading recognizes that there is much that cannot be grasped by limiting our study to syntax and semantics alone. But it also recognizes that we can only touch the substance of the poet's feeling by beginning with the structure of his thought as it appears in the arrangement of his words. That arrangement is all a poem gives us to look at; we cannot reach through to feeling by ignoring structure....

To make such a choice is not to affirm, however, that Cummings is to be seen only as an intellectual. His importance lies in the skillful combination of feeling and intelligence in his work. Always laboring to be as articulate as possible, he nevertheless refused to allow the thrust toward articulation to sweep aside the delicate moments of feeling....

One other detail needs to be added to the portrait here. Cummings wrote—it will not do to mince words—some bad poetry. Moreover, he occasionally published it. The same is true in his painting. He seemed unwilling to consider the wastebasket his ally. Perhaps he was not a sound critic of his own work—which may mean no more than that he could not take the proper distance on it.... The task for the reader, then, is one of sorting. If he is willing to trust his own discriminations, and if he is willing to read carefully, he need not be put off by the occasional inferior piece as he locates and appreciates the many excellent ones, nor need he labor to defend the indefensible....

Tulips and Chimneys (1923), Cummings' first collection, gathered together only some of his many early poems....

[His choice of title] suggests a number of oppositions: the country to the city, the organic to the lifeless, the natural to the manmade, and the beautiful to the ugly, as well as (in shape) the female to the male and (in the pun on tulips and the waste-disposing function of chimneys) the oral to the anal. It may well suggest, too, the essential division in the book: the section headed “Chimneys” comprises only sonnets, while “Tulips” includes a good deal of free verse.

Beyond this major division, Tulips and Chimneys is further segmented into fourteen sequences, each containing from one to ten poems. Cummings' interest in conjoining short individual poems into larger sequences persists throughout his career; his practice of identifying these sequences by separate titles, however, continues only through is 5 (1926).... His interest in these patterns is nevertheless instructive. Always fascinated by the happy accidents of individual words—the puns, the multiple meanings, the words-within-words—he was also fascinated by the ways in which whole poems, since they always appeared to a reader within a context, inevitably and somewhat accidentally interacted with that context. In his collections of poems, sequence determined context and provided a means for making larger statements. A thoughtful examination of his sequences reveals that Cummings had much more to say than could be said in individual short poems.

It is equally clear, too, that Cummings' talent did not run to long poems. Tulips and Chimneys begins with “Epithalamion,” an extended poem as traditional in its structure as it is classical in its reference. Here Cummings ... proves his mastery of the poet's traditional domain of rhyme, rhythm, metaphor, assonance, consonance, and a host of other literary devices listed in most handbooks of prosody. Here, too, he tactfully opens his assault on the conventions of poetry with an uncontroversial overture, saving the shock and dazzle for later....

For all its propriety, the poem is nevertheless a kind of cold frame for Cummings' later style. The overt subject (praise of sensual delight) and the metaphor (spring) will grow up to become Cummings' favorites; even the suggestion in the final lines that this is a poem about poetry has parallels in numerous later pieces....

“Tulips” gathered together a rather broad cross-section of Cummings' early work.... “Chimneys,” however, is a tightly composed work. The seventeen sonnets, most having something to do with love, are divided into three groups: “Sonnets—Realities,” “Sonnets—Unrealities,” and “Sonnets—Actualities.”...

The best of [“Sonnets—Realities”] ... is the first, “the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls.” “Cambridge,” here, is a word charged with significance. Having grown up under the shadow of Harvard, Cummings knew well the kind of old New England intellectual strain represented by these arbiters of social life. Apparently espousing the liberal humanitarian causes, they remain rigidly conservative.... [The] poem is essentially about the failure to make distinctions between the significant and the trivial....

The next sequence, “Sonnets—Unrealities,” comments on the idealized and sentimentalized aspects of love. It moves toward the metaphysics of its concluding poem (“a connotation of infinity” ...), which anticipates Cummings' later transcendent bent so well that it seems oddly out of place in this early work....

“Sonnets—Actualities” is a sequence which, ostensibly praising love and the lover, is really rather acidulous. To speak of a kiss in so anatomical a phrase as “the little pushings of the flesh” ... , and to speak of love as “building a building” ... where, in a kind of dungeon, the lover's “surrounded smile / hangs / breathless,” is surely to treat the lover with more mockery than affection....

Early in 1925 the remainder of the poems from the original Tulips and Chimneys manuscript were published in two volumes, & and XLI Poems....

XLI Poems is [as described by Cummings] “harmless“—a charming, if slightly effete, collection. While it indulges in some experimental word disruptions and typographical oddities, it presents none of the extraordinary curiosities of &....

The other 1925 volume, &, spells its title in the names of its three sections: “A,” “N,” and “D.” ...

[While] it is not entirely accurate to classify the poems in & as either new, prurient, or poor, it is apparent that the sensual poems are among the liveliest here. If the overall tone of XLI Poems tended to pale into polite comment, the tone of & errs on the side of ribaldry: neither had the other for balance.

Essential to the interpretation of many of these poems, especially those in “Sonnets—Actualities,” is a recognition of the importance of Cummings' dedication of the volume [to Elaine Orr]....

The first fourteen poems [in &], comprising the “Post-Impressions” sequence, have no convenient common denominator. Some are clearly impressions of scenes; some seem more like portraits; and some are love poems or meditations. They are difficult poems from the outset....

The twelve poems in “Portraits” suggest what later volumes will make clearer: Cummings rarely wrote about sexual relationships in a wholly approving manner. While most of these poems are explicitly sensual, none is in any way a love poem or a poem of praise. He seems to have glimpsed rather vividly the death's-head at the feast of the flesh: even those poems ostensibly celebrating sensual endeavors frequently employ an imagery and diction that undercuts the praise....

In respite from the prevailing sensuality, two of the best poems in the sequence take up quite different topics. The portrait of the barroom pianist (“ta” ...) is in subject simply a quick imagist impression. Once the fractured words are reassembled, it reads: “tapping toe—hippopotamus Back—genteelly lugubrious eyes LOOP-THE-LOOP as fat hands bang rag.” But the poem no more appears through such paraphrase than a Cubist portrait can be approximated by a photograph of the sitter: the effect is less in subject than in execution. A poem about rag, it captures the dislocations of jazz in its first stanza:

ta

ppin

g

toe....

The individual sonnets in the “D” section of & generally require little explication. The larger statements they make, however, deserve analysis. The two sequences in the section, “Sonnets—Realities” and “Sonnets—Actualities,” are, superficially, of opposing tones and attitudes.... “Sonnets—Realities” are, for the most part, poems of plain venery, withholding no detail of the sexual act; and they are so intentionally gross as to repulse the reader by their very surfeit of sensuality....

“Sonnets—Actualities” is no less explicit about sexual relations. But the blatant repugnance toward the act is lessened. These are more meditative sonnets, poems about “i” and about “my love” which are less patently ironic in their praise. The imagery, nevertheless, casts a peculiar pall over the subject of love. Buried in the most apparently complimentary catalogues of the lover's attributes are images surprising for their animality or ... notable for their unfeeling hardness....

The fact that the vast bulk of his sensual poetry in these years blended the sexual with the repulsive suggests that his attitudes were far more complex than they are usually taken to be. A careful assessment of the imagery in these early poems reinforces the conviction that, while they are obscene, ironic, and often very witty, they are hardly to be written off as the graffiti of a goatish mind. To misread them and view Cummings as a youth unashamedly mesmerized by eroticism is to convict him of a tastelessness and an immaturity which neither his age—he was thirty when & was published—nor the genuinely affectionate tone of his letters at this time can support. It is also to erect formidable barriers to an understanding of his later development toward a transcendence that moved him leagues beyond the worship of unrelieved physicality—because such a misreading posits a personality that changed rather suddenly from prurience to refinement. In an odd and inverted way, these poems are pleas for purity and balance, stifled cries for a higher vision of human love coming out of a wilderness of sensual indulgence. Much as his diatribes against conformity reinforce his celebrations of individuality, these assertions that flesh is at worst gross and at best slightly unsatisfactory prepare the way of his later metaphysic: to show the repulsiveness of carnality is to prove the need for its opposite. For even in his most sensual early work, the seeds of his mature ethic were planted—sometimes too deep, and sometimes upside down, but planted nonetheless....

[Cummings' forward to is 5] addresses itself to “my theory of technique.” Comparing his art to that of burlesque, he observes that he is “abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement,” and notes that the poet is “somebody to whom things made matter very little—somebody who is obsessed by Making.” Here, too, he confesses his “Ineluctable preoccupation with The Verb.” Behind these statements lies his concern for the active and living over the fixed and inert....

The ramifications of his “theory of technique” show up in is 5 somewhat more clearly than in his earlier volumes. Here, as Norman Friedman says [in his E. E. Cummings: The Growth of a Writer], “there is an organic relation between the poet's technique and his purposes.” Noting that the satirical vein is mined to a new depth in is 5, Friedman also observes that “in general Cummings uses metrical stanzas for his more `serious' poems, and reserves his experiments by and large for his free verse embodiments of satire, comedy, and description. Parody, pun, slang, and typographical distortion are called into being by the urgencies of the satirical mode, which requires the dramatic rendition of scorn, wit, and ridicule. Violence in the meaning: violence in the style.” The poetry may, as Friedman points out, have taken some flavor from Cummings' concurrent prose writings: he had published a number of satires in Vanity Fair during the eighteen months preceding the publication of this volume. The requirements of writing for that monthly, noted for its debunking manner, had quite naturally sharpened the satirical edge of Cummings' style....

[Cummings] discovered in is 5 a voice distinctly his own. The freshness of that discovery informs these poems....

Satire enters forcefully in “One,” the first of the five sequences in the volume. Earlier poems, taking their tone from Eliot and the Ash Can painters, had been content to present physical degradation with neither praise nor blame; these poems do not hesitate to condemn, in unmistakable terms, physical and moral corruption. They are generally more complex and thoughtful poems than the earlier ones: the same verve and elan characterize the language, but the thought behind them now extends into various dimensions. Here, more regularly than before, we are reminded that the poet is at work trying to sort out and articulate the tremendous diversity of responses facing him....

War and its effects are the subjects of the ten poems in the next sequence, “Two.” The first (“the season 'tis, my lovely lambs”) begins with a fine sarcasm on topical allusions.... Cummings' objection here is not so much to the specifics of [social control of vice] ... (although he inalterably opposed literary censorship and prohibition) as to the progressive interference by government in the lives of individuals....

The poems in the next sequence, “Three,” are interrelated by their interest in distinctly European scenes and by their references to sunsets or sunlight. Each is in some way a meditation on the significance of a natural scene....

The last three poems in “Three,” in which the narrator questions the nature of existence and moves toward a tentative resolution, also form something of a set. Poem V asks searching questions about why the poet is where he is. In poem VI (“but observe; although”) he considers the difference between an inner and an outer life.... The final poem (“sunlight was over” ...) sees in sexual consummation a kind of resolution: bright sunlight turning to sunset, two lovers becoming one, and “what had been something / else carefully slowly fatally turning into ourselves.” These two last poems strike a significantly new note: without being sonnets, they praise sexual love with little of the undercutting so noticeable in &. In this way, they provide a fitting introduction to the fourth sequence.

The eighteen poems in “Four,” a well-knit cycle of love poems, come into clearest focus when seen through the lens of Cummings' relationship with Elaine Orr, his former wife. They form a loose progression in subject (innocence through sexual experience and on to separation) and in imagery (night through daylight and on into evening)....

In “since feeling is first” (“Four” ...), Cummings brings to ripeness the ironic carpe diem mode in one of his surest pieces. Taking grammar as his metaphor, the poet notes that those who pay attention only to “the syntax of things“—the logic, the intellectual aspects of experience—can never involve themselves so thoroughly in love as to “wholly kiss you.”...

The last poems in the sequence [are] perhaps too full of sentiment to convey real feeling.... Taking themselves a little too seriously, they have neither the distancing self-awareness nor the grandeur of vision that inform his better poems. They are interesting confessional statements for the biographer; but even their convolutions of syntax and surprises of diction cannot overcome their somewhat softboiled moistness.

By contrast, the five sonnets composing the last sequence, “Five,” are less mawkish and more resolved....

The final poem in the volume, “if i have made, my lady, intricate,” shows Cummings at his finest. Although written before his divorce from Elaine, it takes on an added poignancy by its placement at the end of a book dealing so centrally with that separation. Tinged with regret, it becomes a gallant valediction to a lady no longer his. Yet as an ending to the volume it provides resolution: it is, after all, a poem about poetry, a poem which redeems his experience by transforming it into art....

Even in such a poem, however, the underlying irony is apparent. I cannot write poems of praise, says the poet, who, saying so, manages to write one of the finest poems of praise in the century. And if the poem seems less than that, it is perhaps because of the success enjoyed by certain of its devices in more recent verse. The technique behind such phrases as “the ragged meadow of my soul“—the coupling of a concrete substantive with a modifying phrase containing an abstraction—has become the staple of current songwriters, and our sense of the purity of this poem may be a little jaded by jukebox verse built on such lines as “the bright illusive butterfly of love” and a hundred similar phrases....

[The topics of the poems in ViVa] are characteristic: there are love poems, portraits, impressions, low-life sketches, and a generous helping of satires. The collection was similar enough to his earlier volumes that William Carlos Williams dismissed it as “definitely an aftermath” and objected that Cummings sounded too much like Cummings, that he “reminds one very much of him.”...

ViVa reveals, in fact, a great deal more patterning than at first appears.... The design he builds into the second half reflects his tribute to the individual, and the lack of cohesion (indeed, even of coherence at times) in the first half manifests his low estimate of man as a social animal....

The literary community in which Cummings lived in the early thirties had, almost to a man, sworn allegiance to socialism.... [It] had expended too much of its own rancor in denouncing capitalism to listen openmindedly to alternatives. Into this context came Eimi, Cummings' account of his thirty-six-day trip to the Soviet Union. There, for those willing to unravel its remarkable prose, was a report of the grim inhumanities of the Soviet system, of repression, apathy, priggishness, kitsch, and ennervating suspicion.

Shortly after its appearance there came, to various publishing houses, a manuscript of poems by its author. The rejections that followed could hardly have been based on quality alone. No Thanks is no less competent a collection than ViVa. It makes more progress toward experimental forms; but it provides nothing so radically different nor indefensibly bad as to justify rejection on merit. It is, in many ways, standard Cummings: the age, not the man, had changed.

Like ViVa, No Thanks [printed privately in 1935] is designed on a numerological pattern, with sonnets occurring at regular intervals.... There is ... a general thematic development throughout the volume, which progresses in the first half downward toward the poems of defeat at its center, and thereafter moves upward into more transcendent ideas....

Collected Poems [1938] begins with an introduction, a prose statement akin to but much more extensive than the one introducing is 5. Here he identifies his villains, the “most-people” who prefer inertia to activity. Describing them, he happens upon a word for their essential attribute—“passivity.” The metaphor characterizing their behavior is of the womb. What “mostpeople” want is “a guaranteed birth-proof safetysuit”; what they fear most is being born. For “ourselves,” on the other hand, “birth is a supremely welcome mystery,” and “We can never be born enough.” The entire introduction is built on this opposition—as, indeed, are many of his poems. Apart from the diction (which is his own particular invention) and the sometimes pretentious or condescending tone (which is his own occasional failing), the piece has an odd flavor of the pulpit.... The introduction builds to its culmination in reaffirming the poet's commitment “never to rest and never to have: only to grow.” And it ends with an ambiguity worthy of his poems—“Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question“—a sentence which means both “[there is] always the beautiful answer [for him] who asks a more beautiful question” and “the beautiful [people, ideas] always answer [the person] who asks a more beautiful question.”...

Unlike the bulk of his contemporaries in the arts, [Cummings] never saw in government subsidies an answer to his [financial] problems, but felt instead that the preservation of individuality and the acceptance of New Deal handouts were irreconcilably opposed. This opposition is the burden of 50 Poems (1940), which contains some of his best-known poems praising individuality and condemning the state: “as freedom is a breakfast-food,” “the way to hump a cow is not,” “anyone lived in a pretty how town,” and “my father moved through dooms of love.”...

[The justly famous poem] “my father moved through dooms of love”—presents a figure expressly heroic. Like “anyone lived,” it too is introduced by a poem (“one slip-slouch twi” ...) which anticipates some of its themes and prepares the way....

The world, in “my father moved through dooms of love” ... , needs redemption: it is a place of “scheming” and “passion,” of stealing, cruelty, fear, and doubt, and of “maggoty minus and dumb death.” Unlike some of Cummings' poems, however, this one emphasizes not primarily this corruption but the nature of the individual who redeems it. And unlike other poems, this one presents an individual who finds answers not in transcendent escape but in direct engagement and correction of the world's wrong. It is a poem about love. But like the Gospels—in which the word “love” appears with surprising infrequency—the poem does not so much explain as demonstrate. Defining the attributes of love not in exposition but through narrative, it echoes the technique of the Gospel writers by showing how love is exemplified in the works of a single man. Fittingly, the word “love” occurs only twice in the poem—in the first and last lines.

Commentators have generally assumed that the poem is biographical.... Certainly the poem describes in some ways the Reverend Edward Cummings. Essentially, however, it describes qualities of feeling and habits of mind which have fathered Cummings' own mental set. Not simply recording the ideals of a real man, the poet chooses to embody his own highest ideals in a fictionalized character, describe him in action, and claim a sonship with him which makes clear his own intellectual and spiritual heritage....

Where some of Cummings' poems are aggressively complex and others patently simple, this one erects a smooth facade which, significant in itself, reverberates inside with more profound meaning. Apparently simple, it nevertheless rewards close reading....

Most of the remaining poems develop themes raised in “my father moved through dooms of love”: individuality, love, and redemption from the world's assertive evils....

With the publication of 1 x 1 in 1944, Cummings' format returns to the explicit divisions that marked his first four books of poetry. The fifty-four poems in this volume are grouped into three sections, titled “1,” “X,” and “1,” and arranged in progressive seasonal imagery....

While using this seasonal framework as a strategy for organization, Cummings was not enslaved by it: several poems in the second section (“dead every enormous piece” and “when god decided to invent” come to mind) seem equally at home among the satires in the first section. Generally, however, the sense of direction here is more evident than in earlier volumes, which either had no obvious structural scheme (as in 50 Poems) or a pattern of recurrent sonnets (as in ViVa and No Thanks) sometimes more ingenious than helpful. The volume demonstrates that Cummings, having outgrown the simpler divisions (“Post Impressions,” “Portraits,” “Sonnets—Realities,” and so forth) in the original manuscript of Tulips and Chimneys, now focuses his discernment more finely....

Behind these poems lies Cummings' evident interest in arithmetic significance. Throughout his work he pays great attention to numbers, letting them determine the formats of some of his volumes and founding some of the poems on a strict counting of lines and even, at times, of syllables. This volume, in fact—the work of a poet generally thought of as rebelling against the restraint of reason—includes no completely free verse. Even poems whose lines appear most casual—“a-,” for example, or “ygUDuh”—are arranged in stanzas. It is perhaps this achievement of design in matters large and small which leads Friedman to assess 1 x 1 as “a distinctively crystallized book, both in art and in vision—a highly-wrought and mature achievement.” Where the earlier Cummings was satisfied by gathering poems into selfcontained sections, the poet here interweaves the sections themselves, anticipates and recalls their images, and appears to conceive of the volume less as a bricked accretion than as a fluid whole....

The final poem [of 1 x 1] (“if everything happens that can't be done” ...) restores the lyric to its predominant position. Natural process, whereby things simply “happen,” asserts itself over the human “doing” of things. If miracles arise, that only proves that the lovers are “one times one.” Each of the five stanzas puts down “books” as it sets up experience: not unlike the Wordsworth of “Up, up, my friend, and quit your books,” the poet here notes that “anything's righter / than books / could plan.” The irony, of course, is that he says so in a book; but a deeper irony may be directed at the reader who fails to notice that this is the last poem before the book quits. Having come through poems of autumn, winter, and spring, through satires, meditations, and lyrics, the poet closes the book and sings the praises of the world beyond books, the summer itself where life is not for reading but for living. The deepest irony of all, however, is that even this exhortation to plunge into experience is made through words. Our very capacity to experience life, after all, is conditioned by the language through which we come to terms with life. And if we have in any way absorbed Cummings' poems, we are to that extent incapable of putting aside the book: some part of us will see experience through his insights. The “we” in this poem, then, refers not only to the lovers. It may also stand for the reader and the poet, “one times one” in their common outlook....

[Xaipe, a Greek word meaning “rejoice” or “greetings,” is the title of Cummings' next volume of verse, published in 1950. It is an appropriate title], for the book registers a decrease in poems that scorn and satirize and a corresponding increase in poems of praise. Here, for the first time, is the Cummings who writes of the religious and transcendent not as an antidote to the evil of the world but because it alone is coming to seem the most real. The change in emphasis affects his choice of subjects. Of the seventy-one poems, only one addresses itself directly to the “infinite jukethrob” of seamy city life. The values and images of country life are increasingly attractive to the poet....

One of Cummings' best-known sonnets, “i thank You God for most this amazing” ... , is good enough that one wishes it were better. Revealing itself cleanly on a single reading, it has been dismissed, in Robert Graves' words, as “intrinsically corny.” A religious poem, it has neither the vibrant intellectuality of Hopkins, the cool ambiguity of Eliot , nor the resonance of Thomas. It depends, especially in the third stanza, on assertion rather than demonstration, and is finally a bit too facile. Nevertheless, it has some very good moments. The first line, for example, makes excellent use of the transposed adverb. We expect “most” to modify either “thank you” (“i thank you most, God”) or “amazing” (“for this most amazing day”). Splitting the difference, Cummings places the word in a position where it does double duty. And the progression in the fourth line—“everything / which is natural which is infinite which is yes“—crescendoes toward abstraction, affirmation, and simplicity all at once. Perhaps for Cummings it is what “And death shall have no dominion” was for Thomas: a statement of faith that is too clear, too simplified, and hence too dishonest. In any case, it stands as a significant marker in the path of Cummings' development of transcendental and religious themes....

95 Poems (1958), Cummings' longest volume, brings together eight years' work. Earlier volumes had come more frequently, never more than six years apart. Here, as he exercises more patience, he expresses a quieter and more meditative outlook. Turning his attention largely to things held in high regard (Joy Farm, Washington Square Park in the rain, the less physical aspects of love), he does not shrink from those things—the cosmeticized mother, the apathetic reader, the bickering housewife—which deserve ridicule. But it is to Horace rather than Juvenal that the few satires here owe their allegiance: only “THANKSGIVING (1956)” recalls the rancor of earlier years.... It is a volume full of praise for human goodness and wonder at nature's marvels.

As such, it is Cummings' most risky volume. Praise, as a glance at the best of modern literature attests, does not come easily to our age....

Yet Cummings, after years of practice at distinguishing the merely sentimental from the genuinely affirmative, the “pansy heaven” from the “heaven of blackred roses” ... , had learned his balance well. Refusing to give over his skills at organization, his ear for nuance, and his fertile metaphoric imagination, he welded this book into a collection which helps demonstrate Robert Creeley's proposition that “FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXPRESSION OF CONTENT.” Here, it seems, is proof that a poet can refuse conformity to the “poetical” subject matter favored by his age and still attain a high standard of craftsmanship....

Cummings' last volume was published the year after his death in New Hampshire on September 2, 1962. Like earlier volumes, 73 Poems intermixes new work with poems previously published in periodicals. Unlike earlier volumes, the contents were not arranged by Cummings but by his bibliographer, George Firmage....

While nothing of Cummings' intentions can be deduced from the sequence, the volume does mark a certain progress beyond 95 Poems. Although it levels its share of satiric darts—at “mrs somethingwitz / nay somethingelsestein” ... , at the “fearlessandbosomy ... / gal” of eighty ... , and even at Aphrodite, Hephaestus, and Ares ...—these pieces tend to be soft at the tip, written less in biting anger than bemused aversion. The world, with its “Mostpeople” who scream for “international / measures that render hell rational” ... , is still a “sub / human superstate” ... descending on “the path to nothingness.” ... But that world, for Cummings, is no longer too much with us: he looks with increasing serenity at a better one....

As conviction increased, so did limpidity. Syntax here is less demanding, vocabulary less challenging, and words are less often fragmented than in earlier volumes. There is a growing proportion of extremely short poems, poems with no more than thirty words and sometimes no more than ten. It is a simplicity born not of senility but of wisdom, a capacity for concise statement coupled with lyric evocation. Fittingly, a number of these poems recall earlier ones: Cummings in these years was of a mind, it seems, to reexamine his earlier successes. In many ways it is a poetry of triumph, marking the victory of the feeling he always preached over the thinking he struggled to refine....

The two last poems in the volume are, in very different ways, among the finest in the canon. The three pentameter lines of “wild (at our first) beasts uttered human words” ... compress into twenty-four words a compendious history of the world. Ascending from “beasts” to “birds” and on into “stars,” the images move progressively upward and away from earth. In the beginning, says the poet, we were children uttering strangely wordlike sounds. In maturity our presence made “stones sing like birds“—made the inanimate universe take on the qualities of animation, joyousness, and freedom. Cummings, again, implies that the things of the world—stones, in this case—have no expressive qualities of their own. Hence they have no meanings until given them by the user of language who, like the banished duke in As You Like It, finds “sermons in stones.” The first two lines, then, account for human life; but the poem has a third line, moving on to considerations of immortality. Where life for the early Cummings was a matter of birth, maturity, and decay, for the late Cummings it consists in birth, maturity, and transcendence. The “star-hushed silence” is our third state, an ascendent condition in which, words and songs quieted, the silence of a deeper communion prevails. This is the silence that appears at the end of “all which isn't singing is mere talking” ... : there, “the very song ... / of singing is silence,” for as singing is superior to talking, so silence is the very essence of the power of song....

As silence is the keenest quality of sound, so a vision of love is the sharpest focus of sight. And just as no human ear will be adequate to the first, so mere worldly seeing will not encompass the second. That is the message of the last poem, “all worlds have halfsight, seeing either with.” ... For Cummings, “worlds” are limited and loveless places inhabitated by mostpeople and utterly without grace. Worlds are places made not by fact but by consent, not by matter, society, or time but simply by belief. Seen for what it is, the world can be rendered harmless....

This sort of poem demands a reading in context. Isolated from the slowly developing themes that progress through Cummings' earlier poetry, it appears somewhat plain. But in that context there are very few words used here that do not come to this poem charged with significance. The idea of halves versus wholes, the distinction between the seeming and the real, the words “steep,” “beauty,” “truth,” “timelessly,” and “merciful,” derive their impact from use in numerous prior poems; each draws sustenance and originality from the accretion of definition built up throughout Cummings' entire career. Most notable is the word “love.” If Cummings has one subject, that is it. It begins in Tulips and Chimneys as an echo of popularly romantic notions, and it grows in early volumes to a sometimes amorphous phenomenon seasoned by a not entirely unselfish lust. By these last poems, however, it has come to be a purified and radiant idea, unentangled with flesh and worlds, the agent of the highest transcendence. It is not far, as poem after poem has hinted, from the Christian conception of love as God. It is this sense of God that Cummings' poems of praise have celebrated, this sense that his satires have sought to protect. It is this sense that Cummings, whose entire body of work is finally an image of himself, would have us see as the source of his own being....

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100001260