Wednesday, May 15, 2013

appreciating e.e. cummings

E.E. Cummings is not the greatest poet of all-time or even the greatest poet of the 20th century but he wrote with a distinctive voice that still resonates and that sets him apart from any other poet. From his earliest poetic efforts, Cummings forged his own path, bending--no, breaking, shattering and obliterating--grammatical and syntactical customs; his poems featured few or no capitalized letters, syncopated rhythms, stylized word spellings and stanza structures that challenged both typesetters and readers. Cummings' unique style defied poetic orthodoxy much like Salvador Dali's now-iconic painting "The Persistence of Memory" defied painting orthodoxy; Dali presented ordinary objects as part of a grand surrealistic vision and his twisted clocks force us to confront the mystery of time and existence, while Cummings' oddly shaped stanzas force us to focus on the meaning of each carefully chosen word: you cannot casually read a Cummings poem, just like you cannot casually view a Dali painting; in both cases you must interact with the art and let the art interact with your mind and your emotions. Through careful and disciplined manipulation of form, Cummings demanded the reader's full attention; free verse requires that the writer not let freedom descend into chaos and that the reader must concentrate in order to understand the writer's message.

This is my favorite Cummings poem:

if up's the word;and a world grows greener
minute by second and most by more-
if death is the loser and life is the winner
(and beggars are rich but misers are poor)
-let's touch the sky:
with a to and a fro
(and a here there where)and away we go

in even the laziest creature among us
a wisdom no knowledge can kill is astir-
now dull eyes are keen and now keen eyes are keener
(for young is the year,for young is the year)
-let's touch the sky:
with a great(and a gay
and a steep)deep rush through amazing day

it's brains without hearts have set saint against sinner;
put gain over gladness and joy under care-
let's do as an earth which can never do wrong does
(minute by second and most by more)
-let's touch the sky:
with a strange(and a true)
and a climbing fall into far near blue

if beggars are rich(and a robin will sing his
robin a song)but misers are poor-
let's love until noone could quite be(and young is
the year,dear)as living as i'm and as you're
-let's touch the sky:
with a you and a me
and an every(who's any who's some)one who's we

I love the couplet "in even the laziest creature among us/a wisdom no knowledge can kill is astir"; it conjures two images for me: one image is that of a seemingly "slow" person who shines and thrives if someone takes the time to patiently teach him and the other image is of a person who retains his wisdom even after enduring 12 years of being force-fed all of the "knowledge" that the American public education system purports to dispense. Cummings saw that there is inherent wisdom--and worth--inside every person, regardless of that person's seemingly "lazy" disposition and regardless of the way that certain experiences may have dulled that wisdom/concealed that worth.

Cummings' poetry challenges readers in a way that was once widely considered enchanting but his reputation has not grown after his passing, perhaps because readers no longer want to be challenged. Cummings anticipated that his writings--and what he called "The New Art" in general--might not be well received by some audiences. During a Harvard commencement address that he delivered in 1915 at just 20 years of age, Cummings presciently predicted that the "fakirs and fanatics" would not view with favor works of art that explore methods, emotions and concepts that fall outside of the norm. In an article titled "Make it Newish" (May 2005, Harper's Magazine), Wyatt Mason explains, "Cummings had come to issue a corrective to an audience ignorant of any error."

Cummings hoped that society would embrace art that challenges preconceptions and that reveals new ways to look at the world but society instead lurched in the opposite direction. More than 30 years ago, Jerzy Kosinski lamented how much people rely on "The constant companionship of distracting devices" and he warned that we are becoming a nation of "videots." Kosinski decried what we would now call "reality" TV before the concept had even devolved into its current form and he told interviewer David Sohn, "I look at the children who spend five or six hours watching television every day, and I notice that when in groups they cannot interact with each other. They are terrified of each other; they develop secondary anxiety characteristics. They want to watch, they don't want to be spoken to. They want to watch, they don't want to talk. They want to watch, they don't want to be asked questions or singled out."

"Videots" will not take the time or expend the effort to untangle Cummings' unorthodox poetic structures; they will not read slowly enough and with enough concentration to discern the method underlying what superficially seems like random, chaotic madness. Cummings sought poetic/artistic truth and such a quest is out of step with a society that values "reality" TV over poetry, artistry or truth.

After describing Cummings' compositional methods, Mason's article discusses three major biographies of Cummings. Mason considers Charles Norman's The Magic-Maker "an affectionate profile" but notes that its objectivity is somewhat compromised due to the heavy influence that Cummings exerted on the composition of the book's final draft. Mason praises Richard S. Kennedy's Dreams in the Mirror for not only being exhaustively researched but also for being very well written. Mason finds strong evidence of plagiarism in Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno's E.E. Cummings: a biography; Mason demonstrates that Sawyer-Laucanno used Kennedy's research without proper attribution and even directly lifted several passages from Kennedy's book while only making very slight changes to the text. Few crimes are more destructive than theft; no community can tolerate rampant theft, which is why even in the animal kingdom thiefs are treated quite harshly: it is understandable--if a bit extreme to civilized minds--why some societies sanction that a thief's hands should be cut off. The theft of someone's ideas/intellectual property is particularly egregious; such theft deeply violates the victim and reveals the moral emptiness of the victimizer. Mason notes how ironic it is that deception runs rampant throughout a book about a writer who was so devoted to artistic truth and so passionate about creating unique works. Mason soberly ponders what this means:

It tells us that we are drowning in information--unreliable information, shoddy information, wrong information. It tells us that, as a culture, literary or otherwise, we are letting our ignorance lead us. Ignorance is nothing more than an indifference to what is before us; we have only to pay attention--and we are paying attention in a way, but to pretty noise, the newer the better. Pound knew this, and Cummings knew this, and they tried to devise a means by which we might pay better attention to our world. The pictured caves of the Dordogne marked by prehistoric hands; the tattered verses once sung by a girl with a lyre; a tapestry that tells of a thousand-year-old battle upon which a certain comet may be seen, bright as any star: these delicate things are evidence, proofs that others like us looked at the world once. These are the sources of ourselves, our truest fossil record. The Modernists feared we were burying this record and, with that burial, losing what was best in us under waves of what was worst. They set out to help us remember. But, of course, Modernism failed. It never had a chance.

Put even more simply, one could note that there are hundreds of cable/satellite TV channels available but most of them broadcast nothing more than "pretty noise, the newer the better." U.S. Chess Champion/philosophy professor Stuart Rachels expresses a similar sentiment in different words, decrying America's "deeply engrained anti-intellectualism." That anti-intellectualism explains why "Modernism...never had a chance"; our society does not train people to savor the joys of thinking and the merits of sustained concentration: anything that cannot be tweeted in 140 characters or less must not be important--or so we have been told (brainwashed).

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