Cummings’ “you said Is”

Reading 200 plus pages of uncollected poems is probably more of a challenge than a pleasure, but I’ve finally finished reading E.E. Cummings: Complete Poems 1904-1962.

The most interesting sequence of the uncollected poems are a series of love poems that would probably have been considered too “erotic” to publish when they were written, though my favorite of the sequence

you said Is
there anything which
is dead or alive more beautiful
than my body,to have in your fingers
(trembling ever so little)?
Looking into
your eyes Nothing,i said,except the
air of spring smelling of never and forever.

….and through the lattice which moved as
if a hand is touched by a
hand(which
moved as though
fingers touch a girl’s
breast,
lightly)
Do you believe in always,the wind
said to the rain
I am too busy with
my flowers to believe,the rain answered

would probably have passed the censors even when written.

Since Cummings often equates spring with sex, the last line of the first stanza seems a little disingenuous, but effective, nevertheless. One doesn’t have to look too deeply to realize that most of Spring’s beauty is merely a manifestation of sexuality and the desire to procreate.

The more unusual line, however, is found in the last stanza, where the very nature of believing, or at least believing in “always,” is subordinated to taking care of “my flowers.” The narrator is too caught up in the moment, in fostering the beauty of here and now, to worry about death and whether or not he will live beyond this moment.

Cummings’ “Ballad of an Intellectual”

After reading 845 pages of collected poems, I doubt a reader has the right to expect too much from 55 pages of “Uncollected Poems,” though they may cast some new light on poems that were collected. In fact, I’m sure that the last third of E.E. Cummings: Complete Poems 19054-1962 is intended more for scholars than casual readers, and I’m certainly not a Cummings scholar, nor do I aspire to become one.

Still, some of the poems help to remind us of the Cummings’ most important traits, traits that definitely set him apart from contemporaries like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, both of which happen to be mentioned in this poem:

Ballad of an Intellectual

Listen, you morons great and small
to the tale of an intellectuall
(and if you don’t profit by his career
don’t ever say Hoover gave nobody beer).

‘Tis frequently stated out where he was born
that a rose is as weak as its shortest thorn:
they spit like quarters and sleep in their boots
and anyone dies when somebody shoots
and the sheriff arrives after everyone’s went;
which isn’t,perhaps,an environment
where you would(and I should) expect to find
overwhelming devotion to things of the mind.
But when it rains chickens we’ll all catch larks
— to borrow a phrase from Karl the Marks.

As a child he was puny;shrank from noise
hated the girls and mistrusted the boise,
didn’t like whisky,learned to spell
and generally seemed to be going to hell;
so his parents,encouraged by desperation,
gave him a classical education
(and went to sleep in their boots again
out in the land where women are main).

You know the rest:a critic of note,
a serious thinker,a lyrical pote,
lectured on Art from west to east
–did sass-seyeity fall for it? Cheast!
if a dowager balked at our hero’s verse
he’d knock her cold with a page from Jerse;
why,he used to say to his friends, he used
“for getting a debutante gived me Prused”
and many’s the heiress who’s up and swooned
after one canto from Ezra Pooned
(or–to borrow a cadence from Karl the Marx–
a biting chipmunk never barx).

But every bathtub will have its gin
and one man’s sister is another man’s sin
and a hand in the bush is a stitch in time
and Aint It All a Bloody Shime
and he suffered a fate which is worse than death
and I don’t allude to unpleasant breath.

Our blooming hero awoke,one day,
to find he had nothing whatever to say:
which I might interpret(just for fun)
as meaning the es of a be was dun
and I mightn’t think(and you mightn’t,too)
that a Five Year Plan’s worth a Gay Pay Oo
and both of us might irretrievably pause
ere believing that Stalin is Santa Clause:
which happily proves that neither of us
is really an intellectual cus.

For what did our intellectual do,
when he found himself so empty and blo?
he pondered a while and he said,said he
“It’s the social system,it isn’t me!
Not I am a fake,but America’s phoney!
Not I am no artist,but Art’s bologney!
Or–briefly to paraphrase Karl the Marx–
‘The first law of nature is, trees will be parx.’ “

Now all you morons of sundry classes
(who read the Times and who buy the Masses)
if you don’t profit by his career
don’t ever say Hoover gave nobody beer.

For whoso conniveth at Lenin his dream
shall dine upon bayonets,isn’t and seam
and a miss is as good as a mile is best
for if you’re not bourgeois you’re Eddie Gest
and wastelands live and waistlines die,
which I very much hope it won’t happen to eye;
or as comrade Shakespeare remarked of old
All that Glisters Is Mike Gold

(but a rolling snowball gathers no sparks
–and the same hold true of Karl the Marks).

Written in 1932, this is actually one of the later uncollected poems. One suspects that Cummings chose not to include this poem in one of his collections. It’s certainly not a typical poem, and if I’d found it somewhere else I would never have connected it to him.

While the sense of humor is obviously exaggerated here, a sense of humor seems to be a cummings’ trademark. It’s hard to think of cummings without poems like “nobody loses all the time” or ” poem, or beauty hurts mr. vinal.” The informal language is another Cummings’ trademark.

What’s less typical is the regular rhyme scheme, even though it’s clear that Cummings is making fun of it when he begins by rhyming small and “intellectuall.”

Considering that I continue to get negative responses to my rather old comments on T.S Eliot, and, more particularly, Ezra Pound, I appreciated Cummings’ references to them in this poem, particularly “and many’s the heiress who’s up and swooned/ after one canto from Ezra Pooned.”

Course, I ain’t no ‘airess, which might ‘splain why ol’ ‘Zra had a rather difrn’t ‘fect on me. Still, there more than a few obscure allusions to ‘temporaries like Eddie Gest and Mike Gold in this here poem that reminded me of both Eliot and Pound.

Cummings’ “73 Poems”

I’ve finished 73 Poems, apparently the last book of poems published during Cumming’s life. Though for me few of the poems rise to the level of his greatest poems, I marked 7 of the poems as worth re-reading, not an insubstantial number.

Perhaps not surprisingly, several of the poems deal with the subject of death, quite optimistically, I noted. I’m not sure if this poem makes the best argument for that optimism, but it’s one that I’ve considered as possible from time to time, and it does a good job of tying together major themes in his poetry from his earliest, most famous poems to these last, less famous ones:

44

Now i lay(with everywhere around)
me(the great dim deep sound
of rain;and of always and of nowhere)and

what a gently welcoming darkestness–

now i lay me down(in a most steep
more than music)feeling that sunlight is
(life and day are)only loaned:whereas
night is given(night and death and the rain

are given;and given is how beautifully snow)

now i lay me down to dream of(nothing
i or any somebody or you
can begin to begin to imagine)

something which nobody may keep.
now i lay me down to dream of Spring

I can’t help but think that the opening line was meant to reflect the famous childhood prayer

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep;
And if I die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

which would certainly reflect Cumming’s early upbringing, and, though his religious beliefs become less clear in his later poetry, his enthusiasm for life, especially for Spring, the symbol of rebirth and new beginnings, never waivers.

I’m not sure why but the whole poem reminds me of Walt Whitman’s line in Song of Myself: “All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,/ And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.” Certainly the attitude toward death seems equally optimistic.

In the end dreaming of “Spring” brings to mind all of the delightful poems that Cumming’s has written about Spring, and reminds us just how remarkable it is for a modern poet to be so both optimistic and successful.

“life is more true than reason will deceive”

I’ve finished the volume called XAIPE in E.E. Cummings: Complete Poems 1904-1962 without finding one poem as good as “pity this busy monster manunkind” or “what if a much of a which of a wind,” but I have found a number I like. Several, like this one, focus on “reason:”

life is more true than reason will deceive
(more secret or than madness did reveal)
deeper is life than lose:higher than have
–but beauty is more each than living’s all

multiplied with infinity sans if
the mightiest meditations of mankind
canceled are by one merely opening leaf
(beyond whose nearness there is no beyond)

or does some littler bird than eyes can learn
look up to silence and completely sing?
futures are obsolete:pasts are unborn
(here less than nothing’s more than everything)

death,as men call him, ends what they call men
-but beauty is more now than dying’s when

Although he says “reason,” it’s clear that Cummings is talking about “science” and its insistence on sticking to the “facts,” which seems to stand in opposition to art’s emphasis on feelings. While I’d like to think this is a false dichotomy, forced to make this choice I’d choose beauty over reason.

I may read the “meditations of mankind” during the winter, but find it nearly impossible to stay inside reading on a sing day, much less a summer day. Though I’ve devoted much of my life to books, I’ve never read a book that moved me as deeply as a week’s backpack in to a Cascade wilderness.

I’ve been too close to death not to fear its power, but “beauty is more now than dying’s when.” Who thinks of dying when confronted with great beauty?

what if a much of a which of a wind

As much as I like E. E. Cummings ( I just read that he preferred that editors and critics capitalize his name), I can sometimes read fifty or more pages in his Complete Poems and not find a single poem that I like. Then, suddenly, there’s two poems within five pages of each other that seem unforgettable, like this poem and yesterday’s “pity this busy monster manunkind:”

XX

what if a much of a which of a wind
gives the truth to summer’s lie;
bloodies with dizzying leaves the sun
and yanks immortal stars awry?
Blow king to beggar and queen to seem
(blow friend to fiend: blow space to time)
— when skies are hanged and oceans drowned,
the single secret will still be man

what if a keen of a lean wind flays
screaming hills with sleet and snow:
strangles valleys by ropes of thing
and stifles forests in white ago?
Blow hope to terror; blow seeing to blind
(blow pity to envy and soul to mind)
— whose hearts are mountains, roots are trees,
it’s they shall cry hello to the spring

what if a dawn of a doom of a dream
bites this universe in two,
peels forever out of his grave
and sprinkles nowhere with me and you?
Blow soon to never and never to twice
(blow life to isn’t; blow death to was)
— all nothing’s only our hugest home;
the most who die, the more we live

It hardly seems that the two poems could have been written by the same author. This poem reminds me of Gerald Manly Hopkins, perhaps even Dylan Thomas, while “pity this busy monster manunkind” seems like it could have been written by a Metaphysical Poet.

I’m not sure that it isn’t mainly the sound of this poem that appeals to me, particularly the opening line, which sounds like it could have come directly from the Wizard of Oz. It doesn’t hurt that the pattern of this first line is repeated in each of the three stanzas.

A lot of online commentators apparently see the poem as a description of the end of the world. And while I can see why they might interpret the poem that way, it seems to me the real emphasis is on the last two lines of each stanza, which offer a remarkably optimistic view, considering the opening lines.

Even if all the promise of summer is a lie, and life consists of being buffeted about by autumn winds, “the single secret will still be man.”

No matter how harsh the winter, those who hearts “are mountains” shall remain to “cry hello to the spring.”

Even in the face of death, “the more we live,” for what else can you do but reaffirm the value of life when confronted by death?

pity this busy monster,manunkind

I’m glad I started reading e.e. cummings with Collected Poems rather than Complete Poems 1904-1962 because at 1102 pages I’m not sure how long it would have taken me to tackle that big of a volume of poems, even if I had read many of them years before.

However, it didn’t take me long to find

(XIV)

pity this busy monster,manunkind,

not. Progress is a comfortable disease:
your victum(death and life safely beyond)

plays with the bigness of his littleness
-electrons deify one razorblade
into a mountainrange;lenses extend

unwish through curving wherewhen until unwish
returns on its unself.
A world of made
is not a world of born-pity poor flesh

and trees,poor stars and stones,but never this
fine specimen of hypermagical

ultraomnipotence. We doctors know

a hopeless case if—listen:there’s a hell
of a good universe next door;let’s go

one of my favorite all-time cummings’ poems that I didn’t realize wasn’t in the Collected Poems until i read it here again.

Of course, it’s difficult not to note that it was published in 1944 when cummings was approximately 50, and not nearly as old or as cynical as I am — well, not as old, at least.

On the other hand, I first read this poem at 19 and even then had begun to wonder if “Progress” was the best description of changes manifesting themselves. Perhaps it’s the stoic in me that feels uncomfortable with too much comfort. Of course, I was also moved by Emerson’s “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind,” so the idea wasn’t completely new to me.

Even though I’ve long been fascinated with electron microscopes, the line “electrons deify one razorblade/ into a mountainrange” struck me as particularly true, for even in the 60’s people seem far too impressed with “the latest thing” no matter what it might be. Unfortunately, that knowledge hasn’t totally immunized me to the appeal of the latest technological toys.

In the end, it’s the contrast between “poor flesh” and “a world of made” that seems most convincing here. Too many people are caught up in their mountains and mountains of things and unconcerned with the welfare of people who have nothing except their lives.

“may my heart always be open to little”

Although there’s often a spiritual note to cumming’s poems, that note becomes much louder in the last poems in E.E. Cummings: Collected Poems, beginning, perhaps, with this one:

258

Jehovah buried,Satan dead,
do fearers worship Much and Quick;
badness not being felt as bad,
itself thinks goodness what is meek;
obey says toc,submit says tic,
Eternity’s a Five Year Plan:
if Joy with Pain shall hang in hock
who dares to call himself a man?

go dreamless knaves on Shadows fed,
your Harry’s Tom,your Tom is Dick;
while Gadgets murder squawk and add,
the cult of Same is all the chic;
by instruments,both span and spic,
are justly measured Spic and Span:
to kiss the mike if Jew turn kike
who dares to call himself a man?

loudly for Truth have liars pled,
their heels for Freedom slaves will click;
where Boobs are holy,poets mad,
illustrious punks of Progress shriek;
when Souls are outlawed,Hearts are sick,
Hearts being sick,Minds nothing can:
if Hate’s a game and Love’s a fuck
who dares to call himself a man?

King Christ,this world is all aleak;
and lifepreservers there are none:
and waves which only He may walk
Who dares to call Himself a man.

Although I wouldn’t expect to hear this in any of the churches I’ve attended, few, far-far-between, it still has a sermon-LIKE ring to it. I suppose you might argue that it’s a typical sermon calling sinners back to the TRUE faith, but I don’t think this is the true FAITH most churches declare. In fact, it seems to be attacking the hypocrisy of most Sunday-Only-Christians, turned to the worship of “Much and Quick,” “Eternity’s A Five Year Plan,” become “dreamless knaves on “Shadows fed.”

Our ARK is beginning to leak, and this time King Christ isn’t here to offer “life preservers” because “Boobs are holy,” “poets mad.”

Now, if that were the best religious poem in the section, I wouldn’t be considering ordering a new copy of E.E. Cummings: Complete Poems 1904-1962, because it turns out the Collected Poems I bought in ’60 or ’61 ends with poems written in 1938 or so. No, the notes introduced in

312

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old

may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it’s sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young

and may myself do nothing usefully
and love yourself so more than truly
there’s never been quite such a fool who could fail
pulling all the sky over him with one smile

obviously have much more appeal to me, NOW, though, unremarkably, perhaps, I made no note of it when I read it in college. After all, how could He Who Talks to Small Birds not love a poem with a first stanza like that? It’s obvious i’ve got to see what he wrote in the last twenty five years of his life. The Complete Poems contains twice as many poems as this Collected Poems.