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.