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The Poetry of E.E. Cummings

By Jacqueline Schaalje

cummings

E.E. Cummings was an American poet who lived from 1894 to 1962. He received an MA from Harvard University. During WW I (The First World War) he was sent to Europe, but he was interned (imprisoned as a soldier) for a long time. After the war he became associated with modernist art in Europe, where he kept travelling a lot. Inspired by the painter Pablo Picasso’s work and other modernists, his poetry experimented, sometimes wildly, with form, punctuation and even new syntax (= construction and rules of the language). His best poems sound as if the poet invented language himself; they sound fresh. Cummings’s language is not too complicated, and his choice of subjects is also pretty straightforward. His most beloved poems are about love & sex, spring, the role of humanity in the universe, war and death. He is still one of the most popular American poets.

Here’s an example of a poem of his that experiments with typography. Looks great, doesn’t it?

cummings2

Let’s read another poem:  

who knows if the moon’s
a balloon,coming out of a keen city
in the sky–filled with pretty people?
(and if you and I should

get into it,if they
should take me and take you into their balloon,
why then
we’d go up higher with all the pretty people

than houses and steeples and clouds:
go sailing
away and away sailing into a keen
city which nobody’s ever visited,where

always
it’s
Spring)and everyone’s
in love and flowers pick themselves

First of all, the commas and brackets () without spaces in this poem are not a mistake. That is how Cummings liked it. (Normally, you need a space after a punctuation mark.)

I don’t think you need much help to understand this poem — if it’s possible to completely understand it. Poems don’t always need to be understood, you see. You can also read them simply because they sound fun, and/or they make you feel certain emotions or make you think of interesting things.

So in this case, I can only speak for myself. This poem makes me think of new love, being young, travelling and dreams. Sounds like a good idea to escape to the moon with lots of pretty people. The poet doesn’t always believe that an enjoyable life can be found on earth, so he fantasizes about escaping in a balloon to the Land of Spring. It’s more fun there. In the land of Spring “everyone’s/ in love and flowers pick themselves.” Cummings also speaks in another famous poem (“pity this busy monster, manunkind”) about escaping our dreary planet, where everything has been spoilt by man. The last lines go like this: “listen: there’s a hell/ of a good universe next door; let’s go.”

There may be some new words for you in this poem:

Line 2: keen = fine, sharp.

Line 9: steeple = a pointy tower.

Following is another example of Cummings’s cute or interesting or annoying (you decide) typography:

cummings3

Right. Ready for Poem number 2?

Or actually no. 4, if you include the pictures.

i like my body when it is with your
body. It is so quite a new thing.
Muscles better and nerves more.
i like your body. i like what it does,
i like its hows. i like to feel the spine
of your body and its bones, and the trembling
-firm-smooth ness and which I will
again and again and again
kiss, i like kissing this and that of you,
i like, slowly stroking the, shocking fuzz
of your electric fur, and what-is-it comes
over parting flesh…And eyes big love-crumbs,

and possibly i like the thrill
of under me you quite so new

Well, what can I tell you about this poem that you don’t already know yourself? It does a brilliant job of describing the excitement of love. Either the speaker in the poem is young and this is one of his first sexual experiences (Line 2: “It is so quite a new thing.)” Or the speaker is with a partner who is new to him (see the last lines: i like the thrill/ of under me you quite so new).” It doesn’t really matter.

There is a little bit of sentimentality in this poem in the eyes that are “big love-crumbs.” You know what crumbs are, right? Like bread crumbs. Not the greatest image. Also the line “again and again and again” and “kiss” on the next line isn’t terribly interesting, in my view.

These were the so-so things.

Now I’ll show you some things that I think are neat.

Holding your breath

The opening: “i like my body when it is with your
body.”

Because the second word “body” is on the next line there is a pause. Whilst waiting, your mind is sort of thinking of a word or phrase that will come next. And then? Surprise? Not really. Instead of something really wild and unexpected, there is the prosaic (= regular) “body.” But it’s not a disappointment. On the contrary, the poet gets all excited about this “ordinary” body. So in this sense, the poem’s structure fits the message: the body of his partner is something so thrilling, that the ordinary becomes unexpected.

Bad grammar

Another line that I like a lot is the third one: “Muscles better and nerves more.”

Obviously this is not a good English sentence. I’ve taught you that English sentences should always have a subject and a verb. Well, here there is no verb! The impression of this verb-less phrase is of childish wonder; an excited child would forget to put verbs in his sentence. By the way, “nerves more” is bad English also because the syntax is wrong. One ought to say: more nerves. It’s like someone is saying this who is overwhelmed by the muscles and nerves in the new body, and so they say this first. Next, they don’t know what to say exactly about the muscles and nerves. “Better” and “more” are simple, direct and greedy words to use. All of which fit the context.

Trembling

Trembling and shaking from excitement is something you recognize from your own sexual experiences, I suspect. It’s nice that “the trembling/ -firm-smooth ness” is shown in the poem by the words trembling and shaking (lines 6 and 7). Note the effective line break again.

The end of the first stanza leads the speaker and his lover to the highpoint of their lovemaking. The partner is literally opening up: “and what-is-it comes/ over parting flesh.” Parting flesh can mean opening flesh, but also saying goodbye. However much the lovers are now together, and staring in each other’s lovestruck eyes, they also pull back a little into their own worlds. However, this theme is not developed further.

Bad syntax again

The last lines: “and possibly i like the thrill/ of under me you quite so new” has a bad case of grammar again in “under me you quite so new.” The word order makes it bad English. But it sounds like the confusion of a new discovery.

By the way, there are also a number of exciting (near-) rhymes in the poem. The lines mostly rhyme in unexpected places. Like “will” – “thrill,” “thing” – “trembling,” and “comes” – “crumbs.”

In case you’d like to read more E.E. Cummings poems, here is a booklet with 100 of his poems.

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