spare me your teen-aged angst

My friend Andrea and I were discussing self-consciously intellectual writers and so naturally E. E. Cummings came up. We agreed that he mostly sucked, but she promised to send me two poems that she thought were okay.

As a kind of header, but perhaps more of a challenge, she wrote, “Life’s not a paragraph And death i think is no parenthesis.” That was curious, so I went and looked it up and found that it was from Cummings’ poem “since feeling is first”:

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a far better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don’t cry
–the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids’ flutter which says

we are for eachother: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life’s not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis

I like the word play and images in this poem. And unusually for Cummings, the rhythm is really interesting—more what we expect from the much more talented William Carlos Williams. That’s as far as it goes, however. The content of the poem is—as usual—really troubling.

It seems that Cummings never really made it out of adolescence. Here, although he does it with more style, he says nothing more than Joyce Kilmer did in his poem “Trees”:

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

Or as Cummings might have written

when I see your eyelids flutter
i throw my pen down in the gutter.

It isn’t just that this poem indicates a romantic outlook that Jane Austen was parodying over a hundred years earlier in Sense and Sensibility; the poem is preachy. This is what most defines Cummings’ work. He is always telling us—as only a youth can—about the secret of the Good Life that only he possesses.

The two poems Andrea sent me are just like this. Here is the first:

do the fingers of the little
(once beautiful)
(sitting sewing this fine morning)
instead of dancing
(i wonder)
is she possibly a
ware that life
(who never grows old)
is always beau
tiful and that nobody beau

It does have the compelling ending, “nobody beautiful ever hurries.” But as I think is clear in that line itself, he pushing a romantic notion of existence a lot harder than it can bear. It has other problems, but I doubt it is necessary to go into them.

The second poem is “maggie and milly and molly and may.” It deserves a full hearing:

maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach (to play one day)

and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles,and

milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;

and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and

may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

The rhythmic structure of this is maddening. It is kind of iambic pentameter, but frustratingly not. I really don’t know how to “read” it. This is not a criticism—at least not of Cummings. I don’t doubt that he is doing just what he intends. This is also true with the difficult assonantal scheme. Am I supposed to read “were” in the third stanza as “war”? I don’t suppose it matters.

What does matter is that Cummings is again here to delight us with another tired insight. This time: the world is what you make it. Wow! Where are the neo-fascist teenagers of today? No wonder our lives are so devoid of Truth and Beau