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


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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

10 thoughts on “spare me your teen-aged angst

  1. Why are you bothering to read poems that some poetry-challenged individual chucks at you? Would you read (and dissect) a story that has a certain appeal to a 5-year-old and then say him, "How can you possibly enjoy such dribble?! Here. I think you’ll find James Joyce far more edifying."

  2. I _knew_ you would react that way! Cummmings is worthy of my time, at least. If he were _that_ bad, I wouldn’t have taken the time. It’s not like I could get this worked up reading these peoms once or twice. I read them over and over. I suffered for this article! I suffered for the sins for e. e. cummings! You think I’d do that for just anyone?

  3. I think you may be taking E.E. Cummings and his intentions way too seriously. I don’t care what anyone says, poetry is not really a serious thing; essentially, it’s just play, and I really like the play that is going on in all of the poems you posted here. In "Maggie and Millie" the sudden break in the beat of the poem is interesting and funny (amusing-funny, I mean), especially considering that the line is about being chased by a crab that is running sideways. It’s a great line on which to fuck with the rhythm. It slows you down and forces you to consider what it is happening. It keeps the poem from being too nursery-rhyme-ish and lulling the reader with too much ear candy. Yes, the ending is a bit sentimental, but it’s a really great poem for kids. I would love to use this in a workshop with kids, and ask them, among other things, what they notice about the sound of the poem.

    "since feeling is first" has always been another favorite of mine. You can disagree with the sentiment, but I love the sudden feeling in it; the sense of being in bliss, in the moment, in that softness. "wholly to be a fool/while Spring is in the world" and "my blood approves"–I just find these to be amazing lines, especially taken with the whole of the poem.

    The one about the lady sewing I am not familiar with, but I like it, too. I like the breaking of the word "beautiful" as the poet begins talking about slowing down; I like how the words represent stitching in a visual sense; I’m curious about the compassion that the speaker seems to have for the lady, and what may have happened to her in her life to make her unbeautiful and hurried. I think you can take the sentiment in a number of different ways; I read it not as preaching, but more as a concern or a curiosity about her.

    Admittedly, there are a number of poems of Cummings that I can’t get my head around no matter how many times I read them, but there I do think there is something deeply intuitive, transcendent and dead-on about how he uses language. I’m terrible at analyzing poems in any formal way, and again, I have no academic education in this, so unfortunately all I can provide you with is my feeling of them. But I have a very different way a looking at poetry than a lot of people do. I tend to experience a poem from my body first, then my ears and my emotions. I’m generally only interested in analyzing it when I feel that I’ve been able to enter it and experience it from a place other than my head first. That’s how I enter writing a poem too, and I know well that much of what I write is not going to be beloved by one and all, especially other poets. But I’m not writing for them, anyway.

  4. Dear admin,

    Ha! Kristen agrees with me. Her observations are certainly more eloquent and insightful than mine could ever be, but her validation makes me feel comfortably smug. So there.

  5. There _is_ a reason that it matters whether Cummings is good or not: high school students. If we can only force our children to read so much poetry, are we going to push Cummings and Robert Frost to the exclusion of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams? My experience was that I read a great deal of Cummings in high school–even more than Frost. I didn’t read any Williams until college, and even then it was only "The Red Wheelbarrow." I didn’t encounter Pound or Eliot until I was in graduate school, and then only independently. I know all these men are icons and my reverence for them cliched, but the point is valid: Cummings is not nearly as good as these men, and we are all going to be dead very soon.

    I don’t see how anyone can get an emotional reaction from a poem before anything else. All emotion is based upon meaning. Meaning doesn’t have to be intellectual; a child can get meaning for its mother’s warmth. But when you are talking about words on a page: you have to translate them into thoughts. Don’t you? It is not like I see the word "curtain" and think: loneliness (or whatever). In fact, I think getting a poem to work on the level of sound and idea is the easiest part. The hardest thing, the last thing that I manage to crawl into, is the emotion.

    I agree that poetry should be fun. I think this is why Shel Silverstein was very popular: his stuff is consistently fun. And as is often the case with the silliest of things, it is profound. So why do I like Shel and not ee? Maybe just timing. I have a long and troubled history with ee. I have a long and beautiful friendship with Shel (and Claude Rains).

    I should say that I don’t like Cummings’ politics and that doesn’t help me like his work. (Obviously, I fight through this with Pound.) But let me see if I can make a case for why he is at best just okay. Unlike Silverstein, ee is not so much fun, but I’ll grant you that he can be as in "Maggie" (even though he screws it up in the end). Instead, he was popular because he presents easily understood homilies. He is really a Victorian poet in modernist clothing. As such, he is not honest. It is as though he wants everyone to think he’s hip when what he has to say is tired.

    Of course it is a matter of style. I like poems that take me to a place without telling me how to feel about it. To use your work as examples (_The Goatfish Alphabet_–recommended–available at…), this is why I like "Museum" much more than "Miss America." It isn’t that one is technically better than the other. What’s more, I think that most people think exactly the opposite of me: they want a little hand-holding. There is nothing wrong with that. My attitude comes from being something of an intellectual brat. In my own work, such hand-holding comes quite naturally, and I find it embarrassing and I try to eradicate all signs of it when I see it. So it is really about me and my expectations of poetry rather than ee as such.

    I want mystery. I want to be haunted. I want a poem to stay with me. For the writer, it is like walking a tightrope. The poem must be tidy enough to be coherent, but not so tidy that it is trivial. I think in the examples I provided, ee does trivialize his subjects. Nonetheless, I will defend to the death your right to like it. I will _not_, however, defend anyone’s right to force it on hapless high school students.

  6. "I want mystery. I want to be haunted. I want a poem to stay with me. For the writer, it is like walking a tightrope. The poem must be tidy enough to be coherent, but not so tidy that it is trivial"

    I agree. It is definitely a balancing act; between creating meaning and allowing enough breathing room that reader can consider the poem on more than one level. Sometimes it’s very clear what my poems are about and exactly how I feel about what I am writing about, and often they are more ambiguous; often I don’t even know exactly what the meaning is, but I am in the almost obsessive grip of an image or a sound that I need to get into some sort of form in order to resolve. (And "Miss America" is a very well-liked poem at readings in large part because it does spoon-feed, and it satisfies a certain grungy, vengeful need in all of us. What can I say? I didn’t set out to write it with that intent or purpose, it just happened that way. And I think it’s okay that people react to it the way they do).

    As to your point about the emotion coming from the meaning–I don’t see it that way, I guess. I get emotion from the choice of sound and meter (or lack thereof), that the poets chooses to use, before I react to or even have a handle on the meaning. Often the two are interestingly at odds. Philip Larkin does that to me).

    You complained about Frost earlier; I would suggest that you read "The Death of a Hired Man" if you haven’t already. It does require patience, but I read it last year…it took me three readings to get it, and then I just fell apart sobbing for about an hour. It still haunts me.

  7. I am just making a comment about what _I_ like. It is perfectly okay with me if others like what I consider inferior work. In fact, I often find (as you do) that what I write is not what _I_ would like. "Nothing to be done." Or perhaps: nothing better to be done. One can be far more choosy when it comes to reading than writing!

    I don’t mean to nock Frost. It is only that he is so dominant and his most famous poems are not his best.

    Finally: I think we are miscommunicating about the emotion issue. I understand what you are saying and I think the same. It is just that a certain level of meaning _must_ be present. As you know, translating words into meaning is not something that comes naturally to me. For those natural readers, it must be a different experience. Not that I am saying you are one of those.

  8. there once was a man from Nantucket…..
    [The website connected to this post has been removed as per our terms of service. You can still reach the poster at his email address if you are interested in his product. -Ed]

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