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”:
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”:
Or as Cummings might have written
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:
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:
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