WRITERS WHO AREN'T CRAP #1: EE CUMMINGS
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So much of my life is spent talking about stuff I don’t like. My online world is dominated by fighting antisemitism. My day job as a writer has historically seen me employed to engage with the world of politics, showbiz and celebrity - a universe of troubled or malevolent people where the remit always petitioned for an acid-tongued and cynical approach.
My goal now is to write about things I like rather than engage critically with things that are shit.
I guess one of the main things I like is poetry. So I am going to occasionally write about a poet I love. In the process, maybe you’ll discover a writer who grabs you and whose work enhances your time on earth even by a couple of percent; which sounds small but I think is actually an awesome growth on the graph of one’s happiness. You only need your happiness increased by a percent here and there and then bingo - before you know it you’ve got a tolerable life - which is only two percent away from being a good life.
A final word: I’ll always write from the perspective of a fanboy. I’ll try not to be dry and academic, although I think anyone who likes these posts won’t mind if I get technical on occasion. When I unpack a particular technical flourish I’ll do so in relation to how much of a buzz it gives me - not dissimilar to how one might rave about a singer hitting an awesome note; an athlete executing a moment of thrilling grace; or a monkey throwing shit at someone at the zoo.
So poetry is my favourite artform. In my opinion, if you want to write well, (including comedy), you should read poetry. Not only will it teach you how to pack in a vortex of imagery and emotion, poetry picks up where rational language hits a brick wall and can go no further in describing human experiences and intuitions that are difficult to dissect. To express them one has to create what TS Eliot called an “objective correlative” - a piece of art that correlates to the intangible phenomenon and serves as its substitute. Just like a shadow is not the actual man but shows us he exists, poetry can cast the shadow of a soul onto a blank page. These shadows can last a long time and provide soft, living fossils of the hopes, dreams, fears, ecstasies and emotion of people and civilisations. Today we’re gonna look at the American poet EE Cummings, who isn’t crap.
EE Cummings stands alone. The visual layout of his poems are idiosyncratic and completely unique. The rhythms are delicious and unpredictable. He physically breaks apart words and sentences and reassembles them in ways that generate fresh contact with a world we’ve become over-habituated with. The subjects and feelings are frequently ones no person would even think to try and capture. They have the allure of moments experienced whilst staring half-consciously into space. They are dazed reveries, visions and micro-raptures.
His most famous poem is from a small sequence titled Chansons Innocentes (Innocent Songs). The poem is known as, “in Just-”
The poem deserves to be his hit. It’s superb. The balloonman has got just the right amount of other-wordliness to make him a little bit creepy and magical. The kids run to him like some kind of pied-piper. His motion: crooked, “old”, “lame”, “goat-footed”, fawn-like, contrasts with the youthful grace of the kids. Yet within the musicality of the poem their movements dance together as the sound of his whistle sings far and wee.
The repetitions make the poem anthemic. Cummings manages to create verses and choruses within this tiniest of poems by exploiting your musical memory - training you to feel the dance of his words and learn the steps - even if you’re not consciously aware it’s happening. “Whistles far and wee” is one micro-chorus that appears three times in three different physical presentations - lending it fresh vitality each time. Take a look. I’ve erased all the words except for those bits:
“When the world is” provides another chorus. It appears twice. I’ve erased everything but that micro-refrain below:
In addition to the changing visual presentation, new words are inserted into the refrain in order to keep things fresh and sprightly - like spring itself. “Mud-luscious” has become “puddle-wonderful.” After the familiar set up, these different compound words land on the same beat. They both relate to rain and the wetness of spring. Their first syllables rhyme, with mud becoming pud. Furthermore, the word puddle ends with an L sound that feels as if it’s about to launch into the word luscious that had followed mud:
when the word is “mud-LU—”
when the world is “pudd-LE—”
Instead of luscious, the L in puddle leaps into the word: wonderful. We were taught to expect all these sounds and our hunger for symmetry was satiated. As a result we unconsciously feel the word, mud, even though it has been replaced with the new word, puddle. The new and the old exist at the same time. New sounds have old echoes. Mud has been invisibly packaged inside the word puddle because of the expectations and the metronome Cummings set ticking within us. It’s kind of cool because mud is literally inside a puddle in real life, as anyone who’s stepped in one will attest.
Let’s quickly check out now the structural architecture of these refrains and how they interact. I’ve colour-coded and annotated it:
There is so much more linguistic slipping and sliding taking place throughout this poem. Find some things yourself. The above examples I give are to show how language can be used to excite feelings and emotions too difficult to dissect in the moment. An endless complexity occurs so quickly that it can create an intoxicating vortex of feeling. A single word can contain a thousand relics, fossils, echoes, images, emotions, meanings, associations and sounds. These words interact with other words which also have thousands of echoes. Before you know it, language has the capacity to slip into the smallest cracks of consciousness and evoke the experiences I spoke about earlier which exist beyond the utility of rational speech.
Another thing you might notice in the poem is the way your eye physically moves across the page. Let me put it here so you don’t have to scroll back up:
Look how Cummings has physically arranged the words on the page. He is physically controlling you. He is staggering your eye movement. He is dictating the pace that you read and therefore the pace that you comprehend, feel and even breathe. Sometimes he accelerates your senses by compacting words together, as when he names the children eddieandbill and bettyandisbel sprinting towards the balloon man. At other times, words are separated by gaps or new paragraphs and you have to pause, leap, lurch, jump forwards, backwards or step down to the next. You could say it evokes the rhythmic sensation of the kids engaged in their games of hopscotch, jump-rope and landing with a splash into puddles. You could say it evokes the disorder and excitment of a man with balloons suddenly appearing on the scene.
“in Just-” always gets the attention but the “hist whist” poem that comes next is a brilliant follow up salvo. It seems obvious Cummings wrote them in quick succesion and was channelling the same reservoir of feeling. There’s the return of a childlike landscape; there are characters who possess a thrilling, other-worldly creepiness; and then there’s the imagery of feet, footsteps and motion:
How cool are the devil, the mouse, the toad and the witch woman? This doesn’t sound very academic but rather than any premeditated structure or pattern existing, Cummings seems to be mucking around in the moment, making small localised moments of rhythm and word-play that simply give way to the next sequence of mucking around. It’s like a song-game played by children. I like the wheeEEE that arrives following the appearance of witches, goblins and devils. It makes me think of the ancient Greek tragedy, The Eumenides, by Aeschylus. In this play the Eumenides, (or The Furies), are Gods of vengeance who scream “Aiiieee!” at the end of some of their utterances:
“You, you younger gods!—
You have ridden down
The ancient laws, wrenched them from my grasp—
And I, robbed of my birthright, suffering, great with wrath,
I loose my poison over the soil, aieee!”
I guess scary monsters lunging at you with a sudden scream is a universally thrilling BOO! moment.
In Just Spring and Hist Wist are from a collection called Tulips & Chimneys. It’s easily available. Cummings is one of the most audaciously creative people I think the arts have ever produced. As a general rule I’d say his poems provide fleeting sensations. They’re like words whorled in water rather than chisselled in stone. They’re momentary mind-sparks that frazzle quickly then disappear. Sometimes a flash of clarity emerges from the soft haze of ambient imagery. But even when comprehension eludes us within his poems - that’s absolutely fine. It doesn’t matter that we can’t define the meaning of a poem. When Cummings splits open a word its guts explode all over the page. It’s difficult to explain what we’re seeing because we’re inside the explosion. The best we can do is to say there’s a loud bang, a flash of colour and it makes us feel something. Surely that is an enjoyable experience and an end in itself?
If this is enough poetry for you for now, take a break. Come back later to take a look at the poems below. Or you can continue now if you’re feeling in the zone. Also - please don’t forget to subscribe to this newsletter. Paid subscribers are obviously my heroes who inspire greater dedication to this account - but all followers are welcome.
Okay, let’s look at some other styles Cumming’s deploys, cause he’s a talent of dynamic ability…
Occasionally Cummings writes a poem that makes use of a dramatic monologue. That is, we have a character speaking. He’s so good at this. You really feel the soul and personality of his speakers. Here’s a poem that’s very easy to comprehend, whilst still being puckish and playful. It’s written phonetically in a kind of hammy, New York accent, so for the word “goil” read “girl”, and for “coitnly” read “certainly”:
You can feel the speaker’s sincere captivation with Jimmy’s girl. The way her dancing makes his heart flutter comes alive in the dancing cadence of the poem’s rhythm. The one, two, three repetitious beats of “goil, goil, goil”, “shake, shake, shake”, “gurl, gurl, gurl” and “Sal, Sal Sal” are musically pounding and have the boom, boom, boom of a heart beating. With each of these repetitions our eyes step down to the right, then return to the margin, then step down to the right again - like Jimmie’s girl spinning round and round. The rhythm of this poem is so easy to follow. It aids comprehenson, creates an unobstructed reading experience, and lends focus to the utter clarity of vision that the speaker has in terms of how amazing Jimmy’s girl is. The quick flow allows a rush of excitement to be generated. Our brain, breath and heartbeat accelerate with the words. Nothing snags or slows down the reading experience - just as nothing snags or slows down the twists and twirls of Jimmy’s girl. In this respect the form of the poem IS the emotion of the poem. You don’t have to know the following to enjoy the poem, but Cummings invites a deeper dig if you want to know who the speaker is referencing when he says, “talk about your Salomes”. Salome was the biblical King Herod’s daughter. Her dancing was so captivating at one particular banquet that her dad said she could have anything she wanted. She asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter - and John’s head was swiftly cut off and brought in around the same time as coffee and some After Eight Mints.
You can dip in anywhere in any of Cummings’ books and find amazing moments. Here’s one:
It’s a description of the sky as a passing train billows steam. Some of the words are broken into pieces and float away from each other. Words in general have physical separateness from other words. This recreates the expansiveness of the sky and the train’s smoke dissipating into the atmosphere. The words are free and air-like, untethered from any regular structure on the page. Freeing the words from the density of traditional line formatting softens the descriptions of the colours and lends them softer hues. As we reach the end of the poem we realise that the words have been laid out on the page to look like smoke billowing from the spout of a locomotive and rising into the sky. It’s fantastic. Here’s how cummings could have written the poem:
The sky was candy-luminous. Edible. Spry pinks, shy lemons, greens, cool chocolates. Under: a locomotive spouting violets.
Can you see how much has been lost? The words are the same but the feeling and texture has been tediously vandalised by changing the physical relationship between the words on the page. My version is dense and constricted. There is no motion or dance. The words are forced to conform and follow the traditional path taken by sentences. But cummings allows his words to breathe. Their freedom creates a corresponding state of liberation in our minds. It’s frustrating when people say poetry is meant to be read allowed. The above is an extreme example of why this isn’t true and why the visual nature of words is important. Poetry can be private and quiet. It doesn’t have to be performative. It has music without needing to make a sound.
Let me finish on this last poem I grabbed at random:
I mean, come on, for me it’s all about this line: these leaves are Thingish with moondrool. What a delicious line to read. (Or say aloud). It’s a showstopping line that, (to my mind), echoes Robert Frost’s famous line in the poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”. Let’s look at the lines together:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep
These leaves are Thingish with moondrool
Both scenes are set in the woods at night and carry a spirit of entrancing wonder. The opening words are the prepositions The and These. The second words are the nouns woods and leaves. The third word is the linking verb “are”. The fourth word is an adjective describing the previous word. Both lines have the same eight syllables. And they each make use of double vowel sounds, (called dipthongs). Eg. woods, moon, drool, deep.
Was cummings channelling this classic Robert Frost line? Who knows. Perhaps those eight syllables carry an inherent magic that both poets intuitively gravitated to in order to create a sense of wonder - just like a minor chord carries inherent melancholy a composer will gravitate towards in music.
Anyway. That’s that. EE Cummings. He’s not crap. Hope you enjoyed my rambling. If you did, please subscribe and share this substack with other people. And tell me what you think about these poems and ee cummings. What other writers would you like to see featured?