“E. E. Cummings: Complete Poems, 1904-1962,” edited by George James Firmage (Liveright Classics/W.W. Norton, 1,136 pages, $50)
Consider the typical high school literature anthology from, say, a couple of generations ago. You open the dog-eared tome at random and flip through page after page of poems penned in high-minded iambic pentameter, the birthright of Anglo-American verse.
Each day’s lesson brings you a satchel full of stuffy sonnets, a grocery cart of crippling couplets – all of which spell a certain doom for the student idling at his desk: the overpowering urge to sleep.
For those lucky enough to stay awake, the moral you take away from Milton, Dryden or Pope turns out to be that Poetry Is Important, with a capital “I,” in the same way that an ancient Greek statue is important: a solid, stolid, chalky monument to someone’s idea of a peak experience in Western civilization.
And so it goes.
Now, imagine approaching poetry as a teenager in 1971. The first poem you read in your English class’ textbook begins:
spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little
whistles far and wee
and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s
when the world is puddle-wonderful
And the next one:
who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
In a flash, the poems jolt you out of your dogmatic slumber.
The lines dance and writhe, alive with electricity and innovation, fueled by a fractured typography, by a short-fused syntax. New words burst onto the page like particles colliding in a physics experiment. The poem’s shape mimics what it says; it builds and breaks with an unpredictable spontaneity and delight, with abandon.
Congratulations. You have just been baptized into the poetic world of E. E. Cummings, and you’ll never steer clear of poetry again.
Instead, you’ll jump at the chance to take part in the making of each poem, to decode its cryptic message tangled in a spider’s web of type, to re-create the swoosh of letters sweeping down the page.
That, at least, was my experience 42 years ago, and I owe Cummings a lifetime of gratitude for showing me what modern poetry can do in the hands of a nonconformist master.
Here was the artistry of a high-wire walker working without a net. Here was poetry that needed you to make its magic happen. Here was poetry that never held its breath.
And as Liveright Classics’ newly reissued volume of Cummings’ complete poems so forcefully shows, once you invoke his world of wonder, glee and eternal longing for spring, you have found a poetry that never grows old.
You have also found a brick of a book containing all Cummings’ published poems from 1904-1962 – revised, corrected and expanded from the first edition of 1972. Although the price tag may be daunting, this behemoth volume will prove essential to any poetry lover’s library.
There are many reasons for praising Cummings: his deeply lyrical love poems; his leitmotifs of joy, germination and growth; his late-in-life return to a type of transcendentalist piety; his lower-case “i” that makes his poetic persona the perpetual outsider; his championing of nature over “civilization”; his advocacy of the individual above the herd.
But what strikes me as the most important aspect of this bounty of poems is how they take their cue from the visual arts, particularly the painters in post-World War I France.
Like many Americans, Cummings attended the Armory Show of Cubism and Futurism in 1913 in New York City, and had the foundations of his aesthetic world shaken. Later assigned to France as an ambulance driver, he gravitated toward Paris after the war, and encountered Cubism again head-on. Following Picasso’s lead, he was inspired to dismantle language to its roots, then reassemble it in daring, unexpected ways.
Yet the surprising thing to me – looking at the collection as a whole – is how many of the poems take dyed-in-the-wool subject matter as their theme, particularly the Nature of the Romantics in Cummings’ “O sweet spontaneous earth.”
This unorthodox combination of the traditional with the startlingly new led fellow poet Randall Jarrell to declare that “No one has ever made avant-garde, experimental poems so attractive to both the general and the special reader.”
Whichever camp you fall into, I can guarantee one thing: Work your way through the hundreds of magical poems gathered in this beautiful, new volume, and you’ll never worry about falling asleep at your desk again. And that is important.