Prose from Poetry Magazine

Sub-Seuss

Reconsidering E.E. Cummings.

Young people encounter many temptations on their way to adulthood: vampires, Atlas Shrugged, Pink Floyd, the acoustic guitar. Of course, such stuff, designed to indulge one’s sense of oneself as a unique individual, must eventually be repudiated. It’s not easy, growing up.

But I had no trouble saying no to the relentlessly quirky E.E. 
Cummings. Thank the high school teacher who required me to get Cummings’s “anyone lived in a pretty how town” by heart. I labored over the poem for an afternoon, recited it to the wall, gave up. What was at stake if I misremembered the order of words like “up so floating many bells down?” Does it really matter it’s not “up so many floating bells down?” Would Cummings himself have applauded the mistake as a heartening sign of a maverick mind at play?

The poetry, I concluded, wasn’t just sub-Seuss; it was tantamount to a teaching tool of the most condescending kind: the last resort. (No, really, poetry is crazy fun was the point one was meant to 
internalize.) Cummings seemed to have been invented to convert that stubborn student the syllabus has failed to win over to verse — or, at least, to reacquaint the kid with his inner child, the id whose 
appetite for nonsense and nursery rhymes has been socialized away. When it came to Cummings (or unstructured playtime) resistance was supposed to be futile.

Randall Jarrell nearly said as much when he noted that “no one else has ever made avant-garde, experimental poems so attractive both to the general and the special reader.” He should’ve said that “no one else has ever made a formula for avant-garde, experimental poems so attractive to people who don’t actually read poetry but would like to think they can write it.” Even today, it’s enough to reject an institution or two — capitalism, grammatical English — to be mistaken for an innovator. Rebel, misspell, repeat:

v
  o
    i
     c
       e  o
              ver
(whi!tethatr?apidly
legthelessne sssuc kedt oward
black,this

)roUnd ingrOundIngly rouNdar(round)ounDing
                                                                                         ;ball
                                                                                          balll
                                                                                          ballll
                                                                                          balllll

— From No Thanks, Section Two

The message Cummings communicates here — and which langpo
types and concrete poets continue to internalize — is remarkably 
unambiguous: words are toy blocks, and poems, child’s play. No one else has made making it new look so easy.

But Cummings’s poems themselves were only superficially “new.” Beneath the tattoo-thin signifiers of edginess — those lowercase i’s, those words run together —  flutters the heart of a romantic. (Is there a correlation between typographically arresting poetry and emotional arrestedness?) He fancies himself an individual among masses, finds the church ladies have “furnished souls,” opposes war. He’s far more self-righteous, this romantic, than any soldier or gossip — and far deadlier: he’s a teenager armed with a journal.

Recording his thoughts about sex or the female body, however, Cummings’s speaker is less a teenager than a child trapped in a man’s body, which is to say a man-child: a boob blinking at a pair of  breasts. In poem after poem, he can’t help but notice such curiosities as “sticking out breasts” and “uttering tits” and “bragging breasts” and “ugly nipples squirming in pretty wrath” and breasts that are “firmlysquirmy with a slight jounce” and “wise breasts half-grown.” (Hands off, ladies! He’s spoken for.) And when he shifts his attention to other parts of the beloved — and, worse, gropes for only the weirdest words to describe them — the boob makes an ass of himself:

              i bite on the eyes’ brittle crust
(only feeling the belly’s merry thrust
Boost my huge passion like a business

and the Y her legs panting as they press

proffers its omelet of fluffy lust)

How does one excuse such lines? Is it that you can’t write a poem without breaking some eggs? That you can’t make it new without making a mess?

boys w!ll be boyss, i guess....

Originally Published: January 2nd, 2013

Jason Guriel is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in such influential publications as Poetry, Slate, Reader's Digest, The Walrus, Parnassus, Canadian Notes & Queries, The New Criterion, and PN Review. His poetry has been anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and in 2007, he was...

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  1. January 6, 2013
     Bob Grumman

    Excellent example of the antipathy to poetry that does
    things not widely done fifty or more years ago, as the
    poetry of Cummings still does (at its best, which Guriel
    makes sure not to quote, probably because incapable of
    recognizing it) that POETRY has done more than any other
    American publication to promote for twenty years or more.

  2. January 14, 2013
     Jim Powell

    At his best Cummings is often a satirist, and evidently his satires are still
    too hot to handle for the likes of Jason Guriel. Instead of his flaccid
    selections, try "Poem, Or Beauty Hurts Mr. Vinyl," "i sing of Olaf", "flotsam
    and jetsam," "the Noster was a ship of swant," "as freedom is a
    breakfastfood," "my father moved through dooms of love," "plato told",
    "pity this busy monster," and numerous others.

  3. January 15, 2013
     Mark Dunn

    A salient line from "anyone lives in a pretty how town": "...and down they forgot as up they grew..."

  4. January 15, 2013
     Christopher Amati

    Another nobody notches his belt with an easy, log-dead target. Horsesh+t. Cummings bucked trends and critics eighty years ago and, long-dead, must continue. He didnt write painfully self-absorbed writers-workshop poetry so he can't be any good. No wonder no one reads poetry any more.

  5. January 16, 2013
     Thomas DeFreitas

    I agree with the comments above. Cummings' work speaks for
    itself, stands for itself, and survives. Mr Guriel's
    snark seems a small and feeble thing compared to the
    quietly luminous splendor of EEC at his best.

  6. January 22, 2013
     Byron Branham

    Hack.

  7. January 24, 2013
     Baltimore Poet

    This essay, rather than criticizing cummings' work as could be done, brings up to my mind the curious case of POETRY magazine and foundation and what, is it, they are doing?

    When POETRY got its donation a few years back, the foundation president sent out a letter bemoaning poetry's detachment from the mainstream culture. However the magazine itself favors academic poets and more increasingly the disjunctive / language poetry movement. It just seems a disconnect, taste aside. Likewise here, POETRY claims to be promoting poetry and then supports a section of essays called "antagonisms." Why the hostility?

    Now, this might have been an interesting idea if these essays had something to say. I mean, if I imagined myself T.S. Eliot, and in fact replaced his capacious mind with maybe just his conclusions about literature, I could say something like: e.e. cummings, an innovator no doubt, fails to articulate the broad cultural center of culture that is the work of our greatest poets ("What Is a Classic?" T.S. Eliot). Now, I don't even agree with that statement. Maybe ironically, "does anyone live in a pretty how town" does that classic work. Maybe, likely, Eliot himself would agree. I am just presenting a 'sample argument'. However instead of argument and idea, POETRY present this dashed off essay and also the dashed off essay on Dylan Thomas. (I've read only these two). These essays say nothing to readers of experience. They may be useful for fourteen year olds.

    Sorry for the long-winded comment, but it all reminds me of my undergraduate years as an English major (at first). I was stunned by how little many other English majors had read. For me, English was a passion. It still is. For most others, they read what was assigned in high school and college. These essays at POETRY feel (but maybe not are) written by the latter types. POETRY should promote passion and real criticism. For criticism, see essays by T.S. Eliot, George Orwell, Seamus Heaney, Joseph Brodsky, Adrienne Rich (bless you), Louise Gluck's one book, and Robert Pinksy . . . to name a few. . . .

    In the long run, it is better to be positive than to be here online with raised eyebrows and gnashed teeth. So....

  8. January 26, 2013
     Paul J. Marasa

    Look: of course cummings can make one's eyes roll, but I'll admit that every once in a while I'm in the mood for a fluffy lust omelet.

    (And seriously, how are cummings' cockeyed conceits any more groan-worthy than Donne's fleas n compasses? Just stand back and let 'em all be.)

  9. January 27, 2013
     Glenn Beaver

    I enjoyed Mr Guriel's piece, thought he presented some of e.e. cummings' work nicely. Perhaps I'm of a simpler mind, but wordplay is art to me. So too are some pictures painted with words yummy.

  10. January 28, 2013
     Matthew Tippett

    Refreshing yes, the way he can, awaken emotion still. My
    love of letters stands to many echoes from the past. The
    lack of self in expressing one's self rarely is completed
    without evidence, save the imagists.

  11. January 29, 2013
     Kristie Dutra

    "He should’ve said that 'no one else has ever made a formula for
    avant-garde, experimental poems so attractive to people who don’t
    actually read poetry but would like to think they can write it.' Even
    today, it’s enough to reject an institution or two — capitalism,
    grammatical English — to be mistaken for an innovator."

    I want to focus on this part of the essay because it seems this is the
    crux of the issue for Guriel. If he's bitter, the reason for his bitterness
    can be boiled down to this paragraph. If he does fly off the handle
    with that bitterness in other parts of the essay, that's still no reason to
    discount the heart of the observation. Perhaps Guriel's distaste for
    cummings has nothing to do with cummings's poetry itself. I can
    make a guess based on my own experiences with high school and
    intro poetry classes.

    Too often, rebels like cummings ARE used as a lure to get people
    interested in poetry. The problem is that a writer cannot hope to
    make great rule-breaking poetry unless s/he understands (and uses,
    and manipulates) the conventional rules first. Personally, I also find it
    annoying when new writers copy cummings's tactics and tout their
    own unoriginal misspellings as groundbreaking poetry.

    I think Guriel's opinion of cummings is clouded by his distaste for the
    hubris of inexperienced, would-be writers. It's an embarrassing
    phase, but a lot of us go through it (though not Guriel, apparently!).
    Let cummings's work stand on its own, unaffected by our disdain for
    the way teenagers tend to hijack it before they know any better.

  12. February 5, 2013
     Ambrose Rose

    "Even today, it’s enough to reject an institution or two — capitalism, grammatical English — to be mistaken for an innovator." In Ange Mlinko’s essay on Elizabeth Bishop, her "friend" says, "A common enemy doesn’t always make one friends." Not always, perhaps, but often enough.

  13. May 22, 2013
     Samara

    Wow thank you for this.

    I literally laughed out loud/ groaned at the ending.
    Absolutely priceless.

  14. June 26, 2013
     Chris

    I find the title of this piece rather misleading. There seems to be no mention whatsoever of Dr. Theodor Seuss Geisel, only impotent complaints about a dead poet. If I stretch my own feeble imagination, I can suspect that Mr. Guriel intended to draw a parallel between Dr. Seuss's varied and pleasant wordplay with Mr. Cummings's unusual craft. However, I find that Mr. Guriel attempts to insult not one but both of these accomplished writers, and so I must admit I am disappointed in the article.

  15. September 12, 2013
     AR

    Baltimore Poet,

    Is it good to love poetry?

    Or to love good poetry?

    Or to love the good in poetry?

    If it's good to love poetry simply, then there ought to
    be no antagonisms toward any who press pen to paper or
    finger to keyboard.

    If it's good to love good poetry (or good poets) then
    the more antagonisms we have the more discerning we will
    be known to be.

    But if we love the good in poetry then we will find both
    faults and virtues, and that very often Emperor Cummings
    as well as Emperor Pound and others are regrettably
    naked. Of course, by the same token we'll be delighted
    to discover any ornament or scrap of coverage they may
    happen to have about their persons.

    Me for the last.