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:
legthelessne sssuc kedt oward
)roUnd ingrOundIngly rouNdar(round)ounDing
— 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....
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...