on 25 February 2005
Reviewing E. E. Cummings' poetry is challenging due to the complexity of line and phrase construction employed by Mr Cummings. Instead, consider what it is: A short collection of poetry by one of the most influential English language poets of the last 50 years. This, for me, was enough to by "95 Poems."
The poems have no titles except for numbers. While this might dismiss the need for a table of contents, it makes referencing a poem here difficult. Luckily, the publishers chose to include first lines in the contents. High school students will find "57" ("old age sticks"), the first Cummings' poem most us encounter. That said, "59" (or should I say number 59?) is my favorite.
when any mortal(even the most odd)
can justify the ways of man to God
i'll think it strange that normal mortals can
not justify the ways of God to man
Readers newly introduced to Cummings' groundbreaking style might find him hard to read. For me, it works for most of his poems. It fails occasionally, but this may be more as a result of my ignorance rather than Cummings' poetic inadequacies. Allowing the unique use of punctuation and line breaks to become like notes in a score, things came together for me, and this poetry became less obtuse. With each rereading, understanding Cummings becomes like learning to listen through an accent.
I fully recommend "95 Poems" by E. E. Cummings.
The poetry of ee cummings is something that most Americans gain exposure to during secondary school (and very rarely in the education of those outside America) -- he is often seen as an acceptable example of one who broke the rules -- rules, the teacher will often hasten to add, which must be mastered before they can be acceptably broken.
Yet this is not what ee cummings would hope had come of his legacy. In reading his poetry in book, 95 Poems, a new vision begins to emerge of a real maverick--not someone who wanted to break the rules, but someone who eschewed the idea of rules so completely that breaking them was beyond the question, for that would have to recognise the value of the rules.
There are some classic examples of cummings following convention but still breaking rules--adhering to rhyme and meter, yet very original. The poem 'maggie and milly and molly and may' shows this, structured yet new.
Or, perhaps no longer that original. Unfortunately, ee cummings has become a conventional unconventionality. He was a success at being different--at one point only cummings and Frost, New Englanders both, with very different vines growing on the respective sides of their fence, were able to make a living solely from their writing while concentrating on poetry.
Some of his poetry is best meant to be read aloud, as all good poetry ultimately finds its best expression not on the lifeless page but in the spirited, feeling telling. There is an incredible sense -- for example, the poem 'i am a little church (no great cathedral)' has a strength read aloud that it somehow misses being silent on the page.
Some of the cummings poetry, however, is simplicity and verges on the concrete. These sometimes resort to cleverness that might have been genius of observation at the time but unfortunately due to overexposure now just seem an elementary type of cleverness. Of course, simplicity is so often overlooked, that when it is seen, we often react not as we should.
Arrangement on the page is so critical to cummings perception of how things must be that the lastest editions of his poetry are put in typewriter typeset (the way he composed and envisioned his poetry). The medium is part of the message, he might have said.
Try to read cummings with a new eye, and look for that which would have been shocking to the more standard and rule-bound Cambridge soul.