A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feelings through words.
This may sound easy. It isn’t.A lot of people think or believe or know they feel — but that’s thinking or believing or knowing; not feeling. And poetry is feeling — not knowing or believing or thinking.Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”
e. e. cummings
Cumming mystique as a poet was both the reason for his success and the cause of the inconsistency with which some of his poems have aged. Some of Cummings published and unpublished work reads more like shear gibberish than the highly nuanced and stylized literature that is among his best. Even Edna St. Vincent Millay, at the height of her popularity on powers, wrote on his behalf the following for the Guggenheim Fellowship that he was eventually awarded in 1933;
“[I]f he prints and offers for sale poetry which he is quite content should be, after hours of sweating concentration, inexplicable from any point of view to a person as intelligent as myself, then he does so with a motive which is frivolous from the point of view of art, and should not be helped or encouraged by any serious person or group of persons… there is fine writing and powerful writing (as well as some of the most pompous nonsense I ever let slip to the floor with a wide yawn)… What I propose, then, is this: that you give Mr. Cummings enough rope. He may hang himself; or he may lasso a unicorn.”Edna St. Vincent Millay
What I find funny about Millay’s assessment is both sides of the coin she presents are true. Cummings lassoed a unicorn more than once with his poems that touch me, electrify me. However, the poems that I most enjoy might not be yours, so brilliance is relative in the eye of the reader. But in reading Cummings entire collected works, he also wrote a lot of clunkers, truly forgettable poems that are utterly unfathomable.
In truth, even with my most favorite poets, the actual poems of theirs that I enjoy is a tiny subset of their entire lifetime of work. Take Wallace Stevens or William Carlos Williams for example. I don’t like the vast majority of their work, particularly some of their most famous poems, that everyone else gushes over. I absolutely detest William Carlos Williams The Red Wheelbarrow, one of the most anthologized poems written in the 20th century;
so much dependsupona red wheelbarrowglazed with rainwaterbeside the whitechickensWilliam Carlos Williams, The Red Wheelbarrow
There is absolutely nothing going on for me in that poem. I don’t find it funny, or interesting. It’s not poetry in my opinion, there are no ideas passed from Williams’ words to me. But there are plenty of other things William Carlos Williams wrote that I find intriguing and brilliant. I think for even the most gifted poet, to write 50 great poems, you have to write 500 or maybe even 5,000. And maybe you have to surround your greatness with a plethora of mediocrity or even stupidity so that when a reader finds a great one, (to them), it stands out.
It could be that the only poets that bat a high average of brilliance are those that didn’t write very many; Keats for example. If Keats had written until he was 80, likely we would think differently about him, as there would be a body of poetry during his inevitable dry spell that might not reflect very kindly upon him in the mirror of time. But he died young and brilliant, which is partly the cause of his unsullied reputation. Apparently the key to immorality as an artist is a tragic, untimely death.
A reader in a previous post, shared a great comment, that Cummings “star has fallen” out of favor in the past 20 years, partly because of his use of terms that would be considered racist today in a few of his poems. I am not going to be an apologist. Cummings words are there for all to judge if you want to find the literary criticism that is advocating ghosting Cummings. I am not in that camp. I don’t think we should judge Cummings, or any other artist on their worst work, particularly when it is not aligned with his entire body of work. A more troubling truth about Cummings, expressed not in his poetry, but in his personal correspondence, is antisemitism, despite many personal friendships with Jewish artists and writers. Cummings was opinionated, and could be course in his language, particularly when drinking. Cummings left plenty of ammunition for today’s critics, if your intent is to unseat him from his place in literary history.
Cummings published 800 poems and is reputed to have written 2800. Poems dealing with issues on politics, social justice and equity, outside of a couple of his anti-war poems and a few others, are not themes he dealt with very often, particularly civil rights. He touches on it once in a while, but by and large it is not a focus of his writing. He was a highly educated white man, surrounded by highly educated white men. Yes, I think he had cultural blinders on, so did the majority of the poets of his era, but it doesn’t mean he didn’t capture some of the human condition in his art. I agree with critics that point out that several of his poems contain offensive language by today’s standards and that we shouldn’t give him a pass. Cummings was a New York City poet, just like Langston Hughes and Claude McKay, writing during the same period, both of which used the same words in their poetry, in fact quite a bit more frequently. The difference obviously is African American poets of that period bring a different tilt to things in how we relate to that writing. Ultimately every reader has to bring their own slant to it. I personally don’t find evidence in Cummings entire body of work that he was racist. I do think he was a bit tone deaf in a small subset of his poems.
You will have to decide for yourself. And in doing so, ask yourself, do you want to judge or dismiss Cummings on the basis of his worst work through the cultural standards of 2022, or accept him for his best? Ask yourself how you, yourself would like to be judged in your own writing, your own social media posts, your own blog? Forgiveness and grace and the human condition are an integral part of Cummings philosophy of art and themes in his writing. Consider as you decide how to relate to his work, the responsibility in the interaction each of us have with artwork and the artists we choose to engage throughout history. If we engage in the theme of grace, because it interests us, than do we not have some obligation to extend some amount of actual grace in return to artists and artwork? I hope you will forgive me, for the inevitable thing I have written that set your teeth on edge during this journey on Fourteenlines. Cummings interests me precisely because he was flawed, because he was human. It is in the margins around his flaws and brilliance I most relate.