i thank You GOD for most this amazing
by e. e. cummings (1894 – 1962)
i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginably You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
Welcome to 2022! I have been debating for some time what poet I was going to showcase in January and I finally settled on e. e. cummings. Several things factored into my decision; few poets are more closely connected to the sonnet during their career and yet are known for pushing the boundaries of poetry forward. Cummings best work still sounds fresh, yet it is the structure of the sonnet that kept Cummings grounded.
As we head into the month, I’ll explore Cummings’ life, friends, influences and demons. Before I start there is one thing I want to address that may sound trivial but which I have given much thought; how should I present his name? If you are a fan of Cummings you know that capitalization and punctuation were something he eschewed from his very earliest published poems. I have seen Cummings’ name presented as E. E. Cummings, e. e. cummings and e e cummings, in various articles, books and anthologies. But in reference to the man, I am going to capitalize his last name and in giving credit to his poetry I am not.
I have included Cummings’ poetry sparingly on Fourteenlines to this point in part because it would have been too easy, his poetry is playful, popular and accessible, something I applaud, but I also like to spread the spotlight around and so I work hard to not mine a too familiar vein too deep. So why do it now? To be honest, after two long years of the pandemic, I figured I needed a bit more light-hearted for the upcoming month, given the predictions of a difficult 60 days ahead of us with Omricron, and the vast majority of his best work are love poems, something we all need a bit more of in our lives.
I will be using two primary books to inform the month ahead; the biography by Kennedy titled Dreams in the Mirror, and the recent new edition of Cummings collected work from 2015, edited by Firmage and published by Norton. In an earlier blog entry I had counted the number of sonnets from his 1962 complete anthology, (which of course turned out to be not be complete, because there were unpublished poems that were included in the 2015 edition) and found that nearly one quarter of the total poems he shared with the world out of the more than 900 poems now in print are sonnets or sonnet influenced. Not all of these sonnets look like a traditional sonnet on the page in the placement of the words and not all of them follow exactly the rhyming schemes of a classical sonnet but none the less they are unmistakably sonnets. And its not that Cummings wrote sonnets only in the beginning of his career, by my count in reading through every published volume of poetry that Cummings published in his lifetime, at least one sonnet was included in every volume, which says something about the pull of the sonnet on Cummings creativity and literary soul. It begs the question, why was the sonnet so influential on a poet for whom from the very earliest examples of his writing was desperate to escape the shackles of tradition? Why keep coming back to 14 lines over and over again as the basic canvas on which to paint his words? I have not found a definitive answer to that question in my reading, (yet), but in my opinion there may be two reasons, Cummmings had a short attention span for his own writing and two, despite wanting to be known as pushing poetry into new spaces, evolving the art, he also desperately wanted to be accepted, by his peers, by his father, as a legitimate “artist”. And there is nothing like successfully mastering the sonnet to the point that your readers forget you are using it to accomplish both objectives. Robert Hillyer, who was a classmate at Harvard of Cummings, and who published his first poems alongside 8 poems of Cummings and several other classmates, including John Dos Passos, may have expressed it best in his first book of poetry in 1916, as all three men were heading off into the world;
reading those imperfect boyish rhymes,
I hear through the blown dust of many storms
The hymns of the advance-guard of my life.
XXIV. (There was a boy in some forgotten spring)
by Robert Hillyer
There was a boy in some forgotten spring
Who fled from all his comrades at the school,
And in the hills beside a forest pool
Lay on the grass, watching, and listening.
And as he listened, melancholy delight
Stirred in his heart a pang he did not know,
And voices of new passion bade him write
Of the vague thoughts that shook his spirit so.
Now on the battlefield of later times,
I meet those dreams returning in the forms
Of mighty friends and foes amid the strife;
And reading those imperfect boyish rhymes,
I hear through the blown dust of many storms
The hymns of the advance-guard of my life