E.E. Cummings: Language, Wordplay and Meaning
Edward Estlin Cummings lived from 1894 to 1962 and wrote for a career that spanned both world wars. He was one of the most widely read American poets of the 20th century and wrote more than any other with almost 3000 published to his name. Despite his widespread popularity and expansive works, however, he remains one the most polarising poets in the eyes of critics, who have described him and his work in turn as illiterate, and incoherent; though this stands more in testimony to his revolutionary style than to anything else.
Cummings unique style is highly avant-garde and foreshadows later developments of modernist tropes while displaying an influence from radical non-conformists such as Gertrude Stein. He is known for writing highly erotic works, as well as for producing many highly emotive, quintessential love poems. What he is perhaps best known for, however, is his radical break from so many conventional writing tropes, including his distinctive wordplay, a dislike for capitalisation, for merging and breaking words apart, and for radical experimentation with form.
Beneath the stylistic aesthetic of Cummings runs a consistent and decidedly modern philosophy which can be viewed as a worldview, and in which a great many new and original thoughts are expressed (spanning what is real, to Cummings powerful belief in love). In this short piece, I want to focus on how Cummings’ use of wordplay and other stylistic devices are loaded with the language of his philosophical worldview and to uncover a little bit about the character of his vision. First, I want to engage with a few very short readings of Cummings’ work, before taking a look at his intellectual and intuitive influences.
If everything happens that can’t be done
if everything happens that can’t be done
(and anything’s righter
the stupidest teacher will almost guess
(with a run
around we go yes)
there’s nothing as something as one
one hasn’t a why or because or although
(and buds know better
one’s anything old being everything new
(with a what
around we come who)
one’s everyanything so
so world is a leaf so a tree is a bough
(and birds sing sweeter
so here is away and so your is a my
(with a down
around again fly)
forever was never till now
now i love you and you love me
(and books are shuter
and deep in the high that does nothing but fall
(with a shout
around we go all)
there’s somebody calling who’s we
we’re anything brighter than even the sun
(we’re everything greater
we’re everyanything more than believe
(with a spin
alive we’re alive)
we’re wonderful one times one
Even the opening line here appears to be a contradiction or just plain nonsense, and as the following lines go on, Cummings seems to be utterly incoherent to an unsuspecting reader. “Anything’s righter / than books / could plan”, “and buds know better / than books / don’t grow”. So how can we read into Cummings poetry here?
In this poem Cummings takes a stance against the type of sense and knowledge that is offered by books, instead choosing to dance in the unknowns of the natural world “and birds sing sweeter / than books / tell how”). Cummings also implicates a unity (nothing as something as one/ one’s everyanything so/ we’re wonderful one times one) of nature through his wordplay.
He almost frustratedly tries to use words in strange ways and even creates new words to try to express natural unity (and this is a theme throughout his works). But even with newly concocted words, the meaning is never greater than when meanings remain unspoken and allow ourselves to enjoy the rhythm of a “run skip around we go yes”. Cummings expresses a belief that we can know things (including the natural unity of nature) though only ever through our intuitions since our words will always fail to capture and explain them wholly.
One final point worth noting on this poem, which stands out throughout the entire oeuvre of Cummings’, is his play on certain types of association. This play on association can be seen as a kind of endorsement of symbolism, at least in so far as Cummings looks to evoke mental states, rather than representing, or allegorizing.
We see this best in the lines which wish to pull us away from sense and into merriment. The lines “with a run / skip / around we go yes”, evoke an innocent and juvenile mindset, associated with positive terms like “yes” in celebration at the momentum of the subject, or simply of the rhythm. Similarly, “with a down / up / around again fly” offers us little “meaning”, but it does evoke a sense of joyous movement and momentum, nonetheless.
As is the sea marvelous
as is the sea marvelous
hands which sent her forth
to sleep upon the world
and the earth withers
the moon crumbles
one by one
stars flutter into dust
but the sea
does not change
and she goes forth out of hands and
she returns into hands
and is with sleep….
In this piece, as with many of Cummings most heartfelt love poems, language is used in a more conventional and straightforward way to create a more accessible and universal piece. Nonetheless, there is a glimmer of something distinctively Cummings in the style which is evident from the first reading.
Firstly, symbols like stars and the moon which are frequently used by Cummings for a variety of reasons throughout his works are here bought violently into the material world, and with the earth, they wither, crumble, and flutter away.
In contrast to the materiality set-up with the Earth, stars, and moon, something entirely different happens with his treatment of water, which is sent to us “from god’s / hands”, and which “does not change”. Here Cummings juxtaposes the material and the immaterial, the concrete and the abstract, the physical and spiritual. Finally, Cummings introduces love, another immaterial/abstract/spiritual component, which he expresses as “the breaking / of your / soul / upon / my lips.
In the closing lines of the poem Cummings does something fascinating, and which brings us back to the theme of unity. Firstly, he uses the form in the final four lines to equivocate the soul with water crashing over rocks, or in this case, his lips. He also dismantles the opposition that he set-up earlier in the poem (concrete/abstract or physical/spiritual), since the two forces flow freely together, and it is the unifying power of love that seems to enable the transcendence of the distinction.
As mentioned, the language use in this poem is more straight-forward than in many of his works. However, it is an interesting case study nonetheless of how Cumming’s uses language to produce new perspectives. In this piece, he sets up a subtle distinction between tangible things like people and the Earth, and the things which seem to evade us, or to slip through our fingers, like water, or the soul. By the end of the poem, he dismantles the distinction as like an illusion, posing questions on the true nature of reality, and offering us the hint that it lies in unity.
[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
Of all the works of E.E. Cummings, i carry your heart is by far the best known, and most recited. Like “As is the sea marvellous”, i carry your heart is an accessible and approachable work aimed at evoking universal feelings of love. If you haven’t seen the Nerdwriter video on this poem, then I highly recommend it.
There are several highly distinctive characteristics of this poem, and one which we haven’t noted yet is his use of capitalisation, or more precisely, his lack of use. There are many theories as to why Cummings refrained from capitalising nouns (including his own name, and god), and in this piece, he uses a lower-case i throughout.
Though many different motives have been proposed for why Cummings does this, there are two that stand out. Firstly, Cummings theory of the self is concerned with how the self functions as part of the unity of which it is a part, and therefore, perhaps, to single out an individual as I would be to distinguish one from the whole too discernibly for Cummings. The other importance of the lower-case i is twofold concerning his lover. Firstly, Cummings believed that alone, a person is a splintered soul and that only through unification with another could we be complete. Secondly, to capitalise the i, with a lower-case you, seems in some sense to set the one above the other, as like the function of subject and object in a sentence.
Parenthesis are also used as a poetic device to reveal and conceal within the piece. They at once carry his most intimate message from the poem to his lover while encasing her heart, as he promises to do. They also play the role of meeting form with content insofar as the poem describes how anything done by one is something done by both by creating two poems side by side, existing together, and expressing much the same thing.
As the Nerdwriter video points out, critic Roy Tartakovsky explains that the paradoxical role of parenthesis is to offer content which might be left out, or which is inessential to the point. Yet by placing details within parenthesis is to push those afterthoughts to the foreground of the reader’s mind. And this is particularly relevant in the next poem, ‘l(a’.
The poem “l(a” stands out as one of the most technically innovative and experimental of all Cummings works, but also as one of the purest and most simple forms of poetry. The poem is made up of just 4 words, 3 of which are inside the parenthesis, and as we’ve discussed, this plays some role in questioning the value of the content inside/outside the brackets.
The four words in the poem are “loneliness”, found around the parenthesis, and “a leaf falls” within them. The style of the piece is haiku-like in quality, though not in form, and it shares a heritage with poems like Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” by the associative manner in which it equivocates loneliness with a leaf falling, going beyond metaphor and representation. The falling leaf is not likened to loneliness, but rather it is blended and fused with it, often one letter at a time, demonstrating not likeness but sameness. (Identity and Difference – Heidegger)
In Cummings work, we find an almost cubist-like tendency to offer us various perspectives at once, and as the leaf falls, we are offered the various views of its’ twists and turns with the varied use of consonant – vowel use in each line. Further, on the subject of form, Cummings uses the form here to show a leaf falling, before coming to rest on the ground, and he also gives the overall form of a single stroke, or the number one, again evoking ideas of unity. Going further, the opening l resembles a 1, the word loneliness is broken to produce “one / l / iness”, or oneliness, and the poem opens with le and la, the French single articles.
By breaking the poem into fragments of letters, Cummings does more than just offer us a rich form. He is here calling the reader to action, since the reader must put the piece together letter by letter to produce a reading, thereby placing the “meaning” of the poem in the hands of the reader. Even more importantly, he is creating a reading that is focussed on the process of reading, thinking, and feeling, rather than on any “meaning” crystallised within the text.
The sense in which we may talk of meaning through the works of Cummings is, elusive, to say the least. The first point of the utmost importance is that Cummings very rarely engages himself in answering any questions through his poetry.
In his mature works, Cummings transcends conventional poetic forms for comparing, contrasting, and juxtaposing imagery by attempting to penetrate through likeness into a more direct identity of equivalence in “the thing in itself”. His imagery goes beyond metaphor, Symbolism, Imagism, or Vorticism to create a poetic image that is more direct and immediate than his predecessors’ attempts – bringing his work closer to the virtues of music – as something primarily sensory. We saw particularly strong examples of this in l(a, but also through the seemingly meaningless lines of if everything happens that can’t be done. Cummings produces meaning insofar as his works evoke certain mental states or ideas.
Returning to the concept of process (over product) as mentioned earlier, Cummings consistently prioritises experience and being over any objective meaning through his works, and this can itself be taken as a meaning apparent through his works. “And birds sing sweeter/ than books/ tell how”.
Words like I or you are never simple to Cummings. Instead, he uses them as a means of questioning personal identity. The definite isn’t the object; instead, the poem is meant as an experience to swim through.
Likewise, when the physical and spiritual are intermingled without distinction, as in “as is the sea marvellous”, Cummings questions, what is the real? And he does this by trying to force our brain into seeing things through intuitions, with language liberated from producing conventional answers.
If someone says, “I have a body,” he can be asked, “who is speaking here with this mouth?” Wittgenstein, On Certainty
To better understand the source of Cummings inspiration there are two ideologies which are here invaluable. The first is a doctrine which Cummings was actively close with throughout his life and the second is something his work foreshadows and which became prominent after his death. These two ideologies are Taoism and Post-structuralism.
It is inherent to Taoism that we accept our fate in and as a part of nature, that there are conditions of our existence and our experience in life that precede and supersede our power and that this power of nature can be harnessed and celebrated by the wise person to live an easy and good life, aka “the way”.
There are two useful water analogies which help with understanding the Tao. The first explains the universe / or nature, or reality, as like a vast river, reaching far beyond what we could ever hope to reach or perceive. Many of us, unable to see the edge, do not believe that we are being violently dragged along by a current, though we are, and continue to struggle against the tide of nature. The wise people, however, realising the power of nature over them, instead allow the power of the water to carry them along, and enjoy its benefit to them.
The second explains the difference between our ancestors trying to use physical force against the raging nature of the sea, as an instinct, and how the realisation that harnessing the power of nature by using a sail is both more productive and less labour intensive, and is, therefore, an evolution in thought and a progression toward the way.
Finally, reading Cummings’ work is undeniably aided by a poststructuralist philosophy of language and meaning. Though it hadn’t properly emerged until around the time of Cummings death, his poems stand as forerunners to the ideas of poststructuralism, and an understanding of each works as a mutual aid to an understanding of the other.
Poststructuralism, like Taoism, makes the judgement that language cannot truly be a vehicle for objective meaning, nor for definite communication in written or verbal form. Instead, taking a lead from Jacques Derrida, meaning must always be deferred.