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. One of the most widely read American poets of the 20th century he wrote prodigiously – with almost 3000 poems published to his name. Despite his widespread popularity and expansive works, he remains one of the most polarising poets in the eyes of critics. Don’t let this put you off though. More than anything, the fierce criticism he receives stands in testimony to his unique style.
Cummings style is highly avant-garde and foreshadows developments of modernist tropes while displaying influence from radicals like 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 unconventional and distinctive wordplay, a curious use of capitalisation and parenthesis, the merging and fracturing of words, and radical yet playful experimentation with form.
In this piece, I want to dip into Cummings style and aesthetics. But also to consider the worldview or philosophy which runs like an undercurrent through his works. Firstly, though, we must engage in a few short readings of some of his works.
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 incoherent to the unsuspecting reader. “Anything’s righter / than books / could plan”. And, “and buds know better / than books / don’t grow”. So how can we read into Cummings poetry here? *Deep breaths*
In this poem, Cummings takes a stance against the type of sense and knowledge offered by books. Instead, he chooses to dance in the unknowns of the natural world “and birds sing sweeter / than books / tell how”. Cummings also implies a unity through his wordplay “nothing as something as one / one’s everyanything so / we’re wonderful one times one”.
Almost frustratedly, he tries to use words in strange ways, even creating new words to try to express natural unity (a theme throughout his works). But even with newly concocted words, the sense is never as vivid as when meanings remain unspoken. It’s best instead if we allow ourselves to enjoy the rhythm (of a “run skip around we go yes”). Cummings believed strongly that we can intimately know the most important things in life (including the unity of nature), though only ever through our intuitions.
One final point worth noting on this poem, which stands out throughout the oeuvre of Cummings’, is his play on certain associations. This play on associations can be seen as a kind endorsement of symbolism, at least in so far as Cummings looks to evoke mental states, rather than representing, or allegorising.
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 more conventionally to create a more accessible 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. Here we see the collision of the material and immaterial. A kiss.
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 equate the soul with water crashing over rocks, or in this case, his lips. He also dismantles the opposition set-up earlier in the poem (concrete/abstract or physical/spiritual) since the two forces flow freely together. What allows for this transcendence? The unifying power of love. Of course.
As mentioned, the language used in this poem is more straightforward 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.
[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 name, and god), and in this piece, he uses a lower-case i’s 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. Perhaps, therefore, 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”, while using a lower-case “you”, seems to set one above the other, as with the subject and object of a sentence.
Parenthesis are also used here as a poetic device to reveal and conceal. 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. He does this 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 the ambiguous role of parenthesis. They appear 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 forms of poetry. The poem is made up of just four words, three of which are inside parentheses. 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. It shares a heritage with poems like Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” by the associative manner in which it equates 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.
In Cummings work, we find an almost cubist-like tendency to offer us various perspectives at once. As the leaf falls, we are offered multiple views through its’ twists and turns with the varied consonant-vowel use in each line. Further, on the subject of form, Cummings uses the shape of the poem to show a leaf falling, before coming to rest on the ground. 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 offer a rich form. He is here calling the reader to action. It is the reader who 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 creates a piece that is focussed on the process of reading, thinking, and feeling. Meaning isn’t something we find, ready-made, crystallised within the text. It’s something we must construct.
With the important role of the reader in mind, then. How should we approach his work? Any idea of meaning through the works of Cummings is, elusive, to say the least. One point of utmost importance, though, is that Cummings very rarely engages in answering 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 equivalence. His imagery goes beyond symbol, and metaphor to create a poetic image that is direct and immediate. As such, his work is often credited as having a virtue of music – as something primarily sensory. We saw particularly strong examples of this in “l(a”, but also through the seemingly senseless lines of “if everything happens that can’t be done”. Cummings produces meaning insofar as his works evoke certain mental states.
Returning to the concept of process (over product) as mentioned earlier, Cummings consistently prioritises experience and being over any objective meaning through his works. This, more than anything, can be taken as a theme apparent throughout his works. “And birds sing sweeter / than books / tell how”.
To Cummings, words like I or you are never simple. Instead, they are instruments through which we can question identity. The definite isn’t the object; instead, the poem is meant as an experience that we can swim through.
Better than anything I could write here, the qualities of poets like Cummings are outlined perfectly in John Ciardi’s infamous text “How Does a Poem Mean?”. In it, Ciardi discusses the long-fought battle between the language of classifications and the language of experience. Or in other words, the language of science, against that of subjectivity. He gives the example of how, on the one hand, a biologist would speak of a horse. And on the other hand, how – in-turn – a gambler, a sculptor, and a rider would.
Ever since the advent of experimental science, there has been a dismissal of the creative arts and philosophy for not being concrete enough – for being a bit wishy-washy. Ciardi explains that while the biologist might know best about the immutable facts of the horse (or “quadruped”). Nonetheless, the gambler, sculptor, and rider each possess unique knowledge on the subject, and which can be founded only in practical experience. In other words, our intuitions.
But still, perhaps nobody has ever put it better than Keat’s did, on explaining the magic of Shakespeare through the quality of Negative Capability.
“I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, upon various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration”.
-John Keats, 1817