Reasons I don't like cummings

Thursday, 5 June 2014

When I was first studying poetry at degree level, I tended to get irritated by e e cummings. There are, potentially, three reasons.

Reason No. 1
I’m a grammar nazi. If I see a misplaced apostrophe, I leap on it like a rabid terrier leaping on a slumbering rat. If I see an absence of capitals, or unnecessary capitals, I point and laugh and then invite other grammar nazi stormtroopers to help me ridicule the maker of such asinine mistakes.

Then, in this mindset, I was introduced to e e cummings.

[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]
By e e cummings
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)
i fear
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)

Reason No. 2
Not only am I a grammar nazi but complex poetry frightened me then, as it still does today.

Complex poetry makes me worry that I might be ignorant.

If there are parts of a novel I don’t understand I read them a second or a third time and then I usually get it. If there are parts of a poem I don’t understand, chances are, no matter how many times I read it and re-read it, I’m never going to get the point that is being made.

This, I feel, is the truly frightening aspect of complex poetry. How are such things allowed to exist in print? Who’s to blame for the problem? If all writing is meant to be an author’s clear explanation of a thought, idea, scenario or concept, and if I’m not understanding that clear explanation, then someone is clearly ignorant.

And I don’t want that someone to be me.

However, if the poet knew what was meant; and the poet’s publisher knew what was meant; and the reviewers who’ve praised the poet knew what was meant: this suggests my ignorance is the most likely explanation.

Here are the opening stanzas to [anyone lived in a pretty how town]

[anyone lived in a pretty how town]

anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did.

Women and men(both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain

Reason No. 3
I worry that poems like this are the emperor’s new clothes of writing. As a reader, am I expected to praise the fine cut of e e cummings’s style when I can’t personally see it? Would it be acceptable for me to say, “I just don’t get it,” when everyone else seems to know why there are no capital letters and why there is a pronounced absence of logical, grammatical and narrative cohesion? To illustrate what I mean, here are the first two stanzas from [love is more thicker than forget].

[love is more thicker than forget]

love is more thicker than forget
more thinner than recall
more seldom than a wave is wet
more frequent than to fail

it is most mad and moonly
and less it shall unbe
than all the sea which only
is deeper than the sea

On Saturday night, I’ll be playing examples of e e cummings’s poetry on Fylde Coast Community Radio. It would be great if you could join me there to see if we can work out the mystery of e e cummings together.

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