Was E.E. Cummings the Holden Caulfield of American Poetry?

Review: E.E. Cummings, George James Firmage (ed.), ‘Complete Poems: 1904-1962’

E.E. Cummings in 1938 / AP

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A "complete" or "collected" poems can do things for a poet. One, it can change his reputation, showing him to be a major rather than minor figure—to use a sometimes unhelpful distinction—and make his work available to a new generation of readers. This was the case for Wallace Stevens, who was still something of a coterie figure when he won his first National Book Award for Poetry at the age of 72 for The Auroras of Autumn. His Collected Poems, published in 1954 for his 75th birthday, won that year’s Pulitzer Prize and made evident, despite the volume’s many typographical errors, his virtuosity and depth. Interest in Stevens has only grown since. While more widely read in his lifetime than Stevens, Philip Larkin’s posthumous Collected Poems, published in 1988, nevertheless made clear, to anyone who still doubted, Larkin’s subtlety, wit, and craftsmanship, and his status as one of the twentieth century’s greatest poets.

Such a volume can also stand as the crowning achievement of a poet’s illustrious writing life. This was true of W.H. Auden’s 1976 Collected Poems and T.S. Eliot’s Collected Poems, which he kept expanding until two years before his death.

But a volume of collected work can also show a poet’s limitations even as it exhibits his or her strengths. Frank O’Hara had only published seven slim volumes of poetry—four of them by the Tibor de Nagy art gallery—before he died at 40 in 1966. When his Collected Poems appeared in 1971, it surprised many people for its length, coming in at a little under 600 pages, and showed O’Hara to be one of the more prolific and original post-WWII poets if also a distinctly uneven one. Allen Ginsberg’s 1,200-page Collected Poems is surprisingly repetitive, and in the 1981 edition of Sylvia Plath’s collected poems we encounter a poet who has a linguistically wide but emotionally narrow range.

A corrected and expanded edition of E.E. Cummings’s Complete Poems: 1904-1962, published last month, belongs in this third category of collected work. In Stephen Dunn’s introduction to the volume, he writes that Cummings was "the Holden Caulfield of American poetry." That’s partly right. Cummings’s two great interests were sex and sex—at least in the first part of his life. In his first six volumes, he describes prostitutes and his own lusty feelings with the precision and imagination of a gifted schoolboy. Here, he is more interested in bodies and qualia—and just the right word for those qualia—than he is in emotions or people. In "Gert," for example, he writes "joggle i think will do it although the glad / monosyllable jounce possibly can tell / better how the balloons move." "Her voice? / gruesome:a trull / leaps from the lungs ‘gimme uh swell fite…’."

While some of the women in these poems have names, like Gert or Marj, what Cummings sees most often is flesh and body parts—"huge dropping of a flesh from / hinging thighs" and a "small manure-shaped head" on a pillow. For "two dollars," he will fill Marjorie’s "hips with boys and girls." He confesses that he likes "best,the,stomachs,of the young (girls silky and lewd)," but he’s also happy with "electric trite / thighs," lips, or any "curve of flesh," really. Women are inanimate objects or events. A girl is "a leaf," a woman is "the wind" or "like / the rain."

When he’s not lusty, he’s angry—at "humanity," at the war, at the stupidity of the "clean upstanding well dressed" boys, at the ladies of Cambridge, Massachusetts. "Humanity i love you," he writes in "La Guerre," but he doesn’t, as becomes clear in the next line: "because you would rather black the boots of / success than enquire whose soul dangles from his / watch-chain which would be embarrassing for both." People are greedy, self-serving, proud, and Cummings hates it. He adds a little self-deprecating sugar in the final lines to make this bitter pill of a poem go down a little smoother ("Humanity…you are / forever making poems in the lap / death Humanity // i hate you"), but it’s not very subtle.

His other poems on the First World War, like the one above, are in the same vein. Cummings joined a private ambulance corps with a group of Harvard friends to avoid being drafted. He saw little combat and spent five weeks in bureaucratic limbo in Paris after being separated from his attachment. A few months after he finally joined them on the Western front, he was arrested on suspicion of treason, largely because of his lack of respect for his commanding officer and condescension towards his fellow Americans. This didn’t stop Cummings from mocking his family’s support of the war effort in one poem and magnifying his suffering and sacrifice.

Still, these earlier poems exhibit Cummings’s ear for diction—which was as good as William Carlos Williams’s—as well as his timing and gift for associations. A poem like "[upon the room’s]," which begins "upon the room’s / silence,i will sew // a nagging button of candlelight / halfstooping to exactly kiss the trite // worm of her nakedness / until it go," possesses both a surgical exactitude and whimsy, a smoothness and a sonorous jaggedness, reflecting the conflicting impulses of love and lust, empathy and objectification, and oscillating moments of clarity and delusion.

Poems like these increase after 50 Poems, Cummings’s seventh volume of poems, published in 1940 when he was 46. He never outgrows the burlesque, but meditative sonnets on love and spring—not as a metaphor for sex but as a personification of some benevolent, long-suffering life-giving being—increase. In Tulips & Chimneys (1922), spring is the "green" devil or a "speechless carnival" that ends in the "sweet / annihilation of swift / flesh." But in Xaipe (1950) it is "a mender of things":

with eager
fingers(with
patient
eyes)re

-new-

ing remaking what
other
-wise we should
have thrown a-

way(and whose

brook
-bright flower-
soft bird
-quick voice loves

children
and sunlight and

mountains)in april(but
if he should
Smile)comes

nobody’ll know

While Cummings is known for his irregular punctuation, chopped lines, and the use of the lowercase first person singular (all of which are sometimes used arbitrarily to create a cheap difficulty), he was also one of the great sonneteers of the twentieth century. He wrote them throughout his life, and it’s striking how consistently accomplished he was at the form. A sonnet from 73 Poems (1963) begins: "being to timelessness as it’s to time, / love did no more begin than love will end; / where nothing is to breathe to stroll to swim / love is the air the ocean and the land"). The later sonnets are more philosophic and free from inflated diction than the earlier ones. But even Eliot wasn’t writing like this at Harvard:

Let us lie here in the disturbing grass,
And slowly grow together under the sky
Sucked frail by Spring,whose meat is thou,and I,
This hurrying tree,and yonder pausing mass
Hitched to time scarcely,eager to surpass
Space:for the day decides:O let us lie

So, no, Cummings isn’t exactly the Holden Caulfield of American poetry. But neither is he its Apollo.

Micah Mattix

Micah Mattix   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Micah Mattix is an associate professor of English at Regent University and a contributing editor at The Weekly Standard. He edits the literary newsletter Prufrock.