Friday, March 23, 2012

Cummings and Goings

Poet e.e. cummings (James Joyce or some other wag called him “hee-hee cunnings”) for a few decades was granted a measure of respect by academia. Publishing his sweetly brazen love poems and comically bizarre experiments in form and language from the Twenties until his death in 1962, the “lower-case poet” gained his following mostly among high school and college students. From the Fifties to the Eighties at least, young people found his word play, his nose-thumbing and risk-taking, to be an amusing and refreshing alternative to strait-laced formal poetry.

I was one of them. I loved his jittery energy, his sly jokes and puns, which usually had to be seen on the page rather than heard—his “grasshopper” poem, for example, with the letters jumping around, gradually assembling themselves in the right order, or the deceptively simple, quick-spoken word clusters in something like “Buffalo Bill’s
defunct.” And who could possibly resist his sexy, silly love ballad “may i feel said he/i’ll squeal said she”?

Around 1970 I actually came close to producing a short film that would have pictorialized, inventively I think, several of his most charming poems. I wrote the script and obtained the approval of the cummings estate, but just before we began production, a new letter from the lawyers arrived, rescinding the go-ahead; some copyright disagreements were forcing the estate to put the lid on everything, and the letter claimed it would be months or even years before the matters could be resolved.

I remember that the first poem shown was to be this one--from which I quote excerpts, dear lawyers, in order to convey a sense of the joy and wonder we had hoped to capture on film. By the way, blogspot refuses to accept and so duplicate cummings' playful, peculiar spacing:

in Just-
spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman

whistles far and wee…

That’s when “eddieandbill come running” and “bettyandisbel come dancing”—up from the mud, leaving their childhood games behind, perhaps beginning a new but older dance...



balloonMan whistles

(This balloon-man version of Pan, piping the young to mischief, is still a more innocent character than, say, the ever-goatish Picasso. That P.P. and e.e. looked as though they might be brothers is an odd coincidence.)

Beat Poetry, Concrete Poetry, the so-called New York Poets, in fact just about anyone romantic enough to pen a love-lyric poem in the 20th century, discovered cummings somewhere along his or her "Imagine-O Line" and typically--or typographically, more likely--incorporated elements of his skills and style (from puns to punctuation, from pique to piquancy) in their own markedly different poems.

I played around with his verse techniques myself in those crazy salad days--never got anything worth dredging up here--but many years later I did write a brief, high-energy piece that maybe gives a nod and a wink to the spirited hijinx of old “hee-hee”:

Zoo Morning

Without malice, in ecstasy
of the day, the gray wolves
across the way are scattering
seagulls in a pinwheel flutter,
trotting to and fro amid
the glitter of wobbling wings,
dazzle so bright both gulls
and wolves flare nearly white,
sunlight firing the trellis
of nobby twigs and fencewire,
each dazed and glazed thing
chiming that Spring impels
the sap of running and budding,
flapping and climbing--wolves
churning, birds spiring, Great
Wheel vibrantly turning
another notch today in always,
tattered white peacock
needing no cloak of light
to screech his word of praise.

So thanks and a tip of the poet’s laurels to edward estlin cummings. (Can’t call him “e.e.c.” without endangering our Euro trade policies, I guess, but “cunnings” was a felicitous coinage.) He was blameless and shameless, braver and graver; judgmental and sentimental, political and metaphysical; outrageous and contagious, rudely comical and lewdly anatomical--too clever by half, but always chipper; forever wholly aware… and hipper.

It's easy to be cynical and say that in cummings' case "R.I.P." probably meant "Randy, Insidious Poet." But one might also recall how tender and astonishingly beautiful his poems could be at any given moment--"my father moved through dooms of love," "anyone lived in a pretty how town," "what if a much of a which of a wind"--and as a result decide that he was more expansive and complex after all.

I hope young people continue to discover and embrace cummings' best poems. I do know that even us oldsters can still appreciate lines like these, ending one of his hundreds of inventive sonnets, so wild and fierce and free:

I'd rather learn from one bird how to sing
than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.

(Hmmm... dancing with stars... does have a certain ring to it...)

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