“It is Art because it is alive. It proves that, if you and I are to create at all, we must create with today and let all the Art schools and Medicis in the universe go hang themselves with yesterday’s rope. It teaches us that we have made a profound error in trying to learn Art, since whatever Art stands for is whatever cannot be learned. Indeed, the Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself, and the agony of the Artist, far from being the result of the world’s failure to discover and appreciate him, arises from his own personal struggle to discover, to appreciate and finally to express himself. Look into yourself, Reader, for you must find Art there, if at all.” ~ E.E. Cummings (1927)
Last week, I featured “Why I Am Not a Painter,” by Frank O’Hara.
This week, I am featuring E.E.Cummings, who most definitely was a painter, and who is also my favorite poet of all time.
When I first encountered him in high school, he turned my head with his experimental grammar, punctuation and syntax. The little lame balloon man whistling far and wee was pretty cool. I’d never seen anyone break up lines like that. My heartbeat sped up, but it was still just a crush.
Then he followed me to college, playing the wandering minstrel with his sweet expressions of love. Music is where I live, and lines like these sounded like they had been written just for me:
“sweet spring is your
time is my time is our
time for springtime is lovetime
and viva sweet love”
(all the merry little birds are
flying in the floating in the
very spirits singing in
are winging in the blossoming)
Take me home to meet your momma! Love and Nature were time-worn topics so prone to cliche. But Cummings’ inventiveness and sing-from-the-soul naivete shattered everything that came before. As S.I. Hayakawa put it, “No modern poet, to my knowledge, has such a clear, child-like perception as E.E. Cummings — a way of coming smack against things with unaffected delight and wonder . . . This candor results in breathtakingly clear vision.”
HIs poetry doesn’t merely express a feeling or describe an experience, it duplicates it in as exacting a manner as is possible using words on a page.
Give yourself a few minutes to experience this, the first poem from 95 Poems, published in 1958:
It consists of only four words in two distinct phrases: a leaf falls and loneliness. At first glance, it looks like a senseless jumble of letters. But as we follow the poem’s graceful descent, first reading either inside or outside the parentheses, pausing because of the broken syntax, we feel that leaf fall as the words cascade down the page.
Upon closer examination, we note five stanzas, with the first four lines containing alternating vowels and consonants, perhaps representing a leaf twisting. Indeed, the whole phrase, a leaf falls, is intertwined with the word, loneliness, a beautiful marriage between a concrete action and an abstract concept.
This poem is visual art, its form resembling a single vertical stroke, a stark and fragile construct, which has been called a perfect haiku in spirit. It connotes autumn, one, death, isolation. Words and lines are decomposed, much as life is fragmented at its end. Cummings broke apart to put together.
He considered himself as much a painter as a poet. It wouldn’t be far fetched to say that his strong visual sense informed his placement of words on the page. But his poetry surpasses most of what is classified as concrete, since it is propelled by a certain dynamic that transcends decoration and clever word painting. His work is a stunning example of how different art forms can synthesize. A Cummings poem is always alive — inviting the reader to sometimes unscramble a puzzle or simply bask in the music. In his quest for individuality he invented a poetic form not yet duplicated by anyone else.
In the painting below, note the two vertical strokes — one tree, one person. Is it not the same brand of loneliness?
“Miracles are to come. With you I leave a remembrance of miracles: they are by somebody who can love and who shall be continually reborn, a human being; somebody who said to those near him, when his fingers would not hold a brush, ‘tie it into my hand.'” ~ E.E. Cummings
Today’s Poetry Friday Roundup is at AmoXcalli.
Some of Cummings’ art is for sale here.