friday feast: the poet and the painter

Self portrait with sketchpad

“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?

Lone tree and stormy sea in sunset

“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.


26 thoughts on “friday feast: the poet and the painter

  1. what a SUPER post!!!
    e.e.cummings has been my “to do” list for a long time. I recently ran across the source material for his portrait. I never knew he was an artist, too. Does it surprise me? His poems are visual works of art more so than words.
    Excellent! Thanks for the spark of creativity!


  2. I was excited to find some of his paintings online. Interesting that his early work was abstract, and his later work more representational. Usually artists start out traditional and then go abstract.
    His poetry seems to cover traditional themes — love, childhood, nature, with an abstract approach. Fascinating how his mind worked.


  3. Ah. Sweet, heavy sigh. I love E.E. What a great tribute this post is.
    I’ve been too busy to blog-read this week, and this shows me what I’m missing.
    jules, 7-Imp


  4. Terrific post, Jama. I confess to having read only a little cummings, and to not always “getting” him, but your description and analysis here was spot on. And the quotes about writing and art? *swoon*


  5. Glad to hear you love him, too! I could be wrong, but is part of your attraction to him based on that child-like innocence he often displays? Several of his poems were made into picture books, as I’m sure you know — “In Just-Spring,” “Hist Whist,” and “Little Tree.”


  6. This is great!
    Okay, I’m officially sold on poetry friday! and now i’m off to read what you’ve written on O hara. hes anabsolute favorite of mine.


  7. TadMack says:
    loneliness is my VERY favorite, very first real experience with e.e. cummings as a 12 year old — and then I stopped punctuating everything or capitalizing, typically.
    I HAD NO IDEA HE PAINTED. Thanks for schooling me on this one — I will totally have to check him out again!!


  8. You’ve outdone yourself today, Jama. So much deep stuff here. I feel like I must come back each day this week and re-read this. I had no idea ee was an artist.


  9. Nobody not even the rain
    I think e.e. cummings would be one of the people I’d like to have at my all-time favorites dinner party. I imagine him coming naked because he bares everything in his poetry.
    Mme T


  10. You made me swoon again!
    Love the sunset painting!
    E. E. Cummings is one of the 200+ writers profiled in my favorite new book, The Writer’s Brush by Donald Friedman.
    In a mock self-interview, “Why do you paint?”
    “For exactly the same reason I breathe”.


  11. cloudsome says:
    I’m sighing too. How lovely! Cummings is my all time favorite poet. I have been neglecting him lately so I thank you for reminding me. That loneliness poem is just too much. You are right – the painting has the same feel. The same effect. Some of my favorite poems of his are the love poems… I think this is a good week to get out my Collected Works volume!


  12. Re: Nobody not even the rain
    *Closing my eyes* Is he here yet? 🙂
    I see your point about the nakedness. His early poetry was very erotic — written while he was having an affair with his friend’s wife. Hot stuff!


  13. I read that mock interview! Very funny. Now I simply MUST order The Writer’s Brush. I know you mentioned it before.
    P.S. Extra chocolate is a good treatment for excessive swooning :).


  14. Re: cloudsome says:
    I’m so excited to know someone else who has E.E. at the top of their list. I’m so with you on the love poems, too. The lyricism is to die for.


  15. Karen Edmisten said:
    I first got a crush on him in high school, too, and sort of feel I’ve grown up with him, and with what I appreciate and love about him. I love his love poems, too … I regularly tell my husband “I love you much most beautiful darling,” and that I like him better than everything in the sky. 🙂
    Thanks for such a beautiful and thought-provoking post, jama! I love to stop by here.


  16. Great post, Jama! Cummings is a poet I have a love/hate relationship with. Well, that’s too strong. I love some of his stuff, but some doesn’t affect me at all. I only really read lots of his poems about a year or two ago. I made him my “poet of the month” and read 5-10 poems every day by him. By the end, I felt like I was just starting to get a feel for him. Time for me to go visit him again, I think!


  17. You’re right — a lot of his stuff is hard to understand. But I think that is true for most poets — some poems really work/resonate, others don’t. Also, whether a poem feels accessible depends on what the reader brings to it at any given time.


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