“Then it was spring; and in spring anything may happen. Absolutely anything.” ~ E. E. Cummings
Spring, April, Poetry Month: a welcome trifecta of hope, beauty and possibilities. It’s a time of birdsong, thoughtful reading, invention, and above all, celebration. We celebrate and marvel at words, which, according to Wordsworth, can capture “the breathings of your heart.”
Nobody does Spring better than my favorite poet E. E. Cummings. It’s fitting that my first encounter with Cummings was his iconic “in-Just/spring” — I remember meeting the “little lame balloonman” in high school and I haven’t been the same since.
In college, his “sweet spring” was on continuous loop as I read, read, read, wrote, wrote, wrote, and learned how to learn:
sweet spring is your
time is my time is our
time for springtime is lovetime
and viva sweet love
As a young teacher, I shared “Spring is like a perhaps hand” and “O sweet spontaneous” with my students. We discussed the inherent musicality of language, with Cummings the prime example of a poet who reveled in experimentation and innovation. Words are living, breathing entities, after all — why not make them sing?
“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.” (S.I. Hayakawa)
When I first heard a few months ago that a new picture book biography of E. E. Cummings was being published by Enchanted Lion Books, my heart literally skipped a beat. Cummings is, after all, my all-time favorite poet. Then when I learned the book was being illustrated by Kris Di Giacomo, who did Take Away the A (one of my favorite alphabet books), it was all I could do to contain my excitement until the book finally hit shelves earlier this month.
It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.
In Enormous Smallness: A Story of E. E. Cummings, debut picture book author, scholar, educator and poet Matthew Burgess recounts Cummings’s life from his magical childhood in Cambridge, through his days at Harvard, to when he finally settled in Greenwich Village, where he lived for nearly four decades.
Kids will enjoy seeing how Cummings loved playing with words from a very early age, received lots of encouragement along the way, and found the courage to remain true to himself, ultimately becoming one of the most innovative and inventive poets of the 20th century, a true champion of individuality whose lyrical experiments with grammar, syntax, and punctuation continue to baffle and delight.
“It takes courage to grow up and be who you really are.” ~ E.E. Cummings (1894-1962)
It’s his fault I sign my name in lower case. Ever since I first encountered his “little lame balloon man” in high school, Cummings has remained one of my top five favorite poets of all time.
I find it interesting that while he loved to experiment wildly with form, diction and syntax, his subjects were pretty traditional — nature (especially Spring), childhood, and love. He was such a great champion of individuality, someone who believed poetry was a process rather than a product, and since he was also a painter, it makes perfect sense that he created poems as visual objects on the page. How could I not love such an out and out lyricist who toyed with typography? A playful innovator with a joyous childlike perception, Cummings infused his poetry with his own brand of vitality that never loses its freshness.
“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)
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 lameballoon 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