Review and Comment: O Sweet Spontaneous

March 28, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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E. E. Cummings (or, as he preferred to spell it, e. e. cummings) celebrated spring and love in a way all his own. One of his poems begins:

         touching you i say (it being Spring   

         and night) “let us go a very little beyond

         the last road — there’s something to be found”

In another he writes:


      you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens

      (touching skilfully,mysteriously) her first rose

and closes with this tender tribute to his loved one:

      nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

Cummings (1894-1962) didn’t have the austere, iconoclastic bite that put his contemporary T.S. Eliot at the vanguard of Modernism. Where Eliot wrote, “Let us go then, you and I,/When the evening is spread out against the sky/Like a patient etherised upon a table,” Cummings was both more romantic and more facilely satiric, as in the line: “as freedom is a breakfastfood.” The other aspect of Cummings, his experimentation with punctuation and typography, spreading poems across a page in unconventional fashion, today seems more like a passing fad. And yet, if his star has somewhat faded, Cummings can still evoke lyrical feeling as few others can.

These thoughts about Cummings were prompted by the quotation in a photo caption on this page last week from the poem “O sweet spontaneous,” which proclaims that Earth, in response to proddings by philosophers, science and religions, “answerest/them only with/spring.”

Spring and memory. Not long out of college, I was dating a Canadian girl who had made a study of Cummings’ poetry and had received an invitation to visit him at his home on Patchin Place, that little elbow of a street in Greenwich Village that bends from West 10th Street into Sixth Avenue. She asked me to come along, and we were met at the door by the tall and elegant Marion Morehouse, Cummings’ wife and a celebrated Vogue model of her day who had posed for Edward Steichen and other prominent photographers. She had us wait in an ante-room for the poet to conclude what he was concentrating on.

When Cummings emerged, slender, shorter than his wife, balding but with a sensuous mouth, he inquired about our backgrounds. When I said I had been born in Finland, he grew enthusiastic. He spoke of Finland’s brave fight against Russia in 1939-40, and of his aversion to the Soviet Union, which he had toured and written about in his travel journal Eimi. Clearly he had no sympathy for leftist American intellectuals’ then lingering affinity for the Communist state. In fact, he spent almost our whole ten minutes talking about Russia and Finland, and not about his poetry, until Marion Morehouse came back and informed us sternly that it was time to let her husband resume his more solitary, creative pursuit.

I have never read Eimi, but I tried not long ago to read his first published work, a novel called The Enormous Room, based on his imprisonment in France during the First World War. Cummings had gone to France to serve as an ambulance driver, but his fellow driver and buddy fell afoul of French suspicions over radical statements he had made, and Cummings was swept up in a guilt by association. I read about two-thirds of The Enormous Room before the monotony of the prison routine it described got to me, and I felt I’d had enough. Cummings was eventually released and returned to the United States to begin his assault on poetic conventions left over from the 19th century. How he strung words together can still resonate, as in the poem about Buffalo Bill, who could

          break onetwothreefourfive pigeons justlikethat


    he was a handsome man

— Henrik Krogius, Editor

Brooklyn Heights Press & Cobble Hill News

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