E.E. Cummings: The man who rewrote the form

The greatest and most annoying thing about poetry is that it can deny any rule of form that was created for it. Many critics and experts will scorn a piece of work for things like grammatical inaccuracy or tense confusion, and at the same time praise another for making the same kind of “mistakes”. It makes for very complex, confusing and therefore interesting reading.

Albertin via Wikimedia Commons

But of course, the difference between a poem filled with grammatical errors, and a poem which is great because it defies convention, is whether the poet is in control of what he or she has written; they have to, in a sense, be masters of the new form they have created. It can be easy to spot when a mistake is a mistake and when it is intentional. Many great poets have defied the constructs of grammar; Ted Hughes, for example, often ignores commas to avoid breaking the flow of his poems. But very few have overturned the order of language altogether, at least not successfully. E.E. Cummings was one that did. Very successfully.

Edward Estlin Cummings was born in Massachusetts in 1894, and later studied at Harvard, though he started writing as early as 1904. He served in World War One, and spent his life after writing and meeting other writers and artists, some of whom he met on his travels around Europe. He was well known for his experimentation with punctuation and form. Read the following extract from his poem My Father Moved From Dooms Of Love (which is a dedication to the memory of his father):

 “Scorning the Pomp of must and shall

my father moved through dooms of feel;

his anger was as right as rain

his pity was as green as grain

 septembering arms of year extend

yes humbly wealth to foe and friend

than he to foolish and to wise”

The poem flows incredibly well, but, because of its strange turn of grammar and choice of words, the specific meaning of each line becomes more difficult to grasp. He uses words like “must” as nouns, referring to them almost as people, and then he turns proper nouns, like the month of September, into verbs, using them to describe an action. In fact, when I wrote “septembering” on Microsoft Word it gave me the red squiggly line underneath and then proceeded to give me “No spelling suggestions” when I clicked on it. Consider this extract:

 “my father moved through dooms of love

through sames of am through haves of give,

singing each morning out of each night

my father moved through depths of height”

This passage (which made Microsoft Word lose its mind) is even more confused than the last, but still, it is captivating to read. The phrase “dooms of love” suggests a sort of nihilistic view of love, insinuating that maybe his father moved through certain doomed or negative relationships, be they platonic or romantic. With regards to the rest it would take careful study to decode the real meaning of each line, and it is often the case that only the poet truly knows what he or she really means. But the overall sense given by this new type of form is that perhaps his father was, at least in his eyes, a transcendent figure; these words, like his father, are not for us to understand. Or maybe his confusing language, and our confusion in reading it, reflects his own lack of understanding of his father, or possibly even other people’s lack of understanding him.

Whatever the real meaning, it cannot be denied that this poet’s command of language was great enough to almost reinvent it. If there are any budding poets out there, do not be disheartened when you’re told that your work doesn’t make any sense. If you are good enough, you will make it make sense.

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