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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Week of Reviews, part II: 100 selected poems


During my travels to the American Deep South and back, I brought several books with me on the assumption that I would get through many of them. I started with a popular anthology of e. e. cummings’ poetry, 100 selected poems.

In retrospect this was a mistake. Poetry requires particular attention to phonetics, and so reading it is a much more involving process than reading prose (some prose also has that poetic quality, though this is not frequently done well). Getting through all 100 poems took me more than the few hours of time I could spare on the drive down and back.

(For those who don’t know, there are seven steps to reading poetry. You give the text a first reading to get a glimpse of the overall sense and structure and then, in a second reading, pay more attention to metre, pace and punctuation – looking for the meaning behind the words on the page, the significance and shape of the sounds disconnected from their semanticity. By that time you should have a good idea whether or not the poem is worth reading a third time to combine the explicit message of text with the implicit meaning of sound into a coherent whole. If that is indeed the case, you go ahead and read it a third time, and then afterwards you must exclaim “ah!”, shed a single tear, perform a curt pagan votive and drink some rare fermented tea which you’ve left to boil for too long. This is indeed the only way to read poetry and so you must understand it is a time-consuming process – mind you, steps 3 to 7 are only required for good poetry, the kind which pays homage to the sublime (or the sort which grapples with gods and drags them into the mud). The superabundance of Internet poetry can accumulate unread until it reaches critical mass and collapses upon itself, swallowing both the bathos and the pathos of its authors in a great literary black hole and the world will keep on turning. Indeed, the great breakthrough of online publication is that it spares both the trees and the already wretched literary critics, giving us mere mortals the liberty to fail gloriously and without consequence.)

E. e. cummings does not only dislocate sound from meaning with the artfulness of a Daoist butcher, he actually reunites them with the genius of an alchemist. His hundred homunculi traipse awkwardly through some 115 pages – all of them without titles; all of them indeed quite naked. They are misshapen and haphazard and eerily beautiful; mythic and magical, occupying the liminal space between nonsense and eloquence.

I was shocked to meet Lady Afterwards and all the hope she packs in her mere three lines. I ran into salesmen who stink (all of them do, cummings teaches us). I met also the author’s father (a teacher at Harvard and a Unitarian minister) who in parting revealed to me that “love is the whole and more than all.” I do not think there exists a sounder doctrine; time and again we need to be reminded of it, even as we are burrying YHWH, Satan being dead.

I could go on forever about cummings, but for fear of doing injustice to the work of a master (which was once described to me as “stream-of-consciousness, without punctuation” – nothing could be further from the truth) I simply suggest: read cummings yourself and make your own mind. After you have done so, if you do not like it, urgently seek the attention of someone who does to exchange obscenities.

1 comment

  1. i love e.e cummings and his playfulness with language and punctuation... did you ever read my short notes on him on my blog?

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