Books: Against social sham and commas

William Scammell on ee cummings, rebel who exalted feeling over intellect and poet who produced a prose classic
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The Independent Culture
YOU'D HAVE to be a very passionate fan indeed to covet all 1,100 pages of E E Cummings: Complete Poems 1904-1962 (Norton £35), a splendid centen- nial edition edited by George J Firmage. It runs all the way from "The world is very big, and we/Are very small and ignorant'' to "should this fool die/...lay/in his left hand/a flower whose/glory by no/mind ever was/taught how to grow''. That strikes the authentic Cummings note, anti-intellectual, pro-life, "the poor sonofabitch i'' instructing us in tenderness and humility.

Reading through this compendious soul-baring, and the handy Selected Poems (Liveright £7.95), I wasn't persuaded that Cummings was "the major American poet of the middle twentieth-century'' (Richard Kostelanetz) but it enlarged my view of his achievement. His experimentation, chiefly typographical, had always seemed a bit facile, his lyricism a cheapish perfume. But there's more to him than poetic gestures and fol-de-rols. One side of his dislocated syntax and humorous grotesquerie anticipates the Berryman of the "Dream Songs'', perhaps even the insouciance of Frank O'Hara and the New York school. The other leads to the soft underbelly of the Beats, the Liverpool poets, the moonings of adolescence.

Nature (good), politics (bad), and women (whores and madonnas) account for most of his preoccupations. The sonnets about prostitutes tend to start well but overcompensate for their shock tactics (designed to startle the Massachusetts matrons) by diving headlong into mother nature - "muchness of buds mattered. a valley spilled/its tickling river in my eyes'', etc - as guarantor of moral and spiritual health. Which is to say that Cummings doesn't quite have the courage of his convictions. Contrast and compare with Eliot's early skirmishes with "the army of unalterable law''. Sometimes he almost brings it off, though:

in making Marjorie god hurried

a boy's body on unsuspicious

legs of girl. his left hand quarried

the quartzlike face. his right slapped

the amusing big vital vicious

vegetable of her mouth.

Upon the whole he suddenly clapped

a tiny sunset of vermouth

-colour. Hair. he put between

her lips a moist mistake, whose fragrance hurls

me into tears, as the dusty new-

ness of her obsolete gaze begins to. lean...

a little against me, when for two

dollars i fill her hips with boys and girls

He can't quite bring himself not to shed tears - hookers are God's chillun too - but he tries hard to let the detail stave off too many stock responses.

The "clown's smirk in the skull of a baboon'' we meet elsewhere sounds like a conflation of Prufrock and Sweeney. Interestingly enough at Harvard Cummings and Eliot both briefly courted the same "dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty'', Amy de Gozzaldi, when all three took part in a production of Jerome K Jerome's The New Lady Bantock in 1913. "Eliot brought a bouquet of roses, but Cummings brought the ultimate gift, a poem...'' for, as his biographer sagely notes, "Cummings was always more ready than Eliot to address a lyric to a lady''.

The biographer is Richard S Kennedy, whose Dreams in the Mirror (Norton £14.95) offers a thorough if somewehat uncritical account of Cummings's life. Adored son of a Boston Unitarian minister, he grew up to become a poet and painter, a show-off, "the most brilliant monologuist I have ever known'' (Malcolm Cowley), an early dropout, and not very secure husband to a series of beautiful women. The bohemianism didn't stop him voting the Republican ticket, the lyricist turned satirist wasn't above bandying about words like "mick'' and "kike''. When criticised for this casual racism, he accused his accusers of wanting to curtail his freedom of speech.

"I should think myself cheated,'' he wrote to his mother, "if I allowed my humanly-sentimental mind to interfere, one iota, with the sealed letters of sensation brought to my soul by these eyes, these ears, this nose & tongue.'' He thought of himself as a Cubist and a Futurist, on canvas and on the page. Hence all the typographical high jinks and his lifelong battles with the comma - "every `word' purely considered implies its own punctuation''. Richard Blackmur's later coinage, the "Fallacy of Imitative Form", might have been expressly invented to blow his rather twee forms of mimesis out of the water. Experience suggests that there are other, better and harder ways of capturing the movements of the soul.

A case in point is Cummings's prose classic, and arguably most important book, The Enormous Room (Liveright £8.95), an account of his three-month imprisonment in a French detention centre during the First World War. He'd volunteered as an auxiliary in the Section Sanitaire, but was held for suspected treason when his best friend's letters home, intercepted by the censor, were found to be critical of the French army and government. Cummings refused to dissociate himself from his friend or his sentiments (they'd talked to French soldiers, and knew the appalling truth), so the pair of them were thrown into a makeshift prison along with other drifters and malcontents, where Cummings had the time of his life.

It's a book I've been meaning to read for 30 years. Now that I have I can report that it's as good as they say it is, comparable with (though very different from) Graves's, Sassoon's and Blunden's memoirs, his friend Dos Passos's Three Soldiers and Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. It's written in a high-spirited pot-pourri of styles made up of orotundities, ironies, sarcasms, allegories and slangy schoolboy French, the whole fuelled by Cummings's loathing for the war, the barbarism of governments and their bovine minions, such as gendarmes and plantons (guards); and conversely by his love of the dauntless gypsies, misfits and individualists who refused to knuckle under to the system.

Cummings always exalted feeling, primitivism, les damns de la terre over intellect and so-called civilisation, but in fact The Enormous Room is full of penetrating intellectual and moral discrimination. He experiences from the inside what Pound damned from the outside (until he too found himself caged), a sham society that had lost all moral authority, posturing over the bodies of the dead with a swagger stick. Faced with the enormities in front of his nose Cummings doesn't need to resort to tricks. There is probably more real poetry in these pages than in all the alleged pomp of the Complete.

What's also impressive is how he anticipates, perhaps even initiates, one of the most eloquent genres of the century, the literature of the camps, later made familiar in the pages of Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov, Primo Levi and many more. He was never in the same peril as they were, but his conclusions, or rather triumphantly detailed demonstrations, are exactly the same as theirs. "Not for all the lead pipe in Solomon's mines'', to pinch a phrase from his letters, would he bend or accommodate himself to official lies, and one cheers him on all the way - even when the prose, very occasionally, turns camp in the other sense.

8 Left: self-portrait by E E Cummings, "brilliant monologuist, poet, painter and show-off" (Bettmann Archive)