BOOK REVIEW / A century on, the mischievous poet lives: 'Selected Poems' - e e cummings: Norton, 7.95 pounds

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TO THE casual observer, much 20th- century poetry might seem to lack gaiety. As a corrective, this week marks the centenary of the birth of an American poet who was the very embodiment of playful mischief. He was born Edward Estlin Cummings, the son of a Unitarian minister from Cambridge, Massachusetts; but by the time he was reading classics at Harvard, the persona of 'e e cummings', poet, painter, polemicist was already fully developed.

Much of his persona is apparent in the presentation of the name, of course - to do away with capitalisation and punctuation is to assert a new and quite unorthodox independence for the poetical self; to give it a status wholly different from that of the mere labourer in prose. How?

To read a piece of prose is to read through it for the meaning. The arrangement of words on the page matters little - and, in recent years, the slovenliness of publishers has made it seem to matter less and less. Poetry is different. With poetry, visual patterning can matter a great deal. A poem is a little like a painting. The words need space to breathe just as a painting needs a mount, appropriately tinted to pick up the tonal melodies of the canvas.

Many poets before Cummings had been acutely sensitive to the look of words on the page. George Herbert pointed up the emblematical significance of his poems 'Easter-wings' and 'The Altar' in the 17th century by arranging them to look like a pair of angel's wings and a solid lump of church furniture. Dylan Thomas paid a similar tribute to the ritual significance of visual patterning in a late sequence entitled 'Vision and Prayer'.

As a poet and painter, Cummings took the same road; but his brushes with the new arts of Cubism and Futurism in the salons of Paris - he was sent to France as an ambulance driver in 1917 - caused him to press a little further into the hinterland of wonder.

Playing fast and loose with his own name meant two quite separate things. First, that he was determined to see the world through the eyes of an untutored child. Childishness represents a disarming openness to the world, to the self, to the other; a spontaneous, unheroic powerlessness in the face of all society's swaggering egos. This cast of mind led him to write some excellent political satire and anti-war polemics. It also gave the best of his love lyrics vitality, intimacy and nave spontaneity.

Secondly, it meant that the orthodoxies of punctuation and syntax were dead. Throwing off their tyrannical yoke gave him permission to make the words of the poem express the unpredictable movements of human speech - how we run words together when we are in a feverish haste or slow them down when we utter pompous words of condemnation. He also experimented with spacing - lengthening or shortening the intervals between words so that their appearance would mimic the way in which words were really used, whether spoken out loud or to the self in the privacy of one's own mind.

He was an innocent, an inveterate optimist, from first to last; a prophet of the spontaneous, individual response, forever wrenching and reshaping poetical form to bring it into line with the essential principles of the New Art: break up and re-structure] And as the pen worked its own brutal excitements, the heart that drove it along could often seem a touch nave - and even gushingly romantic when brought up short by a particularly affecting twilight.

But in old age his own body, wracked with rheumatism, gave him unmerry hell, and he died something of a misanthrope, alas.