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Reviews Of Selected Poetry Collections Essay, Research Paper
On Tulips & Chimneys, which contains "Thy
fingers make early flowers of," "in Just–," "O sweet
spontaneous," and "Buffalo Bill’s"
Slater Brown (1924)
Modern art gets much less explanation than it
deserves. The artist is too busy pioneering, the intransigent critic too busy fighting his
own battles. Nor does any explanation come from the critics of the older school. They have
a fear of tasting anything which they cannot recognize at a glance, they refuse to
understand anything which is disturbingly new. But since they are house-broken only in
their own traditions and would inevitably make a mess of themselves if they wandered
afield, it is perhaps fortunate for the world that they make no attempt to understand the
underlying aesthetic upon which these crisp and brilliant poems of E. E. Cummings are
For Cummings is not only a poet but a painter. His knowledge of word
value is as profound as his knowledge of color, and it is largely for this reason, because
he has carried over the eye and method of art into the field of poetry, that the fresh,
living, glamorous forms he has created seem so intangible. To many of those who do not
understand this fact, this translation of one art into the technic of another, the poems
of E. E. Cummings seem nothing more than verbal and typographical mannerism.
But it is not unapparent in his work that Cummings’ approach to poetry
has been quite definitely through painting. The spatial organization of color has become
the durational organization of words, the technical problem that of tempo. Words, like
planes in abstract painting, function not as units in a logical structure, but as units
functioning in a vital and organic structure of time. Logic and all its attributes of
grammar, spelling and punctuation, become subservient to the imperial demands of form. The
words must come at the moment juste, the spark perfectly timed must ignite them at
their fullest incipient power.
while in the battered
bodies the odd unlovely
souls struggle slowly and writhe
like caught. brave: flies;
In this quotation the verbal units fall, almost as if by fate, into a
sharp relentless tempo that drives each into the highest incandescence of its meaning.
There is no waste, the skilful orchestration of tempo forces each word to the final limit
of its stress.
But Cummings not only derives his technical organization from painting.
The sudden and glaring accuracies of description with which his poetry abounds, are those
of an amazingly adept draughtsman who has for the moment exchanged his own medium for that
of words. In some cases this pictorial accuracy is that of a photograph taken with a lens
of ice, brutally clear. But in many of his more recent poems, of which there are all too
few examples in the present volume, this accuracy, deepened and sharpened by satire, cuts
both ways. These poems, particularly the one published in the fourth number of Secession,
have all the quality of Daumier plus that formal significance which Daumier never
attained. It is a satire both in form and import far beyond the timid and retiring ironies
of T. S. Eliot; a satire which reveals Cummings as completely innoculated against that
galloping stagnation which seems to carry off so many of our younger American poets.
Of the grace of Cummings’ poetry much has been written. But grace is an
emanation, the residue or by-product of a means which has utterly realized its aesthetic
or extra-aesthetic purpose. It is an ease which springs from the perfect economy of
method. But since it cannot be its own purpose, since it can only be attained by way of a
technic whose purpose is not grace itself, it necessarily extends beyond the reaches of
analysis. Nevertheless it may be touched by a consideration of that purpose from which it
emanates, and though I may be leading myself by the nose into a very doubtful territory of
assumptions, I should say that the formal grace (one might as well say beauty and be done
with it) of Cummings’ work is largely due to the fact that the lines of his poems are
built for speed. Their beauty is that of all swift things seen at rest.
In his best work this speed is evident; there exists in them an
organized direction toward which each verbal unit functions at its highest velocity.
Cummings seldom attempts to achieve momentum through the utilization of mass, the violent
and often painful impact of his poems is the active manifestation of speed; their formal
beauty has that quality common to racing cars, aeroplanes, and to those birds surviving
because of their swift wings.
But it is this speed, this sudden impact of his poems which turns so
many people against them. Men do not like to be knocked down, particularly by some quality
they admire. But if art is to have any of the contemporary virtues it must have speed, and
though it is perhaps more pleasant to be softly overturned by the witching waves of Amy
Lowell, or knocked slowly numb by the water droppings of Georgian poetasters, it is
certainly more exhilarating to experience the sharp, the living, the swift, the brilliant
tempos of E.E. Cummings. And though the selection of poems in this volume is neither a
sensitive nor a comprehensive one, though it contains poems of questionable value, it
nevertheless stands as the most important work of poetry yet published in America.
from Slater Brown, "[Review of Tulips and Chimneys ]." Broom 6
Harriet Monroe (1924)
Mr. Cummings’ first book opens with a fanfare–there is a flourish of
trumpets and a crash of cymbals in the resounding music of Epithalamion, a certain
splendor of sound carried just to that point of blare which should match an exaggerated
and half-satiric magnificence of mood. "Go to, ye classic bards," he seems to
say, "I will show you what I can do with iambic pentameter, and a rhyme-patterned
stanza, with high-sounding processional adjectives, long simile-embroidered sentences, and
0-thou invocations of all the gods!" And lo and behold, this modernist does
very well with them–Picasso and the rest, turning from the chaos of cubism to the cold
symmetry of Ingres, must not get ahead of him! He will be in the fashion, or a leap or two
ahead of it–and the muse shall not outrun him!
Listen to two separate stanzas from this glorified and richly patterned
spring-song, this earth- and-sky-inspired Epithalamion:
And still the mad magnificent herald Spring
Assembles beauty from forgetfulness
With the wild trump of April: witchery
Of sound and odor drives the wingless thing,
Man, forth into bright air; for now the red
Leaps in the maple’s cheek, and suddenly
By shining hordes, in sweet unserious dress,
Ascends the golden crocus from the dead.
. . . . . . . . . . . . ..
0 still miraculous May! 0 shining girl
Of time untarnished! 0 small intimate
Gently primeval hands, frivolous feet
Divine! 0 singular and breathless pearl!
0 indefinable frail ultimate pose!
0 visible beatitude–sweet sweet
Intolerable! Silence immaculate
Of God’s evasive audible great rose!
(Right here is due a parenthetical apology. Mr. Cummings has an
eccentric system of typography which, in our opinion, has nothing to do with the poem, but
intrudes itself irritatingly, like scratched or blurred spectacles, between it and the
reader’s mind. In quoting him, therefore, we are trying the experiment of printing him
almost like anybody else, with the usual quantity of periods, commas, capital letters, and
other generally accepted conventions of the printer’s art.)
In a more or less grandiloquent mood the poet swaggers and riots
through his book, carrying off Beauty in his arms as tempestuously as ever Petruchio his
shrew. The important thing, of course, is that he does capture her–she is recognizable
even when the poet, like Petruchio, laughs at her, tumbles her up-to-date raiment,
sometimes almost murders her as he sweeps her along.
She drops swift phrases in passing:
Your thoughts more white than wool
My thought is sorrowful.
Across the harvest whitely peer,
Empty of surprise,
Death’s faultless eyes.
Softer be they than slippered sleep.
Thy fingers make early flowers of
And all the while my heart shall be
With the bulge and nuzzle of the sea.
Thy forehead is a flight of flowers.
The green-greeting pale-departing irrevocable sea.
The body of
The queen of queens is
Than water–she is softer than birds.
The serious steep darkness.
Death’s clever enormous voice [in war].
The Cambridge ladies who live in furnished Souls. . . .
They believe in Christ and Longfellow, both dead.
Some poems guffaw into grotesques leering with tragic or comic
significance. The Portraits are mostly of this kind, and certain of the Impressions.
Here the poet is often too nimble–he tires the reader with intricate intellectual
acrobatics which scarcely repay one for puzzling out their motive over the slippery
typographical stepping-stones. But even here the fault is one of exuberance–the poet
always seems to be having a glorious time with himself and his world even when the reader
loses his breath in the effort to share it. He is as agile and outrageous as a faun, and
as full of delight over the beauties and monstrosities of this brilliant and grimy old
planet. There is a grand gusto in him, and that is rare enough to be welcomed in any age
of a world too full of puling pettifoggers and picayunes.
One might quote many poems in proof of this poet’s varied joys. We shall have to be
satisfied with two. The first is number one of the Chansons Innocentes:
Spring, when the world is mud-
luscious, the little
whistles far and wee.
And Eddie-and Bill come
running from marbles and
piracies, and it’s
when the world is puddle-wonderful.
old balloon-man whistles
far and wee.
And Betty-and-Isbel come dancing
from hop-scotch and jump-rope, and
The second of our quotations is number two of the Orientale series:
I spoke to thee
with a smile, and thou didst not
thy mouth is as
a chord of crimson music.
O thou, is life not a smile?
I spoke to thee with
a song, and thou
didst not listen:
thine eyes are as a vase
of divine silence.
O thou, is life not a song?
to thee with a soul, and
thou didst not wonder:
thy face is as a dream locked
in white fragrance.
O thou, is life not love?
I speak to
thee with a sword,
and thou art silent:
thy breast is as a tomb
softer than flowers.
O thou, is love not death?
Altogether a mettlesome high-spirited poet salutes us in this volume.
But beware his imitators!
from Harriet Monroe, "Flare and Blare." Poetry 23 (1924): 211-15.
Edmund Wilson (1924)
[In this review, Wilson contrasts Cummings with Wallace Stevens.]
Mr. Wallace Stevens is the master of a style: that is the most
remarkable thing about him. His gift for combining words is fantastic but sure: even when
you do not know what he is saying, you know that he is saying it well. He derives plainly
from several French sources of the last fifty years but he never–except for a fleeting
phrase or two–really sounds like any of them. You could not mistake even a title by
Wallace Stevens for a title by anyone else: Invective Against Swans, Hibiscus on the
Sleeping Shores, A High-Toned Old Christian Woman, The Emperor of Ice-Cream, Exposition of
the Contents of a Cab, The Bird with the Coppery Keen Claws, Two Figures in Dense Violet
Night, Hymn from a Watermelon Pavilion, and Frogs Eat Butterflies. Snakes Eat Frogs. Hogs
Eat Snakes. Men Eat Hogs.
These titles also represent Mr. Steven’s curious ironic imagination at
its very best. The poems themselves–ingenious, charming and sometimes beautiful as they
are–do not always quite satisfy the expectation aroused by the titles. When you read a
few poems of Mr. Stevens, you get the impression from the richness of his verbal
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