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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

built.

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

(1924): 26-28.

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:

Between

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

All things.

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

More transparent

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:

In just–

Spring, when the world is mud-

luscious, the little

lame balloon-man

whistles far and wee.

And Eddie-and Bill come

running from marbles and

piracies, and it’s

spring,

when the world is puddle-wonderful.

The queer

old balloon-man whistles

far and wee.

And Betty-and-Isbel come dancing

from hop-scotch and jump-rope, and

it’s

spring,

and

the

goat-footed

balloon-man whistles

far

and

wee.

The second of our quotations is number two of the Orientale series:

I spoke to thee

with a smile, and thou didst not

answer:

thy mouth is as

a chord of crimson music.

Come hither–

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.

Come hither–

O thou, is life not a song?

I spoke

to thee with a soul, and

thou didst not wonder:

thy face is as a dream locked

in white fragrance.

Come hither–

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.

Come hither–

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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