"She lives the poetry she cannot write" – Wilde
i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and love and wings;and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any – lifted from the no
of all nothing – human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
Sometimes people ask which poem first got me into poetry. It wasn’t the one above – it was this one, also by EE Cummings (and before you get smart, yes he did use capitals in his own name). I wrote out the last two verses and pinned them to a cork board in my bedroom. I still adore it. At seventeen I knew exactly what it meant, and didn’t want it explained. It can be explained, just as happiness can be explained as a ratio of endorphins – but that’s not the point of either poetry or happiness.
Still, my project this month is to offer up my Great Poetry Wisdom, to show how we can learn from others’ poems in writing our own. Some of you hate Cummings but tough: let’s have a go at the one above, untitled like most of his works. It’s a trolley dash through the English language, with Cummings seemingly throwing punctuation marks in randomly or stuffing words on top of one another in the wrong order.
There are always careless writers, writers who can’t spell or who don’t pay close attention to punctuation. Cummings is not one of them. He was mad for poetry from childhood. By his late twenties he was steeped in traditional forms, and proceeded to blow them apart with the kind of textual tomfoolery you see here. Why? The 1920s were a time of experimentation in visual art, music and literature but he didn’t do it for its own sake. Like Edna St Vincent Millay who we looked at yesterday, he was trying to give the reader direct access to the emotions of the writer. Unlike Millay, who built elegant machinery to do it, Cummings plugs us straight into the mains. He bypasses ordinary language structures to shock us beyond reading, into feeling.
There’s no title, so expectations are disrupted from the start; he gets straight into a declaration of thanks. Cummings himself isn’t worthy of a capital ‘I’ (he’s a ‘human merely being’ as he says later) but God gets the traditional upper case. And look at the word order. It’s easy to skip over it and read it as you think it should read, but Cummings doesn’t thank his God for ‘this most amazing day’. He says ‘most this amazing day’. The ‘leaping greenly spirits of trees’? This is all jolly ungrammatical. Call the cops. The third stanza, if it could be ‘properly’ expressed would be something like this – “How should any mere tasting, touching human being, who has been lifted out of nothing by you, doubt you, the unimaginable God?”
There’s no grammatical construction big enough to contain such excitement. Cummings meets the frustration of a poet trying to express the inexpressible, by tumbling out words with the freshness of a child trying to say something for the first time. The effect is ebullient, dizzying and (to some) ridiculous. He gives thanks ‘for everything/ which is natural which is infinite which is yes’. ‘Yes’ as an adjective is nonsense. But it works, don’t you think? Nietzsche said ‘it is the stillest words that bring on the storm’ and it is the simplest words that carry the most power. YES is a sledgehammer of a word; the ultimate, simple affirmation. You can’t do better than YES for positive thinking.
That word ends a list of three because it’s the culmination; a larger idea than ‘natural’, larger even than ‘infinite’. This construction is called a triad, and we do it all the time. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play. An Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman walk into a bar. The last idea generally has the most power. To empower it further Cummings dangles ‘yes’ at the end of a stanza, as the word that hangs in your mind for a second longer than the others. One critic wrote that Cummings used “familiar, even almost dead words, in such a context as to make them suddenly impervious to every ordinary sense… with a great air of being bursting with something very important and precise to say.” This sprinting, athletic word use is there to subvert cliche. Cummings wants to say afresh those great things which we want to say but which, through familiarity, have become trite – ‘I love you, God’. Or ‘Good God, I love you’.
Punctuation disrupts the immediate sense and the appearance of the poem. I think the brackets in this one are where Cummings delivers a little soliloquy, making a sort of aside to explain his own thoughts; the rest of the poem is addressed directly to God. There is no full stop anywhere. You can rest, but never for long; even the semicolons don’t get the customary space after them. Cummings enters the poem at full tilt, and runs off at the end of it without really drawing breath. Like most of his poems, it feels like you’ve been involved in a verbal hit-and-run, and are left a little dazed.
If you try this at home, dear reader, you are likely to produce what I call Artwank. Then again, you may communicate the same breathless, headlong excitement as Cummings, or find something fresh is released in your own style. If you find it obscure, I get that. But as with life, so with poetry; sometimes if you let yourself be carried along by a great force, some of it remains with you afterwards.