E E Cummings and Robinson Jeffers in the 1920s

It might have seemed to a follower of American poetry in the mid-1920s that it was E. E. Cummings, rather than W. C. Williams, who was the rising star of the poetic avant-garde. Cummings published four volumes of verse between 1923 and 1926, his poems appeared in a wide range of periodicals -including the Dial, Vanity Fair, and The Little Review - and in 1925 he was the third poet to receive the coveted Dial award, following Eliot and Moore. While not all critics were favorably disposed toward Cummings' work, the reception of his poetry was generally positive and at times even adulatory. One reviewer argued that his first book, Tulips and Chimneys (1923), contained "as beautiful poems as have been written by any present-day poet in the English language," and Cummings' friend Slater Brown made the even more hyperbolic claim that the volume represented "the most important work of poetry yet published in America."

Yet despite the brilliant successes of his early career, Cummings does not figure prominently in most literary histories of the modernist period. Cummings' poems, while they have achieved more popularity among general readers than those of any twentieth-century American poet other than Frost, have gradually fallen out of the central canon of American modernism. Though poems such as "Buffalo Bill's," "O sweet spontaneous," "In Just-" and "anyone lived in a pretty how town" remain standard anthology pieces, it is increasingly rare to see Cummings cited as a primary force in twentieth-century poetry.

Born in 1894 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his father was a Con-gregationalist minister and a former Harvard professor, Cummings grew up in a securely middle-class environment and attended Harvard, where he studied classics and English literature and joined the editorial board of the Harvard Monthly. Though Cummings had been writing poems regularly since the age of eight, it was at Harvard that he began to write and publish in a more serious way, inspired by the exciting cultural environment of the mid-1910s and by the discovery of Keats and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In 1917, he and several ofhis classmates published an anthology of their poems, Eight Harvard Poets. That same year, Cummings went to France to serve in the ambulance corps, and he was detained for three months at a prison camp in Normandy on suspicion of espionage. Out of this experience, he wrote one of the most important autobiographical novels of the modernist era, The Enormous Room (1922). Later publications included the experimental play Him (1927), a book of collected stories, epigrams, and puns (1930), and an experimental account ofhis trip to the Soviet Union, Eimi (1933). At the same time, Cummings maintained a successful career as a visual artist, exhibiting his paintings on many occasions.

Cummings' poems are immediately recognizable, with their eccentric use of typography, punctuation, syntax, and visual form. Cummings is best known as a lyric poet who wrote on themes of love and nature, but he was also one of the most effective poetic satirists of his age, often using his poems as skillful critiques of governmental policies and the ills of an overly consumeristic society. Cummings' failure to gain the stature of a major modernist poet is attributable to several factors. First, his poems often lack complexity on the level of ideas: they do not force the reader, as do the works of Stevens, Pound, Eliot or Williams, to think about the world in a profoundly different way. There is a great deal of sentimentality in Cummings' work, and he remains in large part a conventional lyric poet despite his experimental surfaces. Secondly, Cummings did not continue to grow as a poet in the way other modernists did: although some critics note a change between Cummings' early poems and his later work, many of the poems utilize the same typographical and linguistic devices, treat the same themes (love, spring, childhood), and use the same basic vocabulary.

Finally, while Cummings was an important innovator and experimentalist - especially in terms of the typographical and the visual aspects of his poems - his work was not guided by the kind of defining aesthetic, ideological, or philosophical project we find in the work of the major modernists: there is no central idea or group ofideas which lead to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. As a result, his typographical devices and playful distortions oflanguage sometimes feel like mere mannerisms, stylistic tics with no function except that of displaying themselves to the reader. Frequently, there is a vagueness in Cummings' use oflanguage that can lead to a superficiality of idea. Despite Cummings' frequent use of coinages - typically combinational words such as "unstrength," "almostness" and "flowerterrible" -much ofhis language remains on the level ofbanal poetism, attaining neither the sharp precision of the Imagist poem or the verbal complexity of the Stevensian or Cranian lyric.

Cummings' most successful poems are those in which the delightfully playful rush of words is balanced by the controlling discipline of formal craft. We find this balance most successfully achieved in Cummings' sonnets, such as "the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls," from Tulips and Chimneys:

the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds

(also, with the church's protestant blessings daughters, unscented shapeless spirited)

they believe in Christ and Longfellow, both dead, are invariably interested in so many things -

at the present writing one still finds delighted fingers knitting for the is it Poles?

perhaps. While permanent faces coyly bandy scandal of Mrs. N and Professor D

the Cambridge ladies do not care, above

Cambridge if sometimes in its box of sky lavender and cornerless, the moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy

The poem begins in striking fashion with a statement of its controlling metaphor or conceit. The "souls" of the "Cambridge ladies" (by which Cummings ironically indicates their minds, attitudes, and opinions) are compared to the decor of furnished rooms: like the rooms to which they are compared, the women's minds are "comfortable" but "unbeautiful," and they are filled with the furniture and bric-a-brac of inherited ideas that are never refurbished. These "ladies" still inhabit the nineteenth-century New England mindset represented by the church and the poetry of Longfellow (the epitome of comfortable literary conventionality); yet as the highly ironic fifth line suggests, they are not capable ofmaking a distinction between their unthinking religious belief in Christ and their equally unthinking acceptance of inherited literary taste. Though they are "invariably interested in so many things" (the word "invariably" undercutting the seriousness of such interests), their lives consist primarily in gossiping about their fellow Cambridge residents ("the scandal of Mrs. N and Professor D") and in knitting sweaters for the current underprivileged group, whose ethnicity they no longer even remember.

Cummings' poem is certainly indebted to the mode of modernist social satire found in poems such as Pound's "Portrait d'une Femme" and Eliot's "The 'Boston Evening Transcript,' " yet Cummings keeps his social observations fresh through his novel use of sonnet form, his unusual punctuation and typography (ellipses, parentheses, lack of periods, use of lower-case letters), and his clever juxtapositions of language. The poem is a rejection of Cummings' protected and traditional upbringing: he himself grew up surrounded by the complacent small-mindedness described in the poem, and Longfellow was an important early model for his own poetry. Cummings skillfully manipulates different registers of discourse within the poem: the empty language of conventionality in describing the Cambridge ladies ("at the present writing one still finds") is contrasted with the almost surreal lyricism of the final lines.

Cummings displaces his own anger toward these women onto an exterior object, the moon, which appears in the poem's second metaphor as a "fragment of angry candy" rattling in its "box of sky / lavender and cornerless." The oxymoronic image ofthe sky as a cornerless candy box - along with the somewhat ambiguous syntax created by the line breaks - suggests the poet's final escape from social and literary convention into a world of imaginative freedom. Formally, the poem reenacts this struggle between conformity and liberation. The sonnet's envelope rhyme scheme (abcddcba efggfe) suggests confinement and rigid pattern (perhaps a verbal echo of the women's knitting), yet the rhymes themselves are playfully irreverent: Cummings rhymes the letter "D" with "the" and "of" with "above," as if pushing to the limit the possibilities of rhyme as a traditional structuring device.

At the opposite end ofthe literary and geographical spectrum from Cum-mings was Robinson Jeffers, a poet best known for his long narrative poems set on the Monterey peninsula of central California. Jeffers had little interest in the kind of poetic experimentalism represented by modernists like Pound, Eliot, Williams, and Cummings: he believed that the modernists had "turned off the road into a narrowing lane," moving toward a stylistic originality at the expense of "substance and sense, and physical and psychological reality." Jeffers resolved "not to become a 'modern'"; instead, he would seek a poetic mode that could sustain a serious philosophic inquiry and project a strong emotional intensity while remaining within the bounds of more traditional poetic expression. His thematic aims, however, seem paradoxical: resolving to "draw subjects from contemporary life," he also decided to exclude "much of the circumstance of modern life, especially in the cities," since he viewed the experience of modern urban life as less "permanent" and less suited to the kinds of universals he wished to express. Such beliefs would later lead to Jeffers' philosophy of "inhumanism," one based on the idea that we must abandon the "introverted" focus on the human and "uncenter the human mind from itself," identifying instead with the "transhuman" power of nature.

Born in 1887 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and introduced to classical languages and the Bible as a young boy, Jeffers was educated in a series of Swiss boarding schools. By the time he entered the University ofPittsburgh at age fifteen, he had a command of French, German, Latin, and Greek, as well as a keen interest in poetry. The family moved to Los Angeles, California, a year later, where Jeffers attended Occidental College and began publishing poems in magazines. After graduating from college, Jeffers studied in a series of academic programs: literature and languages at the University of Southern California and the University of Zurich, medicine at Southern California, and forestry at the University of Washington.

Though Jeffers never began a career in any of these fields, the latter two courses of study were important to his poetry, much of which focuses on details of the natural world. In 1913, Jeffers married and moved with his wife to Carmel, where they built Tor House, a granite cottage overlooking the ocean. It was not until about 1920 that Jeffers discovered his mature poetic voice, and he did not gain a wide readership for his poems until the 1924 publication of Tamar and Other Poems, which contained the long narrative poem "Tamar" as well as a number of shorter lyrics. Enthusiastic reviews helped make Jeffers a popular as well as a critical success throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s; by the late 1930s, however, he had dropped out of critical favor, in part because of his unpopular ideas, and in part because the dominant New Criticism of the period privileged a very different kind of poetry from that which Jeffers was writing.

The poem "Salmon Fishing," from Tamar, is one ofJeffers' most impressive shorter lyrics:

The days shorten, the south blows wide for showers now, The south wind shouts to the rivers, The rivers open their mouths and the salt salmon Race up into the freshet.

In Christmas month against the smoulder and menace Of a long angry sundown,

Red ash of the dark solstice, you see the anglers, Pitiful, cruel, primeval,

Like the priests of the people that built Stonehenge,

Dark silent forms, performing

Remote solemnities in the red shallows

Of the river's mouth at the year's turn,

Drawing landward their live bullion, the bloody mouths

And scales full of the sunset

Twitch on the rocks, no more to wander at will

The wild Pacific pasture nor wanton and spawning

Race up into fresh water.

The careful revisions Jeffers made on "Salmon Fishing" demonstrate that he was interested in something far more complex than simply painting a natural scene. Like Frost - whose poetry Jeffers admired - he often uses the depiction of a natural setting to develop larger ideas, though his use of nature does not generally take the form of a paysage moralise in the way Frost's does. In Jeffers' poem, the natural world is not made to function as an analogy or symbol for human life or emotions; instead, human existence is subsumed to nature. The title "Salmon Fishing" may remind us of the titles of Frost poems such as "Mowing" or "After Apple-Picking," but Jeffers' poem enacts a far more violent tension between human activity and the natural world into which it is introduced. The opposition between man and nature is more muted than in the original typescript of the poem, in which the anglers were said to "torture" the fish, but it is still crucial to the poem's structure and meaning. Here the fishermen are seen from a distance, and only through the eyes of a second-person observer ("you see the anglers"). As Tim Hunt suggests, the humans are no longer in the foreground (as the human speakers or protagonist would be in a typical Frost poem), but are seen as "elements of landscape, of nature."4 Significantly, the anglers are not introduced until nearly halfway through the poem, which begins with what appears to be a benign description of a natural scene.

Syntactically, the poem is divided into two sentences, the first much shorter, simpler, and emotionally contained than the second. In the first sentence we find a series of five statements, each an observation about the effects of the changing season. Nature appears to be in harmony, operating according to the cause and effect of cyclical process, and there is as yet no sign of human presence. With the beginning of second sentence, however, the poem's tone and imagery change abruptly. Here the imagery is associated with fire and ash rather than with wind and water. Jeffers plays with the irony of a ritualized slaughter of salmon taking place "in Christmas month." The highly evocative imagery of the central lines mixes pagan and Christian elements, while the men's presence is seen both as an anachronism (they are "primitive" and compared to the prehistoric priests of Stonehenge) and as an affront to nature, viewed against the backdrop of a "long angry sundown."

The use of figurative language is important throughout the poem. The dominant trope is personification, though the personification functions in a nontraditional way. When nature is personified (the wind "shouts to the rivers") or given human attributes (the "long angry sundown" and the fish who "wander at will") we do not have the sense that nature is domesticated or made to seem more human; on the contrary, such figures enhance the felt otherness of nature. Jeffers does not anthropomorphize nature in an attempt to understand or control it, but instead makes human actions and emotions appear to be simply part of a larger natural order. This refusal to let the human dominate nature is clear in Jeffers' use of perspective: Jeffers presents the fishermen as "dark silent forms" who perform their "remote solemnities" at a distance from the onlooker, yet when he describes the fish we see their mouths and scales in close-up detail. The men are removed from the reader/viewer in other ways as well. They are shrouded in darkness, their mysterious and "primeval" activity compared to that of the priests at Stonehenge, while the fish are described with words suggesting brightness, value, and plenitude: "live bullion," their scales "full of the sunset." While the men are "pitiful" and "cruel," the fish are full of heroic vitality, wandering at will, spawning, and racing up-river to meet their destiny.

Finally, the poem gains much of its power from its rhythms and the force of its sound. Jeffers did not consider his poems to be in free verse, but insisted that they had a rhythmic movement "as regular as meter, or as the tides." In the first four lines of "Salmon Fishing," the strongly accented meters contribute to the overall sense of vital activity. The trochaic and spondaic rhythms, along with the alternating long and short lines, capture the tidal movement and the accompanying surge of the fish from the sea to the rivers. At the same time, the repeated open vowel sounds of the beginning lines ("south," "showers," "now," "south," "shouts," and "mouths") contrast with the closed, nasalized vowels that dominate lines 5-7. The fishermen's disruptive influence on the harmonious world ofnature is made clear through Jeffers' use of sound as well as his imagery.

Dealing With Sorrow

Dealing With Sorrow

Within this audio series and guide Dealing With Sorrow you will be learning all about Hypnotherapy For Overcoming Grief, Failure And Sadness Quickly.

Get My Free Audio Series

Post a comment