03 March 2005


From Adam Kirsch's essay, "The Rebellion of E.E. Cummings":

[T]he limits of Cummings's rebellion help to explain the limits of his modernity. Superficially, Cummings is the most radical of poets: no American poet of his generation so fractured the surfaces of poetry. But as the great critic Randall Jarrell wrote, "Even the poems' difficulties are of an undemanding, unaccusing sort -- that of puzzles"; once the reader has gotten accustomed to Cummings's typographical fireworks, there is nothing in the substance of the poems, their ideas and feelings and views of the world, that is genuinely challenging.

In this, Cummings offers a sharp contrast with T.S. Eliot '10, A.M. '11, whose student years at Harvard nearly overlapped with Cummings's, and who came from a similar Unitarian background. (Coincidentally, Sawyer-Laucanno reveals, Cummings and Eliot acted together in a Cambridge Social Dramatic Club production in 1913.) Eliot's poetry offers a profound challenge to the secular optimism of American culture -- above all, to the national reverence for individualism. That is why
The Waste Land and Eliot's other great poems continue to be among the most provocative and influential in modern poetry. Cummings's poems, on the other hand, are what Jarrell called "the popular songs of American intellectuals," in the sense that they repeat to us our own most comfortable assumptions -- about love, nature, and the supreme value of the individual.

Perhaps. But we always need reminding.

"NOTHING IS SO DIFFICULT AS TO BE ALIVE!!!!!! which is the ONLY THING WHICH YOU CANNOT LEARN ever,from anyone,anywhere: it must come out of you;and it never can,until you have KNOCKED DOWN AND CARRIED OUT all the teachable swill of Cambridge etc."

(Via Arts & Letters Daily)

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