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Gary Lehmann


E. E. Cummings and the Aesthetic Sense


            I recently encountered a small exhibit of paintings by the famous poet E. E. Cummings.   I found my self captivated by these paintings, not because they were good, but because of their remarkable mediocrity.  

            Every artist, no matter how primitive or how sophisticated, has some basic sense of what is beautiful.     One is strongly tempted to assume that if an artist has an aesthetic sense that breaks new ground in one field, he can likewise apply that aesthetic break through to other fields as well, but the paintings of E. E. Cummings seem to belie this reasonable assumption. 

            Most artists copy the aesthetic that already exists, the one they grew up with or admire.  It’s just as true of poets as it is of painters in the main.  Some few diverge from the norm without impacting the mainstream of the culture, but some, a tiny few, discover an aesthetic sense for themselves that leads a whole culture off in a new direction.    To do this, they need a very strong personality and an absolutely unshakable awareness of where they are going.  In fact, they have to have this sense of beauty so implacably fixed in their minds and hands that all the obstacles any artistic oligarchy can throw in their way can easily be swept aside by the simple power of their enduring vision.    Though no one really agrees with it, everyone comes to see that they were right all along.   Exactly how this happens is a mystery.

            E. E. Cummings is surely an artist who fits this description.   He was born in Cambridge, Mass. in 1894.  His father was a Harvard Professor of Sociology and Unitarian minister.   The future poet attended Harvard for a BA and an MA where he acted in a play with T.S. Eliot before volunteering as an ambulance driver in France during the First World War.  He was jailed under mysterious circumstances.   He was probably mouthing off about the stupidity of war and very nearly died in a French prison before being rescued and brought home.  When he recovered, he resolved to become a radical poet. He wanted to confront the social strictures of Cambridge and reflect the new attitude toward life that came out of the Great War.    

            His verse broke all the accepted rules of form that Victorian America had embraced.   Simultaneously, he began a lifelong avocation as a painter. What he offered in exchange for breaking all the accepted rules of poetry was a vibrant sense of fun and originality which invigorated a whole new generation of poetry lovers.    He wanted to explore new sexual mores.  He wanted to expose Boston’s hypocrisy.  He once got in trouble with his father when a Boston Madame thought she was being polite by telephoning his father to explain why the Boston Police Department towed his car away from the front of her bordello.   The Unitarian minister was not amused. 

            Randall Jarrell has said of Cumming’s poetic methods, "Cummings is a very great expert in all these, so to speak, illegal syntactical devices: his misuse of parts of speech, his use of negative prefixes, his word-coining, his systematic relation of words that grammar and syntax don't permit us to relate--all this makes him a magical bootlegger or moonshiner of language, one who intoxicates us on a clear liquor no government has legalized with its stamp." 

            Strangely enough, while he insisted on breaking all the rules of poetry, he appears to have followed the modernist rules of painting with amazing fidelity.   He did pen and ink sketches which have a vivid sense of line and action but are clearly copies of the style of other works he has seen.    His portraits and self-portraits are contemporary but not avant-garde.  His water color landscapes are modest, even mundane.   His efforts at abstractionism are derivative.  His paintings always followed 10-20 years behind the cutting edge.    He understood what the elite painters of his day were doing, he just couldn’t get out in front of their aesthetic.

            Yet while he is following every modernist trend in painting as if he had no independent vision of art, no independent aesthetic judgment to rely upon, he is writing poetry at the very cutting edge of modernism.  In poetry, he has clarity and purpose.  In painting he appears to have no keel.   In poetry, the more he is reviled, the more he becomes belligerent and holds fast to his aesthetic sense of rebellious beauty.   In painting, he seems to be swayed by every trend and direction. It is uncanny that the same mind can be so differently positioned in two adjacent artistic disciplines.  

            In this respect, Cummings is not unlike Winston Churchill, who was an absolutely brilliant politician but a very traditional artist.   If politics is an art form, Churchill brought the aesthetic taste of a Rembrandt to the field of public debate and public policy making.   He may have been the man who brilliantly led Great Britain to victory on the home front by understanding the essence of the times, but not because of his acumen at water color technique.

            Then -- why is it that one who achieves the highest level of leadership in one art form can not transfer the aesthetic judgments that drove those changes into another, closely related, artistic medium?

            The answer may be that the capacity to influence a whole art form is not due to aesthetic judgment alone.  Perhaps the ability to change a whole artistic culture only occurs when there is a confluence of a large number of circumstances, only one of which is the aesthetic sense.  E. E. Cummings’ career was funded and guided to some extent by his lifelong friends, J. Sibley Watson and Scofield Thayer, co-founders of the influential Dial magazine, edited by the influential poet, Marianne Moore.   Cumming’ Harvard connections opened doors which led to people willing to experiment with his brand of literary innovations.       

            Of course, we want to say that our literary heroes were recognized for their brilliance and not for their connections, but in the real world, careers are built on both.   In hindsight, when we try to assess what makes some artists natural born leaders, we end up pointing to their unique aesthetic sense.   We contrast it with that of their predecessors.    But, in reality, there may be a whole lot more complex factors involved in the making of a radical poet.   It is all rather a mystery.  

            Perhaps because of his patrician upbringing, and perhaps because of his close brush with death in French prisons, Cummings after the war had an unshakable sense of what poetry should be doing.   He understood the failure of the pre-war poem to break away from the traditional modes and to express the flapper age in all its outrageousness.   Cummings understood that “the war to end all wars” ended forever any romantic illusions and set up a new world based on cold rationality that made us infinitely more pragmatic, even ruthless in our social engineering.   He was, after all the son of a sociologist.   He desired to express this new world, and in words at least, he had the friends, benefactors, timing, and connections that made this possible. 

            In poetry, Cummings found a way to express this new gruesome and yet wonderful world.  With humor and wit, his words invoked the modern sensibility and made people understand how the new century would develop different from the old.  In painting, he appears to have had little insight into the ways images shape and frame new ideas.  He appears to have understood the power of new images when someone else introduced them, but he could not find images of his own without guidance from his betters.   Thus he painted modernist caricatures and colorful abstractions and vivid new portraits, but he could not break through with a clean visual vocabulary that was all his own. 

            For some reason, in poetry these restrictions did not apply.    The words came to him, and, though people claimed they did not understand them, they knew in their hearts that he had his finger on the pulse of the new age.  They understood that strange as his poetry might appear, it was completely right in ways they absolutely needed to understand.    All the poetry that had been written before E. E. Cummings was wrong and irrelevant, because it did not encompass what he now knew.  Through some magic alchemy, he became our spokesman for modernity.

            When that sort of new vision bursts upon any scene, it is transformational and E. E. Cummings took the American poetry world by surprise and turned it up side down for a very long time.


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