Lunar New Year Reads, #46: 1×1 by e.e.cummings

I attended a wedding during my visit to Montréal last summer; it was my friend Medrie’s wedding, and at it was read a poem by e.e. cummings, a beautiful thing that ended with the stunning lines, “… alive / we’re alive) / we’re wonderful one times one”. All the next day, the poem stuck in my head, and when I stopped by one of my old haunts, CDement, a used CD shop, I noticed that they’d expanded by adding a lot of used books to their stock. Imagine my shock when I found an e.e. cummings text with the title 1×1! I flipped through it and surely enough, the closing poem was the same one read at the wedding. I bought it immediately, and just now read it aloud from cover to cover.

It’s a difficult text, actually. A fair number of the poems I had to read a few times to get the basic idea, and I amd sure with more than a few that, while I have isolated the metre and schemes as far as I can tell, meanings will surface far more slowly for me. But in general, as far as one can make generalizations about the work of cummings, this book is a book of love poems. Not Love in the bleached-out, TV sense, nor love in any hyperromanticised sense. This is the love one feels for dear friends, for those who have passed away, for a lost lover, for the woman one is with at the present moment. Perhaps it is more correct to suggest that this is a book of poems about loves, in the plural, than to say it is a book of “love poems” per se.

In any case, there are a few absolutely magnificent poems here: XXIX, with its adjuration to the listener to

let it go–the
smashed word broken
open vow or
the oath cracked length
wise–let it go it
was sworn to

let them go–the
truthful liars and
the false fair friends
and the boths and
neithers–you must let them go they
were born
         to go

let all go–the
big small middling
tall bigger really
the biggest and all
things–let all go
       so comes love

There are killer individual lines, like

…listen:there’s a hell
of a good universe next door; let’s go

and, the whole of X,

a politician is an arse upon
which everyone has sat except a man

In the poem numbered XX, there are lines that call to mind once more Sir Rees’ writing on the structure of the universe:

what if a dawn of a doom of a dream
bites this universe in two,
peels forever out of his grave
and sprinkles nowhere with me and you?
Blow soon to never and never to twice
(blow life to isn’t; blow death to was)
-all nothing’s only our hugest home;
the most who die, the more we live

cummings was a poet living in the dark afterglow of the first understanding of entropy and the implications it held for life in the universe — the first real realization that life is finite not just for each individual person, but for all possible life in our universe. This is how a poet living in such an era joyful shrugs and says, “In that case, carpe diem.”

One of the things that strikes me again here is something I noticed when I returned to cummings after years of careful study of other poets. When I was in high school, cummings seemed like such a radical, avant-garde poet. When I returned to him later, I discovered sonnet after sonnet in his work, and I was astonished. I’d known people who’d tried to write “contemporary sonnets” but they’d mostly just taken on contemporary themes and stuffed them into very Shakespearean sounding structures. cummings did far more than that: to me, it seems his sonnets reflect something that, while they partake of the philosophic/aesthetic stance of the old sonnet tradition, are also wholly his own invention.

And in the way he plays with pronouns, especially posessive pronouns as subjects and as metonymic for massive, grand notions like identity, totality of relationship, and unity in love or in significance, it seems cummings very successfully does what, in my experience, most self-described Language Poets are merely attempting to do. The difference, to me, is that in cummings, we see the poet struggling to express things that elude visceral expression, that elude saying at all in conventional language, or which, simply, he achieves to say much more clearly by using warped and permutated syntax. He’s not drawing on anyone else’s theories, but instead using language in a wholly inventive, but also incisively purposeful way, to say something with exceeding exactness.

This is one of the few cases where I agree with the notion that usage of radical techniques can actually achieve a new kind of saying (and contradict my previous observations made earlier today); however, I also think it’s so successful, and still so fresh, because the technique was invented by a man who had internalized a lot of English poetical tradition; his warped syntax is a further permutation of the kinds of inversions that we see in a lot of standard poetry, and which we trip over when beginning to learn how to read the stuff. cummings’ use of these techniques, it’s most important to me, are an example where informed practice precedes theory, and I think this has a lot to do with its continued vitality. I may be a little too old to truly enjoy the Complete Poems of e.e. cummings, but I’m not so sure I wouldn’t learn many a new trick if I did sometime turn to its pages.

My last thought on this book is the reflection that reading cummings in this kind of edition, where a collection of poems ordered by him, collected together by his thematic arrangement, is far different from reading excerpts. The text hangs together very well, with pronomial and mathematic metaphors resonating throughout, with themes of love death and the inextinguishability of beauty in the present accreting weight and substance through the whole text and finally resounding in the final beautiful poem from which the title of the collection was taken. I suspect that I should like and respect cummings much more if I were always able to read his work in this way — though, it’s worth adding, this was his ninth collection of poems and it was dedicated to his wife, Marian Morehouse. Perhaps earlier works were less deftly organized, but I’d like to investigate it on my own.

2 thoughts on “Lunar New Year Reads, #46: 1×1 by e.e.cummings

  1. I love cummings. My sister got me a “collected works” for Christmas one year, and I was ecstatic. The only problem with that is that I have a hard time knowing which poem was in which original book. :)

  2. That’s too bad. It would have been preferable if they’d published it as they tend to do these days, collection after collection grouped together, with interstitial and apprendix’d miscellany. But, on the bright side, you do have everything. Might it be that the poems are in order, but the book titles simply aren’t listed?

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