Tuesday, September 8, 2015

for life's not a paragraph / And death i think is no parenthesis

Selected Poems, 1923-1958Selected Poems, 1923-1958 by E.E. Cummings
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Although I don't believe that one can ever truly 'finish' reading a poetry collection (this is truer said about poetry than prose), I have officially marked E.E. Cummings's Selected Poems, 1923-1958 as 'read' on my Goodreads account.

E.E. Cummings is well-known for his unconventional use of form  (see: "Grasshopper," which seems to 'leap' off the page), syntax and punctuation, and we see why from the first and sparsely punctuated poem of the collection: "in Just-spring". Just looking at a Cummings poem is an adventure in itself. Yet what I learned from his selected poems is that it is just as important to hear one being read aloud. You will have to pronounce every word in the bizarre "ygUDuh," notably, to access the depths of what is mere 'jibberish' on the surface. And you must read "may i feel said he" out loud because it reads so, so well. Just be careful who you read it around (trust Cummings to make one of the most erotic poems I've ever read sound like a nursery rhyme).

Working your way through a collection is the best way to become quickly acquainted with a poet's style, in both literary and thematic terms. Aside from his syntax eccentricities, for example, Cummings also plays with meter (tetrameter and trimeter alternate wonderfully in Ever-Ever land), shifting tense and the most brilliant juxtapositions. Here are some of the oxymorons/sharp contrasts that appear in his work: "big dark little day," "a gift called dying born," "Because / only the truest things always / are true because they can't be true."

Theme-wise, Cummings writes most commonly about love, death, time and life (as do most other poets, I suppose). Yet he very memorably personifies all these abstracts:
"death(having lost)put on his universe / and yawned: it looks like rain."
"Life is an old man carrying flowers on his head"
"Death is young / life wears velour trousers / life totters, life has a beard"
(the last two lines are taken from "suppose," one of my favourite poems by him.

And Cummings shows that there is almost nothing in the literary world that is lovelier than a poet in love:
"For love are in you am in i are in we"
"we're wonderful one times one"
"love is a deeper season / than reason"
The lines (composed of simple words that rhyme nicely) convey such a comfortable sense of simplicity and effortless togetherness.

It's always a joy to read Cummings because he uses (or even coins) the most delightful of words and phrases. "Scented merde," for instance, is quite unforgettable. So is his wordplay on the months of the year in "my father moved through dooms of love," as he writes about the "septembering arms of year" and an "octobering flame." Cummings doesn't draw from a terribly arcane lexicon; in fact, many of the words he chooses are monosyllabic. So whenever a special one (or ones) comes up, it's always warmly welcomed.

One can easily be overwhelmed by a sense of 'i-don't-get-this' when reading Cummings; sometimes, we don't even know how to piece a sentence, let alone a thought, together. But I love, love, love how he can place a single, perfect, quotable line into a seemingly inaccessible poem and utterly transform it. It is fitting that not a single poem has its own separate title; we remember them rather by the individual lines that define them:
"Tomorrow is our permanent address"
"I'd rather learn from one bird how to sing / than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance"
"lovers alone wear sunlight."
"and history immeasurably is / wealthier by a single sweet day's death:"
In this collection, Cummings serenades, seduces, satirizes, speculates and stuns. His poems are magic on the page, even though they don't take up too much space (especially with the lowercase). As Cummings writes in one of the poems in this collection, "there is a time for timelessness" - and timelessness is the quality to which his poems, experimental, wonderful and challenging as they are, should always be ascribed.

 (yes, I did intentionally try to use more parentheses in this review than I normally do).

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