e.e.cummings Reads His Own Poetry

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Caedmon Essentials, Released 2007

Described in the sleeve-notes as an Expressionist poet, Cummings was actually someone concerned to extend the possibilities of language as a medium of communication. Words did not necessarily have to mean things; they could persuade as much by their sound as their sense. At least, this was the main impression gained from this compilation of classic recordings from the 1950s read by Cummings himself.


The opening poem “Him” sets the tone; it is constructed as a fictional dialogue between “Him” and “Me.” Cummings likens the artist to an acrobat, swinging from a wire and leading a precarious life. He is tormented by the fear of failure but continues nonetheless. The poem itself is distinguished by repetitions of personal pronouns and adverbial endings (“-ly”) plus the phrase that crops up like a religious incantation throughout: “I am an artist, I am a man, I am a failure.” However even if the artist is a failure, he continues his work of trying to “see your eyes [and] hear your heart move” and setting down his observations in one literary form or another.


“Eimi” is perhaps the most abstract poem in the collection. A meditation on Lenin’s tomb, it contrasts the dead figure of the leader with the guards outside, and speculates on the meaning of life and death. However the listener is beguiled by Cummings’ use of language – the endless repetition of words ‘face,’ ‘move’ and ‘duty’ in various forms, plus the use of adverbial phrases. The author himself reads the work in such a way – with his voice lilting hither and thither in tune with each stanza – as to induce a semi-narcotic state, where sounds matter more than sense. Our complacency is rudely interrupted, however, by the intrusion of colloquial terms like “Ssh!” making us realize that there is no distinction between so-called ‘poetic’ and ‘colloquial’ language.


“Santa Claus Scene Three” depicts a comic situation where a community doubts Santa Claus’s existence, while believing there has been an accident in a wheel-mine. Santa tries to convince them in vain that such phenomena do not exist; but all to no avail. They even doubt whether he exists at all. Only a child continues to believe in him. The poem itself is a satire on materialism and/or science, which has blunted people’s capacity for imaginative identification. They cannot believe in the unreal any more; only in what they can see. This provides the context for another poem “when serpents bargain for the right to squirm” which juxtaposes commercial imagery with natural language. Cummings believes that if natural phenomena become so debased as to be used in legal or commercial transactions, then the entire universal order is destroyed. We will learn to believe in the “un-animal” rather than the “animal.”  In such cases Cummings proves himself to be a trenchant critic of contemporary America. In “why must itself up” he satirizes the clichés uttered by leaders such as Eisenhower during the Second World War, urging people to commit themselves to the cause in pursuit of a better world. He believes that the only future for everyone is to understand the word of God and the universe; to appreciate the “was and shall.” The same scorn for the artificial is evident in “i say no” which is written in pidgin English and uses the metaphor of a suit which either fits or doesn’t fit, depending on the wearer, to emphasize the importance of self-belief.


Such themes recur throughout Cummings’ shorter poems. “who were so dark of heart they might not speak” creates a world of heightened reality, a world beyond death and life which can only be appreciated by those prepared to believe in it. “what if as much” celebrates the sun, the stars and the universe through repeated use of sibilants. Cummings recalls Whitman in his deliberate manipulation of language to communicate his point of view: sound is as important as sense. “when more than was lost” depicts a world of eternal spring, that exists beyond such artificial distinctions as night and day – an anima mundi where mountains can dance.


From the evidence of this compilation, Cummings is not only concerned to extend the possibilities of the American language, but also to extend the imagination of his listeners beyond the corporeal and the material into more spiritual ways of thinking. In that sense, he follows the example of nineteenth century poets like Whitman who, although writing in a very different idiom, is similarly concerned with the issue of possibilities. Such possibilities are rendered especially attractive when the author himself reads his own work.