Nathan's Reviews > 100 Selected Poems

100 Selected Poems by E.E. Cummings
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's review
Dec 03, 10

it was amazing
bookshelves: poetry
Read in December, 2010

For some reason, I had never rated E. E. Cummings. He became the icon for form-twisting poetry, with his name written in lower-case reflecting the way his poems used and abused typography, grammar, and punctuation. I'm a symbol manipulating machine, it's why I'm a computer programmer and why I love to read. But I manipulate symbols within rules, and I love rules: I loved learning the rules of punctuation and spelling and grammar. Knowledge is power, it let me sort the world into right and wrong and to put myself on the right side.

Cummings, of course, broke the rules. It irritated me in the same way that Apple products irritate me today: it's deliberately broken. It could have be done right, but someone chose not to. For this reason I didn't even look at his poems. I love Auden, his cheek and poignancy, but he stayed well within my tolerance for linguistic deviancy.

Then a friend pressed this book into my hand. Actually, she pressed two and then opened them up and showed me a dog-eared page and said something absolutely filthy. I mean, how do you *not* get over your prejudices and read the books?

It's been magnificent. Consequently, if you're a serious Cummings fan then you're not going to be able to learn much from this review: it's my first dip into his work, and of course I have the heady dizziness of the newly-in-love. I don't have a lot of critical distinction yet, I'm high because something this wonderful simply exists.

My friend said she doesn't try to "make sense" of the poems: she bathes in the poems, stands up, and a few droplets of glistening prose stay on her skin and it's those that she takes with her. Cummings is easy to do this with: his style is deliberately translucent (neither opaque nor transparent) but almost every poem has some bright metaphors or clear lines that ring like crystal.

I can bathe and come out dripping in sweet lines too, but my brain is attuned to symbol manipulation. I also try to apart the poems to decode their meaning. I want to know why there's a wrong parenthesis, why there are blank lines, why this sentence makes no sense. I discovered, to my surprise, that I love it. I find it like cryptic crosswords: I'm not good, but I enjoy the process of teasing order from apparent disorder and discovering the concealed intent.

I probably should have read Wikipedia and a bunch of Cliffs Notes to see whether I'm "right", but one of the few consolations of age for me is confidence: I'm going to tell you how I approach Cummings and how I see his work. I'll be interested to read later and learn other approaches, but for now here's how I see it.

Cummings wants you to work on his poems: reading not a passive act, "jolly good, yes, that's exactly what a summer's day is like". He'll use a seeming stream of consciousness where you have to put yourself into someone else's mind in order to understand what that stream of words means. In one poem it seemed like he took a line of poetry and then put even-numbered words on one line and odd-numbered words on the next line. You can't skim read, you have to stop and frown and think. The metaphor is "paying attention", and Cummings has a high price. But he delivers great value.

The violated punctuation and blank lines and runtogether words are not random. For me it is as though you're often in the head of the narrator, someone who isn't composing a formal poem but you're getting a wash of thought, a stream of impressions and reflections. Sometimes those thoughts are crystal clear, sometimes they're jumbled and parenthetical and confused and contradictory. So parentheses and blank lines are pauses, indicating nested clauses or thoughts, but this raw gush of impressions doesn't permit the conscious structuring of those thoughts. They're almost pacing indicators. When I read the poem out loud, I can figure out the structure of the sentences.

But reviews don't lend themselves to the slow unwinding of intricate puzzles. If I want to convince you to read these poems, and I do, then I won't do it by explaining how I read them. Cummings soundbites are those glistening lines that shine from each poem, the ones that it you with such force that you reel back and blink, wondering "where did that come from?" Sometimes they're startling metaphors, sometimes they're just beautifully rhythmic statements that capture something essential.

the bulge and nuzzle of the sea . As someone who grew up on and near the ocean, I love this description.

the world is mud-licious and puddle-wonderful . Beautifully captures the delight kids (and some big kids) take in winter.

o sweet spontaneous earth how often have the doting fingers of prurient philosophers pinched and poked thee, has the naughty thumb of science prodded thy beauty . Love the image of the earth as a baby, cheeks pinched by the aunty philosophers. The last line is great too: science, philosophers, religion all assault the earth in various ways but then the majestic earth answerest them only with spring). Nature is the reality, regardless of the stories and officious poking of people.

how do you like your blue-eyed boy Mister Death . Comes at the end of a reminiscence on how impressive Buffalo Bill Cody was with horses and guns. I'm not quite sure how to read the question "how do you like your blue-eyed boy"--there's an element of challenge in it, and the juxtaposition of "blue eyed boy" and "Mister Death" is so startling.

The Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds . I know that type of unmarried older woman, busy with projects. The last bit is a cracker, too: the Cambridge ladies do not care, above Cambridge if sometimes in its box of sky lavender and cornerless, the moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy.

It May Not Always Be So is a beautiful sad statement: if you find someone else, I'll give you my blessing (but still be sad). The last line, revealing the hidden sadness: Then shall i turn my face, and hear one bird sing terribly afar in the lost lands.

here is little Effie’s head whose brains are made of gingerbread .

Spring is like a perhaps hand . Example of how you have to reread to find the intonation that makes sense: "perhaps" here is the hesitating, parenthetical, cautious "perhaps". The story of the poem works too: that Spring happens slowly, changing things slowly as we look, not breaking anything.

I like my body when it is with your body is sublimely erotic. It captures that new sex feeling, the way someone else can make you feel better about your body--can even make your body surprise you. Best line: the shocking fuzz of your electric fur narrowly beating out eyes big love-crumbs.

Humanity i love you is so sharp, acid, pointed, barbed, and sour that I love it all. No favourite line, but forever making poems in the lap of death is a beauty.

Nobody loses all the time is delightful, simple, accessible. Give this to someone you want to show the humorous side of Cummings to.

a pretty girl who naked is is worth a million statues . My sentiments exactly.

She being Brand -new is a sly and dirty automobile parable for nookie. I read and reread this, in love with the smut that isn't. the internalexpanding & externalcontracting brakes ftw.

A man who had fallen among thieves is all worldly vomit, thieves, citizens, pastures ... and then the last line i put him all into my arms and staggered banged with terror through a million billion trillion stars. We are all staggering banged with terror through a million billion trillion stars.

Voices to voices, lip to lip make me cackle out loud at bring on your fireworks,which are a mixed / splendor of piston and of pistil;very well / provided an instant may be fixed / so that it will not rub,like any other pastel. I loved pistil, piston, and pastel. Disappointed he didn't work pistol in there too.

next to of course god america captures the meaningless incoherence of cliches. It reminds me of pop art, assembling a new unfamiliar statement from other people's narrow familiar works.

my sweet old etcetera I had already seen at university, but forgotten. This makes me laugh every time. I'm grinning as I write this, just remembering the poem. Definitely one of my favourites, the absent-minded narrator and the solid last line are great.

In spite of everything seems like a sad person saying goodbye to a dead lover. kiss the pillow, dear, where our heads lived and were.

since feeling is first mixes linguistic terms (syntax, paragraph, parenthesis) with love to contrast feeling and thinking. kisses are a better fate than wisdom is good, as is lady i swear by all flowersand I recognize laugh, leaning back in my arms.

If I have made my lady intricate is such a self-effacing speaker, it's hard for me not to identify. Beautiful lines: intricate imperfect various things and songs less firm than your body's whitest song and who are so perfectly alive. It's hard not to feel romantic reading some of his poems, and this is one of the more evocative for me.

A clown's smirk in the skull of a baboon has a great refrain: i have never loved you dear as i love you now. Some great lines conveying the meaningless of life without the special other: i am a birdcage without any bird, a collar looking for a dog,a kiss without lips;a prayer lacking any knees.

If i love you has a great line: mind carefully luminous with innumerable gnomes.

somewhere I have never travelled paints the delicacy of affection. you open always petal by petal myself as Spring open and nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals the power of your intense fragility and the perplexing but hypnotic nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands.

but if a living dance upon dead minds has two nice phrases: the trivial labelling of punctual brains and Who wields a poem huger than the grave?

May i feel said he is another saucy poem, a cheeky parenthesis-filled act from foreplay to consummation. I love that it acknowledges the "I'm holding back, but it's close to being out of my control" negotiation. (He says, hoping it's not just him reading into the poem)

"Conceive a man" (no link, sorry) has the great line dark beginnings are his luminous ends.

Love's function is to fabricate unknownness catches the wonderful stage of love, how you're passionately curious about the other person and how the decline of curiosity tracks the decline of love (known being wishless;but love,all of wishing).

Death (having lost) put on his universe is a captivating first line. The universe as Death's raincoat is an enchanting image. The last lines are sing-song sweet: (and boys and girls have whispered thus and so) and girls with boys to bed will go.

Of Ever-Ever Land I speak has (and Ever-Ever Land is a place / that's measured and safe and known / where it's lucky to be unlucky / and the hitler lies down with the cohn) which cracked me up, and ends with for a bad cigar is a woman / but a gland is only a gland.

"This little bride & groom" describes a wedding cake, and ends with the jarring & everything is protected by cellophane against anything (because nothing really exists.

May my heart always be open to little birds who are the secret of living is a short and sweet love poem, with the fabulous may my mind stroll about hungry and fearless and thirsty and supple. Amen!

You shall above all things has a killer last night, oft quoted instead of the subtly lovely Girlboys may nothing more than boygirls need: / i can entirely her only love. The last lines: I'd rather learn from one bird how to sing / than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.

Red rag and pink flag is a short childlike poem with the fabulous description of drunken munters: strut-mince and stink-brag / have all come to town. I think of that when I walk past the human effluvia dribbling out of bars on Courtenay Place.

a pretty a day is unremarkable but for a doer a wooer which reminds me of Steve Miller Band's I'm a joker / I'm a smoker / I'm a midnight toker.

As freedom is a breakfastfood has the euphonious molehills are from mountains made and breasts will be breasts and thighs will be thighs / deeds cannot dream what dreams can do.

A politician is an arse on which everyone has sat, except a man.

one's not half two. It's two are halves of one is a great summary of a relationship.

"To start, to hesitate, to stop" introduces seemingly random letters in this happy swelling poem. I read it, and frowned, realized there was a word in the letters, and came up with THADE, HEATD, ... before realizing eventually "DEATH". A great example of the cryptic crossword "made you work" aspect of Cummings. But only worth it because the raw input and the shiny lines and the clever juxtaposition are all there: I doubt many other poets could make me work and keep me happy at the same time.

Now all the fingers of this tree has the line now you are and i am now and we're a mystery which will never happen again which beautifully captures my simple awe at being alive.

Luminous tendril of celestial wish again hits me where I'm awestruck that I'm in love with someone so beautiful, who is made from stardust.

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02/19 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Chris (new)

Chris thank you.

message 2: by 'Fizza (new) - added it

'Fizza Naeem I love that you love EE Cummings.

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