The Haiku Sensibilities of E. E. Cummings

I delivered this paper on 5 June 1994 at the American Literature Association conference in San Diego, California as part of a day-long symposium on E. E. Cummings in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the poet's birth.
First published in Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society #4, 1995, pages 95–120. This essay has been widely quoted in academic papers and books discussing Cummings’ poetry, especially regarding the Oriental influences on the poet’s work, for which I am grateful. This paper also appears on the Cummings Society site. I have added Japanese characters for poems in two places, but please note that they were not in this paper when originally published. To facilitate citations by academics, I have retained page number indications in the text. For an essay that focuses attention on Cummings’ three published hokku, please see “Three Hokku by E. E. Cummings.”
 
If you have any comments or questions, please contact Michael Dylan Welch.

 

 

                                                                                        l(a

 

                                                                                        le

                                                                                        af

Won’t you come and see                                     fa

loneliness? Just one leaf

from the kiri tree.                                                    ll

 

              —Bashō, 1692                                             s)

                                                                                        one

                                                                                        l

 

                                                                                        iness
 

A Serendipitous Convergence

Nineteen ninety-four was a notable conflux of anniversaries. Not only did the year mark the 100th anniversary of E. E. Cummings’ birth, but also 300 years since the death of Bashō (1644–1694), Japan’s foremost practitioner of haiku. This serendipitous convergence is as good an excuse for my present purpose as I am likely to find—that is, to explore the overlap of haiku with the poetry of E. E. Cummings. Yet, as I hope will be clear, the poetry itself gives ample motivation for such a discussion. To develop the connection, I first present the nature of haiku, review Cummings’ brief poems in the light of eight haiku sensibilities, and then explore examples of Cummings’ haiku-like poetry. Whether the poet intended it or not, his later poetry shows an increasing sensitivity to the methods used in writing haiku. My aim is to assert that the poetry of E. E. Cummings, through its image-centered sensibilities, demonstrates specific similarities to haiku. In the process of this exploration, I hope to better define both haiku and Cummings’ poetry.

Haiku Defined

What, then, is haiku? Put briefly, haiku are short, objective poems conveying a keenly perceived moment of heightened subjective awareness. They present a distilled perception and apperception of the external world. In the [end page 95] sense that there are “no ideas but in things,” as William Carlos Williams has told us, haiku focus on the things of the external world, behind which may lie, by implication, the various ideas, biases, or emotions of the internal world. Haiku are imagistic in nature, use common language, and are best if devoid of judgment, analysis, metaphor, simile, and—in the Zen tradition—other rhetorical, intellectual, or ego-assertive devices. Haiku succinctly record the essence of a moment in nature, or reveal the truth of human nature. They present the “thing” simply as it is, in all its rich “suchness.” Indeed, as noted American haiku poet James W. Hackett has asserted, “lifefulness, not beauty, is the real quality of haiku” (256). Further, haiku are open-ended poems of suggestion and implication, seeming almost incomplete on first reading, and do not explain or tell the reader what to think or feel. Rather, they rely on the reader to have a common, universal response to the object or event portrayed. It is thus the haiku poet’s burden to choose and craft his or her image to generate that reliably universal response. It is in the “aha” moment of grasping the poem where the reader participates with the poet in experiencing the original moment of awareness—and it is this very process that makes haiku rewarding.

        As to form, haiku are very brief “one-breath” poems, usually about 10 to 14 syllables in English (see Higginson, 102; van den Heuvel, 10f, 356; and Ross, xiii). The “rule” of 17 syllables in a 5-7-5 structure applies only to the Japanese onji (sound-symbol), which is not the same as the typically longer and more variably lengthed English syllable [today the word onji is discredited as inaccurate; the correct term is now understood to be on, pronounced as in “own,” but much more quickly]. Moreover, 17 syllables is only “traditional,” and even in Japan many modern haiku writers have abandoned this stricture. As early as 1917, for example, Kawahigashi Hekigodo (one of Shiki’s disciples) wrote that “Any arbitrary attempt to mould a poem into the 5-7-5 syllable pattern would damage the freshness of impression and kill the vitality of language”; he also denigrated the 5-7-5 pattern as a “man-made rule” (Ueda, 9). Poets such as Ogiwara Seisensui, Ozaki Hosai, and Taneda Santoka are but three other noted modern proponents of a vers libre form for Japanese haiku. In Japan to some degree, and in English especially, the haiku form of less than 17 syllables is now clearly the norm for published haiku. Indeed, the great majority of poems appearing in English haiku journals for more than 20 years have been shorter than 17 syllables, despite the fact that haiku continue to be taught in schools as “17-syllable nature poems.” This fact is verified by even a quick review of the two most important anthologies of contemporary English haiku (those edited by Cor van den Heuvel and Bruce Ross), where a great variety of structures is paramount. My personal feeling is of the Denise Levertov school of organic poetry, which derives from Hopkins, Coleridge, and the German romantic critics—that each English haiku should be written to its [end page 96] own intrinsic, organic form, both in lineation and syllable count. The point is for the poetry to appear natural and effortless—or “wordless” (to the extent of seeming more transcendent, spiritual, and nonliterary) as Alan Watts (183), R. H. Blyth (154), Eric Amann, and other commentators have described haiku. Haiku do indeed seem deceptively simple. Yet, for all their brevity, they can be rich with meaning and reverberation by pointing out what we all know but often fail to notice.

        Building on the work of its first definitions committee in 1973 (described in A Haiku Path 43–85), the Haiku Society of America has been developing revised English definitions of haiku and other related forms of Japanese poetry. This committee is led by William J. Higginson, author of The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku. The committee’s January 1994 draft definition for haiku (circulated among Society members with the 20 January 1994 HSA Newsletter) is as follows:

 

HAIKU A poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived, in which nature is linked to human nature. Usually a haiku in English is written in three unrhymed lines of seventeen or fewer syllables, with the middle line longest, though a variety of line arrangements is used today; in Japanese, a typical haiku has seventeen “sound-symbols” (onji) arranged five, seven, and five. (Some translators of Japanese poetry have noted that about twelve syllables in English approximates seventeen Japanese onji.) The most common technique is a juxtaposition of two images (Japanese renso). Traditional Japanese haiku include a “season word” (kigo), a word or phrase that helps identify the season of the experience recorded in the poem, and a “cutting word” (kireji), a sort of spoken punctuation that marks a pause. In English season words are sometimes omitted, but the original focus on experience captured in clear images continues. Punctuation, space, or line-breaks may substitute for cutting words. Most haiku have no titles, and metaphors and similes are usually avoided.

 

This understanding of haiku may serve as a touchstone by which we may consider Cummings’ poetry. The foundation I wish to establish is that haiku are objective, image-centered poems, often brimming with childlike wonder. Indeed, as Kirby Record emphasized in the Tamkang Review, “In a sense haiku is childlike because of its freshness and immediacy, but this quality merely camouflages its deeply rooted aesthetic principles” (227). As we consider a variety of Cummings’ poems, I trust these principles or sensibilities will emerge clearly. [end page 97]

Haiku Sensibilities in Cummings’ Poetry

The following overview of Cummings’ poetry may be best organized by considering observed haiku sensibilities—that is, the approaches and techniques used to convey the now-moment of heightened awareness in the haiku mode. Japanese poets have defined four central moods of haiku: sabi (a sweet, solitary melancholy), wabi (the unpretentious suchness of the ordinary), aware (a nostalgic sadness), and yugen (the mystery of the unknown). Another mood often identified in haiku is that of karumi (lightness, or a joyful acceptance of the ephemeral and ordinary). These moods frequently develop in Cummings’ work. British scholar and translator R. H. Blyth, in his seminal four-volume translation of Japanese haiku, has also identified thirteen “characteristics of the state of mind which the creation and appreciation of haiku demand” (Haiku, 154). They are selflessness (or egolessness), loneliness, grateful acceptance, wordlessness, nonintellectuality, contradictoriness (or juxtaposition), humor (the word “haiku” means “playful verse”), freedom, nonmorality, simplicity, materiality, love, and courage. Many of these characteristics are immediately apparent in Cummings’ work, notably loneliness, nonintellectuality, humor, freedom, simplicity, and love. Not all haiku writers and critics agree with Blyth’s approach to haiku, however, for it is distinctly Zen-based. While the Zen approach is intrinsic to most successful haiku (whether the poet intends it or not), I will not take the time to discuss each of Blyth’s characteristics, nor will I go into further detail regarding the four main haiku moods. Instead, I have identified a specific set of eight haiku sensibilities in Cummings’ poetry, although they do at times overlap with Blyth’s characteristics and the four established moods. They are, in decreasing order of significance (in Cummings’ poetry), as follows:

  1. The child’s viewpoint
  2. Childlike wonder
  3. Brevity
  4. Natural and seasonal awareness
  5. The now-moment and an appreciation for smallness in space and time
  6. Nonintellectual imagism and objectivism
  7. Implication
  8. Juxtaposition

Note that these are not the only haiku sensibilities, just eight that appear commonly in Cummings’ poetry. Most of these topics could be discussed at length, but I will examine each of these sensibilities only briefly before exploring to greater depth a number of Cummings’ haiku-like poems. [end page 98]

1. The Child’s Viewpoint

An over-arching quality of Cummings’ poetry is the child’s viewpoint. The five “innocent songs” in Tulips & Chimneys(1922) are prime examples, especially the spring, autumn, and winter poems, “in Just- / spring,” “hist whist,” and “little tree” (Complete Poems 1904–1962, 27–29; all poetry references to this edition). Elsewhere, something as common as the sky is not simplysky, but is “candy luminous” and “edible” in “the / sky / was” (64, 937). Later poems that exhibit a similarly innocent viewpoint include the impish “my sweet old etcetera” (275); “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r” (396), where a small leaping insect rearranges itself at the child’s eye-level; the lost child of “so little he is” (471); the doll and zoom-doom truck in “dominic” (680); and the seaside delight of “maggie and millie and molly and may” (682). In addition, the poet’s simple rhymes and regular rhythms evoke childhood, even if the theme at hand may be adult. Representative examples include “Jimmie’s got a goil” (233), “may i feel said he” (399), “buy me an ounce and i’ll sell you a pound” (513), “if everything happens that can’t be done” (594), “maggie and millie and molly and may” (682), and “if up’s the word;and a world grows greener” (769). The child’s world is also seen in phrases within longer poems, as in “F is for foetus’ (635), and “once upon a time” from “insu nli gh t” (796), as well as in the alphabet references in “sonnet entitled how to run the world)” (390). Also, because of the abundance of spring poems in his work, Cummings is thought of as a spring poet—the season equated with childhood. This sensibility relates to haiku because the pure child’s “no-mind” egolessness is a Zen virtue. As haiku deliberately suppress ego and intellect, taking the child’s objective viewpoint is frequently useful for the crafting of these poems.

2. Childlike Wonder

The characteristic of childlike wonder is perhaps a subset of the child’s viewpoint. Yet it is of greater importance because it often serves to motivate the creation of this poetry. Haiku poets marvel at the world around them, and write joyously out of their deep awareness of the details they experience. Cummings’ poetry is suffused with the same delight, much like Issa’s “childlike identification with nature” and “child-like energetic spontaneity” (Ross, xv, xi). No wonder Cummings said of the miracles he called his poems, “Everywhere tints childrening,innocent spontaneous,true” (462). Life is surely a miracle, and with that perspective both Cummings and haiku poets revel in the amazing details of the world around them. This allows for a “fusionwith nature,” as Bruce Ross has observed of haiku, an interpenetration “experienced as child-like wonderment and rapture” (xxix). Alan Watts noted in The Way of Zen that “Bashō’s poems have the same inspired objectivity as a child’s expression of wonder, and return us to that same [end page 99] feeling of the world as when it first met our astonished eyes” (184). No wonder Cummings writes of “this little huge / -eyed per- / son” (739). Bashō himself has said that “to write haiku.. . get a three-foot child” (Watts, 184).

        Examples of this wonder are frequent in Cummings’ poetry. In “a thrown a / -way It” (632), for instance, the tinsel on a discarded Christmas tree is at first mysterious, then glorious. “o(rounD)moon” (722) also expresses wonder, asking as only a child could ask how the roundest of moons could float in the sky. In “the(oo)is” (740), a child’s very nature and existence is depicted in wide-eyed looking. Also, in “who are you,little i” (824), a child peers in awe at a November sunset from a high window. The common thread of wide eyes and bright looking serves to underscore the awe and wonder intrinsic to Cummings’ world-view. It takes this childlike wonder to observe closely and joyously in the way that bubbles at the heart of haiku.

3. Brevity

Haiku, the shortest recognized poetry in any language, is most noted for its brevity (by comparison, epigrams are not always as short as haiku). As for Cummings, few of his poems span more than a single page. In contrast with many of his contemporary poets, Cummings tended to write shorter poems. In the work of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, or William Carlos Williams, for example, and even Robert Frost, the short poem is not nearly as common an occurrence. Cummings, however, may be accused of ephemerality with his quick experiments and wordplay (Kennedy, “Major Minor,” 40), although finding value in the ephemeral is a valid Zen and haiku perspective (known as karumi, lightness, or the beauty of the ordinary). Yet Cummings’ tendency toward brevity is an indication of his approach toward haiku. The brevity in his poetry can seldom be defined by the number of lines, however, as Cummings often scattered his letters down the page. The majority of his “short” poems may be identified by a subjective assessment of word count in the ideographic poems, and a usual range of two to eight lines in the more densely lineated poems. As such, dozens of terse examples dot the pages of Cummings’ collected poetry. Here I wish to cite by page number from Complete Poems 1904–1962 those poems that are merely short, but, other than their brevity (and sometimes imagism), have no specific relation to haiku: 70, 78, 242, 351, 404, 409, 429, 468, 488, 503, 508, 532, 581, 606, 611, 614 (this one about wild strawberries is particularly imagistic as well as quite brief, but still seems outside haiku), 621, 622, 641, 643, 644, 645, 708, 710, 723, 734, 746, 844, 1011, 1032, and 1049. As there is not space to quote these 31 poems nor to discuss why they are not haiku-like, the reader is invited to review them in Complete Poems 1904–1962. Also worth noting for their brevity are the poet’s so-called “Jottings” (Miscellany, 330–332), 33 pithy sayings, puns, ideas, and observations. [end page 100]

        Three other short poems bear closer mention. First, “slightly before the middle of Congressman Pudd” (247) is notable for its reference to Amy Lowell. This verse was published in is 5 in 1926, the year Amy Lowell won the Pulitzer poetry prize for What’s O’Clock. Her book included 48 attempts at haiku that Cummings presumably read. Second, the silent birds under the silvery moon in “t,h;r:u;s,h;e:s” (820) evoke the lonely Japanese mood of sabi. Third, “this / forest pool” (759) brings to mind the old pond of Bashō’s most famous haiku (here translated by William J. Higginson, 9):

 

furuike ya                                                                 old pond . . .

kawazu tobikomu                                                   a frog leaps in

mizu no oto                                                              water’s sound

 

Of the many short poems Cummings published, some come closer to haiku but fall short for various reasons. For example, “the / sky / was” (64, 937) is not haiku because of length (33 syllables) and because the depiction of sky as candy is a metaphor. Haiku is a poetry of direct pointing to images; metaphors and similes are an indirect detour. Rhetorical devices are an intrusion of the Western poetic mindset; such nonobjective attachments hinder the most immediate and tactile apprehension of an image. Haiku is an attempt to sidestep reason and grasp life itself, a sensibility Cummings concurred with when he wrote “life is more true than reason will deceive” and “the mightiest meditations of mankind / cancelled are by one merely opening leaf” (592).

        One of Cummings’ shortest poems, “applaws)” (548) is merely ephemeral wordplay, as are elements of numerous longer poems. In addition, quite a few of his very short pieces are epigrams, particularly “a politician is an arse upon/which everyone has sat except a man” (550), “when any mortal(even the most odd)” (731), “seeker of truth” (775), “‘nothing’ the unjust man complained” (806), “n / OthI / n” (814), and “guilt is the cause of more disauders / than history’s most obscene marorders” (902). Several of Cummings’ “Jottings” are also epigrammatic (Miscellany 330–332). The epigram tends to present intellectual commentary rather than an unadorned image in its suchness. Epigrams are typically subjective, that is, judgmental, and are quite unlike haiku despite their brevity.

        Though short, other poems lack images, or present only the weakest of images, such as “mr u will not be missed” (551) and “who(at” (704). The latter of these, about a “platinum floozey,” is too intellectualized to be haiku (“who can she begin to almost imagine she is”). “Young m / oon:” (733) has a moon image, but is syntactically difficult to unpack; also, the moon is directly addressed, a rhetorical device used infrequently in modern haiku (although Issa was known for it). Cummings has a rose smile in “i shall [end page 101] imagine life / is not worth dying” (744), and here again, the pathetic fallacy is best avoided in haiku, as is the simile in “a like a” (654), where a woman is equated to agrey rock via a directly stated simile.

        As with most other poetry or fiction, haiku succeed when they show rather than tell. The poem “n / Umb a” (789) explains that the winter is ugly, the slush is filthy, and the voices hideous. Haiku generally avoids such judgmental adjectives. If these were left unstated, readers might be able to figure them out on their own, thus giving the poem greater suggestibility and reverberation. Otherwise, though, this poem about a city street is highly imagistic and seemingly close to haiku, despite its 30 syllables. Other short poems fail to approach haiku because they are merely statements, such as “of all things under our” (825) and “mi(dreamlike)st” (829), despite the mist image in the latter case. The extremely brief “n w” (1031) is completely devoid of stated images, and uses verbal means to achieve its overtly sexual ends. Of course, in writing these poems Cummings surely had no intent to write haiku, so they are hardly failed poems for their incapacity to work as haiku. Rather, they show the poet’s stepping in the direction of the brevity and objective imagism of haiku.

4. Natural and Seasonal Awareness

Students of Cummings’ work need little convincing that his poetry is nature-centered. One pastoral example is “whippoorwill this” (751). Similarly, the entire poem, “i thank You God for most this amazing” (663) is a wondrous poem in praise of nature. Cummings specifically thanks God “for everything / which is natural.”

        A more specific subset of natural awareness in haiku is seasonal awareness. Haiku in Japan, by traditional definition, contains a kigo or season word, as in “cherry blossoms” for spring. This seasonal awareness helps center haiku in nature. An affinity for nature and its seasons is particularly common in Cummings’ poetry. Indeed, the season of spring is practically ubiquitous in Cummings’ poems. A few notable examples include “in Just- / spring” (27), “Spring(side” (436), “yes is a pleasant country:” (578), “‘sweet spring is your” (591), “in/Spring comes(no-” (660), “‘but why should’ “(738), and “spring!may—” (767). Summer appears much less frequently. The Spenserian stanza titled “Summer Silence” (858) is one example. Autumn appears more than summer; two examples are “autumn is:that between there and here” (164), and, of course, the loneliness of a falling leaf in “l(a” (673). Winter themes are common, second only to spring as Cummings’ seasonal choice. Examples include the winter metaphor in “all ignorance toboggans into know” (579), and the Christmas tree poem, “a thrown a / -way It” (632). Other poems, such as “anyone lived in a pretty how town” (515) and “summer is over” (625) are multiseasonal. Seasonal [end page 102] awareness, of course, extends beyond the mere naming of the season or even months of the year. Americans typically think of spring at the mention of a robin, for example, and such seasonal indications may be found frequently throughout Cummings’ poetry. Together, natural and seasonal awareness shows Cummings to be close to the haiku spirit in his writing.

5. The Now-Moment and an Appreciation for Smallness in Space and Time

One insistent characteristic that sets haiku apart from other poetic modes is its immediacy in the present moment—the eternal now. In the way that it attempts to crystallize a moment of heightened awareness as sharply as possible, haiku enables a closer approach to infinity than any other poetry. An appreciation for the now-moment is the reason haiku are best written in the present tense. Cummings suggests that “now is a ship” (781), and that in steering it from ignorance (sleep) to possibility (dream), the only moment is now—the realm of haiku. He also notes that “futures are obsolete;pasts are unborn” (592); his focus is steadfastly on the present. For example, in “(im)c-a-t(mo)” (655), the cat’s falling and wandering away is very much here and now. Many of Cummings’ poems exhibit this immediacy and he often writes about “now,” as in “such a forever is love’s any now / and her each here is such an everywhere” (576), and “Life,for eternal us,is now;and now is much too busy being a little more than everything to seem anything” (461). So too of haiku, where it seems so deceptively simple. Haiku is the art of wording “this eternal now.” Indeed, it is the essence of the haiku spirit to frolic in the mystery of timelessness in the eternal now: “—how fortunate are you and i,whose home/is timelessness:we have wandered down/from fragrant mountains of eternal now // to frolic in such mysteries as birth / and death a day(or maybe even less)” (743). This childlike wonder and appreciation for the brief, small, and ephemeral is clear in the following poem: “christ but they’re few // all beyond win/ or lose)good true / beautiful things //god how he sings // the robin(who / ’ll be silent in /a moon or two” (805). Haiku values this fleeting beauty.

        Valuing smallness in time is akin to valuing smallness in size. Notions of littleness or smallness are frequent in Cummings’ poetry, as in such poems as the rearranging “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r” (396), “i am a little church(no great cathedral)” (749), and ’i / never” (827), where he writes of a hummingbird in its perfect smallness. Large items are not necessarily excluded from haiku, yet focusing on the particular as a representation of the universal is a common technique in haiku. Writing of haiku, Denise Levertov has said, “It is only when we see a part that we know the whole” (45). Cummings uses the same approach in writing in “l(a” (673) about a single leaf rather than many leaves. [end page 103]

6. Nonintellectual Imagism and Objectivism

Kenneth Yasuda has called haiku a poetry of the noun. Haiku describe things or objects as they are perceived through our senses, without the filterings of our emotion or intellect. Haiku are depictions of carefully chosen things—birds’ nests, rusted nails, billowing clouds; they are not statements of feeling about those things. Feelings or ideas may of course be implied by haiku, but the text of each haiku itself aims for objectivity.

      In his writing Cummings has repeatedly asserted the value of feelings over the intellect. “Life is more true than reason,” he once wrote (592). He repeats this notion in “O sweet spontaneous” (58), “yonder deadfromtheneckup graduate of a” (232), and in “out of the lie of no” (736), which concludes, “not all matterings of mind/ equal one violet.” Also, in “should this fool die” (1053), the poet identified with a glorious flower that was not taught to grow, but did so naturally. These values favoring feelings and awareness give rise to an imagistic objectivism akin to haiku, something like the vigorous image at the end of “next to of course god america i”: “He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water” (267). Yet the objective haiku spirit is strikingly distinct from most Western thought and poetry, for, as Bruce Ross recently noted, “the East [accents] an emotional relation of the self to nature and the West [accents] an intellectual relation to nature” (xiii). Haiku’s objectivity is nonintellectual because the strictly objective poem, in Zen fashion, is devoid of intellectual intrusion. These are values for which Cummings demonstrates an impassioned sympathy.

7. Implication

Haiku is a poetry of suggestion and implication. Where a feeling, idea, or event can be implied rather than stated, that poem succeeds by engaging the reader through the implication. Just as many of Cummings’ visual tricks must be figured out before the reader fully understands the poem, so too are the best haiku “figured out” thanks to the poet’s careful use of suggestion. Given the haiku’s extreme brevity, implication is also an effective means of condensing great substance into just a few words.

        A simple example of implication in Cummings’ poetry is “the(oo)is” (740). Here an owl is never mentioned yet has a presence as clear as the child’s wide eyes. Where an image—and particularly an idea or feeling— is directly stated, that poem is explained and thus “closed,” and so does not allow for full engagement and reverberation. To the extent that Cummings’ poetry implies rather than states, it shares a necessary ingredient of haiku.

8. Juxtaposition

Often a relationship between two or more objects or events—sometimes where one is a context for the other—is left unstated in haiku by the careful [end page 104] juxtaposition of images. Cummings tries the same trick on occasion. For example, in “(one!)” (201), the poet leads our eyes up a “wisti-twisti barber / -pole” to “sawdust Voices” amid high tenements. He then juxtaposes this with the passing of a whispering drunkard. The connection is left completely unstated, and the gap this juxtaposition creates allows for the aha-moment of awareness as the reader apprehends the suchness of that instant. It is like the image of a vase where the figure and ground oscillate to reveal either two faces in profile, or the shape of the vase itself—where the juxtaposition creates energy and reverberation. Cummings creates a similar juxtaposition in pairing loneliness with a falling leaf in “l(a” (673), where loneliness plays as ground for the leaf as figure, and the two parts of the unified whole define and energize each other.

Cummings’ “Albutnotquitemost” Haiku

The preceding overview of E. E. Cummings’ poetry has focused on specific sensibilities common to both haiku and Cummings’ verbal art. Most of the examples so far have shown only one or two of the many characteristics that might make them haiku. It may thus seem that Cummings failed at his (unintentional) approach to haiku, much like a blind man feeling first one part of an elephant and then another, never understanding the whole beast. But several poems come much closer, and some succeed entirely. Thus I would now like to discuss Cummings’ better haiku-like poems, divided into two groups: those that almost succeed, and those that do succeed (at least in spirit).

        In one group of Cummings’ poems that almost work as haiku, each starts off well but falls short by the inclusion of subjective Western statements. An example is “birds(” (448). This typographic poem may be assembled as “birds, here, inventing air, using twilight’s vastness; be. look now, come soul; &: and whose voices are.” The imagistic first half of this poem approximates haiku (birds flying at twilight), but the remainder thins out with abstractions. The same is true for “un / der fog” (463). It may be read as “under fog’s slowliest touchings, fingerings, whichs turn into whos, people unbecome.” The blurring/revealing quality of fog comes through, but does so through abstractions and even the personification of “fingerings.” A third example in this grouping is “first robin the;” (737), in which only the robin is a clearly imagistic noun. Where haiku stays with the now-image, this poem adds statement, telling without showing.

        Two of Cummings’ “almost” haiku flirt with the “unknowable.” First, consider “tw” (610), which may be read as “two old once upon a (no more) time men, sit, look, dream.” One can see two men sitting or looking, but not dreaming (dreaming may be inferred, but it is not objectively knowable). So too with “& sun &” (830), which may be read as “sun & silence everywhere [end page 105] no one is, except on this boulder a dreaming chipmunk.” The leap to dreaming in both poems indicates the poet’s choice of an omniscient viewpoint, whereas haiku remains in the first person. The result in haiku is poems that can be directly experienced by both the poet and the reader, thus making them more consistently immediate.

        The poem “pieces(in darker” (623) becomes intellectual with the question at the end when put together as “pieces of mirror, each lying whole with sky (darker, smaller, dirtier than any city’s least street): why do people say it’s unlucky to break one?” In “(fea / therr / ain” (653), the question is answered: “feather-rain dreaming field over forest & who could be softer? no one.” This distinguishes the poem from haiku, for haiku imply—and do not answer the intrinsic question of what is implied.

        Perhaps more haiku-like than other poems cited thus far, “a gr / eyhaire /d” (705) stays nicely with direct perception: “a grey-haired, muttering, baby-faced, lunging drunk growls, I ain’t afraid of no one!’” Also extremely close to haiku is “silence” (712): “silence is a looking bird, the turning edge of life, inquiry before snow.” Here the word “is” intrudes by explaining or resolving the relationship between the bird and its quietness. The same problem occurs in “Beautiful” (713): “Beautiful is the unmeaning of (silently) falling (everywhere) sNOW.” Not only is “beautiful” a subjective analysis, but “is” destroys the universal response (that snow is beautiful) by directly stating it. In contrast, “n / ot eth / eold” (725) refrains from this explanation: “note the almost old lady feebly hurling crumbs one by one at two, three, four, five, & six english sparrows.” Here, however, “note the,” meaning “pay attention to,” is implicit to haiku; paying attention is the essence of haiku and need not be stated.

To conclude this discussion of “almost” haiku, I would like to take the liberty of recasting three of Cummings’ poems into workable haiku. All three, coincidentally, are sunset poems.

First, consider “e / cco the uglies / t” (788), which may be read as “ecco (listen) the ugliest suburban skyline on earth, between whose dowdy houses looms an egg-yellow smear of wintry sunset.” Here it is clear that a word such as “dowdy” is used for its sound with “house.” Also, words such as “ugliest,” “looms,” and “smear” are nonobjective judgments. And “eggyellow” is a metaphor, albeit imagistic. Nothing is wrong with these words, but they do set the poem apart from haiku. Recast as haiku, the image could come out like this:

 

suburban skyline—

a winter sunset’s pale yellow

between the houses                                                [end page 106]

 

Haiku are “life”; they are not necessarily pretty. Here one can see the ugliness of a city’s houses, although that quality remains unstated. This happens because of the symbolic essence of the pale yellow sunset, which functions as an objective correlative (to use T. S. Eliot’s term) for the emotion or opinion that the skyline is “ugly” and that the pale sunset “smears” the “dowdy” houses. In contrast to Cummings’ original poem, this haiku variation is understated, as haiku typically are. Something stylistic is lost in the conversion, perhaps, for Cummings always finds his own way with his words, but something subtle is also gained by trusting the image in the haiku mode.

        A second example to recast as haiku is “who are you,little i” (824). This may be read as “who are you, little i (five or six years old), peering from some high window at the gold of November sunset (and feeling, that if day has to become night, this is a beautiful way).” The image and sentiment are both delightful. But the childlike wonder (wide little eyes) could be presented as haiku in the following manner:

 

a child’s eyes

peering from a high window—

November sunset

 

This recasting may seem barren and empty—and probably less lyrical— in comparison to the original. But by trusting the image, reducing it to a basic Zen emptiness, the fullness of life in all its suchness may be revealed. It is akin to the ego-annihilation of Zen meditation, the approach to no-mind, finding the utter basics of existence. The astute reader, who has watched a November sunset with the same introspective melancholy, will likely think something similar to Cummings’ original poem, that sunsets are beautiful in themselves, and a delightful way for day to become night. Haiku seek to imply such thoughts, and do so by focusing on carefully selected images.

        A third poem that lends itself to recasting as haiku is “D-re-A-mi-N-gl-y” (838): “dreamingly, see—leaves locked in a gold afterglow are trembling.” In haiku form, the bare essentials (the objects) are “leaves,” the “(gold) afterglow,” and “trembling.” Everything else is judgment and analysis on the poet’s part, all ego-assertion (meaning, this is what the poet thinks, not what he sees, hears, smells, touches, and tastes). As haiku, the poem maybe recast as follows, with the word “aspen” added for specificity:

 

aspen leaves

trembling . . .

a gold afterglow                                                     [end page 107]

 

The leap in this version lies in the question of whether a literal gold afterglow bathes the trembling leaves with evening light, or whether the leaves themselves are an “afterglow” in the gold of autumn. This oscillation of meaning deepens the poem’s pensive autumnal sabi. What is lost, perhaps, is the contrast in the fact of the leaves “trembling” despite being “locked” in the gold light. But perhaps it is good to lose this intellectualism. What is gained is the implication of Cummings’ directly stated instruction to “dreamingly see.” In haiku, this mood becomes self-evident, and the knowledgeable haiku reader immediately leaps to this introspection.

        Perhaps it is presumptuous to rewrite Cummings’ poems in this manner, but in concluding this discussion of his “albutnotquitemost” haiku, I hope the exercise helps compare as well as contrast Cummings’ poetry and haiku. And here I note a distinct progression and growth in the poet’s leaning toward haiku sensibilities. I say this because most of these “almost” haiku occur in his last three books: XAIPE (1950), 95 Poems (1958), and 73 Poems (1963). Furthermore, almost all of the poems that do succeed as “haiku” come from his 1958 collection, the last to be published before he died. If the accusation persists that Cummings did not grow as a writer, I believe this increasing tendency toward haiku sensibilities in its small way (pun intended) effectively contradicts that accusation.

        At this point it is worth mentioning that Cummings did in fact write three haiku (identified at the time as “hokku,” a now-obsolete synonym for haiku):

 

I care not greatly

Should the world remember me

In some tomorrow.

 

There is a journey,

And who is for the long road

Loves not to linger.

 

For him the night calls,

Out of the dawn and sunset

Who has made poems. (875)

 

I have written in Frogpond, the journal of the Haiku Society of America, about the failings of these three poems as haiku (Welch, 51–56). In light of Cummings’ highly imagistic, seasonally sensitive poetry, it is surprising that these experiments fail, even though they are fairly early poems. The first is a statement of opinion; the second is more epigram than haiku; and though the third offers more of an image, it remains abstract. They all lack strong [end page 108] images, are too subjective, and do not offer implication, juxtaposition, childlike wonder, or sharply focused now-moments. To Cummings’ credit the line breaks are natural and do not seem padded or forced into the 5-7-5 structure that he adopted (believed correct for English at that time), but readers are left at the altar with flat statements packed into rigid external form.

        Cummings did at some time read the work of haiku-translator R. H. Blyth, however. Richard S. Kennedy reported in his biography of Cummings that around 1951 the poet read “a book on the Haiku by R. H. Blythe [sic] (lent by John Cage)” (438). Orientalism can also be seen in the word “Yapanese” from the 1931 poem, “the first president to be loved by his” (337). In “plato told / him” (553), published in 1944, Cummings writes of “lao / tse” and “a nipponized bit of/ the old sixth / avenue / el.” And in his foreword to a 1945 show of his art in Rochester, New York, in response to his own question, “where will you live after this war is over?”, Cummings wrote, “In China; as usual. . . . Where a painter is a poet” (Miscellany 317). Also, David V. Forrest, writing in The Journal of Psychiatry, noted that “Cummings was much impressed by Chinese poetry, and once referred me to R. H. Blyth’s Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics,” adding that “Cummings’ treatment of nature resembles the Chinese and Japanese perpetual celebration of and astonishment at the cycle of seasons, and the involvement of the natural world in one’s expressions of deep feelings” (37, 38). In a letter to Forrest of February 10, 1960, cited in the same Psychiatry article, Cummings wrote that “What interested me about Zen was chiefly the become-a-mountain-if-you’d-paint-one-doctrine” (38). It is exactly this interpenetration with the external world that enables the best haiku to flourish. How unfortunate that this sensibility did not manifest itself objectively in Cummings’ only published attempts at intentional haiku.

Cummings’ “Haiku”

Perhaps it is fitting in the Zen tradition that E. E. Cummings most closely approximated haiku when apparently he was not even trying. The earliest example of a successful haiku-like foray is “!blac / k” (487), a falling-leaf poem that is perhaps a precursor to “l(a.” This poem may be transcribed as “black against white sky, trees from which dropped a leaf goes whirling.” Syntactically, it is somewhat difficult in its original ideographic form, but it is strongly objective (presenting nouns and facts). This is but one early example of Cummings’ poems that succeed as “haiku,” from his 1940 collection, No Thanks. Another example is “rainsweet” (1045), which may be pieced together as “rainsweet stillness & far-near-fuling: a thrush’s voice.” This poem presents the mystery (yugen) of where a thrush’s voice emanates from in the sweet stillness after rain. [end page 109]

        Apart from these two early examples of successful haiku-like poems, all of Cummings’ “haiku” may be found in the poet’s last two collections, 95 Poems (1958) and 73 Poems (1963). Unsurprisingly, Norman Friedman has said of 95 Poems, where the best of these haiku-like verses appear, that it contains “crystal-clear impressions of nature and a consistently maturing transcendentalism” (162). These brief poems number just six, but they are worth discussing in full for their seasonality, nature- and image-centered objectivity, objective correlatives, delight in the ordinary, and their transcendental depictions of suchness.

      The first example is the 19th poem in 95 Poems, which may be read as “bee unmoving in the only rose, are you asleep?” (691):

 

un(bee)mo

 

vi

n(in)g

are(th

e)you(o

nly)

 

asl(rose)eep

 

Here the rose image is sharpened by the poet’s insistence that it is the only rose. This is perhaps a conceit, for is it literally the only rose in a garden, or the “only” rose in the mind of the poet, who, being so absorbed, can see only the immediate object of his rapturous attention? If the latter, the poem shows an interpenetration with nature that is intrinsic to haiku. Yet it may even be the “only” rose from the bee’s perspective, an even deeper interpenetration with nature. The poem may also be understood in the two halves of its whole—the words within and without the parentheses: “bee in the only rose” and “unmoving, are you asleep?” The first part is the bee itself, the image in the rose setting. The second part includes an observable quality, “unmoving.” But of greatest interest for its reverberation is the unanswered question, “are you asleep?” It implies wonder at how the bee could possibly sleep in so beautiful a rose—and by extension it confronts the reader with the same question in the context of his or her own existence. And in that context an irony arises in the word “unmoving.” It describes the bee, and perhaps the rose as well, but not the poet, for surely the poet is utterly moved by the stillness of this quiet bee—rose unity. All fine haiku exhibit this exact transcendent imagistic unity.

        In his focus on such small creatures as bees, Cummings emulates Issa (1762–1826),Japan’s most endearing haiku poet, who often identified with [end page 110] the flies and other small creatures around him. Another insect poem immediately follows after “un(bee)mo” in 95 Poems (692):

 

off a pane)the

(dropp

ingspinson

his

 

back mad)fly(ly

who

all at)stops

(once

 

This poem may be read as “all at once dropping off a pane, spins on his back madly, the fly stops.” It is actually difficult to reconstruct this poem in readable form, but its nonlinear quality emphasizes its all-at-once nature. What Cummings describes is perceived as one event—the fly dropping-spinning-stopping, much like the “motionlessly alive” immobile cat in another poem (655) that suddenly “executes a series of crazily acrobatic antics,” as Cummings wrote in a letter to his Japanese translator (Letters, 231). The haiku virtues in this spinning-fly poem include its sharp, time-compressing image and its unadorned objectivity. What the poet sees is not interpreted, except perhaps in the word “madly.” And he asserts no opinion about this small death (his own was only a few scant years away). But what are readers to make of this poem? That the last flutter of life is madness? I suspect not, for the greater value of this image lies in its suchness, the thing as it is. A fly drops off a windowpane, spins on its back, and then stops. That is all. It is not necessarily beautiful, but it is true. The poet sees it, knows it as true, and elevates the moment into poetry. This is the haiku spirit, and in this spirit the poet offers just the fleeting image in all its spinning stillness.

        The 24th poem in 95 Poems is a somewhat longer “haiku” totaling 32 syllables:

 

dim

i

nu

tiv

 

e this park is e

mpty(everyb

ody’s elsewher

e except me 6 e                                                       [end page 111]

 

nglish sparrow

s)a

utumn & t

he rai

 

n

th

e

raintherain

 

An astute reader may immediately notice a letter “e” at each corner of the second quatrain of these sixteen lines—as if framing the park in which the persona sees six English sparrows in the rain. In spite of its seeming respite, the park is a tight space, a constriction that captures the persona’s momentary existence and emotion. Again this poem has Issa-like empathy, and its seasonal qualities develop the mood of melancholy loneliness (sabi). Autumn is directly stated, and thus the falling rain is imbued with impending autumn gloom. In the repetition of “the rain, the rain, the rain,” the image also takes on a lyrical feel—and haiku are often thought of as lyrical poems. Perhaps the word “diminutive” is too much of an intellectual intrusion into this private moment of reflection, but likely the poet chose “diminutive” over “small” or “tiny” or “little” for the overtone of dullness in the word’s first syllable (the dim light of an overcast autumn day), for the lowercase “i,” and for the suggestion of “new” in the syllable “nu.” If anything is puzzling about this poem, it might be the number six. Why six sparrows? Why not five, or seven, or just one? Because haiku often presents the universal in the particular, wouldn’t a single English sparrow have deepened the melancholy and provided an objective symbol of the persona’s everybody’s-elsewhere loneliness? I think not, for that might have been too obvious. Rather, six is what it is. It can be taken literally, and readers may assume that that is what really happened. Haiku are best written from direct experience, and in this case the experience may have actually been six sparrows. The choice to preserve this ephemeral detail indicates the poet’s growing understanding of haiku sensibilities. On the other hand, each sparrow has the other birds for company, yet the persona has no one—nothing but the sparrows, perhaps fluttering-about waiting for bits of bread, or huddled together in the cold without necks. Whatever the understanding, the reader keeps returning to the crystallized image—of a kind that lies at the heart of every successful haiku.

        The child’s viewpoint may be seen in the delight of “once upon a time,” from the following poem published in 73 Poems (796): [end page 112]

 

insu nli gh t

 

o

verand

o

vering

 

A

 

onc

eup

ona

tim

 

e ne wsp aper

 

This image brings to mind “The Term” by William Carlos Williams, which describes a “rumpled sheet / of brown paper /. . . / rolling with the / wind slowly over / and over in / the street as / a car drove down / upon it and / crushed it to / the ground” (125). It is curious to wonder if Williams’ poem had any influence on Cummings’ creation. But where “The Term” is a longer poem, Cummings’ poem crystallizes the image in just eighteen syllables. The invented gerund, “overing,” is perhaps the only residue of Cummings’ nonwordless inimitable style, and “once upon a time” adds a wistful, punnish, childlike quality, emphasizing the newspaper’s time-bound ephemerality. A newspaper turns over and over in sunlight. What a clear image! It is here and now. Need anything more be said?

        Another haiku from 73 Poems describes “this one snowflake alighting upon a gravestone” (833):

 

one

 

t

hi

s

 

snowflake

 

(a

    li

      ght

    in

g)                                                                            [end page 113]

 

is upon a gra

 

v

es

t

 

one

 

As with his other concrete poems and “ideograms,” Cummings brings out multiple overtones in the word “gravestone” by splitting the word over several lines: “vest,” “one,” and “gravest one.” While this technique of typographic letterplay may set this sort of poem apart from traditional haiku, the core words and meaning are presented objectively and apprehended subjectively in the same manner as haiku. The increasing indentation toward the middle of “alighting” emphasizes by visual means that the center of the poem is the precise moment the snowflake touches the gravestone. But the real strength of this poem is the purity of its image, devoid of judgment and explanation. We do not know whose gravestone this is. We do not know where it is. Nor do we know the condition of the grave, whether well-kept or run-down; nor the depth of the winter season, whether just beginning or ending. We only see the snowflake—one snowflake—at the exact moment it touches a gravestone. By the objective correlative that equates the snow to winter, which equates to death, we see an external symbol for internal feelings associated with death. The poem is somber and cold, ironic only in the contrast between the snowflake’s drifting motion and the stone’s utter stillness. But they come together in tactile harmony, as the snowflake joins the stone in the moment of touching. Such transcendent wholeness is the hallmark of haiku.

        The final example of Cummings’ “haiku”—actually the first to appear in 95 Poemsis recognized as haiku more often than any other Cummings poem (673):

 

l(a

 

le

af

fa

 

ll

 

s)

one

l

 

iness                                                [end page 114]

 

Much has been written about this poem, particularly its sense of individuality, inventive visual effects, and the many ways it evokes the number one, and “oneliness.” It is even prefaced by the numeral one at the top of its page. Midwest American haiku poet Raymond Roseliep, in a 1982 article, cited “l(a” among five classic English haiku, the others being by Wallace Stevens, W. S. Merwin, W. H. Auden, and Dag Hammarskjöld. Roseliep had asked Cummings if this poem could be read aloud, and reported the poet’s answer: “No, it couldn’t, Cummings said, because it is a purely visual poem; but he added, with boyish excitement, that some woman was planning to perform a dance to it” (18). Roseliep concluded his citation with the regret that he did not ask Cummings if he intended the poem as haiku.

        But surely it is. Writing in The Japan Times in 1983, Gene Bluestein discussed Cummings’ cross-cultural achievement in creating a haiku with “l(a.” He indicated that the “juxtaposition of a natural fact and the insight it gives leads to our first glimmer that Cummings knows some aspects of haiku strategy” (10). Bluestein explained that he once shared Cummings’ poem with an American Studies class in Hiroshima. A student, Masato Takimoto, spontaneously rendered the poem into Japanese (10):

 

一片の葉が舞い落ちる物悲
 
Hitohira no

Ha ga maiochiru

Monoganashi

 

This version speaks more of melancholy than loneliness, however. My own attempt to render Cummings’ idea in haiku is as follows:

 

out of the silence

loneliness

a leaf falls

 

The German critic Sabine Sommerkamp, in her 1984 dissertation on haiku, also cited “l(a” as a seminal English haiku from the concrete poetry and Imagist schools (154–155). She devoted an entire section of her research to Cummings and the compressed poetry of his typographical ideograms, of which “l(a” is but one. Robert E. Wegner has said of these ideograms that they are “probably Cummings’ most difficult form. These most terse of poems combine visual and auditory elements” (143), and notes that “The ideogram compresses perception, feeling, and realization Las does haiku] until they are no longer distinguishable, until, as Keats observed, beauty is truth and truth is beauty. . . . His purpose in striving for compression in these poems was to realize more fully the truth about . . . being alive that he felt resided in something as simple as seeing a flake of snow” (148). [end page 115]

        In a letter to biographer Richard S. Kennedy dated July 21, 1978, Mitchell Morse called “l(a” “in spirit a perfect haiku” (Kennedy, 463, 512), and Kennedy distinguished the poem as “the most delicately beautiful literary construct that Cummings ever created” (463). That the intensity of this praise is directed at so brief a poem is a testament to haiku’s depth and vitality. Also, as already mentioned, R. H. Blyth identified loneliness as one of the thirteen characteristics necessary for the creation of haiku (Haiku 161–169). Blyth also said that haiku is “a hand beckoning, a door half-opened, a mirror wiped clean. It is a way of returning to nature, to our moon nature, our cherry blossom nature, our falling leaf nature, in short, to our Buddha nature” (Haiku, 243, emphasis added).

        Noted Zen commentator D. T. Suzuki has underscored the solitary quality of autumn in an essay on the Japanese love of nature: “The falling leaves in autumn have often awakened the poetic sensibility of the nature-loving Japanese,” emphasizing that “aloneness . . . is the spirit of autumn-nature” (341). This sentiment is not peculiar to Japan, of course: the image of a falling leaf has obvious melancholic universality. Knowing that Cummings read both Suzuki and Blyth—preferring Blyth to Suzuki (Forrest 38)—at least some antecedent and influence for “l(a” can be traced to Japan. The letters even cascade down the page in a manner reminiscent of written Japanese. The Japanese antecedent seems especially likely given that Cummings’ poem is startlingly similar to a falling-leaf haiku written by Bashō in 1692. Evidence suggests that Cummings read Bashō’s poem in the fourth volume of Blyth’s Haiku (1106). Here I give the poem as translated by Harold G. Henderson, from his 1958 book An Introduction to Haiku (47):
 

淋しさを   とうてくれぬか   きりひとは

 

Sabishisa wo                                                              Won’t you come and see

toute kurenu ka                                                        loneliness? Just one leaf

kiri hito ha                                                                   from the kiri tree.

 

Henderson explained that “The kiri (paulownia) is noted for dropping its leaves even when no breath of wind is stirring” (47), a fact that deepens the stillness and sabi of Bashō’s poem. The same depth is also felt in Cummings’ falling-leaf poem. The leaf itself functions effectively as an objective correlative to the mood of loneliness, and the leaf’s path and singularity neatly parallel the notion of oneliness. Incidentally, Bluestein noted that “the separation of the leaf from the tree is symbolic of loneliness and alienation” (10). Yet there is a sweet and comfortable transcendency to the poem, a notion of finding one’s place in the continuum of being. Blyth has noted that “a falling leaf has the whole of autumn, of every autumn, of the eternal, the timeless autumn of each and of all things” (Haiku 9). Similarly, Alan Watts observed in The Way of Zen that “the artificial haiku [end page 116] always feels like a piece of life which has been deliberately broken off or wrenched away from the universe, whereas the genuine haiku has dropped off all by itself [like a leaf], and has the whole universe inside it” (196). In his posthumous collection, 73 Poems, Cummings echoed this thought (and his personal identification with a falling leaf) by writing, “and marvellously self diminutive / whose universe a single leaf may be” (821). In this sense, Cummings’ most genuine haiku is both sharply focused and tremendously expansive—an exploding condensation of the kind achieved regularly by the best haiku. This poem, like the other successful “haiku” of E. E. Cummings, has fallen off all by itself, and has come to rest in the reader’s lap with all the universe inside it.

In Conclusion: All Matterings of Mind

Has a child ever padded up to you to show you a simple stone, a feather, a ladybug, or a plucked flower? This is the childlike wonder of E. E. Cummings—huge-eyed and bursting, whistling far and wee—and it is with the same joy that haiku poets pen their verses. Haiku poets are all Alices in a wonderland of direct experience. In Cummings’ poetry, as with Carroll’s tale, language is obviously turned on its head. “There’s glory for you,” as Humpty Dumpty decides. In haiku too, contrary to what one might at first believe, language is also turned on its head. Due to the “direct pointing” nature of haiku, this poetry avoids many aspects of expression that are common in Western poetry. Haiku’s language revolution is perhaps less obvious than Cummings’, yet perhaps more broadly sweeping (in English at least), for it spurns most rhetorical devices, avoids judgments, analysis, metaphor, and simile, generally avoids the past and future tenses, discourages the use of adverbs and adjectives, avoids complicated or abstract Latinate terms, and focuses on the direct, simple, egoless, and natural language that only a being as grown-up as a child might use. A child would certainly understand a good haiku—indeed, might break into a smile on hearing it. Children also have a natural ability to see things as they are, without the weight of intellectualizing. A significant portion of Cummings’ poetry, as we have seen, is thus akin to haiku; it commonly shares a child’s wonder and clear-sighted viewpoint, showing the reader, as it were, the bare reality and existence of a stone, a feather, a ladybug, or plucked flower These are things that matter.

        R. H. Blyth has described haiku as a return to nature. He wrote in the preface to his four-volume exploration of Japanese haiku that “The history of mankind, as a history of the human spirit, may be thought of as consisting of two elements: an escape from this world to another; and a return to it” (4). He further defines this rise and fall by stating that “there has been a movement towards ideas, ideals, abstractions; and a corresponding revul- [end page 117] sion from them” (4). The revulsion to ideas and abstractions, he explains, resulted in a return to nature in the East, especially in Japan. In the West, this return to nature is evident in the life and work of Thoreau and other early American nature writers—and at times, Cummings as well. This returning to things, while somewhat rooted in animism, is greater than that, a spiritual acceptance of the emotional realm in addition to, or partially instead of, the intellectual realm. This is the essence of haiku. Haiku is a return to nature, a return to human nature. Where Cummings abandons Western idea-making and pontifications, he returns to his nature, the essence of his emotional being before thought. To repeat Blyth’s credo from the first volume of Haiku: “A haiku is not a poem. . . . It is a way of returning to nature, to our moon nature, our cherry blossom nature, our falling leaf nature, in short, to our Buddha nature” (243).

        Does Cummings have Buddha-nature? To that question a browsing cow at Joy Farm is likely to moo. Perhaps by his verbal, linguistic, and typographic playfulness (I am not inclined to call it experiment, to the extent that it seemingly came to him naturally), he was returning to his Buddha-nature, tapping into that precognitive realm of the subconscious, that realm of emotional nakedness, honesty, and authenticity. It is a peculiar, wordless world, a realm of miracles that are “not for mostpeople” (461). This is the root aim of haiku (perhaps through varying techniques), a returning to things. Cummings may show much preoccupation with the verb in his poetry, but with increasing sensitivity for haiku sensibilities, he was also able to show the thing—the noun—with startling and immediate clarity. Especially in his haiku-like poems, he trusted the thing’s essence to be. It is no wonder Kenneth Yasuda called haiku a poetry of the noun. Indeed, somewhere in the nounness and nowness of our life and language lies our true nature. Haiku is a poetic means of revealing it. I believe that the Cambridge poet sought to show that nature in his poetry. Through his abundant haiku sensibilities, it seems that, in many cases, E. E. Cummings succeeded.

        Had Cummings lived long beyond that day of splitting wood at Joy Farm in September of 1962 (how fitting for him to be born and die in autumn), I speculate that he would have written many more poems along the lines of “l(a.” But we are left with “the remembrance of miracles” (461) he did write, and the opportunity to understand his lyrical poems more broadly. Further research will likely uncover an even deeper Oriental impact on Cummings’ writing, and I look forward to seeing it. But in the end, we are reminded by Cummings himself to return to the poetry, to return to nature, for “all matterings of mind / equal one violet” (736).

—Foster City, California

[end page 118]

Works Cited

A Haiku Path: The Haiku Society of America 1968–1988. New York: Haiku Society of America, 1994.

Amann, Eric. The Wordless Poem. Toronto: Haiku Society of Canada, 1969, 1978.

Bluestein, Gene. “Hop Over the Culture Barrier With Haiku.” The Japan Times, Sunday, 24 July 1983: 10.

Blyth, R. H. Haiku. 4 vols. Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1949–1952; South San Francisco: Heian International, 1981–1982.

———. Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics. Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1942.

Cummings, E. E. Complete Poems 1904—1962. New York: Liveright, 1991.

———. A Miscellany Revised. George J. Firmage, ed. New York: October House, 1958, 1965.

———. Selected Letters of E. E. Cummings. F. W. Dupee and George Stade, eds. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969.

Forrest, David V. “E. E. Cummings and the Thoughts That Lie Too Deep for Tears: Of Defenses in Poetry.” Psychiatry, Journal for the Study of Interpersonal Processes. 43:1 (February 1980): 13–42.

Friedman, Norman. E. E. Cummings: The Growth of a Writer. Carbondale and Edwardsville, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press / Arcturus Books, 1964.

Hackett, James W. The Zen Haiku and other Zen Poems of J. W. Hackett. Tokyo: Japan Publications, 1983.

Heitmeyer, Doris, ed. HSA Newsletter. 20 January 1994.

Henderson, Harold G. An Introduction to Haiku. New York: Anchor / Doubleday, 1958.

Higginson, William J. with Penny Harter. The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985; New York and Tokyo: Kodansha, 1989.

Kennedy, Richard S. Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E. E. Cummings. New York: Liveright, 1980.

———. “E. E. Cummings, A Major Minor Poet.” Spring, 1:1 (October1992): 37–45.

Levertov, Denise. New & Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1992.

Lowell, Amy. What’s O’Clock. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1925.

Record, Kirby. “Universal Aesthetic Principles of Haiku Form.” Tamkang Review, XVIII: 1, 2, 3, 4 (Autumn 1987–Summer 1988): 227–258.
Roseliep, Raymond. “‘Spots of Time’: Five Classic Haiku.” Haiku Review 82: 18–19. [end page 119]
Ross, Bruce, ed. Haiku Moment: An Anthology of Contemporary North American Haiku. Boston: Charles E. Tuttle, 1993.

Sommerkamp, Sabine. “Der Einfluss des Haiku auf Imagismus und Jüngere Moderne: Studien zur englischen und amerikanischen Lyrik.” Diss. Universität Hamburg, 1984.

Suzuki, D. T. Zen and Japanese Culture. Princeton, New Jersey: Bollingen, 1959.

Ueda, Makoto, ed. and trans. Modern Japanese Haiku: An Anthology. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976.

van den Heuvel, Cor, ed. The Haiku Anthology: Haiku and Senryu in English. New York: Touchstone / Simon & Schuster, 1986.

Watts, Alan W. The Way of Zen. New York: Pantheon, 1957.

Wegner, Robert E. The Poetry and Prose of E. E. Cummings. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965.

Welch, Michael Dylan. “Three Hokku by E. E. Cummings.” Frogpond, XVI: 1 (Spring-Summer, 1993): 51–56.

William Carlos Williams. Selected Poems. Charles Tomlinson, ed. NewYork: New Directions, 1985.

Yasuda, Kenneth. The Japanese Haiku: Its Essential Nature, History, and Possibilities in English. Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle, 1957.