Occasional Cummings

First presented as a paper at the E. E. Cummings Symposium at the American Literature Association conference in San Diego, California, 30 May 1996. First published in Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society #6, October 1997 [actually June 1998], pages 81–93. Originally written from May 1996 to March 1997 in Foster City California.
 

        I

 
Some months ago, when I first began to survey the “occasional” use of E. E. Cummings’ poetry, I happened across a comment by Diane Wakoski: “I have always rejected the idea of ‘occasional poetry’—a poem for your host, a birthday poem, a wedding poem, etc. Then I realized they were the only poems anyone other than poets read” (26). What I would like to talk about is just that—the poems of E. E. Cummings that nonpoets read. In discussing this topic, I’d like to share a few examples of my own use of Cummings’ poetry, add some speculations on how the poet’s work might be used, and conclude with a sampling of Cummings’ work categorized by topic. In short, the reading of any poetry by nonpoets happens largely because of this so-called occasional use of poetry, which, in the scope of all poetry, has its distinct and valid place as a sort of populist canon. To the extent that Cummings’ poetry reaches a wider audience in this manner, I am inclined to support the practice.

        What do I mean by occasional? Starting with Wakoski’s assertion, it is simply the writing of poems for special occasions. One may do that, I suppose, if one is drafted into service like Maya Angelou for a civil rights march or a presidential inauguration. Poets of a more proletarian stripe may also write occasional poetry—although with less intrinsic import, surely, for couplets on the demise of one’s parakeet may be simply maudlin and not the stuff of imperious truth. Or beauty.

        Yet the occasional poem still has a home in world literature as commentary or commemoration. Among Cummings’ poems I think of “THANKSGIVING (1956),” written for the Boston Arts Festival at which Cummings, as the festival poet, was invited to write one new poem. Of course we know in this case that his vitriolic satire of America’s nonsupport of the Hungarian Revolution was thought to clash with the festival’s upbeat spirit; consequently, with some persuasion from the event’s organizers, Cummings substituted “i am a little church(no great cathedral)” as the festival poem instead. Cummings wrote to festival manager Peter Temple about “i am a little church”: “please treat the enclosed POEM as ‘occasional’” (Norman, 223). Offering “i am a little church” was a gesture, and although even Cummings called it “occasional,” “THANKSGIVING” seems more immediately topical. For the festival, Cummings also read his original diatribe (Kennedy, 457–458):

 

THANKSGIVING (1956)

 

a monstering horror swallows

this unworld me by you

as the god of our fathers’ fathers bows

to a which that walks like a who

 

but the voice-with-a-smile of democracy

announces night & day

“all poor little peoples that want to be free

just trust in the u s a”

 

suddenly uprose hungary

and she gave a terrible cry

“no slave’s unlife shall murder me

for i will freely die”

 

she cried so high thermopylae

heard her and marathon

and all prehuman history

and finally The UN

 

“be quiet little hungary

and do as you are bid

a good kind bear is angary

we fear for the quo pro quid”

 

uncle sam shrugs his pretty

pink shoulders you know how

and he twitches a liberal titty

and lisps “i’m busy right now”

 

so rah-rah-rah democracy

let’s all be as thankful as hell

and bury the statue of liberty

(because it begins to smell)

 

        (Complete 711)

 

As we contemplate this poem now, four decades later, we rely on a cool knowledge of history to apprehend it, and remain at least somewhat removed from the satire and the emotional irony of American grief for Hungary’s turmoil at the same time as this country’s autumn holiday celebration. Yet, as Cummings’ biographer notes, the poet received “heavy applause because he had touched something deep in [the audience’s] feelings that needed expression” (Kennedy, 458).

        Such is the “occasional” sort of poetry we know most widely. In actuality, all poetry might be called occasional, for every willful line must be triggered by some event or memory in the poet’s life. Something as brief as a haiku records a moment keenly perceived and arises as an occasional poem. Even poetry of memory and imagination springs from some here-and-now catalyst.

        However, it occurs to me to distinguish the existence of at least two kinds of occasional poems—those written for an occasion, and those written about it, the former being poetic commissions, the latter being a response to or a commemoration of an event in verse. For example, love poems are often written about an occasion—the remnant of her smile—either recorded or desired.

        I find yet another kind of occasional poetry, however, and that is the use of certain poems, after the fact, for special occasions. By “after the fact,” I mean the use of the poem in a new context. “THANKSGIVING” held special relevance at its first reading in 1957 because the topic was current news, much like a poem about war in Bosnia or the Middle East offers occasionality to us today. Such poems have, in journalistic terms, a “news peg,” and are thus contextually accessible. Indeed, the choice of already extant poems for occasional use, after the fact, may be governed by thinking of a specific audience for a poem, plus a time, a place, and context. This sort of occasional poetry is thus the creative application of poem to purpose that I would like to call contextual poetry.

        As such, some poems gain an applied occasionality after the fact, like the resharpening of a Shakespeare sonnet at cousin Wendy’s wedding. As for Cummings, many of his poems can be put to service in just this contextual manner. Speaking of marriage, I hope the following contexts might illustrate of few of the many possible marriages of poem to purpose. It is a kind of occasional poetry that I think—and hope—Diane Wakoski might approve.
 

 

       II

 
I am not one who has the gift of memorization. Thus I have had to type up a copy of “maggie and milly and molly and may” and tuck it into my glove compartment. On drives to the beach, I never tire of sharing this poem with new companions, for “it’s always ourselves we find in the sea” (Complete 682):

 

maggie and milly and molly and may

went down to the beach(to play one day)

 

and maggie discovered a shell that sang

so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles,and

 

milly befriended a stranded star

whose rays five languid fingers were;

 

and molly was chased by a horrible thing

which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and

 

may came home with a smooth round stone

as small as a world and as large as alone.

 

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)

it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

 

This is a simple example of a contextual use of Cummings’ poetry. In this case the occasion is something less than a formal sort of social ritual like a wedding or a funeral. Yet here the poem moves from the occasion of its writing to the occasion of its new use, and thus reaches nonpoets because of its contextual relevance, just as 8,000 nonpoets first heard “THANKSGIVING” forty years ago.

        Similarly, if I may be confessional for a moment, I once sent the following Cummings sonnet to a former girlfriend, for it seemed appropriate at the time (Complete 146):

 

it may not always be so;and i say

that if your lips,which i have loved,should touch

another’s,and your dear strong fingers clutch

his heart,as mine in time not far away;

if on another’s face your sweet hair lay

in such a silence as i know,or such

great writhing words as,uttering overmuch,

stand helplessly before the spirit at bay;

 

if this should be,i say if this should be—

you of my heart,send me a little word;

that i may go unto him,and take his hands,

saying,Accept all happiness from me.

Then shall i turn my face,and hear one bird

sing terribly afar in the lost lands.

 

        A more public variation on the contextual use of Cummings’ poetry might be found in the recent use of “love is a place” as a “Poetry in Motion” subway placard aboard New York City Transit, also reprinted in a companion book commemorating the placard program (Peacock, 65). Here the poem’s brevity may have lent itself to its particular use on the subway (see Friedman 149 and Complete 443):

 

love is a place

& through this place of

love move

(with brightness of peace)

all places

 

yes is a world

& in this world of

yes live

(skilfully curled)

all worlds

 

        Still in the vein of love, one might send the following poem to a lover (if one does not send Cummings’ entire collection, 1 x 1) as a token of one’s affection on Valentine’s Day (Complete 718):

 

never could anyone

who simply lives to die

dream that your valentine

makes happier me than i

 

but always everything

which only dies to grow

can guess and as for spring

she’ll be the first to know

 

Indeed, Cummings’ poetry has appeared on greeting cards, T-shirts, art prints, and in numerous anthologies, some of which make an obvious contextual use. One example is Into the Garden: A Wedding Anthology, a popular and critically well-received poetry collection edited by Robert Hass and Stephen Mitchell that includes “love is more thicker than forget” and “if everything happens that can’t be done” (Complete 530, 594).

        Speaking of weddings, Cummings’ work is rife with love poems. I once inscribed a book of my own poems to a girlfriend with the following verse by Cummings (Complete 965):

 

if you like my poems let them

walk in the evening,a little behind you

 

then people will say

“Along this road i saw a princess pass

on her way to meet her lover(it was

toward nightfall)with tall and ignorant servants.”

 

        Another sort of contextual use of Cummings’ poetry is as epigraph. One of numerous examples I might cite is Richard Bach’s use of the last five lines of “stand with your lover on the ending earth—” in his briefly popular novel The Bridge Across Forever (Complete 743):

 

—how fortunate are you and i,whose home

is timelessness:we who have wandered down

from fragrant mountains of eternal now

 

to frolic in such mysteries as birth

and death a day(or maybe even less)

 

        Many more examples of a contextual use of E. E. Cummings’ poetry can be seen in the publication, in several illustrated books for children, of such poems as “hist whist,” “little tree,” and “in Just- / spring.” Children (if nonpoets, the purest sort) thus become exposed to Cummings’ work. More recently, too, we have seen the publication of “may i feel said he” as a large hardback book with paintings by Marc Chagall. I think, in fact, that one mark of a poet’s success may be the extent to which his or her poems are adaptable to new contexts or are used for such special purposes, perhaps like Old Possum’s migration to the musical stage in Cats. Established poets have a certain marketability to the nonpoet masses, and much of that marketability lies here, in the contextual use of their poetry. Finding these new contexts is the art, again, of pairing poem with purpose.

        I imagine, however, that some uses of Cummings’ poetry for certain occasions might fail. Consider, for example, the reading of the following poem at a child’s bedtime (Complete 489):

 

If you can’t eat you got to

 

smoke and we aint got

nothing to smoke:come on kid

 

let’s go to sleep

if you can’t smoke you got to

 

Sing and we aint got

 

nothing to sing;come on kid

let’s go to sleep

 

if you can’t sing you got to

die and we aint got

 

Nothing to die,come on kid

 

let’s go to sleep

if you can’t die you got to

 

dream and we aint got

nothing to dream(come on kid

 

Let’s go to sleep)

 

Indeed, the danger of using Cummings’ poetry for certain occasions is that it can take the poem too far out of context, like distorting Bible passages as supposed proof texts for a pet belief. Judicious use is in order. On the topic of bedtime, a much better option would be this utterly brief poem (Complete 781):

 

now is a ship

 

which captain am

sails out of sleep

 

steering for dream

 

        Here is another contextual use of a Cummings poem. For a friend’s funeral one might read the following (Complete 823):

 

but

 

he” i

staring

 

into winter twi

 

light(whisper)“was

my friend” reme

mbering “&

 

friendship

 

is a

miracle”

his always

not imaginably

 

morethanmostgenerous

 

spirit.    Feeling

only

(jesus)every(god)

 

where

 

(chr

ist)

 

what absolute nothing

 

        Continuing in the realm of speculation, “i thank You God for most this amazing” might be used as a prayer in church (Complete 663):

 

i thank You God for most this amazing

day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees

and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything

which is natural which is infinite which is yes

 

(i who have died am alive again today,

and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth

day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay

great happening illimitably earth)

 

how should tasting touching hearing seeing

breathing any—lifted from the no

of all nothing—human merely being

doubt unimaginable You?

 

(now the ears of my ears awake and

now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

 

By changing “i” to “we,” “i thank You God” is also ideal for weddings, as one E. E. Cummings Society member, Bernard F. Stehle, has pointed out to me from his own experience. The poem has also been used on posters and greeting cards, and would also seem appropriate for an environmentalist gathering along the lines of the “Watershed” poetry events organized recently by our recent poet laureate, Robert Hass.

        Fiftieth wedding anniversary celebrations are also possible occasions for using Cummings’ poems. I have heard of “o by the by” being used in such a way, and “since feeling is first” also. Consider “since feeling is first” (Complete 291) in such a context:

 

since feeling is first

who pays any attention

to the syntax of things

will never wholly kiss you;

 

wholly to be a fool

while Spring is in the world

 

my blood approves,

and kisses are a better fate

than wisdom

lady i swear by all flowers.    Don’t cry

—the best gesture of my brain is less than

your eyelids’ flutter which says

 

we are for each other:then

laugh,leaning back in my arms

for life’s not a paragraph

 

And death i think is no parenthesis

 

        Finally, an obvious occasion for which Cummings’ poetry might be used is at graduation. For my own college graduation I read “if up’s the word;and a world grows greener” at the commencement ceremony (Complete 769):

 

if up’s the word;and a world grows greener

minute by second and most by more—

if death is the loser and life is the winner

(and beggars are rich but misers are poor)

—let’s touch the sky:

                                    with a to and a fro

(and a here there where)and away we go

 

in even the laziest creature among us

a wisdom no knowledge can kill is astir—

now dull eyes are keen and now keen eyes are keener

(for young is the year,for young is the year)

—let’s touch the sky:

                                    with a great(and a gay

and a steep)deep rush through amazing day

 

it’s brains without hearts have set saint against sinner;

put gain over gladness and joy under care—

let’s do as an earth which can never do wrong does

(minute by second and most by more)

—let’s touch the sky:

                                    with a strange(and a true)

and a climbing fall into far near blue

 

if beggars are rich(and a robin will sing his

robin a song)but misers are poor—

let’s love until noone could quite be(and young is

the year,dear)as living as i’m and as you’re

—let’s touch the sky:

                                    with a you and a me

and an every(who’s any who’s some)one who’s we

 

        Whatever appropriate uses might be found for Cummings’ poetry, the benefit for Cummings is a wider audience. The benefit for nonpoets is an accessible introduction to poetry and the work of a particular poet.
 

 

       III

 
To further the occasional or contextual use of Cummings’ poetry, perhaps it would be useful to have a thorough topical classification of Cummings’ poetry to complement Katharine McBride’s Concordance. As a foray into what might be done to that end, I have selected a sampling of Cummings’ poems and assigned them to numerous categories. I have been free and liberal with my categories, but wish to suggest that the matching of poem to occasion is limited only by one’s imagination. Here, then, in conclusion, is a brief sampling of Cummings’ poems, topically arranged:

 

 

Selected Poem (references to Complete)                                                      Contextual Use

 

maggie and milly and molly and may (682)                                                 Beach-going

now is a ship (781)                                                                                                 Bedtime

your birthday comes to tell me this (734)                                                    Birthday

in Just- / spring (27)                                                                                               Children’s verse

hist whist (28)                                                                                                          Children’s verse

little tree (29)                                                                                                           Children’s verse

why did you go (30)                                                                                               Children’s verse

Tumbling hair (31)                                                                                                  Children’s verse

maggie and milly and molly and may (682)                                                  Children’s verse

now is a ship (781)                                                                                                 Children’s verse

who are you,little i (824)                                                                                     Children’s verse

little tree (29)                                                                                                           Christmas

a thrown a / -way It (632)                                                                                     Christmas

i thank You God for most this amazing (663)                                               Church prayer

dying is fine)but Death (604)                                                                             Death

i am a little church(no great cathedral) (749)                                              Death

but // he” (823)                                                                                                        Death

“o purple finch (836)                                                                                             Death

should this fool die (1053)                                                                                  Death

since feeling is first (291)                                                                                    Fiftieth Anniversary

o by the by (593)                                                                                                      Fiftieth Anniversary

my father moved through dooms of love (520)                                          Funeral

dying is fine)but Death (604)                                                                             Funeral

i am a little church(no great cathedral) (749)                                              Funeral

but // he (823)                                                                                                          Funeral

“o purple finch (836)                                                                                              Funeral

i thank You God for most this amazing (663)                                               Graduation

in time of daffodils(who know (688)                                                              Graduation

if up’s the word;and a world grows greener (769)                                    Graduation

old age sticks (729)                                                                                                 Growing old

hist whist (28)                                                                                                          Halloween

if i love You (364)                                                                                                    Love

may i feel said he (399)                                                                                        Love

love is a place (443)                                                                                               Love

love’s function is to fabricate unknownness (446)                                   Love

one’s not half two. It’s two are halves of one (556)                                 Love

true lovers in each happening of their hearts (576)                                 Love

“sweet spring in your / time is my time is our / time (591)                   Love

if everything happens that can’t be done (594)                                          Love

i love you much(most beautiful darling (717)                                             Love

stand with your lover on the ending earth— (743)                                   Love

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in / my heart) (766)                         Love

if up’s the word;and a world grows greener (769)                                     Love

if you like my poems let them (965)                                                               Love

it is so long since my heart has been with yours (298)                            Love (longing)

i like my body when it is with your / body (218)                                        Love / seduction

she being Brand / -new (246)                                                                             Love / seduction

my sweet old etcetera (275)                                                                               Lust

“next to of course god america i (267)                                                            Patriotic satire

it may not always be so;and i say (146)                                                          Relationships (break up)

i like my body when it is with your / body (218)                                        Sex

she being Brand / -new (246)                                                                             Sex

my sweet old etcetera (275)                                                                              Sex

may i feel said he (399)                                                                                        Sex

n w (1031)                                                                                                                  Sex

who are you,little i (824)                                                                                     Sunset

never could anyone (718)                                                                                   Valentine’s Day

love is more thicker than forget (530)                                                           Wedding

one’s not half two. It’s two are halves of one (556)                                Wedding

if everything happens that can’t be done (594)                                        Wedding

i am a little church(no great cathedral (749; change “i” to “we”)       Wedding

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in / my heart) (766)                        Wedding

 

 

        Any Cummings student would surely find countless other poems, or poems in other categories, to add to this formative list, particularly in the category of love poems, which could also be used in the wedding category. The significance of such an exercise, as Diane Wakoski has conceded, is that these are among the poems that nonpoets enjoy. Thus the contextual use of Cummings’ poems brings his poetry to a larger audience. What would any poet enjoy more?

 

 

Works Cited

 
Bach, Richard. The Bridge Across Forever. New York: Morrow, 1984.

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

———. hist whist. Deborah Kogan Ray, illus. New York: Crown, 1989.

———. Hist Whist and Other Poems for Children. David Calsada, illus. New York: Liveright, 1983.

———. in Just- spring. Heidi Goennel, illus. New York: Little, Brown, 1988.

———. Little Tree. Deborah Kogan Ray, illus. New York: Crown, 1987.

———. may i feel said he. Paintings by Marc Chagall. Linda Sunshine, ed. New York: Welcome Enterprises, 1995.

Friedman, Norman, ed. “People and Events.” Spring #4 (October 1995): 149.

Hass, Robert, and Stephen Mitchell, eds. Into the Garden: A Wedding Anthology. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.

Kennedy, Richard S. Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E. E. Cummings. New York: Liveright, 1994.

McBride, Katharine Winters, ed. A Concordance to the Complete Poems of E. E. Cummings. Ithaca, NY: Cornell U. Press, 1989.

Norman, Charles. E. E. Cummings: A Biography. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1967.

Peacock, Molly, Elise Paschen, and Neil Neches, eds. Poetry in Motion: 100 Poems from the Subways & Buses. New York: Norton, 1996.

Wakoski, Diane. Toward a New Poetry. Ann Arbor: U. of Michigan Press, 1980.