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.
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):
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)
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.
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
(with brightness of peace)
yes is a world
& in this world of
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):
into winter twi
my friend” reme
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
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.
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?
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.