Thursday, April 19, 2012

Boulevard Symposium on The Canon

The new issue of Boulevard is out now with an interesting symposium on “Flaws in the Canon,” where writers were invited to “Name and discuss a literary work generally considered to be part of our ‘Canon’ that because of a serious literary flaw, or flaws, doesn’t deserve to be part of the canon, or, alternatively, name and discuss a work which in spite of a serious flaw has such compensating virtues that it still deserves canonic stature.”

Wayne Miller, Kevin Prufer, Mary Y. Hallab, G.C. Waldrep, William Hastings, Ange Mlinko, and Eric Miles Williamson weigh in on all sorts of things, including Rilke, Kate Chopin, Henry James, Plath, Christopher Marlowe, Byron. The symposium ends with Williamson’s attack on who is creating the canon and how he sees them doing it.

It’s worth your time to find. My piece is on e.e. cummings, in general (the directions clearly stated “work” but I’m not good at reading directions.) Here it is:

It’s illustrative to look at the 1972 volume of essays on e.e. cummings in the Twentieth Century Views series, edited by Norman Friedman. The idea behind the series was to have, in one volume, essays on the contemporary masters, so it’s a pretty safe bet to say these would be essays very friendly to cummings, and though they are, each, in its way, spends much, if not most, of its time on concessions to his faults, and marginally successful attempts to downplay those faults. What one comes away from this volume with is the feeling that even in friendly company, cummings is defined by his many shortcomings (“shortcummings,” I’m tempted to pun). And even to a casual reader, those shortcomings are soon apparent: the simplistic vision, the sophomoric emotional range. His is a world of easy dualities and easy unities, where “mankind” is “manunkind,” and love is erotic love, and, along with spring, brings quick transcendence of this world where war is bad and groups of people can be spoken about with universal condemnation.

Perhaps the best summation of his weaknesses comes from R.P. Blackmur, one of the era’s most influential critics. Blackmur considers himself an admirer of cummings, and, as such, writes, “There is, for the poet, no discipline like the justified reservations of his admirers.” He then goes on to enumerate three of those reservations, writing, “First, there is the big reservation that, contrary to the general belief and contrary to what apparently he thinks himself, Mr. Cummings is not—in his meters, in the shapes of his lines, in the typographical cast of his poems on the page—an experimental poet at all.” Blackmur describes cummings’s formal style as a series of attempts, often failed, at heightening sound down the page, and the reason for the large number of failures is that cummings doesn’t have a standard from which to conduct experiments. The second reservation Blackmur has of cummings’s poetry is that cummings’s vocabulary, in Blackmur’s words, “at many crucial points [is] so vastly over-generalized as to prevent any effective mastery over the connotations they are meant to set up as the substance of his poems.” And, lastly for Blackmur, there is cummings’s tendency to come off as “the small boy writing privy inscriptions on the wall” that neither reach the level of gesture or disgust, but rather tend to sound coprophiliac.

Blackmur’s critique, on top of teaching me the word “coprophiliac,” sets up one half of the hurdle cummings’s work faces in the canon. The other half is the way critics like to have canonical poets to have a great long poem and to have a poet’s work evolve over time. Cummings has done neither. Not only does he not have a great long poem, he doesn’t have a long poem at all. And, likewise, though his supporters take great pains to point out that there is development in cummings’s vision, this development seems to be a distinction without much of a difference. For example, the development of his love poetry over time was to soften the erotic for the transcendent, while retaining the position of love as the easy opposite to this world. Likewise, his forays into painting and playwriting tend to be cases of “the less said the better,” even among his admirers. In all cases, he set up a style early, and stayed there. The one thing critics have to hold up as revealing cummings’s greatness as a large thinker are his prose accounts The Enormous Room and Eimi, which, though retaining something of their spark, are now fairly dated accounts of individualism in the face of state power.

With all this baggage (and there is more, by the way; I’ve just scratched the surface here) floating around his work, why cummings is read or talked about at all, might seem a more apt question than whether or not his work overcomes its flaws. And if all one does is read the criticism, one might be forgiven for thinking this. But then, when one reads the poems, one comes across lines such as these:

my father moved through dooms of love
through sames of am through haves of give,
singing each morning out of each night
my father moved through depths of height

and one is undoubtedly in the presence of something particular and special, and all (or nearly all) is forgiven. The fact is, cummings simply wrote some absolutely magnificent poems, at least a couple dozen of them, from heightened prose to sonnets. And, in these poems, it’s in his turns of phrase that he is most memorable. As important as vision, experiment, and development are, it is more important, in the final analysis, to simply write well, and cummings simply wrote well. From the early “in Just /spring when the world is mud- / luscious” to the late “i’ll sing // while at us very deftly a most stares /colossal hoax of clocks and calendars,” he didn’t necessarily do it consistently or with subtlety or precision, but he often did it beautifully.


At 4/19/2012 10:14 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

I liked this, John. Your mention of cummings a while back was related to this project, I'm guessing. I'd be interested to see your very small selection of his best poems.

He published so much; people wanted to print him. But so much of it was dreck. And that dreck took up air that might have meant a lot to someone else, if they'd had the chance to print more, maybe.

Maybe not -- stars we always have with us.

At 4/19/2012 11:11 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

It was. He's been on my mind for a while. It's another example of someone who just put it all out there (a good contemporary example is Neil Young, in music). the problem with that is the bad gets in the way of the good, messes up its reception. The canon -- I guess there really is such a creature? -- helps to winnow the dross. I'd put cummings's best dozen up against anyone else's best dozen, they might not "win," but they would make a good show of themselves.

The dreck we also wil always have with us. You're right, people WANT to have work from some people, its important aesthetically and politically, but so much of what's written is not worth remembering for long, even things that seem good enough at the time.

Really, how many top-shelf excellent poems does any poet get? (Or any songwriter? Etc.)

At 4/20/2012 6:23 PM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

my father moved through dooms of love
through sames of am through haves of give,
singing each morning out of each night
my father moved through depths of height

---Pardon me, John, but do you really think this is good? It sounds like nonsense to me. Does it describe a real father? I might even say this is horribly bad.

At 4/20/2012 7:36 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Is it supposed to be a real father? If it were a real father would that help in some way? Personally, I feel the world has enough real fathers, why should we go inventing more?

At 4/20/2012 9:04 PM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

i guess i can't get a handle on what cummings is talking about..."dooms" and "give" and "singing" and "depths of height" seem merely hyperbolic. I don't get anything from it. I don't think it's good poetry....

At 4/22/2012 10:38 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

Some people get excited about the anthimeria of using adjectives and verbs as nouns or nouns as other parts of speech. They enjoy "We talk in Careless-–and in toss-–” (Dickinson) and "The hearts That spaniel’d me at heels" (Shakespeare). They enjoy "sames of am through haves of give." I think the capacity to get excited about that kind of wordplay--the willingness to revel in it at the expense of conceptual clarity--is a sign of talent.

At 4/23/2012 9:26 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

When Shakespeare does it, though, David, I get the feeling it's because he (and his characters) were looking for the most expedient tool to hand -- urgency excuses it. When cummings does it, I sometimes feel the urgency, sometimes I don't.

At 4/23/2012 11:06 AM, Blogger underbelly said...

"...urgency excuses it. When cummings does it, I sometimes feel the urgency, sometimes I don't.

I think about this a lot. It points back to a previous discussion on the gimmick (what that means, and if it's necessarily a bad thing).

I'm also intrigued by the Russian Formalist notion that literary language distinguishes itself from ordinary language by impeding the reader ... that the literary experience comes from leaping the gap between the language and whatever the language may determine. it's a participatory model that I like ... and it helps me justify the thrill I feel at certain kinds of defamiliarization.

It also leaves a lot of questions unanswered. What kind of defamiliarazation for what purposes? And when does clarity (or the illusion of clarity) serve better? I only have vague, gut inclinations to guide me here. I'd love to see more active discussion of these problems.

At 4/23/2012 11:11 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Absolutely. Lyn Hejinian's poetry plays around at this margin I think in profitable ways. It's a conversation I'd also like very much to be part of.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home