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.