E.E. Cummings: Complete Poems – 1942-1962

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E.E. Cummings: Complete Poems – 1942-1962
Edited by George James Firmage
Liveright/Norton Publishing – £36.00

By the time of his death in 1962, E.E. Cummings had published twenty books, by which time, he had surprisingly become the most widely read poet in America. I say surprisingly, because eventhough there’s resolutely no doubting his poetic credentials – especially in the way he readily refused to take literary convention for granted, thus his pechant for the toying of visuality within poetry – there’s something about his writing(s) I find a little too ambivalent.

A little too angular.

For instance, one of his most renowned of poems ‘ I Carry Your Heart’ (included in this masterful collection on page 766), is typical of the way he shunted words together by avoiding the usage of space. This is perhaps no big deal, but when aligned with the inexorable use of lower casing, I personally find the occasional collision of words impinges on the appreciation of the actual reading itself:

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the starts apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

Cummings application of reinforcing the poem’s title, by inserting a line-space after the penultimate line, is, to my mind, altogether unnecessary. Suffice to say, this really is down to personal preference and choice; but I find the line – which is the only time it appears on its own within the poem – a tad superfluous.

Like many of the poems in this revised, corrected and expanded edition of E.E. Cummings Complete Poems 1904-1962, the above rather reads like a jumble of emotion(s) that in’t necessarily convincing – let alone tender. That its opening four lines was included in the awful 2005 film In Her Shoes (which featured the equally awful Cameron Diaz), might go some way in substantiating as much. There again, this is a profound flip-side to this argument, wherein Mark Van Doren of The Nation writes: ”[A poet with] a richly sensuous mind; his verse is distinguished by fluidity and weight; he is equipped to range lustily and long among the major passions.”

This rather exquisite, veritable tomb of a poetic collection edited by George James Firmage, will undoubtadly enable one to make one’s own mind up, as Complete Poems contains all the poems published or designated for publication by Cummings during his lifetime. These include thirty-six poems that were initially collected in the 1991 edition, along with a further 164 unpublished poems issued in 1983 under the title Etcetera.

As noted within the book’s dust-jacket: ”It spans from his earliest creations to his vivacious linguistic acrobatics and up through his last valedictory sonnets.”

At 1078 pages (excluding an Index Of First Lines) this enromous collection of the Cambridge, Massachusetts born poet, leaves absoutely no syntax of a stone un-turned. An Introduction of sorts would’ve been nice – even if only from the stand-point of an appreciation of Cummings enormous body of work – but it is what it is. And what it is, will invariably mean many differing things to an assortment of people. As Charlotte Runcie recently wrote in The Telegraph: ”You can’t second guess an EE Cummings poem. You just have to piece each bit together as it arrives, ending up with a complete, pristine thought that you’ve helped to make. It was a brand new trick in the Twenties, and almost 100 years later, it still feels fresh.”

Complete Poems 1904-0962 showcases E.E. Cummings’s vast transcendent body of work in all it’s (questionably) innovative, yet relentlessly challenging glory. And like his poetry, it’s a book not to be messed with.

David Marx

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