Mr. Wallace Stevens is the master of a style: that is the most remarkable thing about him. His gift for combining words is fantastic but sure: even when you do not know what he is saying, you know that he is saying it well. He derives plainly from several French sources of the last fifty years but he never--except for a fleeting phrase or two--really sounds like any of them. You could not mistake even a title by Wallace Stevens for a title by anyone else: Invective Against Swans, Hibiscus on the Sleeping Shores, A High-Toned Old Christian Woman, The Emperor of Ice-Cream, Exposition of the Contents of a Cab, The Bird with the Coppery Keen Claws, Two Figures in Dense Violet Night, Hymn from a Watermelon Pavilion, and Frogs Eat Butterflies. Snakes Eat Frogs. Hogs Eat Snakes. Men Eat Hogs.
These titles also represent Mr. Steven's curious ironic imagination at its very best. The poems themselves--ingenious, charming and sometimes beautiful as they are--do not always quite satisfy the expectation aroused by the titles. When you read a few poems of Mr. Stevens, you get the impression from the richness of his verbal imagination that he is a poet of rich personality, but when you come to read the whole volume through you are struck by a sort of aridity. Mr. Stevens, who is so observant and has so distinguished a fancy, seems to have emotion neither in abundance nor in intensity. He is ironic a little in Mr. Eliot's manner; but he is not poignantly, not tragically ironic. Emotion seems to emerge only furtively in the cryptic images of his poetry, as if it had been driven, as he seems to hint, into the remotest crannies of sleep or disposed of by being dexterously turned into exquisite amusing words. Nothing could be more perfect in its tone and nothing by itself could be more satisfactory than such a thing as Last Looks at the Lilacs. But when we have gone all through Mr. Stevens, we find ourselves putting to him the same question which he, in the last poem of his book, puts To a Roaring Wind:
What syllable are you seeking, Vocallissimus, In the distances of sleep? Speak it.
Mr. E. E. Cummings, on the other hand, is not, like Mr. Stevens, a master in a peculiar vein; a master is precisely what he is not. Cummings's style is an eternal adolescent, as fresh and often as winning but as halfbaked as boyhood. A poet with a genuine gift for language, for a melting music a little like Shelley's which sighs and rhapsodizes in soft light vowels disembarrassed of their baggage of consonants, he strikes often on aetherial measures of a singular purity and charm--his best poems seem to dissolve on the mind like the flakes of a lyric dew; but he seems never to know when he is writing badly and when he is writing well. He has apparently no faculty for self-criticism. One imagines him giving off his poems as spontaneously as perspiration and with as little application of the intellect. One imagines him chuckling with the delight of a school-boy when he has invented an adverb like "sayingly" or hit upon the idea of writing capitals in the middles of words instead of at the beginnings. One imagines him just as proud to have written
last we on the groaning flame of neat huge trudging kiss moistly climbing hideously with large minute hips, 0
On such a night the sea through her blind miles of crumbling silence
or the sonnet about the little dancer
absatively posolutely dead, like Coney Island in winter.
And there is really, it seems to me, a certain amateurishness about the better of these specimens of his style as well as about the worse. Just as in the first example he takes one of the lines of least resistance with a difficult sensation by setting down indiscriminately all the ideas it suggests to him without ever really taking pains to focus it for the reader, so in the second he succumbs to an over-indulgence in the beautiful English long i which from "I arise from dreams of thee" to Mr. T. S. Eliot's nightingale filling "all the desert with inviolable voice" has been reserved for effects of especial brightness or purity but which Mr. Cummings has cheapened a little by pounding on it too much. One or two accurately placed long i's, if combined with other long vowels, are usually enough by themselves to illuminate a poem, but Mr. Cummings is addicted to long i's, he has got into the habit of using them uncritically, and he insists upon turning them on all over until his poems are lit up like Christmas trees.
Mr. Cummings's eccentric punctuation is, I think, typical of his immaturity as an artist. It is not merely a question of unconventional punctuation: unconventional punctuation very often gains its effect. But I must contend, after a sincere effort to appreciate it and after having had it explained to me by a friend of Mr. Cummings, that Mr. Cummings's does not gain its effect. It is Mr. Cummings's theory that punctuation marks, capitalization and arrangement on the page should be used not as mere conventional indications of structure which make it easier for the reader to pay attention to the meaning conveyed by the words themselves but as independent instruments of expression susceptible of infinite variation. Thus he refuses to make use of capitals for the purposes for which they were invented--to indicate the beginnings of sentences and the occurrence of proper names--but insists upon pressing them into service for purposes of emphasis; and he even demotes the first person singular of the pronoun by a small i, only printing it as a capital when he desires to give it special salience--not, apparently, realizing that for readers accustomed to seeing it the other way it calls ten times as much attention to "I" to write it as a small letter than to print it in the ordinary fashion. But the really serious case against Mr. Cummings's punctuation is that the results which it yields are ugly. His poems are hideous on the page. He insists upon shattering even the most conventional and harmless of his productions, which if they had their deserts would appear in neat little boxes like the innocuous correct prose poems of Mr. Logan Pearsall Smith, into an explosive system of fragments which, so far from making the cadences easier to follow only involves us in a jig-saw puzzle of putting them together again. In the long run, I think it may be said that words have to carry their own cadence and emphasis through the order in which they are written. The extent to which punctuation and typography can help out is really very limited.
Behind this formidable barrier of punctuation for which Mr. Cummings seems unfortunately to have achieved most celebrity, his emotions are conventional and simple in the extreme. They even verge occasionally on the banal. You have the adoration of young love and the delight in the coming of spring and you have the reflection that all flesh must die and all "roses" turn to "ashes." But this is perhaps precisely where Mr. Cummings has an advantage over Mr. Stevens. Whatever Cummings is he is not chilled; he is not impervious to life. He responds eagerly and unconstrainedly to all that the world has to offer. His poetry constitutes an expression--and for the most part a charming expression--of a kind very rare in America--it is the record of a temperament which loves and enjoys, which responds readily with mockery or tenderness, entirely without the inhibitions from which so much of American writing is merely the anguish to escape. He is one of the only American authors living who is not reacting against something. And for this example of the good life--and for the fact that, after all, he is a poet at a time when there is a great deal of writing of verse and very little real poetic feeling--Mr. Cummings deserves well of the public.