Modern art gets much less explanation than it deserves. The artist is too busy pioneering, the intransigent critic too busy fighting his own battles. Nor does any explanation come from the critics of the older school. They have a fear of tasting anything which they cannot recognize at a glance, they refuse to understand anything which is disturbingly new. But since they are house-broken only in their own traditions and would inevitably make a mess of themselves if they wandered afield, it is perhaps fortunate for the world that they make no attempt to understand the underlying aesthetic upon which these crisp and brilliant poems of E. E. Cummings are built.
For Cummings is not only a poet but a painter. His knowledge of word value is as profound as his knowledge of color, and it is largely for this reason, because he has carried over the eye and method of art into the field of poetry, that the fresh, living, glamorous forms he has created seem so intangible. To many of those who do not understand this fact, this translation of one art into the technic of another, the poems of E. E. Cummings seem nothing more than verbal and typographical mannerism.
But it is not unapparent in his work that Cummings' approach to poetry has been quite definitely through painting. The spatial organization of color has become the durational organization of words, the technical problem that of tempo. Words, like planes in abstract painting, function not as units in a logical structure, but as units functioning in a vital and organic structure of time. Logic and all its attributes of grammar, spelling and punctuation, become subservient to the imperial demands of form. The words must come at the moment juste, the spark perfectly timed must ignite them at their fullest incipient power.
while in the battered bodies the odd unlovely souls struggle slowly and writhe like caught. brave: flies;
In this quotation the verbal units fall, almost as if by fate, into a sharp relentless tempo that drives each into the highest incandescence of its meaning. There is no waste, the skilful orchestration of tempo forces each word to the final limit of its stress.
But Cummings not only derives his technical organization from painting. The sudden and glaring accuracies of description with which his poetry abounds, are those of an amazingly adept draughtsman who has for the moment exchanged his own medium for that of words. In some cases this pictorial accuracy is that of a photograph taken with a lens of ice, brutally clear. But in many of his more recent poems, of which there are all too few examples in the present volume, this accuracy, deepened and sharpened by satire, cuts both ways. These poems, particularly the one published in the fourth number of Secession, have all the quality of Daumier plus that formal significance which Daumier never attained. It is a satire both in form and import far beyond the timid and retiring ironies of T. S. Eliot; a satire which reveals Cummings as completely innoculated against that galloping stagnation which seems to carry off so many of our younger American poets.
Of the grace of Cummings' poetry much has been written. But grace is an emanation, the residue or by-product of a means which has utterly realized its aesthetic or extra-aesthetic purpose. It is an ease which springs from the perfect economy of method. But since it cannot be its own purpose, since it can only be attained by way of a technic whose purpose is not grace itself, it necessarily extends beyond the reaches of analysis. Nevertheless it may be touched by a consideration of that purpose from which it emanates, and though I may be leading myself by the nose into a very doubtful territory of assumptions, I should say that the formal grace (one might as well say beauty and be done with it) of Cummings' work is largely due to the fact that the lines of his poems are built for speed. Their beauty is that of all swift things seen at rest.
In his best work this speed is evident; there exists in them an organized direction toward which each verbal unit functions at its highest velocity. Cummings seldom attempts to achieve momentum through the utilization of mass, the violent and often painful impact of his poems is the active manifestation of speed; their formal beauty has that quality common to racing cars, aeroplanes, and to those birds surviving because of their swift wings.
But it is this speed, this sudden impact of his poems which turns so many people against them. Men do not like to be knocked down, particularly by some quality they admire. But if art is to have any of the contemporary virtues it must have speed, and though it is perhaps more pleasant to be softly overturned by the witching waves of Amy Lowell, or knocked slowly numb by the water droppings of Georgian poetasters, it is certainly more exhilarating to experience the sharp, the living, the swift, the brilliant tempos of E.E. Cummings. And though the selection of poems in this volume is neither a sensitive nor a comprehensive one, though it contains poems of questionable value, it nevertheless stands as the most important work of poetry yet published in America.