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Monday, April 11, 2011

Number 122: e.e. cummings "Chansons Innocentes: I"

Chansons Innocentes: I

in Just-
spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman

whistles far and wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it's

when the world is puddle-wonderful

the queer
old balloonman whistles
far and wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing

from hop-scotch and jump-rope and


balloonMan whistles

--e.e. cummings

Hap Notes: I suppose it's almost obligatory to use this poem in the spring. It's probably the first poem that occurs to me when I think of the season (I was going to say "springs to mind" but didn't want the spontaneous thought to seem too cute.) Cummings (1894-1962), in spite of his "tricksy" orthographics, wrote many poems without changing the traditional case work of the letters. His poems with the run-together words and interesting punctuations were often intended to be seen as a word sculpture in addition to being read as a poem.

Cummings (born Edward Estlin Cummings) was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts to Edward and Rebecca Cummings and was always called Estlin at home. His dad was a professor of political science and sociology at Harvard (and was later a Unitarian minister) and his mom was an unconventional mother who read poetry aloud to the children (he had a younger sister, Elizabeth) and eschewed the "typical" "feminine" role of housewife. (I use the quotation marks to make clear my snide aversion to the idea that there can be such a thing. I don't believe femininity has much to do with daily house chores.) She encouraged him to write a poem every day – he wrote his first poem at the age of three. He pretty much hit the ground running as far as becoming a poet is concerned.

Cummings went to Harvard and majored in English and Classics studies where he graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor's and went on to get his master's there as well. While at Harvard he roomed with John Dos Passos (there's a pair, eh?) While in
the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps, he was stationed in Paris awaiting assignment and fell in love with the place. He would return to Paris many times in his life. He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1918. Cummings had an outspoken aversion to war throughout his life.

Edward Cummings, the poet's father, was an extraordinarily capable man who was both well-educated and could repair things- a potent mix. Cummings always said his dad could do anything and he admired him tremendously. His father was always one of his greatest fans so it was mutual.

Cummings spent some travel time in Russia and I think that's why he supported Joseph McCarthy's "red scare" shenanigans. Cummings was a Republican back in the day when a Republican is what a Democrat is, politically, today. Republicans in contemporary culture could not even tolerate the national programs that even Richard Nixon developed today (the EPA, the school lunch programs, tax incentives for the poor etc.) Just sayin'.

Okay, let's get to the poem, yes? The old balloon man changes in each description, gradually becoming Pan, the god of rustic music and shepherds and flocks and wild nature. The expression "far and wee" sounds very much like the sounds a "pan pipe" would make. The world is full of colorful balloons, temptingly splashy puddles and fudgey muds. The children are running and dancing like the lambs of the season. The poem is filled, the way much of cummings' work is, with joy and sensuality. Remember too, that he avidly studied Greek and Roman works and mythology.

Cummings major influences are probably imagists Amy Lowell and Gertrude Stein. One can see the mix of influences with cummings and Dos Passos a bit too, I think.

By the by, I don't know that cummings preferred his name to constantly be spelled in lower case letters. I believe he did it as a form of modesty and humbleness. I just followed along with the traditional spelling- very un-cummings-like of me, really. Except then I get to explain why I did it. Cummings took a certain amount of critical disparagement for his orthographics in his day. I think it's pretty obvious why he used them now, but at the time they were refreshingly revolutionary (and still seem so, sometimes.)

I suppose it's also worth mentioning that cummings has been enormously influential to modern poets, artists and fontographers for the last 50 years or so.

If you have never heard cumming's distinctive voice, here he is reading the poem:

Here's a good cummings quote:

“We do not believe in ourselves until someone reveals that deep inside us something is valuable, worth listening to, worthy of our trust, sacred to our touch. Once we believe in ourselves we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight or any experience that reveals the human spirit.”

You can find more cummings here:

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