Cummings' poetry celebrates individuality, freedom, Nature, and the joy of existence in the natural rhythms of life rather than be defined by society's expectations. His poetry is often satirical, highly critical of all institutions - governments, churches, small groups - that enforce their beliefs on others. He is also critical of individuals who conform to society's mores, without thinking of what they are losing, in the naive belief that the majority must be obeyed. cummings' poetry emphasises the intuitive and emotional sides of self and the belief that the world cannot be fully explained by either religion, philosophy, science or any other discipline. It is this seeming human need to rationally and logically explain existence - to categorise and put all things in neat, perfect 'boxes' - that is alienating to the individual. cummings believed that we must accept a world that cannot be fully comprehended and glory in its mystery rather than be frustrated by our inability to explain 'all'.
'The meaning of a poem is not simply what is said. How it is written and the use of poetic techniques is integral to the whole meaning.'
Poetry as a literary genre is more dependent on the subtleties and nuances of languages than other forms. It depends on every word on the page, its sound and position on the page, the use of figurative language to present a myriad of meanings in a short space. 'O Sweet Spontaneous' and 'anyone lived in a pretty how town' by e.e. cummings are two poems that illustrate this idea.
'O Sweet Spontaneous' is structured in a seemingly haphazard form, where words are not placed on the page in the traditionally linear and ordered fashion, but in lines that vary in length, do not begin neatly below the former line and have odd spacing. On one level cummings is defying the poetic conventions of the time by his subversion of poetic form and also grammatical structures. However the typography of the poem is also meant to capture the spontaneity that the poem addresses. It is not ordered and restrained by borders and parameters, but liberated from these constraining conventions. In this way cummings uses space on the page for a poetic effect but is also political. In the poem a comma is used to commence a line (, has the naughty thumb); a full stop after a long space and there are capital letters at the beginning of sentences. His use of grammar questions its traditional use and its power to define 'proper' poetry. Instead cummings misuses punctuation, capitals and other grammatical sttructures to call attention to their politics and also to attempt to 're-make' poetry, to make it fresh and innovative again by forcing readers into seeing words in new relationships with other words and the space betweeen them.
Cummings also uses the parenthesis in a different way. Usually used as an aside the parenthesis contain the main idea of the poem.
to the incomparable
couch of death thy
them only with
On one level in a world that values rationality and order, the power of Nature is only an after- thought and only thought of parenthetically. However the poem is centrally concerned with the beauty and understated power of nature, and a critique of all those disciplines that attempt to explain the universe, such as science, philosophy and religion. While these disciplines are seen as ephemeral and subjective, Nature is constant, she returns each year with the promise of new life and spring.
In contrast 'anyone lived in a pretty how town' is set out in quatrains with irregular rhyme and internal rhyme.The conventional stanzaic pattern sets up a conflict between the traditional mode of poetry, with its traditional conservative values, with the the inverted syntax and ungrammatical structures that appear throughout the poem ('laughed their cryings and did their dance'). The form of the poem reflects one of the major themes in the poem which is the intuitive spontaneity that an individual can experience within the regimented views of mainstream society.
The poem reveals the alienating effects of conformity in modern urban society. There is no individuality, no spontaneity, no imagination to understand differences. Instead the citizens all become automatons, parts of the machine.
In the poem cummings constructs two characters, anyone and noone, as individuals who lived by their own beliefs in contrast to someone and everyone who mindlessly follow the conventions of society. Though exploring the ideas of conformity and critiquing mainstream beliefs and practices the form of the poem is quite traditional compared to his other poems. It is set out in quatrains with a relatively defined metre and rhyme, though it is often irregular. The conventional stanzaic pattern and rhyme presents a conflict between the traditional mode of poetry with its conservative values, with the inverted syntax and ungrammatical structures which appear throughout the poem (‘laughed their cryings and did their dance’). The avant-garde choices of language and syntax within the traditional stanzaic forms reflects one of the main ideas in the poem: the intuitive spontaneity that an individual can experience within the regimented views of collective society.
In anyone lived in a pretty how town’ cummings uses many techniques that subvert the usual meanings of words by placing parts of speech in incongruous relationships with other another: verbs are used as nouns, adverbs as adjectives. This subversion allows the reader to reassess the words used, to look at them in a new light as they are no longer in predictable forms that may have become clichéd or meaningless in its inability to evoke the image or idea. In the opening line the adverb of ‘how’ is placed alongside ‘town’, when an adjective is expected. The word ‘how’ draws attention to itself and becomes an integral clue to the meaning of the poem. The word suggests, amongst other things, that the townspeople asks ‘how’ – they are conditioned to see the world in these terms; pragmatic, rational and ultimately materialistic. They lack the capacity for spontaneous and intuitive feelings. This presents cummings’ central concern that people lose their individuality in collective society; they conform to the mainstream beliefs and discourses that limit their view of living so that they can no longer understand or tolerate other ways. In particular, cummings seems to be highlighting the alienating effects of institutionalized practices such as marriage which seem to not be based on cummings’ version of love but on more pragmatic concerns concerning status and income.
Children still have the ability while they are young to think and feel imaginatively but this is lost as they are exposed to the ideological forces of mainstream society. Education systems, advertising, parents and peers all contribute to this conditioning and cummings laments that ‘children guessed (but only a few/and down they forgot as up they grew’
The purpose of cummings’ experimentation with form was to force the reader to see old ideas and issues in new ways. Words lose their power when repeated over and over, they become cliches and platitudes that fail to ignite a reader’s imagination and no longer makes them think. By putting words in new relationships with other words and the space on the page cummings defamiliarises the reader from the usual meanings and nature of language.
Like the European modernists cummings was responding to a world that had many of its eternal verities challenged and dismantled. No longer was there universal faith in God and the scientific advances that had seemed promising in offer some earthly utopia instead offered the technology that gave us machine guns, tanks, aircraft and mustard gas that made World War 1 so horrific.. Darwin, Freud, Marx and Nietzsche had shattered many long held beliefs in the primacy of the human species, a sense of a self with free will, the innate superiority of monarchies and their right to rule, and a definitive moral code. The old poetry seemed too tame to contain these great shifts in thinking and it needed a new aesthetic, a new form and language to capture the zeitgeist.
cummings’ poetry made its readers look at the world in a different way. The order that underpinned the 19th century worldview and its poetry was challenged by his subversion of grammatical conventions (little capitalization, misuse of punctuation, coining new words, fusing words together, tmesis) spacing and typography. The syntax is shattered and splintered. often It was chaotic and anarchic, suiting a world that had experienced great social and intellectual changes and WW1. Of course, change is not easily acceptable and many still hung onto traditional values and beliefs. cummings was called an imposter; it
was poetry full of cheap tricks and gimmicks.