[The Strange Beauty of the Mangled Lilac] [10.8.07]

Whenever reading E. E. Cummings’ poetry, or simply musing on it, I think of a punchy little cockroach. The roach in question is Archy, the titular insect of Don Marquis’ Archy and Mehitabel, a series of poems begun in 1916. Or, I should rather say, I thought of Cummings the first time I read the opening lines from one such Marquis poem, “mehitabel was once cleopatra”[1]:

boss i am disappointed in
some of your readers they
are always asking how does
archy work the shift so as to get a
new line or how does archy do
this or do that they
are always interested in technical
details when the main question is
whether the stuff is
literature or not (1-10)

I have thought of the two in conjunction to each other ever since.

That simple declaration, that the meat of the matter is “whether the stuff is literature or not,” has since served as a touchstone for this reader’s aesthetic concerns and expectations, in a very general sense. It seems that the primary goal of an aesthetic digestion should be to enjoy art; it is only after enjoying the meal, that is, that one ought to seek to gain in a venture for knowledge of how the chef prepared it – the same might be true for a disappointing meal, as well, for education’s sake. In a more particular sense, getting to Cummings, it seems to this reader, as well, that much of the intended beauty of his poetry might go unnoticed in the search for a tight logic or aesthetic meaning as regards his (mis)use of syntax and punctuation. (Also, for them that are “interested in technical details”: Archy throws himself headlong into the keys of a typewriter, eking out his poetry letter by lower-case letter.)

While the grandchildren to his unique punctuations may be text message short-cuts – as “thx” and “Ur” – or emoticons – as “: )” – still there was a rationale, other than the expediency which seems to drive the new tech-slang, for Cummings to write [2] about a

lo
co
mo
tive s pout
ing
vi
o
lets (14-22)

the way that he did. In this instance the layout of the lines, and the breaking of the words based not on syllabic tendency, serves to mimic the smoke puffs left in the wake of a moving train: violets sprouted in the air like links in a ch- ch- ch- ch- chain. In what might function as a manifesto of Cummings’ intent, he writes [3]:

my mind is
a big hunk of irrevocable nothing which touch and taste and smell
and hearing and sight keep hitting and chipping with sharp fatal
tools
in an agony of sensual chisels i perform squirms of chrome and ex
-ecute strides of cobalt
nevertheless i
feel that i cleverly am being altered that i slightly am becoming
something a little different,in fact
myself
Hereupon helpless i utter lilac shreiks and scarlet bellowings. (1-11)

The reader can come to understand, through these lines, the beauty Cummings aches to find in the fragmented post-war world he inhabited.

From the introduction by Richard S. Kennedy, where he quotes Cummings as saying: “The symbol of all art is the Prism…The goal is unrealism. The method is destructive. To break up the white light of objective realism, into the secret glories which it contains” (xvi). Compare this idea to Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude descending a staircase” or to the discoveries of Cubism, which reproduced the world as a series of disjointed, but connected, planes. The lilac shriek, then, is a painful, flowering growth, and the scarlet bellow the cry of the annihilated, the shattered, the world as it is after war.

[1] Marquis, Don. Archy and Mehitabel. New York: Anchor Books Editions, 1990.
[2] Cummings, E. E. Tulips & Chimneys. “Impressions: VI.” New York: Liveright, 1996.
[3] Cummings, E. E. Tulips & Chimneys. “Portraits: XXV.” New York: Liveright, 1996.

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