THE PUDDLE-WONDERFUL POET OF SPRING
Poets can’t make up their minds about spring. They even cast aspersions on April. Each year about this time some cynic drags out “April is the cruelest month.” Dire even for a rainy day, yet who among us still believes that spring is when “God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world”?
But one poet had no ambivalence about spring. E.E. Cummings seemed to own the season, to feel it, live it, rejoice in it year round. Playing with words, picking at punctuation as he might with petals, Cummings did for spring what Van Gogh did for sunflowers and starry nights. Once you have felt an E.E. Cummings spring, not even the dreariest day can drown the rising April in your soul.
Cummings’ own rites of spring began with his first poem in his first collection. Though more traditional than anything he wrote afterwards, “Epithamalion” sang:
the mad magnificent herald Spring
assembles beauty from forgetfulness
with the wild trump of April
Some critics scoffed. Edmund Wilson found Cummings “conventional and simple in the extreme.” But Harriet Munroe, founder of Poetry, hailed this “agile faun. . . full of delight over the beauties and monstrosities of this brilliant and grimy old planet.” So who was this grown man playing at poetry with the joy of a child?
Because his father, a Unitarian minister, already claimed the boy’s first name — Edward — his parents called him by his middle name — Estlin. By any name, few children have enjoyed a more nurturing youth. Both parents encouraged Estlin to paint and write poetry from the age of eight. Winters in Cambridge, Mass and summers at a New Hampshire home called Joy Farm burst with creativity. Cummings later thanked both parents.
if there are any heavens my mother will (all by herself) have one
And of his father:
joy was his song and joy so pure
a heart of star by him could steer. . .
(and every child was sure that spring
danced when she heard my father sing)
After flourishing at Harvard, then surviving three months in a French prison during World War I, Cummings burst into American letters in the 1920s. It was a time of experimentation, a time of modernism, a time of ambition tempered by Pan-like romps, and Cummings was one of its literary avatars. In 1925, when his second book of poetry drew better reviews, he moved to an alley apartment in Greenwich Village. Winters were hard and money scarce, but spring, oh spring...
So forget Shakespeare’s “When proud, pied April, dressed in all his trim. . .”
Emily Dickinson, give it a rest with your “Light exists in Spring/not present in the year.”
Here at last was spring that romped, spring that burst off the page.
sweet spring is your
time is my time is our
time for springtime is lovetime
and viva sweet love
Here was spring in your veins:
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world
Here was spring as not just a season but a sentiment, a symbol for the best in us:
your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose
Okay, now comes the darkness, you’re thinking. The horror he must have hid while playing the harlequin. Sorry to disappoint you but Cummings was as charming in person as he was in print. Though he was sometimes shy around strangers, around friends he would talk for hours, quoting Horace in Latin, Sappho in Greek, then turning to painting. Cummings painted as often as he wrote and seemed to put his feel for the visual into his experimental poetry.
Especially later in life, when poems stretch letter-by-letter down the page, a Cummings poem must be seen, not read. Still, he performed them frequently, in soaring cadences that charmed audiences and helped him patch together a living — barely. “He thought a poet should be fed by the ravens,” his friend John Dos Passos said, “and of course he was.”
There is no ending to this. What, you thought the joyous poet of spring would just up and die? He did, of course, in 1962 when he was still living in Greenwich Village with his common-law wife of 30 years. But like spring itself, E.E. Cummings waits to reawaken and revive us. Cruelest month? Sorry, Mr. Wasteland, but it’s spring!
spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little
whistles far and wee
and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it's
when the world is puddle-wonderful