Monday, April 19, 2010

Believe You Me Crocodile - Eigner Cummings The Typewriter & A Poem

In my essay "The Text as an Image of Itself" in the Stanford University Press edition of the Collected Poems of Larry Eigner [Edited by Curtis Faville & Robert Grenier, 2010], I reference Larry Eigner's acknowledgment of E. E. Cummings's influence on his work. Crucially, both Cummings and Eigner composed their poems on the typewriter, though for somewhat different purposes. Eigner, who was disabled from birth, was unable to write with sufficient ease longhand, and the typewriter enabled him to compose poems. Cummings, on the other hand, actually preferred the typewriter as a medium, believing that it allowed him to make a visually organized impression. Cummings was both a writer and a plastic artist, and liked to refer to himself as a "draughtsman of words" and an "author of paintings." This sense of composition--conceiving of writing poems as both a visual, as well as an aural process--is a key element of some post-Modern literature, and the work of Eigner presents one of its most direct expressions. Below is an image of Cummings's portable typewriter. In our edition of Eigner's poems, we chose as the frontispiece of volume I, a photo of Eigner's battered old typewriter. The image of this device, at the beginning of the collection, is intended to foreground our apprehension of Larry's work as a poetry which originates, and is expressed through the mechanical characteristics of this handy tool of modern technology, now rapidly becoming extinct since the inception of the computer age, and the personal cathode ray tube projection screen, with connected keyboard and accompanying automatic printer.                   

From an historical perspective, the era of the typewriter--assuming that its use is never revived in the future--looks like a transitional device in the development of the mechanization of print technology, mid-way between the invention of the printing press (with later augmentations and efficiencies) and the arrival of the personal computer. The effect of this device upon writers and artists in the 20th Century has been largely ignored, but it's likely to be recognized, going forward, as an important, integral component of the creative process during the segment of its effective life (1900-1995)--just as computer technology is influencing the writing of literature in the present era. Just as the typewriter enabled writers to generate their own print text, without the intermediate step of writing it out longhand or dictating it beforehand, the computer has expanded the capabilities of writers to compose texts visually, using different fonts and spatial arrangements with a great facility, and has brought, too, a capability for rapid reproduction of text, incorporating the data-driven copy machine. We're just beginning to understand how this may affect literature--the generation of material and non-material texts--in the future.         

By any measure, E.E. Cummings was a fascinating man. Raised in a cultured milieu--his Father was a Harvard professor and Unitarian minister--Cummings was a precocious child, who began writing and drawing while still in his teens. At Harvard, Estlin (as he was called, to distinguish himself from his Father) graduated cum laude in 1916 with a Master's Degree in English and Classical Studies, delivering a commencement address on "The New Art" in which he noticed important new Modernist trends. A minor controversy ensued. For the rest of his life, Cummings would resist convention, maintaning an iconoclastic profile with respect both to intellectual pretension, and popular opinion. 
The familiar account of Cummings's enlistment in the ambulance corps in WWI, his unjust imprisonment, and his book about this, The Enormous Room [1922], are all well-documented. Of more pertinent interest, here, is the incredibly prolific burst of literary production which began after his release, continuing up through the mid-1920's, during which period he wrote over 1000 pages of startlingly original, and unusually skillful poetry (only some of which was published in a sequence of books--Tulips and Chimneys [1923], & [1925], XLI Poems [1925], is 5 [1926], ViVa [1931]). Composed about equally of classically inspired sonnets, and eccentrically set lyrics and satires, it forms a body of work--both in its mood and appearance on the page--unlike anything that had come before in the history of literature.
What Cummings noticed, uniquely, was that the way a poem looked on the page was an integral part of how it was perceived. As a serious plastic artist, he was sensitive to the ways in which a text expressed both our sense of the progression of its unfolding (as read), as well as the overall design and energy of its visual shape. These were revolutionary ideas in 1920, ideas which virtually no one else was exploring at the time. 
As a teenager in the early 1960's, I was immediately attracted to Cummings's love poems, which were, and continue to be, among the most direct, frank and romantically lyrical ever written. Their apparent innocence, sense of mischief, and adventurousness were all aspects likely to interest young people, as they have done now for the last four or five generations. The sense of fun--of the "virtual pin-ball" quality of their typographical structure--not only moving words and phrases around on the page, but fussing with punctuation, capitalization, spelling, and grammar--to suggest alternate kinds of address--is irresistible, especially in contrast to the air of gravity and solemnity with which poetry is usually presented in the classroom and on the podium.                              

One of my favorite Cummings poems, which I must have read when I was perhaps 13, long before I could have understood, really, what it meant, was "MEMORABILIA". Unlike most of Cummings's poems, it has a title, which is an immediate tip-off about tone, and what it sets out to accomplish. MEMORABILIA is a satiric rant, a full-fledged swipe at the ugly American tourist class, so dear to Henry James and Edith Wharton, who made the "pilgrimage" to Europe along the Grand Tour route, spending conspicuously and looking for suitable matches among the landed class.    

stop look &
listen Venezia: incline thine 
ear you glassworks 
of Murano; pause 
elevator nel 
mezzo del cammin’ that means half- 
way up the Campanile, believe   
thou me cocodrillo—   
mine eyes have seen 
the glory of   
the coming of 
the Americans particularly the 
brand of marriageable nymph which is 
armed with large legs rancid 
voices Baedekers Mothers and kodaks 
--by night upon the Riva Schiavoni or in 
the felicitous vicinity of the de l’Europe   
Grand and Royal 
Danielli their numbers   
are like unto the stars of Heaven….   
I do signore 
affirm that all gondola signore 
day below me gondola signore gondola 
and above me pass loudly and gondola 
rapidly denizens of Omaha Altoona or what 
no enthusiastic cohorts from Duluth God only, 
gondola knows Cincingondolanati I gondola don’t   
--the substantial dollarbringing virgins   
“from the Loggia where 
are we angels by O yes 
beautiful we now pass through the look 
girls in the style of that’s the 
foliage what is it didn’t Ruskin 
says about you got the haven’t Marjorie 
isn’t this wellcurb simply darling” 
                                                          --O Education: O 
thos cook & son   
(O to be a metope 
now that triglyph’s here) 

I'm not sure whether, as readers, feeling warm about Venice, Italy matters much in one's appreciation of this mockery of American speech and upper middle-class pretension. As with most Cummings poems, the vituperation and ill-humor seems less important than the delight he takes in lampooning hapless targets, in twirling webs of impish tricolor bunting around the over-dressed ingenues and their matronly escorts, like mummies being readied for entombment.
But the first aspect of the poem that catches my attention is its mimicry of American advertising "ad-speak" or annunciatory journalese. "Stop, look & listen" is like the huckster's command, except that here it is addressed to the city of Venice [Venezia]. Then we get the quotation from Dante nel mezzo del cammin ("mid-way upon the journey--of life"), meaning, here, the interrupted "elevator" ride up the picturesque red-brick Campanile (bell-tower) in the main plaza in Venice. Believe you me, crocodile! In the mock language, then, of The Battle
Hymn of the Republic--"mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Americans particularly the brand of marriageable nymph which is armed with large legs rancid voices Baedekers Mothers and kodaks." At night, strolling the esplanade along the water's edge before the stylish hotel Danielli their numbers are legion, we hear the palaver of English and Italian voices mingling in the warm night air--
I do signore 
affirm that all gondola signore 
day below me gondola signore gondola 
and above me pass loudly and gondola 
rapidly denizens of Omaha Altoona or what 
no enthusiastic cohorts from Duluth God only, 
gondola knows Cincingondolanati I gondola don’t  
--the repetition and enjambment (Cincinnati/gondola) of the word gondola like a chant or frustrated mimicry of the tourists arguing with the gondoliers. The unimpeded translation of this sequence would be I do affirm, all day below me and above me pass loudly and rapidly denizens of Omaha Altoona (or what?), no!, enthusiastic cohorts from Duluth, God only knows!, I don't! Followed by the jumbled tour-guide/lady's companion (Baedecker guidebook in hand) summoning (invoking!) Ruskin (The Stones of Venice) to inspire the attention of Marjorie to notice the pretty well-curb, all in furtherance of her Education (!). Whence interferes the office name of Thomas Cook & Sons, the venerable travel agency and money-changing office, even then a by-word for foreign travel exigencies. 
(O to be a metope 
now that triglyph’s here) 1
I suppose I maundered over that couplet for several years, before finally discovering that it referred to the bas-relief sculptured figures along the channeled tablet of a Doric freize, which are common in classical architectural detail. Just the sort of specific detail, of course, which tourists would be commanded to appreciate. Indeed, the implication clearly suggests that these "substantial dollar-bringing virgins" from America have become themselves a brand of metope along the metaphorical triglyphs (promenades) of modern-day Venice. 
Like many Cummings poems, this one manages to look and feel thoroughly contemporary, while rehearsing what is, in substance, a very traditional broadside against the pretensions of the ruling class, a class which served as the subject for a whole segment of our literature (a la James and Wharton)--of the relationship between the old and new worlds, the 2000 year old culture of Europe (and beyond that, of the ancient Mediterranean world), and that of the grand spanking, brand new world of Am-MARE-ee-ka! The "content" of the poem, again ostensibly about the old world revulsion at the crudity of the new, is really about the objectification of speech through an autonomous projection of a disembodied voice. In 1920, the technology of media was in its relative infancy: there was the telephone, and radio, still quite novel in their use; crude motion pictures were just beginning; musical and voice recordings were very new. The objectification of speech--as projected autonomously through a device--spontaneously inspires the sense of language (and sound) as a kind of oral-visual environment. Different levels of address--shifting, conflicting contexts of prose, lyric, advertisement, signage, noise--mix chaotically as tapestries of raw data, received haphazardly and discerned as accidental dialectic and atonal progressions. In the Cummings poem, these voices intertwine and mix in a cacaphony of competing economic and cross-cultural currents--a dance of conditions--an anthem to the procession of history across continents, a parody of the modern mating-dance ("nymphs").             
The Modernist American poets of the first half of the Twentieth Century--Eliot, Pound, Stevens, H.D., Marianne Moore, Zukofsky, Oppen, Stein, Williams, Crane and Cummings--broke with European formalist models, choosing to create works out of native materials, or re-casting traditional models within new contexts. The post-Modern poets built upon the experiments of Modernism, though they were largely freed from the impinging conflicts of repudiating convention as a social act. A poet like Larry Eigner could treat the page, and the occasion of writing a poem, as a much freer and uninhibited adventure than Cummings could, in 1920, not having, as his predecessor had, to defend his right to make new statements about the world in a way no one had ever thought of doing before. What Cummings had tried, 30 years before, opened a pathway that led to further experiment. But while Cummings had been hemmed in by strict categories of literary purpose--love, satire, pastoral--Eigner was able to concentrate, for instance, upon pure perception or imaginative flight, without the interposition of a classical address. The Cummings poem, then, is a classical exercise, not unlike something Catullus might have appreciated, in satirical vituperation, though couched in what looks superficially like modern public address speech. Nevertheless, its form, and movement, suggest new different ways of scoring words in space, and this is what Larry picked up when he first read Cummings's work in the late 1940's.                            
On a metaphysical level, Cummings's visual/typographical experiments suggest a multi-dimensional approach to subject-matter, in which the ostensible matter of referents is revolved like a prism, separating constituent colors, textures and caricatures into helixes of language, pulling or jamming grammar and syntax apart or together, to create gigantic mobiles of free-form word-sculptures, the poet either bound up in the persona of the poem's voices, or standing back, manipulating its means. Thinking of a poem's potential in this way was an entirely novel notion in 1920, one that would have seemed profoundly alien to writers in earlier centuries. To achieve it required a consciousness sufficiently objective in its relation to the material text--the print technology derived from mechanical means (the printing press)--that it could imagine moving words, stanzas, phrases, individual letters even, like pieces on a board. The independence from the tyranny of externally produced, mechanically generated alphabetical texts, clearly made this imaginative leap possible. Sitting at his manual portable typewriter, inspired by the new techniques from painting and sculpture and music, Cummings realized that he was engaged with a machine which could perform--within given limits--the same kind of functions which a paint-brush could on a canvas. Not abstract shapes or actual colors or textures, but linguistic settings, variable in sound and movement, within the space--line, increment and grid--of the typewriter page. 
Neither Cummings nor Eigner went so far down the road of alphabetical disintegration that they literally tampered with the symbolic system of writing itself. But they were able to adapt it to their respective interests: in Cummings's case, the jagged vernacular mimicry of colloquial slang, the playful toying with punctuation and capitalization, the lightly-inflected sense-&-nonsense-puns and so on; in Eigner's case, the subtle vectored intuitive leaps, covertly hidden inside conversational observations and asides, the multi-dimensional forward and back through time and space, placing the reader in a speculative position with respect to sequence, locus, and meaning.
Eigner's authorial persona is of the static observer, whose power to move about freely in a poetic space is not bound by fixed intervals of prosodic extent, or by the narrative flow of the poem's "argument". That persona is neither in a dialectic with the "reader" nor omniscient in the old sense in which he's totally in control of everything that "happens" inside the parameters of the poem. The typewriter page is a work space--it looks a little messy because it's "unfinished" during its process.
The evolution from the inter-spliced voice-ings of the Cummings satire, to Eigner's spacial arrangements is a clear instance of a progression in the development of the influence of media over literary form, and the way in which an incrementally expanding sense of linguistic contexts occurs. The linkages may seem indirect and slightly gratuitous, until we look at the minute particulars of each writer's work. Their respective differences are a measure of the rapidity of change occurring over a half century of cultural time.                                 

1. Parodic take on Robert Browning's poem "Home Thoughts From Abroad"--the line "Oh to be in England / Now that April's there." 

Painting above by E.E. Cummings, "Fourth Dimensional Abstraction", copyright the Estate of E.E. Cummings.


Ian Keenan said...

The changes in travel writing relate both to the changes in the locales and the way they're perceived. Burroughs talks about the good old days of Tangier and Kathmandu that have been trampled over by the droves, but there's also the story of how the ubiquitous photographs of Venice have changed the town's significance from the time when Canaletto set up a studio to paint masterpieces that British aristocrats would buy to show their friends what Venice looked like. The Grand Tour crowd was similarly describing what the buildings looked like. cummings' poem is from a sort of Mannerist phase of travel writing when Venice started getting crowded and unoriginal and, perhaps more importantly, you can't get away with saying the same things that Goethe said, culminating in Levi-Strauss' famous Grenierism "I hate travellers and explorers."

Hugh Kenner has a book the Mechanic Muse that I can't locate but as you'd expect (or recall) focuses on Pound and modernism among other things, the history of how the mechanics of putting words down affects poetry, which inspires reflection on the characteristics of the internet.

I liked cummings' plays when I was in the college library but never got to poems like this one (which indeed is quite good).. what I'd read didn't inspire investigating his expansiveness. Two weeks ago I was reading Creeley's comments on cummings ('63 interview in Contexts of Poetry with Charles Tomlinson) which I will type out since they resist being paraphrased.

Tomlinson: do you feel that anything is left from cummings today?

Creeley: No, because Cummings' battle with the typographical set of the poem was one in which, once people were willing to admit typography could be variable and could have a useful effect, the particular value was lost... I like some of his earlier poems very much, both the uses of the sonnet and some of the straight wise-guy poems where you get this beautiful jargon and slang, but I feel that he's always been limited by being a real college boy, by which that his thinking, curiously, has never really gone deeper than the kind of, oh! let's say junior, sophomore, college wit.

.. Perhaps I can't do him so simply as I seem to have done. I certainly feel that his prose is very interesting. The Enormous Room is a classic of its kind, and Eimi, I agree, is a real book. And I was interested, too, in Pound's sense of cummings as being equivalent, in Pound's estimation, to a writer like Catullus. Now, I've never, frankly, felt that the two men ever were -- this is Pound's curiously ambivalent sense of love. That's the only think that I ever think is a generality in Pound: the intensity or substance of love.

Tomlinson: What the age needs is a Catullus, so Pound, out of love, undertakes to supply one?

Creeley: Yes, it certainly does, but I don't think it was cummings.

Tomlinson: (cummings') presence in your work

Creeley: Well, I think one could dispose quite easily of the question of my poems' being like cummings by reference to the sense of audience. I don't have an audience, and this qualifies what I write. My poems are limited, unhappily perhaps, by having to speak in a very single fashion. I don't speak for a generality of people. Now cummings, despite all his insistence on the single identity of the "i," is speaking for almost a class.

You can see here the the thought process with which Creeley steered his subject matter away from cummings, and Creeley's seems more the Catullus, perhaps because he subconsciously wants to fulfill Pound's wish for such a poet.

Curtis Faville said...

Catullus's acerbic, sardonic diatribes and love-quarrel pieces seem like arch speeches in a forum. There's nothing intimate or sweet about them--all tough-guy bluster and worldly cynicism. That can get old.

Cummings has been on the outs since the mid-1950's, when the New Criticism brought him down a few notches for not being sufficiently intellectual and serious. Cummings was not--strictly speaking--ever an intellectual with pretensions to large, complex concepts and involved ratiocination. He was religious and private, and had been deeply injured in his love relationships as an impressionable youth. After the publication of EIMI, he turned inward, became fairly anti-social, and led a life of spartan seclusion. My guess is that he felt completely alienated from the public art and literature scenes of the Forties and Fifties. Also, according to the biographies, he became frail and vulnerable physically--in his Fifties, doctors found him to have the body of a 75 year old--it's unclear why this occurred; he may have had some kind of auto-immune condition.

All his strengths and weaknesses are evident in his work--he was a very "obvious" poet, not a lot of subtlety. What interests me in the context of Eigner's work, is how his investigations and experiments opened up the territory for further exploration. Like many explorers, he didn't perfect his means. That may have been the task of later practitioners (like Eigner).

Creeley is quite right about the content and "sophomoric wit" of EEC. But nothing anyone can say lessons the effect of that early work--from the early 20's. Unlike some of the most impressive post-War poetry, Cummings's work will live through his readers, even as the critics are calling it naive and adolescent. He really speaks to many people.

I often wish he'd been more serious, too, but he was who he was. His cocky and provocative side often ruins his poems, but it's also the source of his daring inventions. You take the good with the bad.