The Grammatical Innovations of E. E. Cummings’s Poetry E. E. Cummings is, at times, criticized for his “extreme” use of English in his poetry. This article states that Cummings’s writing should be considered for its morphological and syntactical innovations instead of for its perceived abuses of the English language. The author takes an updated look at E. E. Cummings’s writings as calisthenics for the linguistically minded by introducing additional, and perhaps unconventional, uses of English.
E. E. Cummings, a twentieth-century poet, is famous for his grammatical deviances from and exploration of the English language. Many critics have condemned Cummings’s poetry as being too extreme and too defiant of grammar, thus criticizing his poetry and stripping it of its aesthetic qualities. However, some critics differ from this perception. In response to the anti-Cummings critics, John Lord retaliates: “I think that in a language capable of infinite utterance we may properly have an infinite literature and when a poet comes to an apparent limit, his duty is not to withdraw but to push and to pierce” (66). Additionally, in his book E. E. Cummings and the Art of his Poetry, Norman Friedman supports Cummings’s grammatical experiments and remarks that “his experiments do serve legitimate artistic ends” (4). Friedman argues against the critics who call Cummings an “avant-gardist” and his work impossibly obscure. He concludes that Cummings opened the gate of new linguistic possibilities to many successive writers through his fearless experimentation. Despite the criticism against him, one can see that Cummings is an explorer of the English language and uses his discoveries to create more meaning within his work. In her article “An Analysis of E. E. Cummings’ ‘Actualities: I’”, Julia Stanley states “Cummings was interested in the wholeness of language and in the full range of its possibilities rather than in its limited, conceptual aspect” (130). Cummings uses different types and formations of language to create new forms of communication. With this new system, Cummings does not make interpretation easy for his readers but instead requires them to think in a literary and linguistic sense. Irene Fairley agrees: “The best of Cummings’s poems, with their many innovative complexities, demand that readers muster all of their capacity for language and logic in the process of aesthetic interpretation” (205). How does Cummings create all of these complexities? What mechanisms does he use in order to experiment with language? In her book, Fairley discusses in depth the different types of innovations Cummings incorporates in his poetry and uses numerous examples 14
from specific poems as evidence. This article will use two of Cummings’s well-known poems to focus on two types of innovations that Fairley brings to attention: morphological and syntactical.
Morphological Innovation Fairley demonstrates three ways in which Cummings incorporates morphological innovation into his work. First, Cummings works by compounding words. He “creates a great many ‘new’ words, most of which sound queer, but at the same time somewhat familiar” (7). His poem “480” gives an example of this compounding: “is the underlove and underwish of/beauty.” Furthermore, Fairley examines his use of affixation in the creation of new words as a morphological innovation. Cummings substitutes different suffixes and prefixes where the more grammatically correct ones would be placed, such as “not imagined” instead of “unimagined” (p. 450). He also frequently includes the prefix un in affixation to “provide conceptual intensification as well as aesthetic emphasis” (E. E. 9). Another morphological innovation rather unique to Cummings is the functional shift of words. Robert Maurer writes, “to refer to Cummings’s words as nouns and verbs is to make things sound much simpler than they are, for the one outstanding characteristic of his mature style is his disrespect for the part of speech” (“Cummings’ Individualistic Syntax” 89). As Maurer observes, Cummings uses words in a different manner than they are traditionally seen. An example of this is in Cummings’s poem, “I x I”: Yes is a pleasant country If ’s wintry (my lovely) Let’s open the year
Yes is used as a noun to represent positivity and if represents incompleteness and hesitation in the world. The use of words such as these in a different function gives the reader a “linguistic shock” and makes the reader “use his own resourcefulness in exploring the possibilities of new meaning” (Maurer 91). Through his word placement and innovation, Cummings ensures that each word contains every possible meaning, allowing for fewer words to be said with greater richness and impact. However, this style creates more ambiguity as well. Fairley argues that Cummings’s use of grammar and word choice appears to be aimed at increasing ambiguity, which ultimately multiplies the possible meanings of the poem. Therefore, Cummings allows for greater range in reader interpretation through his deliberately vague language brought about by the displacement of word function. An example of this is when Cummings switches adjectives and adverbs such as “spring is like a perhaps hand” (p. 124). The replacement of an adjective with an adverb makes for greater ambiguity of language and thus more interpretative freedom. According to Fairley, Cummings thinks of ambiguity as a “dimension expander,” which broadens the meaning spectrum that language can occupy and provides greater lexical expansion of words (“Cummings’ Love Lyrics” 209).
Syntactic Innovation The second innovation Cummings is known for is syntactic innovation, such as deletion. Cummings deletes certain words to make his language more concise and rich. Deletion is not a twentieth-century invention in poetry, nor was it a device original to Cummings; many other great poets, including the Victorian poets Robert Browning and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, have used it. However, Cummings uses the device enough to make it a unique staple of his poetry. Deletion may be ungrammatical, but it does not hinder the readability of a poem in any way. Fairley states that deviations such as deletion are more or less ex17
pected: “We not only tolerate but expect violations. In fact, some have become so traditional in English poetry that they are noted merely as ‘effects’, rather than deviations” (19). Cummings deletes words in his poetry such as “be” and uses fragmentation of the syntax—another innovation. This deletion and fragmentation will be further explored later in the analysis of the two poems. Additionally, Cummings’s use of repetition is a syntactic innovation that helps emphasize certain elements and ideas within the poem. Repetition also accentuates the tone of the piece by hitting the reader with the same word(s) that evoke a certain emotion. Cummings repeats sentence patterns (parallelism), entire sentences, and parts of sentences within his poems.
When the world is puddle-wonderful the queer old balloonman whistles far
and bettyandisbel come dancing from hop-scotch and jump-rope and
it’s spring and the
Two Poems of Discussion Now that we have a better idea of the scholarly discussion of Cummings and his poetic innovations, I would like to analyze two poems that demonstrate many of his language explorations. The poems I have chosen have not been repeatedly discussed and interpreted by previous scholars. The first poem I will analyze is Cummings’s first poem from his Chansons Innocentes collection:
far and wee
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 spring
This poem incorporates several of Cummings’s morphological and syntactic innovations previously introduced. Cummings compounds many words in this poem, which adds to the greater meaning of the work. He most notably compounds “eddieandbill” and “bettyandisbel.” This could mean that their names are not significant, that it could be any child who is performing these springtime activities. Harvey Frommer writes about this compounding when he states, “[It represents] the unity of children of the same sex, the way they would call each other, the unimportance of them as distinct from their roles as 19
players in springtime childhood” (96). Therefore, Cummings adds to the richness of meaning in the work by using grammatical experimentation. Furthermore, this poem illustrates the use of Cumming’s functional shift of words. The word just can be interpreted in many different ways: it can mean righteous and that spring is something morally right, or it could mean merely and that it is only spring. Frommer alludes to another meaning of just when he says, “[Just means] in only spring that the things being described can really happen” (96). This explanation interprets the word as referring to the uniqueness of spring. One can see the multiple possible meanings for just one word because of its peculiar use. Additionally, wee is used as an adjective when it is typically seen as an onomatopoeia. This difference of use adds to the light, joyful sound of the word and the poem overall. Frommer enlightens us about wee when he states, “[It has] the sound of spring and the trees and the birds and the whistle of the wind in them” (96). The ambiguity of language created by these odd uses of words makes for a wider range of interpretation and adds to the poetic flavor of the piece. This poem also demonstrates Cummings’s use of syntactical innovation with its abundance of repetition. There is a continuing use of the phrase “balloonman whistles far and wee” which adds symmetry to the piece. It also emphasizes the importance of the balloonman and his act of whistling. Perhaps his whistling symbolizes waking up the world from its winter slumber. When he whistles, he summons playful children and thus figuratively takes the world away from its wintry hibernation. There is also repetition in syntactical structure, as shown with “eddieandbill come running” and “bettyandisbel come dancing,” which can imply the difference in gender roles and activities: men run and women dance. Moreover, this poem depicts many key elements of Cummings’s grammatical innovations that add vitality and richness to the language and meaning of the piece.
The second poem I will analyze is “VIII” in Cummings’s SonnetsActualities collection:
fabulous against , a, fathoming jelly of vital futile huge light as she does not stand-ing. unsits her(wrist performs a thundering trivial)it.y protuberant through the room’s skilful of thing silent spits discrete lumps of noise . . . . furniture unsolemnly :bur sting the skingull of Ludicrous,solidity which a. , kissed with nearness. (peers:body of aching toys in unsmooth sexual luminosity spree. --dear) the uncouthly Her.thuglike star the pollenizing vacancy when, Thy patters?hands. . . . . is swig it does who eye
sO neatly big
One can plainly see the apparent typographical innovations littered throughout this poem. However, among these typographical experimentations, one can also see the grammatical innovations of morphology and syntax. One of the morphological innovations clearly seen is affixation. Here Cummings repeatedly uses the un prefix previously introduced by Irene Fairley’s E. E. Cummings and Ungrammar. He incorporates “unsits,” “unsolemnly,” and “unsmooth” within the poem, perhaps to create a sense of word symmetry, but also to increase the range of meaning. “Unsits” proves to be an ambiguous inclusion because the reader does not know what the protagonist does instead; what does one do if one is unsitting? One could be standing, dancing, crouching, etc. Therefore, “unsits” creates ambiguity of language just as Cummings most likely intended. There is also affixation illustrated in the addition of the -full suffix in “skilful” and “skinfull.” This creates a sense of fullness or completion within the poem. Another morphological innovation Cummings uses in this poem is the functional shift of words. Cummings uses Ludicrous as a noun in “skinfull of Ludicrous” when it is traditionally used as an adjective, meaning foolish or unreasonable. Perhaps this twist in function of the word represents the entire essence of ludicrousness embodied in one being who is completely ludicrous. Additionally, Cummings uses swig as an adjective when it is normally a noun, creating great vagueness. What does swig mean in an adjective form? It is up to the reader to decide. A syntactical innovation Cummings includes in the poem is deletion. The very first sentence has a deletion of “she is” in the beginning which creates a fragmented sentence. If it were grammatically correct, the poem would read, “She is fabulous against a fathoming jelly/ of vital, futile, huge light as she/ does not stand.” However, Cummings deletes this, perhaps because deletion is such a common poetic device, as mentioned previously, that it does not even occur to him to incorporate “she is.” On the other hand, perhaps Cummings deletes it for his own poetic purposes. Furthermore, the poem has deletion of a 22
noun in the sentence “Solidity which a _____ kissed with is nearness.” Through this deletion, Cummings could be implying that the person kissing has no substance and is essentially nothing. He could also be allowing the reader to create the image of the person. Thus, Cummings’s deletions create an interesting look at meaning in poetry and how that meaning is represented.
Conclusion Cummings is a great innovator of language and uses his experimentation to introduce further possibilities of meaning within his poetry. His morphological innovations of compounding, affixation, and functional word shift intensify word-specific meaning yet also create the ambiguity of language Cummings is famous for. His syntactical innovations of deletion, fragmentation, and repetition add to the meaning of the poem as an entire entity and leave the reader to interpret what the author’s words truly mean. Cummings makes grammatical innovation an art form. Fairley states it perfectly when she quotes Cummings: “The poet is linguistically an acrobat” (E. E. Cummings and Ungrammar 16).
Works Cited Cummings, E. E. Complete Poems 1913-1962. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1972. Print. Fairley, Irene R. “Cummings’ Love Lyrics: Some Notes by a Female Linguist.” Journal of Modern Literature 7.2 (Apr. 1979): 205-218. Print. ---. E. E. Cummings and Ungrammar. New York: Watermill Publishers, 1975. Print. Friedman, Norman. E. E. Cummings: The Art of his Poetry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1960. Print. Frommer, Harvey. “Clearing Classroom Fog with E. E. Cummings.” Improving College and University Teaching, 21.2 (Spring 1973): 96-97. Print. Lord, John B. “Para-Grammatical Structure in a Poem of E. E. Cummings.” Pacific Coast Philology 1 (1966): 66-73. Print. Maurer, Robert E. “On Cummings’ Individualistic Syntax.” E. E. Cummings. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2003. 89-92. Print. Stanley, Julia P. “An Analysis of E. E. Cummings’ ‘Actualities: I’.” College Composition and Communication 17.3 (Oct. 1966): 130-134. Print.