Student: “But what does this Cummings poem even MEAN?”

Teacher: “Uhh…”

Though the student’s question is flawed from the outset—to ask what an E.E. Cummings poem “means” is to miss the point entirely—it remains a common concern for readers approaching these poems for the first time. And if we are to, as Richard Kostelanetz argues in Another E.E. Cummings, move toward a broader appreciation of Cummings as “the major American poet of the middle-twentieth century” (xxv), then we must address the issue of meaning in a way that removes some of the boundaries from Cummings’ more avant-garde works. Towards that end, I would suggest treating the poet’s idiosyncratic use of spelling, syntax, and punctuation as functional rather than representational, as utilitarian rather than mimetic, to see if that might afford us greater flexibility in dealing with these poems.

In the poem that begins “oil tel duh woil doi sez” (20), for instance, phonetic spellings are bound to create discomfort and frustration in a reader trying to generate meaning from the text. (Deciphering “pulling his moustache” from “pullih nizmus tash” requires considerably more effort than the phrase’s mundane meaning would seem to warrant.) Yet if we forget about meaning and/or sense for a minute and simply readthe poem aloud, then the utility of Cummings’ approach here becomes apparent: he has, by privileging the sounds of letter combinations over and above the meanings of such groupings, approximated a particular human dialect with startling felicity. Rather than asking what the letters mean, we should begin by asking what they’re doing, a move that allows us to read through the poem more effectively. With the appropriate purpose/function in mind, we can approach the poem in a more productive way, seeing it as Cummings wanted us to see it rather than how we typically want to see texts.

A similar transformation of comprehension occurs if we address Cummings’ use of punctuation by asking the right questions. In the poem starting with “(fea” (106), the seemingly random appearance of parentheses, colons, ampersands, semicolons, and exclamation points can, on a first read, distract us from the poem’s words—“feather rain dreaming field over forest who could be softer no one”—and deeper meaning. Yet if we ask what the punctuation is doing in this poem, we begin to see how each mark softens the poet’s language. The entire poem is contained within parentheses, and parenthetical remarks are, by definition, softer and less assertive than non-parenthetical ones. The colon, ampersand, and semicolon serve to slow down the reading of the poem, preventing readers from barreling through the twelve words that constitute the entire piece. And the two exclamation points that make their way into the poem bracket the softest sound in the poem, the letter “f,” thereby emphasizing the breathy quality implied by the poet’s words. The punctuation in this poem contributes to its meaning in fundamental ways, but readers fail to appreciate the “method behind the madness” if they read strictly for denotative meanings.

Will it ever be possible to sate readers’ desire for poetic meaning with an appeal to linguistic function? Probably not. But a utilitarian approach to language pervades Cummings’ work, and we fail to abide by the poet’s own paradigm if we demand that his poems “mean” in the same way a poem by Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, or even William Carlos Williams “means.” In encouraging readers to focus on the functions of E.E. Cummings’ linguistic inventions, then, we might be able to remain true to the poet’s mission while still opening up his work to a new generation of readers.

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