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Poem 42 -- e e cummings

(Poem #492) Poem 42



 g can




 the m







-- e e cummings
From '73 poems', published posthumously in 1963.

Cummings' reputation as an innovator and experimenter with form have
all-too-often obscured his position as possibly the finest Romantic poet since
Yeats [1]. That reputation has done nothing to diminish his popularity, though:
at the time of his death in 1962, he was second only to Robert Frost in the
affections of the reading public, and he's certainly one of the most-requested
poets here on the Minstrels.

Cummings was also an accomplished artist - "In the Cummings papers at Houghton,
besides his literary notes and manuscripts we find more than ten thousand pages
of pencil-drawings, and his estate comprises about 1600 oils and watercolors.
The number of his published poems, one may remember, amounts to roughly one
thousand." [2]. Seen in this light [3], the many typographical games he plays
are hardly surprising; indeed, Cummings himself referred to his works as


[1] W. H. Auden and Dylan Thomas are the only serious challengers for the title,
but the former wrote too much verse in too many different genres to be
considered a purely Romantic poet, while the latter died too young to leave
behind a completely coherent and credible body of work.

[2] Martin Heusser, 'An Eyeful of Silence: The Poetry of. E. E. Cummings'.
There's more from this essay below, in the 'Analysis' section.

[3] Pun fully intended.


Alan Tranter offers the following insightful commentary on the arrangement of
the letters in today's poem:

"A perfect example of a theme being enhanced typographically... What amounts to
a single seven-word sentence, is spread with symmetrical precision across seven
'stanzas' and fifteen lines. The three line units begin and end with the same
lower case letter, the capital letter of the middle line shifts from the ends to
the centre point, back to the ends, and once again to the centre. Each of the
first two one line units consists of four lower case letters, consisting firstly
of a single letter, space, and three letters; and then reversed, three letters,
space, and the first of the next word. The final one line unit, 'of' launches
the denouement of the phrase, revealing exactly what it is that nothing can
surpass the mystery of. What is revealed to be a simple aphorism is presented in
a complex and precise manner, a skilful act of balancing, using each letter to
work for the poem's effect. However, before we notice the symmetry, we are
forced to reconstitute the words of the phrase, piece by piece over the hurdles
that Cummings has laid down for us. The resulting effect is to reduce the speed
at which we comprehend its message, echoing the 'stillness' of the poem's
conclusion. What is clear when examining the structure of the above piece is
that any examination of the positions of letters or the shape of the stanza does
not reveal anything more than the aphorism itself, but it does amplify its
effect, so that we may feel its meaning instead of merely acknowledging it. The
effect of the piece is holistic, its meaning comes in a rush, hopefully
providing the reader with a greater sense of his intention."

        -- Alan Tranter
'"music for no instrument": Style, Complexity, and the Love Poetry of E. E.
Cummings'. Full text at

And Martin Heusser has this to say:

"At first glance, this does not seem like much like a poem. Not only is the text
before our eyes devoid of any conventional poetic form - even the language
itself seems to put itself out of the reader's reach. It is only after some
scrutiny that we recognize the simple statement behind the apparently random
arrangement of letters: "Nothing can surpass the mystery of stillness." By
disregarding the conventional distribution of upper and lowercase letters, and
by recklessly ignoring traditional word boundaries, Cummings alters the visual
appearance of his statement so completely that it is not recognizable at all as
an English sentence at first. Instead of the expected linguistic structure, we
find a bafflingly intricate visual complex. Closer inspection reveals that
"nOthIng" consists of a multitude of artfully interwoven symmetries. In fact,
symmetry seems to be the key to of the poem's structure... "

        -- Martin Heusser
'An Eyeful of Silence: The Poetry of. E. E. Cummings'. Full text at
[broken link]

[Minstrels Links]

There's quite a bit of Cummings on the Minstrels website, and it looks like
there'll be quite a bit more - as I mentioned above, he's one of our
most-requested poets. Check out
[broken link]
for previously-run examples of his work.

There's a biography and critical assessment at poem #56

"n OthI n" throws up yet another connection between poetry and (visual) art -
see my theme for last week: poem #483, Poem #484, Poem #485, and Poem #486.


Searching for this poem on the web was extremely easy... Google("urpas ster
tillnes") doesn't leave much room for error <grin>.

Incidentally, I think this mail sets a new record for the ratio of commentary to
poem length...

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