Posts Tagged ‘e e cummings’

Poems for Valentine’s Day #7

February 13, 2019

Warning: explicit content in this post

e e cummings: i like my body

i like my body when it is with your
body. It is so quite new a thing.
Muscles better and nerves more.
i like your body. i like what it does,
i like its hows. i like to feel the spine
of your body and its bones, and the trembling
-firm-smooth ness and which i will
again and again and again
kiss, i like kissing this and that of you,
i like, slowly stroking the, shocking fuzz
of your electric fur, and what-is-it comes
over parting flesh….And eyes big love-crumbs,

and possibly i like the thrill

of under me you so quite new

 

In my reading experience, erotic is difficult to do well: witness the Bad Sex Awards every year for toe-curling writing about sex. I happen to think e e cummings succeeds in this poem; you’ll either agree with me or not.

There is a certain childishness – in choice of vocabulary, as well as in phrasing – that works well, and is arresting, given that he’s clearly writing about an adult subject. The repetition of i like, for instance, and again and again and again.

Is the poem about the poet’s discovery of sexual pleasure per se, or the special pleasure with this partner? Reflecting, I think it is the way the words and ideas jar so often that I find particularly effective, particularly convincing: It is so quite new a thing… that so quite new is repeated in the final line of the poem, and it’s not the way one would phrase an idea in normal (?) English: we stop, or slow down and wonder, what exactly does he mean by this? Muscles better and nerves more what? i like its hows.

I have always considered that one of the things that mars attempts at erotic writing is over-explicitness: a certain amount needs to be said, but there has to be scope for the imagination to work, for our own fantasy to come into play. Perhaps this is why I have always found the sexual passages in D H Lawrence novels so unutterably creepy: he overdoes the description. So here, for example, the kissing this and that of you is rightly unspecific.

If you look carefully, the poem has fourteen lines, so it could be described as a (very informal) sonnet, that archetypal love poem form; Shakespearean perhaps, with the separate final two lines, although they aren’t a couplet… maybe that’s stretching it too far! But there is rhyme – your/ more, and part-rhyme – comes/ crumbs. And there is internal rhyme in the last line – you/ new, as well as the me/ you opposition. I particularly like the images of the shocking fuzz of your electric fur, and the eyes big love-crumbs.

I think e e cummings here is trying to convey the excitement of a new relationship, a new body being discovered, the pleasure in the unfamiliar. The lower case ‘i’, and absence of any capitalisation, is an e e cummings characteristic, as it were, and the ‘i’ here helps suggest a certain innocence, a total involvement in the pleasure of the moment to the exclusion of anything else.

Poetry: my choices

January 6, 2015

I looked at my shelves to see what poetry I have collected over the years, apart from the usual anthologies. Chaucer is there, representing for me the time when a recognisable English begins to flower into poetry, now deemed too difficult for our sixth form students, by and large. Shakespeare, obviously, though as I’ve opined elsewhere in these pages, it’s his dramatic rather than his lyric poetry that moves me most, and the lyrics of the metaphysical poets shine out most strongly to me from that time period – Donne, Herbert, Marvell, Vaughan. After that, there is a huge gap until the twentieth century, where I have been enchanted by Eliot, Cummings, Larkin and others… so I will not claim any kind of comprehensive knowledge or appreciation of poetry: it’s what I like and what speaks to me.

Poetry used to be narrative; Milton has always astonished me, and I’ve always been conscious of being in a very small minority here. Paradise Lost works best when read aloud – Anton Lesser’s stunning account on Naxos Audiobooks is highly recommended. Sounds, words, rhyme and rhythm, all the other poetic devices come alive in their full glory, as does Milton’s inventiveness with the language, rivalling Shakespeare’s.

Poetry has always been associated with love and passion; for sheer verve I’ll take The Sunne Rising or The Flea, by Donne, or Marvell’s To His Coy Mistris, for tenderness Donne’s Valediction Forbidding Mourning is hard to beat. Some of Shakespeare’s sonnets are very clever. As I taught Love Through The Ages as a unit in the sixth form I came to know and like much twentieth century love poetry for its honesty, frankness, passion and eroticism, its attempts to break out of the old and often rather sexist conventions.

The other side of that coin for me has always been religious poetry, with feelings running as deep, and  just as unfathomable. Donne’s Holy Sonnets and Herbert’s The Temple are obvious, but Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach speaks to a more modern age, an age of doubt and questioning, as does Larkin’s Church Going, which is probably my favourite, working on so many levels, very clever but beautifully understated…

I’ve written earlier about war poetry, portraying the unspeakable, and sometimes I have been struck by other, more ephemeral verse, about nature, natural beauty, different ways of seeing things. And this, for me, is poetry’s value and achievement: briefly I share someone else’s view of something, I stop and contemplate and wonder and am entranced…

The problem of poetry…

December 13, 2014

I’m aware that. although I describe my blog as being about literature, mostly I’ve written about fiction, non-fiction and drama, and have said very little about poetry, apart from a few remarks about a visit to Wilfred Owen‘s grave. It’s time to rectify this omission.

I’ve always regarded poetry as a difficult form to approach, and perhaps my feeling has been accentuated by my having had to ‘teach’ poetry as part of my job. Somehow, personal gut response predominates, for me at least, in a way that it doesn’t with other forms: it’s harder to analyse and intellectualise, I suppose. Anyway, this instant personal response comes in before anything else. In school, the issue was complicated by students’ expectations: poetry was supposed to rhyme, to have a recognisable rhythm, to be funny, to be sweet, to be about animals… all sorts of clichés which got in the way of poetry itself.

The function of poetry has changed over time, too: it’s rarely narrative any more, mainly because we have novels to tell stories; plays are not written in verse any longer; poetry isn’t descriptive in the ways it used to be, because we have photography. Poetry now seems to be much more intimate, a window into the soul of the poet, perhaps, and if we are not interested in what we see, we turn away…

I’ve always believed it’s important to give permission to dislike a poem; again, in school, students sometimes felt that they were expected to like a poem for some reason. I always shared my negative reactions as well as my positive ones – some of the poetry presented to GCSE students in the guise of ‘pre-twentieth century texts’ was the most awful tosh. The key surely has to be ‘does this poem (or poet) speak to me, or to my condition, at this moment?’ Once one gets that in place, I feel things become a little easier.

If a poet can make me slow down and think; if s/he can make me look, see, contemplate something in a way that I would never have done for myself; if s/he can offer me a new angle or perspective, maybe on something that is commonplace or familiar, whilst I slow down for a few minutes to take the trouble, then that poet has surely succeeded in her/his aim. In the manner of KeatsOn First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, a moment of revelation, of epiphany is possible.

Poetry is often overlooked nowadays (and I’ve done that too, hence this post!), yet when a little time and effort is taken, there are revelations. I touched on some of e e cummings‘ love poetry with sixth form students; this prompted one student to read further and he then encouraged me to, and I responded. Some of my strongest memories of teaching are of managing to get students to share in the pleasures and power of poetry: find the right poem, read, listen and open up…

I shall move on to look at some of the poets I have come to appreciate in future posts, if you are interested.

Recommended Reading?

February 28, 2014

I’ve been thinking about where I get my ideas from, about what to read: who shapes/ has shaped my choices over the years? I’m particularly thinking about fiction, since it’s more straight-forward with non-fiction: when new interests develop, then wider reading ensues…

Obviously, studying English and French literature at university all those years ago gave me a lot of different starting points, and I was inevitably going to branch out along some of the tracks I’d studied.

In my earlier years, I used to browse bookshops a lot, especially independent and radical bookshops, of which there were far more then. I could not begin to count the number of books I bought after spending hours in the wonderful Atticus Bookshop in Liverpool, with its vast array of contemporary English and America fiction as well as an amazing selection of works in translation. Nowadays I find bookshops frustrating, and rarely come across anything new or exciting. But I do scour bookshops when I’m in France, because so many more interesting novels from all over the world are translated into French than into English. New discoveries still come to light – the novels of Amin Maalouf, for example, or the full range of Ismail Kadare.

When I come across a new writer whom I enjoy, there’s the temptation to seek out all they’ve written; this can be rewarding, as in the case of Josef Skvorecky, or it can be somewhat disappointing, if a writer has basically written only one decent novel, or the same one several times over.

Book reviews can be a great help. I trust reviews in newspapers such as The Guardian and The Observer; reviewers like Nicholas Lezard or the critic James Wood have often introduced me to a new writer. Good also are the London, and the New York Review of Books. (To this last, I’m very grateful for introducing me to the writings and analysis of Timothy Snyder on the incredibly complex history of eastern Europe’s borderlands.) For non-English fiction, the reviews in Le Monde Diplomatique have pointed me in interesting directions. It’s great to come across someone totally new and unexpected, such as Ben Marcus, author of the weirdest book ever, The Age of Wire and String.

Sometimes a brilliant TV adaptation makes me turn to the book. Some may remember the BBC black and white serialisation of Sartre‘s Roads to Freedom trilogy in the early 1970s (lost for ever, I fear) which led me to the novels, or the superb version of Anthony Powell‘s Dance to the Music of Time, which led me to read the twelve novels.

Personal recommendations are usually the best. I inevitably find myself staring at the bookshelves when I visit someone, and ask about anything that excites my curiosity. That’s how I came across Umberto Eco – and I can’t imagine a reading life without his books. A teaching colleague many years ago raved about Bulgakov‘s Master and Margarita, and now I do too; my daughter turned me on to Philip Pullman‘s Northern Lights trilogy when I was ill once; the school librarian introduced me to Philip Reeve‘s books (and ultimately to the author himself)… and  one of my students introduced me to the poetry of e e cummings, which I never expected to like, but really did.

But mostly, I guess, I’m self-taught: I follow my nose, usually successfully, and add another book to the groaning shelves, or the to read pile by the bed. There have been wrong choices, and books and authors I’ve totally failed with, but that’s the subject of another post…

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