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Guy Davenport on E. E. Cummings

I’m in the middle of reading Davenport’s Every Force Evolves a Form. And after being treated to his treatment of some of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s theories and then his robust survey of Rousseau’s paintings, I was thoroughly floored by “Transcendental Satyr,” his examination of E. E. Cummings’s poetry. He convincingly demonstrates that Cummings’s poems may have been influenced by Sappho’s fragments, the “frail scatter of lacunae, conjectures, brackets, and parentheses” of her translated and pieced together texts; that his “eccentric margins, capricious word divisions, vagrant punctuation, tmeses, and promiscuously embracing parentheses, can be traced to the scholarly trappings  which a Greek poem wears on a textbook poem.”

He also lists a number of Cummings’s “choice” influences:

[T]he Greek lyric, the comic strip Krazy Kat, Don Marquis, Pound’s array of resurrected Provencal, Italian, Greek, and even Chinese lyricists, some modern French poets (Apollinaire, Mallarme), and his temperamental disposition to love and hate the world (odi et amo ), the ambiguous and versatile stance of the satiric poet down through western tradition, from Archilochus through Catullus to Villon, and in folk tradition from Aesop to Joel Chandler Harris. Add one more element, and we have Cummings’ worktable before us. Add the mimiambus , or mime for a single actor taking various roles. This is the tradition in which Cummings did some of his finest work. In ‘ygUDuh / ydoan / yunnuhstan . . .’ he is miming a New Yorker at a bar giving his opinion of why the Second World War is being fought. . . . I would put this gift for mimicry as the bedrock of Cummings’s talent. When he strayed from it (into Swinburne and Rossetti), he was weak; when he exercised it with malicious wit, he was strong.”

Davenport is always a facile mind.

1 thought on “Guy Davenport on E. E. Cummings

  1. Interesting post, John. Out of all the modernist poets, Cummings’ stock seems quite low these days, so it’s nice to see this re-evaluation.

    And when one thinks of a “modernist” Sappho, one thinks of H.D. — not necessarily Cummings. Or Pound and his great fragmentary poem “Papyrus”:

    Too long…

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