A Failure to Rise


erotic poems, e. e. cummings (72pp, 9.99, Liveright)


Some of the questions of whether Britain is living in an age of light verse are answered by this new themed selection of the quite famous but not very often owned e e cummings. In Britain light verse is too readily associated with the limerick, and there are traces of its corny rhyme and seaside humour in Charles Causley, John Betjeman, Gavin Ewart, Philip Larkin. Also in Adrian Mitchell, Roger McGough and Brian Patten. It is, in fact, everywhere, in Britain. But it is limerickese. It is not light verse, as pre-WW2 poets would have understood it, as practised by poets like Auden and cummings. While the post-WW2 poets I mention have commendable clarity their descendants write with some of the inwardness and solipsism of language of cummings and Auden but not to explore cummings' and Auden's subtle concepts: no readings in philosophy, no keeping up with difficult art and music. Once one decodes, it is all too clear and crass what post WW2 British verse is about. Light verse as practised post-WW2 has about it as a term the hippy sense that we should not be too "heavy" with the audience, not bring them "down". There is very little visionary joy, because joy could lead to disappointment. It is, after all, better to have not loved and not lost, it seems.

The strange thing is: most audiences expect poets to be tortured and visionary and idealistic. On whose behalf did it all play safe? Anti-depressant pills (an interesting new part of the life of Geoffrey Hill in the new millennium) keep one in the solid middle: it becomes harder to go under, harder too to orgasm, for example. It could be argued that a kind of culture has grown up around poetry that is similar, highs and lows underplayed and rushed through. Geoffrey Hill is an example of a poet who is rather allied to crass thinking for all of his wide range of reference. Some of the departures into swearing in his post-pill-sustained period liberate a funny poet supersaturated with the fatuousness he professes to disavow. As I have said elsewhere, his theological questions can be teenage, he rarely seems on the horns of any dilemma more than the one practised by the characters in Nick Hornby's About a Boy: shall I love my wife, or kill myself, or throw my toys out of the pram? Not who am I, and am I deep with everyone, and they deep with me. Not communion. So that I would be tempted to say that after WW2 there is very little genuine light verse, but a great deal of crass verse, as there is widely a great deal of crassness and very little earnest practised with a light touch. Things have changed, and so one can read earlier poets and think why can't I take the same risks for the same rewards?. Gone is the relentless promotion of a poet like cummings as "good for you", a set text in schools and worthy of a recital in a modern comic movie. Auden had it, cummings had it, but no poet since has had it. Auden's and cummings' poetry appears in the finely scripted and interwoven comedy films Four Weddings and a Funeral and Hannah and Her Sisters, and touches so many, where so little poetry is quoted in any films, and none will be, by either the obviously comic contemporary poets or the ostensibly series ones, eighty years after their birth, in the future. This is the worst kind of modern pretentiousness, that we are all filmic now, all so serious about very superficial stuff, and like the emperor in the Emperor's New Clothes refusing dialogue, not asking what we look like.

How would anybody make love with anybody else under such conditions? One can sentimentalize the love, but then it is made a priori, signed sealed delivered and brought to the act. The mutual making of love is very difficult, and few artists are giving us now a mutual language of seduction. If there is fine sexy talk in a film we don't cut to the sex and show the actors actually really having sex, including the disconnect that can come sexually even if the talk was sexy. Or, we don't really talk about seduction as part of the process, but get right onto the sex. This is the trivializing of part of the process that I associate with crass verse, and is tremendously handy in a culture that doesn't really want to talk about sexuality except, too, as a priori sexuality, as who we say we are. So we enter lovemaking clothed, with an a priori solipsism or (just as bad) mutual a priori agreement about love and the sexuality of the individuals involved. Carla Harryman plays wonderfully with ideas of clothing and nudity in her writing, and there is idealism and sadness in her work along the lines I'm suggesting here.

Lightness is the essence of one kind of seduction, and the essence too of sex ongoing. It is a default position. Someone may well try to sneak a pedestal into the bed. So that we admire and stroke the pedestal and its finely moving Little Nell words, about which, if not about Little Nell herself, Wilde was profound. Heartlessness is everywhere, but not in those who laugh at such maneouvres in the name of cosiness. Grief is not cosy. Life is not cosy, or not meant to be. But one can remonstrate lightly. cummings seduces lightly, exposes himself and his lovers nakedly in his work, but it is done in the name of innocence and experience, a shared experience of it. Our actual sex lives as his readers may have none of that depth, or not much sustained or sustaining. Whereas when I read post-WW2 so-called light verse, so-called verse, about any part of life but the poet's experience of children, I find it fake, Its lightness cannot travel, across its own subject matter. There is a refusal to deal with adult life. When I see the lover featured in most contemporary poets' work it utterly gives me the creeps. It reminds me of game shows when the thrill is watching if the contestant can recognize an exposed area of the lover's body, a buttock, a breast. Banal tittery nudity, a life of expulsion and grunt. It necessarily reduces the audience of poetry, and feels like gossip, close friends talking about "every gory detail" of sex with their partner, something which would be embarrassng if addressed to a public meeting, or at the mike from a rock concert. Even if given wider distribution, it is spoken and received as if not there on purpose, mumbled and overheard.

How can one talk about sex at a public meeting, what does that offend? It doesn't really offend the wide majority of people who would listen to poetry if forced to, it would meet their expectations. The core of the new poetry is poems about children, a lightly agreed progressive agenda worn lightly. They play well with the coterie and with the larger audience, and feel that they articulate something poets articulate as well or better than anyone else. Yet some modern poets have played around with kinds of disgusting entendre in poems about children, or in sexual poems put in books with poems about children. I think of Craig Raine, and Don Paterson. There is something very odd about male poets still writing poetry, albeit with no audience, after feminism - if there is a total failure to rise to the discussion taking place in the society around. Raine and Paterson oddly mark themselves as pedantic dissenters on points of technicality. As if two-party politics were the only way to think. Only poets like Carol Ann Duffy and Denise Riley manage a light, lightening music that does not posit a new ideal but does at least hold on to the pre-WW2 ideals of light verse, because that was a movement too. And feminism is a movement too. I feel too often the merely agreed nostrums of the club and the pub behind so many British writers. How then are we to feel as naked as participants in a Spencer Tunick event, or more?

In cummings' work, it's accepted that the overall tone is light, while the component parts of the poem may need some looking over. But one reads it, not exactly in one go, but with the will to keep going after pausing to take in a difficult component part, the will to read it in one go. Its veins are not rifted with ore, because that would imply heaviness. But much modern work is heavy, because it is clotted, with chunky parts that are not burnished or well-cut. When there is sex in modern poems it is gossipy and would-be scandalous, following Wilde over the hurdle of not sentimentalizing seriousness, but then sentimentalizing scandal instead, and clattering down with him at that one.

cummings returns in certain details to the same words, as sex recalls other sex in some humbling moments. These poems render some of the Gosh presentness one gees oneself along with, and it is humbling when these poems of erotica are all gathered together. There seem dull repetitious moments, but they are allowed for in the overall buoyancy, as one hopes one's vanity is allowed for in love. I have cummings'  collected poems, although it is not a book one sees on bookshelves much, and I read it often. Still, many of these poems felt new to me, ones I did not know. This is a kind of curator's rehang, and makes cummings' oeuvre come closer to us; one would struggle to see any of his work as not erotic now, There are also erotic drawings by him that I have never seen. Simple line drawings with a nod to cubist perspective, contorting the lovers' bodies wrapped around each other and around the axle shaft of the erection drawn with straight lines. I would urge anyone to buy this book, whether they own every poem in it in other volumes or not.

      Ira Lightman 2010