“He does not make aesthetic mistakes.”
– Marianne Moore on E.E. Cummings
“E in an epoch of UNself-to be ONEself”
– E.E. Cummings, Marianne Moore
The two poems, “o sweet spontaneous” and “Poetry,” parallel and reflect one another aesthetically and ethically – that is to say: they express aesthetic and ethical concerns. Analysis of a few of the poems’ formal aesthetic elements combined with meditation upon their divergent – yet parallel – content, reveals a similar poetic ethic. My purpose in comparing the two poems is to argue that they both reveal a common ethical approach to the writing of poetry: a critical attitude that demonstrates its critique in form and declares allegiance through content. I shall offer a close reading of each poem in an attempt to illustrate where they diverge and where they intersect – and how they parallel. Following this analysis, I wish to compare each poem’s use of enjambment, parentheses, and the parenthetical clause in order to show how the content of one can be transposed onto the form of the other, and vice versa: the operation of reading one text against the other, in this case, allows us to view aesthetic or ethical problems through different frames in order to come up with startling sequences of meaning and stunning conclusions that offer new solutions to old problems.
Cummings’ poem, “o sweet spontaneous,” is fairly straightforward: an ode. The most startling thing about it is the way it mimes the actual rhythm of nature through its manipulation of line length: spontaneous. The poem is divided into (roughly) six stanzas, concluding with three stand-alone lines; every line is enjambed; there is one period, one comma, and one set of parentheses. Within this structure there are only two sentences: the first is closed with the period, the second does not end with a period. Sentence one is a compound sentence that, even though in the form of a question, addresses the earth and declares – without actually saying “how often” (Cummings, l. 2) – that it has been “pinched and poked” by the “fingers of / prurient philosophers” (l. 4-7), that its “beauty” (l. 12) has been “prodded” by “the naughty thumb / of science” (l. 11-2). What is of importance here, besides the pedophiliac overtones of sexual abuse, is Cummings placement of the comma and the period: instead of end-stopping the line with the comma, Cummings chooses enjambment; instead of placing the period right after beauty – which would place a limit to the limitlessness of “natural beauty” (I use inverted commas to not assume that there is such a thing as nature, or beauty) – Cummings leaves a spontaneous space. The second sentence does much the same thing as the first except it does not address – it simply declares – again, without saying “how often” – “have religions taken / thee upon their scraggy knees / … / buffeting thee that thou mightest conceive gods” (Cummings, l. 14-6) and adds the conjunction “but” to record the earth’s answer: “spring” (l. 27).
To turn to Moore’s poem, “Poetry:” it is composed of precisely five stanzas, all of which are enjambed, save the last. Each stanza ends, begins anew, without punctuation – I would go so far as to say: without closure. The stanzas have no fixed number of lines, or fixed line length: each stanza is like an “imaginary garden” (Moore, l. 24) that contains “real toads” (l. 24) and is contiguous, through enjambment, with each that follows the one before. Transition from one stanza to another, aside from the white space separating them, is invisible – all that is seen is what they contain: the stanzas contain six sentences between them. The first three sentences are short, the third: slightly longer; the fourth is the longest, and the fifth and sixth diminish in length – but not to the original shortness of the first two. Moore’s poem concentrates on the rhythm of the syllable rather than the rhythm of the accent. Despite not having a strict metrical form, Moore’s emphasis on rhythm, not unlike Cummings use of line length, is to establish a visual rhythm that repeats a certain variation – which, I would like to argue, is her aesthetic approach to poetry (one that is not incomparable to the style of jazz music …). Repetition of the word “genuine” in the first and last stanza book-ends and explicates the poem’s central concern: the ‘importance’ (a word that is also repeated in the first stanza of Moore’s poem) of a ‘genuine’ interest in poetry attained by “reading it with perfect contempt” (l. 2)
I am trying to draw an equi-valence between Cummings sense of the word “earth” and Moore’s sense of the word “poetry” to show how the objectification of something like Poetry or the Earth – whether it be through the methods of philosophy, science, religion, or criticism – leads to the exaltation of the instrument of objectification – the exploitation of the thing being objectified – rather than exalting the thing itself. Both poems admirably attempt to refute and resist the objectification of their subjects and – although they refute different limitations through content, resist in very different forms, and are doing so on behalf of different subjects (i.e. cummings: earth / Moore: poetry) – in my opinion, succeed in doing so without being hypocritical or pedantic.
To begin my comparison of these two poems, Joseph Brodsky’s Nobel lecture, “Uncommon Visage,” provides the central thesis of my paper: “every new aesthetic reality makes man’s ethical reality more precise … [every new aesthetic reality] can itself turn out to be, if not a guarantee, then a form of defense, against enslavement.” This is precisely what I believe Cummings and Moore are attempting to do: forge a new “aesthetic reality” that informs (i.e. structures from within) the ethical core of our relationships with others, and relationship with the earth we live on. The earth, like poetry, cannot articulate its own aesthetic: they both rely on an other to make sense and perceive (aisthesthai) their processes, sequences, and closures. This reliance on an other, “perfect contempt” for Moore, in Cummings poem, manifests itself in the abusive triad of Philosophy-Science-Religion.
The first, and perhaps most obvious, connection between the two poems is their visual appearance: before even reading the poems, the reader is arrested. It is not that the two poems are visually symmetrical but they are asymmetrical in a similar way; the two poems both play with line length. It has already been mentioned how the visual structure of each poem represents (what I believe to be) its content: for Cummings the ‘sweet spontaneous earth;’ for Moore the repetition – with difference – of a certain structure. There is a kind of chiasmus between the visual structure of the two poems, in exactly the same way that there is between each one poet’s use of the word ‘earth’ the other’s use of the word ‘poetry,’ insofar as Moore’s poem gives body to the “sweet spontaneous” and Cummings’ poem resembles what Moore calls “the raw material of poetry in / all its rawness and / … / genuine” (l. 26-30)
I would now like to move from the purely structural analysis I have been performing to a comparison between, what seem to me, the two most striking sentences in each poem. Cummings poem speaks of being “true / to the incomparable / couch of death” (l. 24-5); Moore speaks of “, ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them’,” (l. 24). Both phrases, and this is why I have retained the commas from Moore’s passage, appear in parentheses or as parentheses (i.e. not ()theses, (anti)theses, or – most terrible of all – (syn)theses). (I have put prefix in parentheses to try to show my disbelief in the pseudo-Hegelian / vulgar-Marxist notion of “dialectical syntheses.”) Not only does Moore’s passage appear in between commas – it is also in inverted commas: a real toad within an imaginary garden.
It is from being ‘true to the incomparable couch of death’ that the earth answers philosophy-science-religion with ‘spring.’ In another sense, Moore’s sense, it is being read ‘with perfect contempt,’ as philosophy-science-religion seem to do, that allows the earth to answer at all; philosophy-science-religion here resembling the imaginary gardens (i.e. discourses) in which real toads (i.e. the earth) dwell. Likewise, it is by being ‘true to the incomparable couch of death’ that allows the reader to discern the ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them’ to appreciate what is ‘raw’ and what is ‘genuine’ about poetry. It is through singularity, the non-dialectic fact of being-toward-death, the non-dialectic fact of death itself, that things like the earth and poetry resist all “high-sounding interpretation[s]” (Moore, l. 7) … all objectifications that philosophy-science-religion-criticism might impose: “squeezing and / buffeting thee that thou mightest conceive / gods” (Cummings, l. 16-7). These two poems respond to (the) singularity (of death, of earth, of poetry) with singularities of their own (i.e. poems) – and this makes them more than just responses: they become correspondences. That is to say, they can have contact with each other without ever touching one-an-other; unlike philosophy-religion-science establishing contact through touch: forcing the earth to respond with spring, “so derivative as to become unintelligible” (Moore, l. 8).
My next point of comparison has to do, in conjunction with the notion of parentheses, with each poets’ use of enjambment. As has been mentioned, the entirety of Cummings poem is enjambed, and most of Moore’s poem is enjambed (there are only seven end-stopped lines) – especially the lines that end and begin stanzas. Moore’s use of enjambed stanzas suggests, I am suggesting, a continuity between different objectifications of poetry: each stanza’s difference but similarity to the others can be seen as different versions of what constitutes “good” poetry. The paradox here is that poetry can only be “aesthetically” “good” – but does not contain an articulation of its aesthetic. What is displayed in a poem is the ethic the poet has towards poetry: it is the reader’s ethic (his notion of ‘good’ and ‘bad’) that create an aesthetic out of the poet’s ethic displayed in the form and content of the poem. Cummings uses enjambment to create accents, signs of spontaneity, mimicking the earth; however, these accents do not punctuate the pulse of the poem (neither do the actual punctuation marks he uses), for example: “poked / thee / , has the naughty thumb” (l. 8-10). I use the word pulse instead of rhythm because of the irregularity of both the earth’s “behaviour” and the way this poem sounds when read aloud.
There are several other examples that may be drawn out in a comparative analysis of these two poems to illustrate my thesis that they complement the aesthetic, ethical aspects of writing poetry and living on this earth (e.g. Cummings liberal use of internal rhyme and alliteration, Moore’s sparse use of such devices). The goal of this short essay is to draw out a few examples from each poem and elucidate how they, when read together, complete each other, fill in some of each other’s blanks. Most important is the word “interested” in Moore’s last line: to be interested is to be between being, to be a parenthetical clause – just like the earth answers – after being read with perfect contempt, reduced from being a Thing, a singularity to an object – with spring.