‘somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond,’ by E.E. Cummings (1931)

For copyright purposes, I will avoid printing the whole poem in the following. It is not hard to find the full text online.

The poem I have selected serves me up an excuse to write about E.E. Cummings. The truth is, I have only read maybe between 10 and 20 poems by Cummings in my life, a grave error on my part. And so, though I run the risk of extending beyond my reach, I will still attempt this commentary. The reason why I do is simple enough: Cummings is shockingly successful at his own style of poetry, which is genuinely rather than spuriously unique. While reading over and over again “somewhere i have never travelled,” I have become mesmerized by the techniques present here, and the almost unsettling capacity to show up, as from the aether, behind the locked doors of one’s heart. Simply put, I believe Cummings was, however special his method, a great poet in all the old and final meaning of that designation. And a few reasons why I should judge him to be so I’ll give presently.

There is something truly profound about Cummings. Often the use of the word “profound” manages to signal the beginning of a pretentious round of rot. But I confess that in my experience I should have expected myself to be skeptical of what Cummings does in his poetry. I would have been tempted to give, whenever a poet wanders a bit too far from the beaten lane, a skeptical glance, and only because I have mostly read poetry outside the 20th century. And this is possibly simply a personal flaw. And still, all attempts to tell me that such poetry is really rather something, if only I would pay attention with an open mind, leaves me tempted yet to dismiss with a shrug.

But ultimately, even convention (whatever convention) is a servant of beauty. For many of us, convention is like the slave tutors of ancient Rome, and we are the child of the master’s family who cannot be taught rhetoric by anyone else except the slave. Convention is a slave and slavish often, but it is also the most knowledgeable one in the family, and as far as I know, without compare. Most attempts at auto-formalism outside of any reference to tradition of any kind fail in proportion to how far one ignores convention’s instructions. And I don’t mean, say, merely writing poetry in some new style. I mean deeper than that: into the substance of the metaphors, the grammar, even the vocabulary. My point is that if you really left grammar and syntax, let’s say, too far behind, you would finally reach a place where you would be wandering without a guide, and no way to understand or express anything about the world meaningfully.

As for Cummings, he doesn’t exactly abandon the deeper conventions – that probably would be impossible. But by exploring the fringes of the English language, I think he actually manages to help us see how the Thing works up closer to the center. Remember, it is always easier to see the middle from the edge, and in the middle it is the edge that you see. Most people read Cummings from the middle, and so find him surprising, and can even find some pleasure in that surprise. But if instead you go out with him, out to the edge, to the fringe, then you can see from where you came. Most people who would attempt to follow that course, would also lose their coordinates and no longer see anything clearly. Cummings manages it in this way:  by keeping a sense of direction while he explores, and always, no matter how far out in the marchlands he goes, always knowing how to orient himself again to the center. That is what you must understand: you can go as far from the center as you wish only in proportion to how skillful you are in orienting yourself to that center from wherever you happen to arrive.

And leaving the center is essential to the preservation of a proper sense of the middle. This is why we hate cliché and tyrannical, maybe even cowardly, clinging to convention. It’s why modern poets decry tradition and summon us to move beyond what has gone before. It is an admirable intention. For example, I think those who are too conservative with regards to poetry are those who do not wander from the center much at all, and so never really truly understand their own surrounding landscape, never really see the place they stand from outside. They see the mountains far off, which is good enough, but they don’t go out and climb in them too often. The radicals for their part slash a path far out from the starting point which they were born to, but I think they often tend to lose their orientation in the process. And we notice the effects of both these erroneous and incomplete visions when we read what those committed to them write. Reading Cummings, on the other hand, is perhaps a way of coming to understand how to navigate the space around the center of our common and established perception.

I have found it necessary, thus far, to set something like the metaphysical or aesthetic stage or arena, before getting into the specifics of Cummings’ poetry, which the selected poem provides us an excellent concrete example of.

One of the things that makes this poetry so modern is that it requires the printed word; it must be read off a page of type for its appearance to reveal its form clearly. I can read Cummings aloud, and it does strike my ear. But, I have to do this while also looking at the text in front me, physical and tangible; I have to see the patterns in ink. Without this coordination between the ear and eye, the sense of the poetry does not exist. From ancient times onwards, texts have become more and more distinct from the spoken word in a growing multitude of ways. A kind of evolution in this process to some extreme is represented in Cummings’ poems. Such things aren’t wholly without precedent of course: poets for some time had taken advantage of the visual nature of text, especially printed text, the pattern poem being the most obvious example (George Herbert’s “Easter Wings” is a well known case of this). But the playfulness of these visual patterns, as sincere as it is, usually doesn’t affect the meaning of the poem itself too strikingly. There are ways in which I think Cummings, though, does achieve rather surprising and evocative nuances in how he approaches alterations in the layout of his visual text, and I hope to elaborate on some of these for the rest of this essay. Also, I should be able to link these techniques that Cummings’ uses to some of the more philosophical themes already addressed.

There are three techniques I will address in this post specifically. 1) Cummings’ use of metaphor; 2) his use of punctuation and grammar in general; 3) his style, though his “voice” would be an equally useful term to use. That is, to address all that is probably most distinctive and important about Cummings’ work, but here with reference to this single poem, my favorite of all that I have read. Being a love poem, it is also located at the very heart of Cummings’ primary concern – Love, and all her intense glories.

  1. Metaphor

    If there is a central purpose to metaphor it would likely be to make the essential tangible, or graspable, if one likes. The world is vastly populated with “things,” which we are never really concerned with – what we are concerned with are “essences.” That is, the appearance of that which matters to us from out of the wild chaos that surrounds. To engage in the creation of metaphor is to participate in the “unthinging” of the world into essentiality. Peak essentiality (and I am continuing on without a logical argument at this point) might be said to lie in “personality” or “personhood.” Those who are in love seem to have the capacity to perceive very minutely the smallest of details in the beloved and intuit the whole of the person out of every one of them together. To be “in love” is to experience this intensification of perceiving the unity of personality in another. And so the mind in love is a metaphorical mind, who sees in the “frail gesture… things which enclose me.”

    Cummings is probably best known for his love poetry, and it is unavoidably true that Cummings understood this connection between eros and symbolism, whether explicitly or implicitly in any given case, it doesn’t really matter. These lines alone “… nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals/the power of your intense fragility” describe all what I mean. In other words (if they are needed), the other things perceived in the world that the poet might use metaphorically to speak of the beloved will fall short somehow. When Cummings writes, “… the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses,” he intentionally says this in the stanza immediately following the previous two stanzas in which the metaphor of the rose, opening and closing to warmth and cold, served as the central image. The distance between the image and the actuality is a kind of ignorance, which he admits, “(i do not know what it is about you that closes/and opens; only something in me understands…).”

    I think a name for what Cummings is doing here could be called symbol-awareness, or something along those lines. To explain what I mean, first I’ll lay out a sense of the logical structure of the poem from a particular angle, which is the development of the sense of his central metaphor – the rose. Obviously, there is something cliché about a rose at the center of a love poem, and I think here it is necessary to recognize that this is both humorous and daring. Humorous in the sense that I laughed to myself when the apparent affront of it occurred to me. But the daring part comes in when you consider that what cliché is, is a risk, or rather a challenge. What we mean by cliché is something important handled rather poorly, since, the whole reason why one particular thing (in this case, the “thing” is a certain metaphor) keeps being attempted by others is because there is some prize out there worth getting, and the long litany of failure in these attempts is nothing more than an indication of the value of what lies beyond – like the skeletons of benighted treasure hunters skewered before some hidden vault’s doors.

    Cummings slips his way into this metaphor by beginning with another. The poet compares himself to the clasped fingers of a clenched hand, an image that is more akin, more human and close to the source for which it stands. And we already naturally tend to think metaphorically in terms of what the hand does, or does not do. Someone who is miserly is “tight-fisted,” and when we call someone “closed,” even though that metaphor has gone the way of the undertaker, I at least still image within a closed fist. And, here the point is, as Cummings well understands, that a closed hand does have the capacity to open again, in that case, by an act of will. For the poet has “closed myself as fingers.” But, it is not he who would then open them again, but she: “you open myself as fingers.” Now, the speaker becomes passive in the opening, when once he was active in the closing. But even this is taken away soon when “if your wish be to close me,i and/my life will shut…” In that case, once opened by the lover, the poet would remain open until, and only until, she herself decided to close him again.

    But here is where we get to the strategic aspect of introducing the rose as metaphor here. Before we get to the point where the poet refers to his lover closing him again, we are given the rose, “you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens… her first rose.” Generally, within the history of standard poetry, a male poet will refer to a woman lover by the symbol of the rose. But here, he is the rose, and she is the Spring Herself. That inversion itself is interesting enough. But, add to it the fact that it also reinforces the passivity of the male poet in relation to his lover, and we have a rather masterful introduction of a metaphor, which enters this poem in a fresh way, being itself an ancient trope. Fingers can be closed and opened at a whim. But a rose, by the unconscious course of nature’s happening, opens helplessly with Spring, and when it “imagines the snow…” it will close again just as helplessly. This multi-layered motion, where the poet’s heart is compared to fingers (a visual image of the outer body for the soul), then the fingers are compared to a rose (removing the action of fingers and replacing it with the passivity of the rose) is deeply pleasing, if noticed. This metaphor-stacking allows us to sink into the theme, become lost in it, feel that there is real depth here and real meaning.

    Before leaving the subject of metaphor in this poem by Cummings, let me address one more issue concerning the images of the body found here: eyes, hands, and fingers, the last two obviously being closely allied. These are interrelated by their effects on the other. “your eyes have their silence…” in the second line of the poem leads ultimately to the second to last line of the poem, which reads “the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses.” This “voice” was the force that opened and closed the petals or the fingers earlier in the poem. More than that, the poet confesses ignorance as the divine quality that he, as all real lovers, has perceived in the beloved. But, “something in me understands/the voice of your eyes…” And when the poet says that the voice has a quality “deeper than all roses” it is, of course, first simply quite evocative as a phrase, but a “deeper” point seems to be that the lover’s self is beyond the metaphors available (all while using a metaphor – the “voice of your eyes” – to speak of this incapacity of the very symbol). And, specifically, the image of a hand doesn’t appear until the final line of the poem, the one that we are left with, and it is also probably the most surprising line:

    nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands.

    Anyone more familiar than me with Cummings will probably be unsurprised here. I will take a risk and lay out an hypothesis I cannot confirm until I have perused thousands of this most prolific poet’s poems: that rain and hands are probably recurrent metaphors in his work (in the love poems I would assume) and this is not the only place the two images are connected into a greater symbol. Clever, and maybe wiser at times, modern poets, when seeking to search for new territory in the countries of meaning, have often had to build their own symbolic worlds in order to navigate their way into the uncharted lands and seas. The trick is how to do this without losing the essence of symbol itself. And I dare say Cummings does so I believe.

    Now, probably the first purpose of the surprise here is to arrest us at the end of the poem. Having established in the previous line the limits of metaphor, that limitation is stretched out to breaking with the oddity and near obscurity of the final metaphor. It’s as if, metaphor being as limited as it is, the poet must stretch his own hands forth, his own mind out for some unreachable stars that he can never reach nor pull down, but can perhaps imagine he can. Poets until now have thought that their imagination achieved this, and now, along with Cummings, they may have become more skeptical – or at least critical – of this apparent achievement, but still want to dream it so. As a result, Cummings doesn’t cease to do metaphor, doesn’t stop trying to fashion symbols. But, he does so in this rather more self-aware manner, handing us what feel like new combinations that test our awareness of sub-conscious assumptions on metaphorical unities and forms.

    2. Grammar and Punctuation

      And I actually think that the final point made immediately above is relevant to the next subject at hand here. For just as Cummings makes us more aware of what metaphor is by testing its conventions, he does the same with other aspects of language we take for granted. What’s curious about Cummings is that just as his poems seem to rely more on the printed text than any other poet’s could be, his work also goes out of its way to offend the usual rules whose authority has tended to instruct the more precise world of those printed forms. One of the major differences between written prose and spoken language lies in the way in which rhythms are made obvious. Much of punctuation, for example, serves a semantic (or grammatical) rather than a phonetic role. This is not necessarily the case among authors of certain great kinds of prose, but it is still generally true. Spoken speech remains mostly unrepresented on the page, except by authors of better wit than most. Cummings eschews the grammatical service punctuation offers (or at least treats it so eccentrically it turns itself out of the house), and sometimes seems to even wander away from any phonetic aid it could offer. Instead he uses it to make one aware of it by making it stick into consciousness somehow. The most obvious way he does this is by getting rid of spaces between letters and punctuation marks. The mind realizes that these are still the similar marks it is used to; in other words, you know, at least analytically, that nothing semantic needs to change because of this difference, and yet there is still something uncanny about it: you still have to pay attention to the difference made. I would also proffer that the bringing of the words and the marks together like this, at least here in a love poem, betokens the very intimacy that is the theme of the poetry (everything bound together, inseparable).

      Most of the time, if you ignore the visual trick, the punctuation still seems correct, mostly at least. But sometimes, it disappears. One might have expected a period or a comma at least between “… her first rose” in line 9, and “… or if your wish be to close me…” in line 10. Or, maybe there should have been a period somewhere between the clause in line 17:

      rendering death and forever with each breathing

      And that final one in line 21:

      nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands.

      Note, even so, he concludes the poem with a period (which he does not always do). And it is this shyness at playing his own game which is intriguing. It goes without saying that Cummings is innovative. But it is precisely his innovativeness that makes each remaining loyalty to convention so much more curious, and so much more satisfying. If ever one embodied the principle that to respect the past you must compel it somehow to abide presently in your own way, it is this remarkable poet. He reminds us that any particular language is a set of conventions, organic and beautiful conventions often, but conventions nonetheless. They all abide in a greater cosmic realm, to which they are always trying to reconnect and find home.

      And so, when it comes to grammar generally, Cummings changes as much as he can while still remaining understandable. It’s why he eschews capitalization and punctuation; because he can without really devolving into chaos. The vocabulary basically stays coherent – there are no strange babblings of sound in the most basic sense. We still get recognizable morphemes. And yet he stretches out and wanders far outside the edges of the English language, outside of the conventions as we have called them, and somehow uttered something that still wasn’t nonsense. Generally speaking, to do something like this would lead to some kind of failure. Probably the greatest failure (who failed in his success) to liken Cummings to would be James Joyce. And yet, if anything, Cummings seems less obscure, more present in his weird and curious forms. If Joyce was an author lost in a private cave somewhere, a semantic spelunker, Cummings was an explorer, who (at least in my judgement) seems to have often found remarkable new territory, especially in the realm of symbol. To find the poetic outside the borders, beyond the fringe, that is a magnificent deed – one that I confess I envy, but not in the soul-destroying way; I rather feel a soul-churning within me to see and talk like that. If ever there was evidence that language as commonly spoken exists as an island in a sea of poetry, Cummings is the proof. Usually, one gets the sense that, as with Borges’ Library of Babel, what we encounter and use as meaningful speech is the rarity, surrounded by an infinite expanse of nonsense. That has often terrified me. But that is only if you look at language statistically. If you look at it instead as an occurrence of meaning, discovered as it is, from amidst a great unknown potential. To say it another way, one only gets the Library of Babel if one analyzes the means by which we communicate meaning in a physical sense, by the individual letters on the page. But to get at the real substance of language, the stuff that we encounter and create moment by moment as we go through time and space, there we find the beating heart of meaning. Meaning is encounter. It is the place where the imagination can imagine a Library of Babel. Babel, for all its endless variety, is a small thing, only using the skeletons of words arbitrarily – it must itself exist within the wider cosmos of spiritual substance, the root and stock of our words and our minds. That is, the realm, rich and full, from which sounds ever could have joined in minds for meaning.

      3. Voice and Style

        If there were a mood for this poem, or perhaps even a general mood in Cummings’ poetry, it seems to be awe. In this case, awe at the beloved and in the beloved’s presence and power. The voice of the poet is nearly that of the worshipper, where Aphrodite is replaced by a fleshy and all to present lover, but one that embodies somehow a divine energy that will “easily unclose me. But, nevertheless, the lover is still mortal: so that paradox again:

        nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
        the power of your intense fragility…

        The agnosticism of the later phrase, “(I do not know what it is about you that closes/and opens…” certainly makes one wonder at the ephemerality of the lover’s power and access to godhead. I have at moments so far, in reading through some of Cummings, realized that he was at subconsciously drawing on a deep instinct in the European tradition, especially in love poetry. That is, that since a human being is made imago dei, and since the action of love in its attractive force can intensify one’s awareness of this inner reality, the moment of realizing the beauty of the lover and experiencing the longing for their presence and embrace can be itself an image, poetic or otherwise, of the divine energy at work in the world. Cummings was certainly not an orthodox Christian. And one might say that poets generally, if anyone would, have a tendency to mystical flights, and so would probably wax spiritual if not traditionally religious in their fancies. And this is all true. Poets in any culture, either intentionally or unintentionally, are drawing constantly on the spiritual and mystical experiences and insights of more traditionally religious figures and practices, and Cummings is no exception. Having not yet engaged in a more in depth study of this poet’s poetry, I am cut off from a more intuitive understanding of the depth of this mysticism of eros elsewhere in his work, and I am also unaware as yet of enough of his biography to fully understand his relationship to Christianity. But his tone, the voice he expresses, has a hushed reverence to it, a trembling sacral quality that is certainly more than simply the intense expression of untamed and wild passions. In places I have read so far, Cummings can express such things – “whereas by dark really released,the/modern flame of her indomitable body/uses a careful fierceness”1 – yet he is rather more himself when more tender, and is most sincere when worshipful rather than lustful. I suspect the lust usually appears when is writing a poem from within the perspective of another in a fictional voice. When it is his own voice that speaks, he speaks like he does in our present poem.

        What can be learned of Cummings’ style from this poem? We have already discussed the way he approaches grammar and punctuation generally, which is a rather significant aspect of that style, and probably what most readers recognize at first when reading him. Though this style is certainly his own, it is not difficult to cast it with other modernists, who, though differing by the default of their individuality from one another, do seem to share a common drift. If I had to name the most central aspect of that “drift” it would be summed up in the term “surprise” or “surprising.” Modernist poetry is usually somewhat unexpected, and that certainly holds true of Cummings. We have already addressed how his use of metaphor embodies this quality of surprise, where one has to adjust one’s inner intuition as to the content of the symbolism. Nothing is given. But, of course, once one does feel for and find the key, Cummings can become rather accessible. But not accessible in an easy sense; there is no satisfactory summary of any poem or his poetry that will do for the reader. Instead, all that can be offered by me, another reader, is maybe an idea of why Cummings would phrase things in particular ways.

        Note that there is a constant tendency towards parenthesis in this poem, represented clearly enough by the presence of parentheses. This evokes a sense of a mind that is trying to express something, but keeps needing to gather itself for an aside, trying to come to terms with something ultimately mysterious. I will also include a list of some of the repeated elements in the poem below to highlight parts that form these patterns. This doesn’t necessarily represent all the points of repetition within the poem, but it does emphasize the key ones I think. There are three types or groups of these above. The first are those which define some property that belongs to the beloved, as follows:

        1. “your eyes”
        2. “your most frail gesture”
        3. “your slightest look”
        4. “the power of your intense fragility”
        5. “the voice of your eyes”

        With these, there are a further two types. Three refer to the eyes of the beloved, and the first and last case of this both use the metaphor of those eyes having a voice of their own, speaking somehow to the beloved, the poet. In the second further type, we read a similar theme in both, that is that there is something “frail” in the beloved that is nevertheless so potent. This strain comes through even in the first type with the adjective “slightest.” In all these cases, the thematic thrust of the poem is reinforced by the mutual familiarity of these adjectival references to the qualities of the lover.

        The second category are the repetitions of the action of the lover, the opening up of the poet. The repetition of that action by the verb “open” also is used to bind the two metaphors of “fingers” and “petals” that we already discussed above. Here repetition is used as a tool for linking these two metaphors together.

        Something similar happens in the third category, the repetition of the pattern if not the verbs in the case of these two: “skillfully,mysteriously” and “beautifully,suddenly.” In the first case, the participles refer to the action of Spring on the rose, and in the second case, they refer to the action of the lover on the poet. This also functions much the same way as the previous case, to bind the referents into a metaphor through phrasing, making the connection more explicitly clear, but in a way that is poetically pleasing, and really rather appropriate.

        What can be gleaned from this analysis of technique, brief and simple as it is? I think only a sense of the precise way a poet, Cummings in this case, might deliberate his way towards communication with his reader. Obviously, there is some desire here to be obscure, or at least a bit difficult. One still has to wonder at the poem, and most modernist poets would abide in paradisal satisfaction every time a reader has to be confused. But with Cummings, I have come to already suspect that he is not deliberately being abstruse. For him, I don’t think he thought he could say what he wished in many other ways. His own approach to poetics can accomplish certain key things that would be hard to imagine achieving in many other ways (which is of course only a limitation of the reader’s imagination, including my own). I don’t wish for Cummings to be less surprising than he is – the surprise is an essential aspect of reading his poetry. But I think knowing the way that pulls off his surprise is helpful, first in simply understanding him just somewhat more, which allows him to then be enjoyed a bit more. In his careful and intricate exploration of meaning and symbol, especially in matters of the heart, he can awaken our souls to the real magical heart of things (and persons most of all), as any great poet should and must do.

        Featured image: ‘Roses,’ by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (c. 1890), image in the public domain.

        1. Tulips and Chimneys (1922), ‘Sonnets – Realities: no. 18 []

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        Poetical Fragments