Mud-luscious and Puddle-wonderful: The Poetry of E.E. Cummings

Cummings

[Revised from the version originally published by in Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

Here’s the thing about works of art that we all grow up with, have to analyze as kids, and dismiss because they seem dated or obvious, hackneyed or over-explained:

Sometimes they’re actually wonderful after all.

For example, the poems of E. E. Cummings. I love them. During my junior high and high school years (think 1970s) he was one of the more frequently taught poets, largely because his acrobatics with punctuation and wordplay are fun and accessible even to people who claim to hate poetry. I know there are critics and readers who think him naive or over-exposed; they find him too accessible or well-known to seek him out afresh to find pleasure or insight. What a shame.

I reread his poems every few years (and even more often nowadays) in the expectation that, at last, I’ll find them somehow embarrassingly old-fashioned and obvious. But they never feel that way to me. They still have those great lines that punch me or move me when I don’t expect it, the casual colloquialisms, the thoughts that beg to be combined into one word to emphasize their speed or oneness. All of those devices can be found in “Buffalo Bill’s,” for example.

One of the most anthologized of his poems is the fresh, light poem “in Just-” which evokes the way children explode out into the world and splash and stomp and whirl through it in springtime. I still love its cadences, the way friends bettyandisbel and eddyandbill are so constantly with each other that they merge into single entities, the bittersweet everpresence of that little lame balloon man as he whistles far and wee.

The bitterness of the young Cummings, disillusioned by his experiences during World War I and unable to leave what he learned behind upon his return home, pops up regularly in his work. When we think of the “lost generation,” the disillusioned postwar youth of the 1920s who populate the work of writers like Fitzgerald, we think of novels full of ennui, anger, and feelings of betrayal. We think of heavy works like Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front or the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen. But Cummings made his own jabs, often in wisecracking, cynical asides, such as in “my sweet old etcetera.” In”next to of course god america i” his sarcasm and disgust for jingoism and militarism get considerably darker and more obvious. By the time one reads “Humanity i love you” Cummings’ anger and disillusionment with not only his country but with humanity are made completely plain. But so are his ambivalence and sense of humor (dark though it is). This isn’t the Cummings we were taught to consider so harmlessly affable and nonchalant, too easy, too fun or fey.

My favorite Cummings poem remains the one most people would probably consider the obvious choice, “anyone lived in a pretty how town,” which so many high school anthologies have reprinted for decades with the same dull set of talking points and questions. Yet it’s surprising how many different interpretations I’ve seen for this supposedly obvious poem. In my reading of it, I always find it terribly moving, in its sweet and small way. The poem contrasts the vastness of time with the anonymity of the little characters who populate it, including dear little anyone and noone. Seasons pass as the poem lengthens, children forget the essentials as they grow older, and while “anyone” and “noone” mean nothing to the world at large, they are everything to each other. The inevitability of death and anonymity are softened by the fact that, while busy folk bury the dead side by side, “little by little and was by was,” and forget them (if they ever knew them in the first place), anyone and noone loved each other and were each other’s everything, and in their little lives, that’s all anyone and noone required.

This poem feels anything but gimmicky to me. Like Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man” speech in As You Like It, “anyone lived in a pretty how town” boils the stages and essence of life down quickly, with bittersweetness, humor, a touch of cynicism, but also a touching empathy for the littleness and vulnerability at the heart of every human being. That’s why children still learn these works today; because they’re beautiful, because they’re funny, because they’re a little dark and surprising, and because they’re true.

For my last two years of college, I had to commute an hour each way to Mills and back home again, and I found I could make good use of those hours on the road if I borrowed spoken word records from the library, taped them, and then listened to the tapes in the car. (This was in the olden days of the early 1980s when one rarely found prerecorded books on tape but all sorts of wonderful things could be found on record at public libraries.) I was introduced to some fine plays this way (Ibsen’s The Master Builder and An Enemy of the People, Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, lots of Shakespeare) and a lot of poetry. One of my favorite records was of Cummings reading his poems in the late 1950s. Often I find listening to poets reading their own work painful; so often they adopt a false tone and awkward phrasing, with self-conscious over-emphasis or an odd near-monotone, or a bouncing lilt at the end of each phrase, in a sort of questioning manner, like a Valley Girl? putting a question mark? at the end? of each small phrase? It’s been many years since I listened to E. E. Cummings read, but I remember finding his readings surprising and a great relief from the artificial, stentorian tones of so many other readers and writers of poetry.

By the way, the long-standing stories that Cummings signed his own name e. e. cummings and hated capital letters are myths; Cummings signed his name with the usual capitals and often used capitalization in his poetry, just not always in the obvious or expected ways. He did like to be inventive and a bit subversive in his use of language, but not to the extent that he felt it necessary to take on the affectation of using non-standard punctuation for his own name. I think this oft-repeated error serves to underline the common (and I believe erroneous) belief that he was a gimmicky writer of sing-song verse. To my mind, he was an original thinker with a light touch and a sense of humor who influenced a lot of (often bad) poets by snubbing long-established convention in ways that grab attention. Nowadays nearly every school child is asked to mess with English a little after reading a bit of Cummings in hopes that this mild subversion of all he or she has been taught will shake loose some creativity and instant love of poetry: Drop your capitals, Betty! Start a verse in the middle of the line, Isbel! Scrunch those words together into one long line, EddyandBill! We’ve all seen and done it so many times it feels quaint. It wasn’t in the 1920s when Cummings did it. And it still feels fresh to me, 80 years later.

My Architect: A Beautiful Documentary

architect

[Originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

Louis I. Kahn (1901-1974) was one of the 20th century’s most influential and well-regarded architects. He designed such important structures as the Exeter Library at Philips Exeter Academy, and the Capital Complex in Dhaka (Dacca), Bangladesh, and his work was revered by high-flying architects such as I. M. Pei, Philip Johnson, and Frank Gehry. But his habits of overwork and overextension, bidding for too many projects and becoming obsessive about his all-consuming passion for architecture, led him to die of a heart attack, bankrupt and alone, in a Penn Station bathroom as he was on his way home to Philadelphia from New York. When he died, he left not only a wife and their daughter, but also a mistress and his second daughter, as well as a second mistress and his third child, his 11-year-old son, Nathaniel, who made a beautiful documentary about his father, “My Architect: A Son’s Journey.”

Nathaniel Kahn’s documentary visits and discusses the works of his father, some of which Nathaniel had never seen before, and shows the emotional and artistic impact that Louis Kahn and his work made on others, both architects and clients. But more than being a simple homage to his father and his works, the film shows Nathaniel’s search to understand his secretive, mysterious father’s compartmentalized life and to strengthen his connection to the father he lost so early. Louis Kahn’s charisma and charm, his love for his children and the feelings of great love and loyalty he engendered in the women in his life are all made clear, as are his self-absorption, his need to make every commitment in life secondary to his commitment to his work, his flashes of arrogance, and his lack of empathy for others. The question which underpins the whole film is whether the gifts of an artistic genius whose work engenders tears of appreciation from his clients and fellow architects can justify his remote, selfish, and disconnected life.

To his credit, Nathaniel Kahn doesn’t try to answer any of these questions once and for all; he interviews his two half sisters and talks with his mother, who still nurses the belief that Louis Kahn was about to leave his wife and come to live with Nathaniel and his mother before he died. He asks difficult questions and presses his mother to be honest about his father’s failings and selfishness. The responses are at times surprising and always sad and touching.

Although he admires his father’s work, Nathaniel Kahn doesn’t like every one of his father’s buildings. As he makes his pilgrimage to each one, he asks the people who live with and use the buildings how they feel about them, and admits when he finds one cold or impractical. When he visits the Exeter Library or the Institute of Public Administration at Ahmedabad, India, or when he goes to Bangladesh and sees how the Capitol and Parliament Buildings in Dhaka are enjoyed and made into the center of life for the local people, he is clearly moved. Sometimes the technical mastery of his father’s work, its appropriateness in shape, form, and function and its original and spare use of light and materials awe him, and we see him surprised and touched by the effect that his father’s work had on others.

It’s difficult to express what makes this film so watchable, moving, and fascinating. I suppose it boils down to three things I find endlessly illuminating: artistic masterworks, biographies of unusual and influential people, and bad family dynamics. This documentary is worth watching on any of those counts; as a work of art encompassing all three, it’s extraordinary.

I found a lovely site with beautiful photographs of Louis Kahn’s work; do check out “The Works of Louis I. Kahn: A Visual Archive by Naquib Hossain.” Hossain describes Kahn’s work elegantly as “A purposeful knot of complements and contradictions in a rich fabric of brick, mortar, and concrete, woven to being by natural light.” “My Architect” is a purposeful knot of complements and contradictions, too, and a lovely work of art in its own right.

Papaoutai

In 2013, the most popular video on French TV and the number one song in France and Belgium was “Papaoutai” by Belgian singer Stromae. The tune and rhythms are appealing and unusual; the video is compelling and, ultimately, moving. Though the title sounds like it could be a word in an African language, it is actually meant to be understood by French speakers as meaning “Papa, où t’es?” which translates as “Dad, where are you?” The song and the story of the video refer to the absence of Stromae’s father, who was killed in the Rwandan genocide in 1994. The plaintive cry of the singer who feels the absence of his father is also expressed in the child in the video who begs his mannequin-like father to come to life.

Oompa Loompas Go Oingo Boingo

oingo

[Revised from an article originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

To celebrate my daughter’s twelfth birthday, she and her dad and I went to see the Tim Burton version of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” We were disappointed with it, largely because of the occasional scenes of gratuitous nastiness and Johnny Depp’s unsympathetic portrayal of Willy Wonka. The book’s author, Roald Dahl, is a favorite of ours, and while he was never afraid to expose young readers to scenes of characters getting pleasure out of bringing dismay or suffering to children, his willingness to show us brutish and nasty antagonists serves only to bring us closer to his protagonists and empathize with their pain. The nastiest things happen to those who aren’t pure of heart.

Tim Burton’s new twist on “Charlie” introduces Wonka with an awkward animatronic display in the style of Disney’s “It’s a Small World” ride (on an intimate scale) and then proceeds to burn, melt, and destroy the Hummel-like plastic figures of children to the alarm of real children and to Wonka’s delight. Right off the bat, this introduces a sociopathic streak to the character. It doesn’t carry forward the spirit of the original book, nor does it serve to make the film more appealing or enjoyable.

The Wonka of the book and earlier movie did get pleasure from surprising and even frightening the children some, especially when they were being selfish. Gene Wilder‘s Wonka was mercurial, well-read, nimble with language, the inscrutable mix of wit, joie de vivre, charm, alarm, entertainment, warmth and unexpected temper that he is in the book. Wilder’s Wonka was philosophical, quoted Shakespeare, and showed evidence of introspection, which made his tender moments with Charlie affecting and meaningful. Wilder (and the script, penned by Roald Dahl himself) showed Wonka to be a wild genius but also a man of caring and conviction.

The Willy Wonka created by Roald Dahl was wounded but determined to find faith in the future again by putting his masterpiece in the care of someone who would appreciate it for its magic and creativity, and who wouldn’t turn it into a crass, commercial, soulless enterprise. Depp’s Wonka is completely lacking in introspection or empathy until the very end, and even when he arrives at some awareness of his own shortcomings and Charlie’s value, it’s really only as an adjunct to his narcissism, as a means to getting positive attention, not because of a drive to better the world. Rather than showing signs of wit and erudition, he makes two-word pronouncements that are less articulate than any of the children who have come to him with Golden Tickets: “You’re weird.” “That’s gross.” Gone are the wonderful spirals of wordplay that flew out of the pages of the book, the arch insights into the crassness and self-absorbed nature of modern culture. What we have instead is a flattened world and a diminished Wonka, artisanal Belgian truffles reworked into stale Hershey’s Kisses.

This take on the story is especially sad because Johnny Depp is an actor of range and depth when given the direction or inspiration. In last year’s film “Finding Neverland,” in which he starred as J.M. Barrie, he was delightful and nuanced, as was the young actor Freddie Highmore, who plays Charlie in the new film. All the scenes with Charlie’s family were more affecting and appealing than the analogous scenes in the Gene Wilder version of the film. This Bucket family is warm, engaging, and loving, and the scenes with them bucking each other up in their hovel were a tender contrast to the brash bright production numbers featuring scores of Oompa Loompas. They also underscored the flatness of Wonka’s character. In the book and the Gene Wilder film version, Wonka’s anything but flat.

I will give Depp credit for saying much more with his facial expressions than the script allows him to say with words. The new “Charlie” features several scenes involving killing and tasting the entrails of a large flying insect and lots of caterpillars. Tim Burton’s style of humorous sadism is gooier than Dahl’s, and he draws out the “ew” moments in this film in a way that is at odds with Dahl’s subtler and funnier wit. Tim Burton’s vision requires Johnny Depp to play a Willy Wonka so completely out of touch with both the world of children and the world of adults that he comes across as a sort of disturbing mixture of Emo Phillips and Michael Jackson.

Twenty years ago, Tim Burton took another childlike misfit character, Pee-wee Herman, and built a brilliantly original film around him, “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.” But Paul Reubens’ Peewee had an appealing inner core; he was wildly immature, but he also cared for people (like Simone the waitress) and animals (whom he rescued from a burning pet store). He was a goof, but he was harmless, and while he could get angry at Francis, his nemesis, he didn’t want to cause others suffering. He was a sympathetic character, so he could stand up to the Tim Burton treatment, and even benefit from it; the slight darkness of Burton’s vision burnished the edges of Peewee’s primary-colored world, and the scene involving Large Marge is priceless.

Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands” (also played by Depp, and beautifully) was an incredibly sympathetic figure, a tender-hearted artist trapped in a body with monstrous and dangerous hands. Burton’s “Batman” with Michael Keaton was such a successful mix of dark and dangerous with quirky and humorous that it launched a whole series of films trying to capture some of the magic and excitement of the Burton treatment. But I’ve found most of Burton’s films of the past decade a bit colder and meaner at heart. “Big Fish” was just an odd mess; it was trying for emotional connection with the audience but I just found it poorly scripted, boring, and overacted. Usually excellent actors like Billy Crudup and Albert Finney gave annoying and vaguely embarrassing performances (which I blame largely on the loopy direction).

I hope that Burton’s soon-to-be-released animated film, “The Corpse Bride,” will once again mix his gothic cynicism with the sense of childlike wonder that some of his earlier films held. I miss the fresh visions and psychological insights of those works. I will give applause to Danny Elfman for the (as usual) exciting score and fresh, funny, original songs. I’ve enjoyed his work for nearly 25 years; I used to go to see him and his clever, brash, brassy band, Oingo Boingo, when they came up to the Bay Area and loved them every time I saw them. Their energy was intense and focused, the band was tight and great, the lyrics were unique and cynically funny. Elfman was clearly a man of strong opinions and endless energy. His score for “Peewee’s Big Adventure” was a perfect jumping-off point for his talent and his style, and his theme for “The Simpsons” fits the feel of the show and the characters; it’s hard to imagine it without that signature theme and all the visual cues we all associate with its musical phrases. His orchestral work for the movies is so lush and evocative that I always enjoy his scores, but I’ve missed the darker, edgier, bouncier Danny I saw in San Francisco and Berkeley years ago.

The new songs for the glitzy Oompa Loompa production numbers in the new “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” will stick with me and entertain me longer and better than the film itself. That’s a soundtrack I’ll be happy to own. But I’ll skip the DVD; I’d rather drag out my old “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” videotape and watch Gene Wilder sing “Pure Imagination” again. And again. And again.

Horror Vacui: The Fear of Empty Space

Horror vacui - Mosque Tiles

[Revised from the original article published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

I once heard the late jazz pianist and singer Shirley Horn say that her mentor, trumpet legend Miles Davis, always liked the way she used space in her singing and playing. I liked that description so well, since Shirley Horn was a master of slow, careful, pared down musical expression. There was never an extraneous note in her playing, and she could never be accused of playing anything too quickly. Sometimes there are such long rests between her lyrics that I worry, Shirley, may, never, get, to, the, end, of, the, phrase. But I have to admit that her singing and playing were very elegant, and the lack of adornment does focus the ear and the mind on the sound and the meaning. (And her version of Kermit the Frog’s anthem, “(It’s Not Easy Being) Green” is exquisite.)

I admire minimalism in architecture and fashion, too, but I’d be bored out of my mind living in minimalist clothing and surroundings all the time. My visits to W Hotels and to Ian Schrager’s Paramount and Hudson hotels in New York left me thinking how fun it was to be in such stark, angular spaces for a little while, and how chic and clean the lines are, how pure and streamlined the sensibility was—and how I could never live like that at home.

In autumn and winter I wear a lot of black, and I feel very good in it. I love to travel in black so that strangers can’t tell that I’m a tourist, or where I come from, or what I sat in on the subway. I love the classic, crisp, elegant anonymity of it. But my lavender shoes and my bright pink coat and the crazy, oversized floral patterns on some of my favorite skirts are just as necessary to my wardrobe, and to the vision I have of myself and how I must sometimes present myself to the world.

I think a lot of us fill up the spaces in our lives carelessly to make ourselves and those around us less afraid. We feel we have to talk through an entire visit with a friend, have the TV on in the background, fill every shelf, and try every dish at the buffet. My mom, who found the study of art and art history thrilling, as I do, laughed with me when she realized that the Latin term “horror vacui,” which describes the fear of empty space which makes some artists decorate every inch of a surface, applied to her and to her life as well. She feared too much quiet or extended contemplation in much the same way that she feared a bare wall. She found it too easy to project her fears of inadequacy, loss and emptiness into those spaces, both literal and metaphorical. A lack of adornment meant a lack of value to her; less was less and more was always more. I’m often guilty of this sort of thinking, too. I collect too many things and crave too many distractions, accumulate to fill up voids in my life and avoid winnowing my collections so I can focus on novelty and expansion, on all the things I might do with them in the future, all the possibilities open to me because I have such a collection of stuff. Winnowing would mean admitting that there are limits to my life and its possibilities, that I may never need that unused German language workbook, might not create a work of art incorporating vintage mah jongg tiles and dominoes after all, probably won’t review my Chinese history notes from 1983 again, and don’t need a dozen Depression glass candlestick holders after all, even if they are 70 years old and very cool.

I think there’s an optimism to accumulation and void-filling, a belief that I’ll use this, I’ll enjoy that, my life will be better if I expand and decorate and dress it up with one more thing. I really will be fluent in French someday! It’s not too late to learn to become a goldsmith! Those broken plates could make an amazing mosaic top for a bedside table! I’d always be sad if I got rid of that Singer sewing machine from 1924! But of course, this sort of self-confidence through accumulation bases value on the ephemeral and external rather than on the lasting and innate. Emphasizing that expansive optimism is how our culture justifies binge spending, over-extended credit (both personal and governmental) and constant expansion. It’s a sign of fear and a lack of discipline, I believe; evidence of a fear of growing older, of growing bored or boring, of appearing outdated to others, of having to make do or invest more energy or time in something or someone, of facing what we really are, have, need, or are capable of. Stuff dulls the senses and brings comfort. I love it, but I think it’s time to stare down that horror vacui a little bit, and see what riches I’m missing in my life by focusing too much on the riches that cost me money.

Monsieur Ibrahim

sharif

[Originally posted to Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog in 2005.]

I just watched the lovely 2003 French film “Monsieur Ibrahim et les Fleurs du Coran” (“Mr. Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran”) over the weekend, and I found it a real gem. It’s a story of a 16-year-old boy, Moise (known as Momo) living in a working-class Jewish district of Paris in the 1960s. He looks after his father, a selfish, depressive man who is never satisfied by anything Momo is or does. Abandoned by his mother as a small child, Momo has never known parental love or kindness, so he seeks womanly tenderness from the prostitutes who work the streets of his neighborhood, and he filches money from his father so he can afford to buy some pleasure. He’s rather sullen and quiet, with no real friends and no one to help him learn about life’s possibilities and love’s responsibilities.

Momo makes daily visits to the local grocery owned by Monsieur Ibrahim (Omar Sharif), a Turkish Sufi who seems to know more about what is in Momo’s heart than should be possible. The two strike up a friendship, and Monsieur Ibrahim teaches Momo about loving kindness, about how to make himself more appealing to others so he can get what he wants out of life, about enjoying the world and the people in it. It could have been a paint-by-numbers sort of coming-of-age story, but instead the interactions feel very real and subtle, and Sharif’s performance is extraordinary. He brings a real joie de vivre to the role, but in a quiet, understated fashion. Monsieur Ibrahim is a nonjudgmental, spiritual man who finds beauty in his Quran and keeps that beauty in his heart at all times, and his connection with this drifting young Jewish man gives Momo’s life meaning and roots while still broadening his horizons, both literally and figuratively.

The religions of the two characters impact the story very little. Momo and his father appear to be secular Jews, and Monsieur Ibrahim’s Sufi Muslim beliefs are important to him but are flexible and nonjudgmental enough to allow him to show kindness and appreciation for prostitutes, as well as a desire and willingness to understand the beauty in other religions’ houses of worship, to which he takes Momo on field trips. But some have chosen to read a lot more meaning into the fact that the characters are of differing religions than actually exists in the movie. There will always be those who cannot handle a story of kindness between people of differing beliefs.

There is some argument on the internet among a few viewers of the film who dislike the fact that Momo’s Jewish father is so unlikeable and careless about the boy, and that Momo’s true teacher and father figure is a Muslim. They have chosen to read anti-Jewish sentiment into the story which I do not believe exists. My take on the film is shared by the vast majority of people who have seen it, apparently, but a couple of outspoken critics find the idea that a film that shows a sympathetic Muslim and an unsympathetic Jew must therefore have a message of hidden hatred of Jews, as if art can never show people of one religion or another having unattractive characteristics without painting all of their ethnicity or religion as bad. This sort of sweeping condemnation has as its basis a sort of bigotry of its own, and assumes that viewers are too stupid to recognize that an individual character does not have to represent an entire ethnic group.

I had no idea that Omar Sharif could give a performance of such subtlety and beauty; he was perfectly cast in the role and he brought much of his own personal experience to it. I always think of Sharif in his blockbuster days, from “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago” and “Funny Girl,” in which he gave fine and capable performances, but none of which allowed him moments of introspection. His international playboy persona didn’t help me to believe him capable of the sort of intimate gestures and nuanced emotions that flash across his face in this role. The DVD commentary by Sharif is thoughtful and articulate as well. I love getting a whole new perspective on an artist after having my eyes opened to his talents and possibilities. This film was a very pleasing surprise.

Assemblages

Acrylic Paintings

Drawings