Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Re-reading Xaipe by e.e. cummings

I originally posted this over at Goodreads, but thought I'd post my waffling on here too, to make up for the sudden dearth of blogging!

e.e. cummings has been my favourite poet since high school. I carry a 'selected poems' around in my handbag (for emergencies), but it's always interesting to revisit a whole book, rather than just what someone else thought was a 'best of'. You get standout poems that don't make it into other collections, alongside lesser ones. Xaipe (pronounced "Khai-er-ree" to rhyme with 'fiery') means 'rejoice' in Greek, and the collection is often movingly joyous.

Cummings sometimes gets accused of being sentimental, deliberately impossible to read, and even casually racist. I can see how he could be read thus.

But I think his playfulness rescues him from sentimentality (I adore his poems about children):

if a cheerfulest Elephantangelchild should sit

(holding a red candle over his head

by a finger of trunk,and singing out of a red

book)on a proud round cloud in a white high night

where his heartlike ears have flown adorable him

self tail and all(and his tail's red christmas bow)

--and if,when we meet again,little he(having flown

even higher)is sunning his penguinsoul in the glow

of a joy which wasn't and isn't and won't be words

while possibly not(at a guess)quite half way down

to the earth are leapandswooping tinily birds

whose magical gaiety makes your beautiful name--

i feel that(false and true are merely to know)

Love only has ever been,is,and will ever be,So

His impossibility - shredded/recombined words and absurd punctuation litters his poems - suits the way I read poetry. I just read it headlong, straight through the first time, not pausing over words, punctuation or to try think or match up the parentheses. And interestingly when I go back for a second look, the image I've got the first time around usually still stands up. Try it yourself:

the little horse is newlY

Born)he knows nothing,and feels

everything;all around whom is

perfectly a strange

ness(Of sun

light and of fragrance and of

Singing)is ev

erywhere(a welcom

ing dream:is amazing)

a worlD.and in

this world lies:smoothbeautifuL

ly folded;a(brea

thing a gro




Cummings himself responded to the racist controversy (mainly around his line "a kike is the most dangerous") in typically cryptic fashion:

'Cummings' "Good American point," as he told Allen Tate, was "that the kike isn't(helas) a Jew..." (but is an invention of Gentile society).' (quote from the inner flyleaf of Xaipe).

I loved revisiting Xaipe. It's flawed and joyous and sometimes extremely funny:

o to be in finland
now that russia's here)

swing low

sweet ca



(pass the freedoms pappy or

uncle shylock not interested

Additionally, when I re-read it, a copy of poem by Gwendolyn Brooks that I had been trying to remember for ages (When You Have Forgotten Sunday: The Love Story) fell out - I'd been using it as a bookmark! Brilliant.

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