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95 poems (poetry)

By e.e. cummings
New York: Harbrace Paperbound Library, 1958
ISBN # 0-15-665950-6
95 poems, pages not numbered

Comments by Bob Corbett
June 2013

This work was first published in 1950, just 12 years before his death. I found it to be a very mixed bag of exciting and typical poems from cummings, (I’ll use his preferred non-capitalization of his name) and poems I found less exciting and challenging.

A large number of the poems use some of the devices for which he is best known – unusual typographical layout, non-standard punctuation, usage and spelling and other violations of standard grammar. cummings was trying to say somethings with these strategies, somethings that lay in the structure rather than the language itself. When this succeeded it can be quite fascinating. At other times it seems a bit contrived.

A find example of one of these structural tactics is the first poem of this collection –

# 1 (The poems are not named, only numbered, and there is no consecutive pagination in the volume. The book’s title, 95 poems, has only the numbers of the 95 poems. A significant number of them are more than a page long, but there are no other numbers to suggest the full number of pages.)

The poem, as he has it presented is:





Were I to tear it apart and put it into more familiar form, the poem would read:

The “1” is the # 1 -- first poem.

“A leaf falls


cummings is emphasizing, very successfully I think, the visual manner in which a leaf falls. It sort of flutters down, normally separated from other leaves so that its fall is an individual event. It doesn’t follow the pattern of the normal rule of nature since it is so light it flits and zigs and zags as do the words on the page. There are gaps in the rate of speed as well.

No two leaves fall quite the same way, and cummings chooses to emphasize this by the creation of a word to describe this process “oneliness.” For the purposes of the poem it does seem more exciting and grabbing than a more tradition “uniquely” or some such word.

I think there is some support that he has this notion of visual image in mind since it isn’t only leaves that fall this way. He returns to this device and particular tactic in poem 4 which reads in part:

“. . . a snowflake twi

its way to now


While he again uses the fluttering manner of the flake’s fall, there is a marvelous word duality in breaking up the “nowhere” to emphasize that at the same time, one fallen is it “now here.”

There are poets who like rhymes, and others cleave to meter, some like esoteric references and so on, all tactics which change the nature of poetry from that of standard prose. It just seems so unique in the mode in which cummings presents poetry that it does call attention to itself.

In the main, I think it does enhance the unique and poetic nature of his work, though now and again I want to say: Okay, I am having fun with these poems which often make me see things beyond just the words themselves, but, after a while it does get to be a bit gimmicky.

I have read quite a few other works of cummings in the past, and I must admit this volume was not quite as rewarding as some of the earlier volumes. Perhaps cummings was nearing the end of his strongest creativity.

Poem 19 is instructive. If one reads it several times, once, first, as is, then read first that which is not in parenthesis, then read that which is, and finally, read it whole words by whole words. It seems to grow on you.


are (th


The two parts read:

Unmoving are you asleep
Bee in the only rose

cummngs seems to be trying to capture both notions at the exact same time which normal sentence structure won’t allow

1. The unmoving bee, asleep
2. The fact that the bee is in a rose.

It seems another strong case for the fact that his fractured structure does reveal a somewhat different understanding and experience than normal language structure allows.

He often calls attention to the disparity between the structure of language which orders experience in an extremely limited manner, and yet living experiences embrace so much more.

Once one takes this cummings’ line of thinking, writing and reading, one realizes that cummings himself is limited or limits himself to mix 2 or at most 3 disparate experiences at once. Yet he points to this reality of the jumble of experience in contrast to the order of the written word.

Poems 45 and 47 are very lovely poems about children, presumably his own. They rival any sentimental and heartfelt poems about children which I have read.

Poem 59 raises the question – when Cummings is dealing with some larger philosophical idea he tends to do fewer things with distortion of form and comes closest to a more standard mode of presentation on paper:

when any mortal(even the most odd)

can justify the ways of man to God
i’ll think it strange that normal mortals can

not justify the way of God to man

Poem 87 is a rhyming poem and closer to ordinary language and form than most others. Yet it is quite lovely. He can do quite well when he chooses to write in more standard form.

Overall this was a delightful read. A few of the poems seem to be primarily for experimental purposes and didn’t do much to bring me to the sense that they were in anyway poetry.

However, others were very eye-opening on the limitations of standard language and bring to attention that the order and nature of language is sort of what a two-dimensional painting is to the three dimensional world – often a bit lacking and distorting. On the other hand, I doubt if many would “get” the full sense of what cummings’ poems do on a single read. There were 95 poems in the book and I, effectively read 200 to 300 poems, since I read most of them two or three times in different ways to garner the full sense of them – a process I found most worthwhile.

I would recommend the experience to anyone wishing to see language pushed to the edges in order to capture sense, beauty and meaning.

Bob Corbett


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