So, I guess the fact that I am posting on this blog means I’m learning some stuff! That’s pretty cool. I’ve started this process exactly how I anticipated: with my nose in a book and, for better or for worse, perpetually irritating my roommate to tell him “just one more really cool thing about e.e. cummings I swear it’s the last one but it’s so interesting.” These first two weeks of the project are, for me, a time to get organized and get up to speed on two things. The first is e.e. cummings himself and how to better understand his writing style, and the second is the recent history of the American art song (though I’ve already drawn up a rough list of the specific songs I will be looking at). The idea is that, once I have a background in where we’ve been musically, I can take what I know of that tradition and combine it with what I’ve come to understand about e.e. cummings’ poetry in terms of visual orthography, thematic content, “ungrammar,” etc. This will let me set up some unifying ways to examine how text interacts with and informs the songs that I’m studying, and, in turn, what that says about the contemporary American art song and composer. Easy as pie, right?
I’ve been focusing on the first of these two broad areas for now, as I managed to immediately get sucked into a book written by Norman Friedman, a literary critic of cummings’ time. He was interested in why people, amateurs and critics alike, seemed to really enjoy and take well to cummings’ poetry, and yet little had been written about him in comparison to other living poets. I am particularly excited about this book because it was written while cummings was still alive and, thus, is informed partially by direct contact with the poet himself. To be honest, I read the whole thing cover to cover already and am starting to try to come up with ways to connect what I’ve learned to the songs I’ll be studying. Some highlights are to come, somewhat for my own organization as I embark on eight weeks of working with his poetry… but also because I’m a nerd and think this stuff is just really, really cool.
Cummings created a poetic persona and then very deliberately morphed himself into this persona. He went through war, prison, hunger, etc. but none of that makes it into his poetry regularly, if at all. Rather, his speaker “is completely free of them, busy as he is with songs of joy” (10). His perspective comes from a sort of transcended, enlightened state in which he leaves behind the concerns and anxieties of everyday life in favor of praising without any doubts life’s natural details: nature, love, capacity for growth, and so on.
Cummings, as a man:
(would rather make than have and give than lend
-being through failures born who cannot fail
having no wealth but love,who shall not spend
my fortune(although endlessness should end)
The speaker of lyric poems frequently does one of the following: praise, blame, persuade, react, describe, reflect, or argue. As cummings is not only a poet but a painter, it isn’t particularly surprising that descriptions, reflections, and praises make up the bulk of his work, followed by satires and persuasions (in the sense of, “let me persuade you that you are the most beautiful woman and that you are unique in all the world,” rather than a persuasion as a call to action). “Cummings is most interested in absolute accuracy, and in his effort to be true to the act of perception as it occurs he has developed many of the techniques for which he is so well known” (40).
I love Friedman’s description of cummings’ neutral voice: “sweet, soft, warm, and moist vocabulary… [whose] physical qualities are fluidity, mellifluousness, and musicality” (63). I think it is his immense capacity for joy and contentedness (especially among the angsty or troubled poems we frequently read among the classics), combined with his amazingly melodic writing, which made me love his poetry in the first place. Cummings also uses a conglomeration of vocabularies. He has this “neutral” voice, and then pulls from extremes of formal or archaic vocabularies and burlesque or vulgar ones. These deviations are largely a product of his propensity for praise and satire respectively.
So, I’ve raised a lot of questions in reading this book, and I do feel more ready to tackle some of the texts I’ll be working with. I’m also realizing, though, that just because I’ve got all of this new knowledge about cummings informing my interpretations, doesn’t mean that the composers who set these texts do. This isn’t to say that I am accusing them of being ill-informed about the poetry, but ultimately what they see or hear in the poems does not necessarily have anything to do with the context of these poems themselves. Perhaps a composer is inspired just by the melodies in the word choice, or the descriptions of springtime.
Ultimately, I’m studying the music. This music, though, is a product of a collaboration between the texts of e.e. cummings and contemporary American composers, not the poems themselves. So, I’ve been working on separating what I’ve learned into categories: interesting facts that help me to analyze the poetry on a deeper level (which are important but not always relevant), and equally interesting facts which allow me to create categories and look for commonalities among the texts which composers select. For example: do they mainly pick poems of praise because of their descriptive qualities, or are the “actions” of poems set to music often varied? Do composers tend to shy away from or gravitate towards certain types of visual representations in their poems? Are there certain words or themes which are repeated among multiple composers’ works, and if so, are they set similarly or differently?
Up next for me, I’m beginning the first of three volumes of Ruth Friedberg’s “American Art Song and American Poetry,” which should hopefully give me some context regarding the trajectory and traditions of American song. I’ve already dived into the chapter on text setting in the early part of the 20th century, and let me just say, it is awesome.
Until next time!