Thursday, July 28, 2005

Cummings Faux Pas?

While by in large the Disability Studies movement has provided a service to literature in general through its literary archeology, there are times when like any missionary movement its zealousness carries it just a little too far into the realm of fancy for a credible reading of a text. This would be harmless enough, if the implications of the reading were not that the artist is somehow being prejudicial or short-sighted. Such a missionary reading of e. e. cummings well known “In Just-" poem occurs in Sharon Snyder’s article “Infinities of Form.” Snyder appears convinced that somehow cumming’s lame balloon man is an outsider who is someone set apart from all of the “undifferentiated” children who are enjoying spring together and that cummings can only resolve the problem by transforming this figure with a disability into a figure of myth – namely Pan.

For me, Snyder’s telling phrase is “The poem takes three separate runs at the disabled figure…” Cummings can be accused of many things, but writing by the seat of his pants is not one of them. Anyone who has taken the time to examine even a few of his poems knows, that cumming’s work is carefully wrought and that each word is exactly where cummings wants it to be. His poems do not “take runs” at anything. He sees the whole poem as a unified picture and I believe he means the reader to see it the same way. He is not using the poem as a sort of psychotherapy to work through an issue.

I won’t pretend to know just what cummings means to say, but I will take a run at an interpretation which I hope is a bit fairer. I believe the poet is giving us a feeling for the mythic joy and renewal that comes to us each spring; it’s a joy that children in particular seem to be tuned to. Pan is an integral part of this process and is there (in each stanza) with us – quite the opposite of an alienated figure.

Just why Snyder wants to set up a straw man here, I won’t try to guess. As any tele-evangelist knows, you can prove anything you want using the Bible. You are sure to find a passage that supports you. The same is the true of poetry. There are plenty of real writers and issues in literature to be unearthed by Disability Studies scholars without having reinterpretations that belong on Swift’s flying island of Laputa. Such interpretations do the advancement of Disabilty Studies in literature no service.


Anonymous Evonne Acevedo said...

Can't believe I'm just now encountering this post, but want to say you're ABSOLUTELY correct -- Snyder has grossly underestimated Cummings's intent. I won't defend his views on disability as a whole, of course -- I never knew the guy, and chances are he harbored all sorts of bigotry -- but I'll certainly take a stab at defending his poetic device.

The impulse to take any disabled character and turn him into a mythic/tragic/pedagogic foil occurs because folks like to reveal the stereotypes they harbor -- because they're just dying to vent their prejudices in a "safe" forum -- under the guise of being exceptionally observant. It happens frequently in the context of racial prejudice; I can't tell you how often I've heard someone say something in "exclusive" company that was incredibly ignorant and offensive and then try to reinforce it by insisting "I'm just saying what everyone else here is thinking". Unfortunately, in the context of disability, more often than not the ignorant, offensive thing IS what everyone else is thinking -- and in the context of poetry, an observation that so neatly pigeonholes a character can too easily be viewed as "fresh" thinking. Because it's easy to say, "Ah -- that's it. How simple, how right." But I find it terribly boring. And Cummings wouldn't be caught -- dead or otherwise -- being simple, right OR boring.

Because Cummings tends to create paroxysms of halt and rush throughout his poetry, a very common misconception is that the writing itself is slapdash. But it's quite true that anyone who has studied Cummings -- or, for heaven's sake, tried to emulate his execution of near-total saturation, of encapsulating all the emotions and impressions and associations and intellectual twinges into a physical spasm that is as close to real experience as a poet has ever executed, knows damn well that he's not playing around. The craft involved in his poetry is painstaking enough to bring tears -- and to suggest that any part of his work is half-assed is in itself . . . well, half-assed. Cummings might agree that his poems were a series of attempts and failures, but only because he cared so dearly about the recreation of experience that anything but the experience itself would have fallen short in his perception. And he'd be highly insulted that his "lame" figure received such a one-dimensional, pedestrian -- and, frankly, lazy -- interpretation after all his hard work.

And yes, I think this is a case of "Ooh -- a disabled character! There's no doubt he's portrayed offensively . . . and here's how, see?"

And of course, Snyder's mission is honorable. But in this case she picked the wrong guy to simplify.

So thanks. You rock. I'll be back.

August 18, 2006  

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