Redemptive rebel, E. E. Cummings

One thinks of him as a rebel: E. E. Cummings, the poet who wrote of himself as lower-case i, scattered punctuation like spilled pepper across the page, unhinged his sentences and shattered his words, and generally set about to appall his contemporaries.

And so he was a rebel, not only in style but in substance. A sharp-tongued satirist, he pilloried the foibles of his age in words so crisp that they caused the polite to gasp and the worldly to guffaw. He had no patience with hypocrisy and no tolerance for drabness: life, to him, was a thing both honest and bright, and he shot off his barbs wherever he saw counterfeits of these qualities. Sometimes tart, sometimes crude, he was often profound and rarely cowardly. If he erred, it was when his feelings ran helter-skelter, out of earshot of his reason. Even that, however, did not happen by accident: for, as he said in one of his poems, ''feeling is first.''

Yet behind the pungency, undergirding the feeling, were two things often missed by those readers who fancy all artists to be nothing but seething pots of emotion. One was his intelligence. Like most comedians (and he was, essentially, a comic writer) he brought to his observations of the world a tremendous insight and an almost scholarly fascination with language. The other was his sense of great affection. Not only did he write some of the 20th century's most genuine lyric poetry - no easy task in an age bent on self-analysis and shelled over with cynicism. He also had, behind his reclusive behavior, a great sense of love for what redeemed humanity could become.

His poetry, in many ways, is the chart of his search for a redeemer - for something that would save a world made ugly by the two world wars through which he lived, and made sordid by the materialism that spawned them. In his early years he sought salvation in love poetry. As he progressed he came to seek it more and more in a sense of deity, in a supreme source of goodness that appears in his poetry as everything from a vague notion of nature's beneficence to a vision of something very like the Christian's God.

The poem reproduced here is one of the great waymarks of his search. It stands toward the mature end of his career, in a book of poems from 1950 titled ''XAIRE'' - a Greek word meaning ''rejoice'' or ''greetings,'' pronounced (as he wrote to an inquirer) ''KAI(as in Kaiser) rea(as in ready).'' It is a parable: and true to its genre, it is as expansive of meaning as the reader will let it be.

On its surface, it is a tale of a tinker, an itinerant ''mender/ of things'' (as he elsewhere called the figure of the scissors-grinder) who was once a common sight on city streets. Like the clowns and bums Cummings loved, the tinker lives on the periphery of society, an apparently homeless wanderer who is at home everywhere. But this poem is only partly about the tinker. For the figure here is that of ''the only man,'' the redeemer who ''sharpens every dull'' and hones the ''very oldest lives.'' Significantly, the word knives is missing here: for although both the subject and the rhyme make us think of it, this is a poem about the larger topic, ''lives.''

And what, exactly, is the nature of his redemptive act? It is primarily verbal - a cleansing of the life through a revitalization of the language. Sharpening ''is to am,'' he files the general, impersonal sense of the verb into the specific relevance of the first person; sharpening ''say to sing,'' he elevates the merely prosaic to the truly melodic.

Nor is his work mere craftsmanship divorced from deeper meanings. The salvation he brings depends on truth, as he sharpens wrong into right. He has come not for money, nor fame, nor personal satisfaction. His purpose: to make lives ''keen,'' a word Cummings would have known to mean nifty or wonderful as well as sharp. Nor does this redeemer leave us where he found us. For ''if our sun is gone'' - if, in Cummings's symbolism, we have overcome the harshness of daylight and mere human reasoning - we will continue to hear his bell, reminding us to seek the more gentle and poetic moonlight.

Who, then, is this ''only man''? Is he the Christian Messiah, cast in street garb like a figure out of Godspell? Is he the poet, who remakes the world by recasting its language? Or is he ''only'' a man, nothing more? Whoever he is, he has come to teach us many things: that wrong is only a blunted sense of right , that dullness itself can be healed, and that they who listen (how fitting that they are all female, like the women at the cross in the gospels) are they who will hear the bell, come out of their protective houses, and willingly bring whatever most needs honing. This honing of dull things is full of hope: it is a regeneration far indeed from the condemnation of an earlier poem, which ended ''the godless are the dull and the dull are the damned.''

And as for the old canard (''But is it poetry?''), one need only read the pulse of its meter and sound the chiming of its near-rhyme (''dull'' and ''bell, '' for example) to satisfy the thirst for conventional prosody. But there is more here than mechanics. The poetry lies in the message. The poem sounds a chord as old as literature itself, telling of the mysterious stranger who comes, works his healing miracles, and departs. And it talks, in the end, about literature. For it is a poem about the way words work - about the process whereby human communication, grown faded and wan in the sunlight of mere logic, is refreshed by the reflected light of intuition and feeling. It is also a kind of self-portraiture - a poem about light, done by a man who, though few realized it, spent more time painting than writing.

Ultimately, it is the work of a poet ''reminding with his bell'' that we, too , in our very oldest lives and language, can be renewed. These days, there are few finer things for a poet to say. who sharpens every dull here comes the only man reminding with his bell to disappear a sun and out of houses pour maids mothers widows wives bringing this visitor their very oldest lives one pays him with a smile another with a tear some cannot pay at all he never seems to care he sharpens is to am he sharpens say to sing you'd almost cut your thumb so right he sharpens wrong and when their lives are keen he throws the world a kiss and slings his wheel upon his back and off he goes but we can hear him still if now our sun is gone reminding with his bell to reappear a moon E. E. Cummings

From ''Complete Poems: 1913-1962,'' by E. E. Cummings. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1972.

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