We know Cummings for his unconventional punctuation, the way he smashes words and punctuation together, and the way he moves words around to suit himself. Even though some of the meaning comes from these strange moves, that peculiar style can distract us from seeing how powerful his poems are. I picked this one for Valentine’s Day. Feel free to copy it for your sweetie.

How do you say, “I can’t find words to say how much I love you?” You can do it like this. You begin by confusing things, the way romantic love can confuse our thinking: Cummings starts with “somewhere,” so you think you’re going somewhere, but then he goes on “I have never travelled.”

Cummings gets under the surface, where the feelings are. His love has taken him “gladly beyond / any experience.” Everything about his love is so subtle, her every move holds him; or, the opposite, her every move is too near to be touched.

Even when he closes himself down, she opens him, petal by petal the way spring opens flowers. If she wishes to close him down, she does that too, but as carefully as snow falls, shutting the heart of the flower.

Yet, after all the cosmic power he attributes to his love, he says, “nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals / the power of your intens e fragility.” Her power, for him, is actually located in her fragility. He takes his images of her out to the far reaches—she is the world. Her textures and colors call forth death and forever with each breathing.

My note about this: I don’t think he’s being particularly sexist here. Power is often in intense fragility — no matter what gender — a vulnerability, the ability to be hurt, to feel the stings of the world.

Thinking, then, of the action of breathing, he asks, what is it about her that seems to close and open? He makes her pretty much the action of the whole universe itself, its expansion and contraction.

Eyes come up in love poems a lot. Think of Shakespeare: “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” Shakespeare also wrote that the “eyes are the windows to the soul.” Here, Cummings says “your eyes have their silence,” and what they say to him is “deeper than all roses.” The whole poem seems to celebrate the silence of communication. What can only be said with gesture.

The last line is one of my favorite in all love poems: “nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands.” The rain touches us with tiny drops, small hands. I ‘m jealous of that great comparison. After comparing her to all things cosmic, this concreteness, her actual hands, comes as kind of a relief. And perfect in some way it’s hard to explain.

Why would a poet want to mess with language in the way Cummings does? It’s one way of helping the reader see with fresh eyes. The critic M.L. Rosenthal said that Cummings “succeeded masterfully in splitting the atom of the cute commonplace.”

“No modern poet to my knowledge,” S.I. Hayakawa wrote in Poetry, “has such a clear, childlike perception as E. E. Cummings — a way of coming smack against things with unaffected delight and wonder.”

That’s it, for me. The clear delight and wonder that radiate from Cumming’s poems. He has been called “one of the greatest lyric poets in our language.”

Fleda Brown of Traverse City is professor emerita, University of Delaware, and past poet laureate of Delaware. For more of her work, and to see her website, go to www.fledabrown.com.

 

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond

any experience,your eyes have their silence:

in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,

or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me

though i have closed myself as fingers,

you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens

(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me,i and

my life will shut very beautifully,suddenly,

as when the heart of this flower imagines

the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals

the power of your intense fragility:whose texture

compels me with the colour of its countries,

rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes

and opens;only something in me understands

the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)

nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

— E.E. Cummings (1894-1962), from Complete Poems:1904-1962,

ed. George J. Firmage, Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1979