E.E. Cummings : the ecology of his poetry
Terblanche, Juan Etienne
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E.E. Cummings' modernist poetry roots itself in nature. That it has not received overt ecosemiotic ("ecocritical") attention is surprising. This thesis reads Cummings' poetic oeuvre as found in his Complete Poems (1994) with a view to its ecological (whole, naturally interpenetrating) scope and dynamics. It builds upon existing criticism of Cummings' natural view and nature poetry (Norman Friedman). Although it mainly adheres to a close reading of the poems themselves, it also makes use of secondary sources such as Cummings' prose, notes, painting, and letters, in support of the ecological argument. It also draws from a broad basis of sources including various strands of ecological discourse: especially "ecocriticism" (William Howarth) as well as cultural ecology, deep ecology, and -- on an interdisciplinary basis -- ecology proper (Michael Begon). The thesis incorporates texts on modernist orientalism (Eric Hayot) since it argues that Cummings' ecology and his unique version of Taoism radically inform one another. Because relatively few sources exist that relate modernist poetry to nature (Robert Langbaum) the thesis consults a variety of modernist criticisms (Jewel Spears Brooker) with a view to the relations between the modernist sign and its outside natural context. Drawing upon sources further a field (Umberto Eco) the thesis offers a theoretical overview of the complication of natural context in the modem mindset as found in mainstream modernist discourse, structuralism (A.J. Greimas), and post-structuralism (Jacques Derrida). Amounting to a "semiotic fallacy", such a broad semiotic complication of sign-nature relations accentuates the importance of Cummings' poetry which remains at once modern and deeply connected to nature. Against this broad background, and in exploration of a zone of between-ness -- between opposites such as culture versus nature and East versus West -- Cummings' poetry is read hermeneutically to infer its various ecological dynamics. The main questions that the thesis examines are: What is the scope of Cummings' poetic ecology? What are its dynamics? How did critics respond to it? What reciprocal light does it shed on the poetic ecologies of the mainstream modernist poets T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound? The thesis demonstrates that the extent of Cummings' poetic ecology is considerable: it involves his various poetic categories (such as lyricism, satire, and visual-verbal poems) from early to late in his career, as well as a gradual Taoist crisis in his development (more or less from the 1930s to the 1950s). A sequence of ecological dynamics from Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching are applied to Cummings' poetry, including humility (smallness and earthiness), flexibility (an osmotic semiosis), serendipity (or synchronicity), a singular ideogrammatic style (Nina Hellerstein), iconicity (Michael Webster), an open-ended cross-stitching of oppositional expectations, and "flow" or signs that open out contextualizing possibilities faster than the reader can close them down. As the thesis further shows, these dynamics ultimately centre on Cummings' third dimension or voice beyond static and entrenched opposites of the relational and oppositional mind. The exploration concludes with a concise examination of additional instances of the third voice such as a yin tendency (restoration of femaleness), followed by an ecosemiotic analysis of two key ecological poems, the leaf poem (“l(a”) and the hummingbird poem (“I/ never"). The latter acts as an osmotic mandala that carries the modernist sign into active and complete earth, with the reader acting as the creative and collaborating intermediary. The focus then shifts to the critical reception of this poetic ecology, and finds that influential critics (R.P. Blackmur) tended to misappropriate it as a form of non-intellectuality. For example, Cummings' ecological flexibility was perceived as childish sentimentality. The boundaries of Cummings' poetry were perceived not to be "hardened" or "objective" enough. These receptions were based on a particular mainstream modernist view of the intellect, informed by Eliot's objectified and ambivalent early stance. Due to this, critics tended to overlook or dismiss that central value of Cummings' poetry -- its ecology -- in favour of a more predominant and dualistic alienation from and even cynicism towards natural integrity. These in-depth revisitations reveal that Cummings' major minor status embodies an ecological achievement: his poetry managed to move between and beyond the overall dualistic mainstream modernist ecological dilemma that is marked by the major versus minor categorization. Based on this thorough exploration of the elusive ecological dynamism of Cummings' poetry and its critical reception, the thesis turns its focus to Eliot's and Pound's poetry. The early, major works such as The Waste Land (1922) are read from the perspective of Cummings' poetic ecology, informed by the knowledge that a deep-seated double-ness towards ecology would be expected in these major works. An analysis of the mainstream modernist objectification of the sign with its concomitant and sealed-off alienation from its outside context and nature follows - the focus is on selected texts such as "Prufrock", "Tradition and the Individual Talent", and the Cantos. Eliot's and Pound's respective searches for and achievements of a third voice are subsequently examined, as found (for example) in the DA sequence of The Waste Land, 'The Idea of a Christian Society", the Four Quartets, Cathay, and the "Pisan Cantos". Centring on this prevalent and underemphasized third voice, the thesis posits an ecological reconfiguration of Cummings', Eliot's, and Pound's respective modernist projects. It demonstrates that Cummings' poetic ecology is central to the other two poets in terms of this voice. In provisional conclusion the thesis calls for a critical shift towards a more intense engagement with "smaller" modernist poetries such as Cummings', with a view to an increasing understanding of the ubiquitous, complex, and sometimes complicating "green" layer of the modernist poetic palimpsest.
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