For reasons too complicated to get into, I’ve been spending a lot of time downstairs, working at the kitchen table, instead of up in my bedroom, working from bed. It’s an adjustment. Definitely less private. Don’t have all my books and my devices around me. But it’s also had good effects on my energy levels! Turns out staying upright is a good idea, just like everybody has always said.
My poetry reading continues apace. Last night I read a collection of poems by E.E. Cummings (who it turns out always capitalized his own name, even though he rarely used capital letters in his poetry). The poems are so modern! The language and sentiments seem startlingly ahead of their time. Actually most poets wouldn’t use these syntactic and typographical tricks even today. That’s true of most modernism, obviously. Contemporary authors write more like Chekhov than they do like James Joyce, which has the paradoxical effect of making Tolstoy seem modern and Chekhov seem dated.
I think what makes E.E. Cummings work well is a strong sense of rhythm. The diction in his poems is quite simple, and he clearly has a good ear. His line breaks also work extremely well, even when they’re placed rather idiosyncratically.
I like all the usual of his poems, but here’s one of the less-known that I also liked.
of all the blessings which to man
kind progress doth impart
one stands supreme i mean the an
imal without a heart.
Huge this collective pseudobeast
(sans either pain or joy)
does nothing except preexist
its hoi in its polloi
and if sometimes he’s prodded forth
to exercise her vote
(or made by threats of somethings worth
than death to change their coat
-which something as you’ll never guess
in fifty thousand years
equals the quote and unquote loss
of liberty my dears-
or even is compelled to fight
itself from tame to teem)
still doth our hero contemplate
in raptures of undream
that strictly(and how)scienti
fic land of supernod
where freedom is compulsory
and only man is god.
Without a heart the animal
is very very kind
so kind it wouldn’t like a soul
and couldn’t use a mind
This poem only lightly touches on those themes, but the sentiment of some of Cummings’ later poems seems, quite frankly, a bit fascistic. It’s something you become a bit attuned to in writers from the 30s and 40s. The way they rail against mechanization and science and atheism and turning men into machines. Being against the symbology of totalitarian communism doesn’t make you a fascist, but fascists often spoke in those terms. They wanted to preserve the human spirit, preserve tradition and individuality and everything that was good and great in existing society.
But I still like the poem! Because there’s a reason that sentiment is powerful. And if communism means giving up on the family, giving up on religion, giving up on tradition, turning society upside down, and using care for the collective to brutalize the individual, then it’s not worth pursuing. And it does in fact mean those things, which is why I’m not a communist and am suspicious of statism in all its forms.
Anyway, some of the poems in the collection are much more objectionable than this. One of them is, frankly, one of the most homophobic poems I’ve ever read. It was worse than Eminem song. I actually couldn’t believe I was reading it correctly, but I’m pretty sure I am. See for yourself. I read it over and over, trying to discern if it had any aesthetic value or any meaning besides “gay people are gross”, and I still can’t say it does.
That being said, I loved this collection, and I purchased a hefty copy of his Complete Poems, whose arrival I’m looking forward to!
At the complete other end of the cultural spectrum, I also watched a Disney movie the other day: The Greatest Showman, starring Zac Efron, Hugh Jackman, Zendaya, and Michelle Williams. Something you might not know about me is that I’m a huge fan of Zac Efron. He’s a very versatile talent, with great comic timing. And not a bad dancer, either.
The movie is a musical version of the life of P.T. Barnum, the circus entrepreneur. It’s excellent. I was like, “Why am I crying during this song where the bearded lady, Lettie, sings about how she refuses to be kept down and shut out? It’s totally unaccountable! No parallels here to my situation at all!”
Technically speaking, the musical is a little thin. It suffers, as do many biopics, from the lack of an antagonist or even a strong antagonistic relationship. There’s no June Cash to play against Barnum’s Johnny Cash. And the divided plotline, with Efron and Jackman having essentially the same story (where they reject mainstream society and embrace circus life) is too much. Zendaya and Michelle Williams are both short-changed, despite being excellent. Rebecca Ferguson comes in the middle and steals the show, as Swedish singer Jenny Lind, with a powerful, beautiful song about how no amount of success will ever satisfy her. On a purely technical level, they probably should’ve developed a friendship between Zendaya (a trapeze artist) and P.T. Barnum (to show his connection to the circus) and a rivalry between Lind and Lettie, and they should’ve found a little more for Michelle Williams to do. I don’t know…it moved very quickly, but none of the characters were developed: we wanted to see how they lived, we wanted more friendship, more sense that they had some sort of life. It felt simultaneously over-packaged and too-loose. Als
But the musical still made me cry, so there, and I’m happy it was a surprise hit (grossing five or six times its budget while in theaters). I watched it on Disney Plus.