Thursday, July 7, 2011

e.e. cummings' [love is more thicker than forget]

Yesterday's Poem of the Day at the Poetry Foundation was a great little cummings poem entitled "[love is more thicker than forget]," which originally appeared in Poetry magazine in 1939.  It's a very typical cummings piece with lots of wordplay, syntax play, and some breaking of the rules, so to speak, but it is equally typical that for all that entertainment, it's also meaningful: love ain't got no rhyme or reason and, when rightly felt, easily subsumes us.

The poem is composed of 4 quatrains written in an ABAB common verse, a ballad form used by many poets of the past (and of the present and future?) including Dickinson (who used a true ballad stanza of ABCB and to whom I will return to later).  This easy, consistent meter and rhyme scheme gives the poem a sing-song like quality, which adds to its fun--at least to this contemporary ear--and keeps the stanzas in neat little digestible packages.  cummings also employs a significant amount of alliteration, sometimes stretching the device across two lines, as he does with the "TH" sound in the poem's opening--"love is more thicker than forget/ more thinner than recall"--and sometimes squeezing it into a single line as he does here with "M"--"love is more mad and moonly."  In brief, soundPLAY is throughout.

But for all the play, there's some meat to the poem, too.  For all those comparisons--love is more than, love is less than, etc.--cummings' descriptions of love are unique and not at all inaccurate.  We all feel it, but who can describe it precisely? It's an irrational, gut feeling that cannot be precisely compartmentalized and explained; nevertheless, we all know it when we feel it--lust/love confusions aside.  Burn's "O my Luve's like a red, red rose" is nice but quaint.  I think I prefer the euphoric silliness of cummings' descriptions.

I prefer two of his descriptions most of all, and they are contained in the second and fourth stanzas respectively:
it is more mad and moonly
and less it shall unbe
than all the sea which only
is deeper than the sea

it is most sane and sunly
and more it cannot die
than all the sky which only
is higher than the sky

A few cool things happen here.  Although every stanza is an echo of every other because of the demands of the form, these two are more exact, which gives the last stanza punch and the poem closure.  "Moonly" (female) and "sunly" (male) are a nice pair, given the poem's theme, and of course the repetition of "only" helps bind the stanzas together.  It's interesting, too, each of those instances state how one thing and only one thing is more or less than itself: only the sea is deeper than the sea, and only the sky is higher than the sky. Is there a better metaphor for describing love at its largest ineffability?

But what I most enjoy about this poem is its reference in these stanzas to Emily Dickinson's "The Brain—is wider than the sky—". In this piece, Dickinson writes about the powers of the imagination, using both sky and sea in the way--more or less--that cummings does to describe love.  Substitute love for the brain in the Dickinson poem, and it still makes perfect sense (although the brain is much more Dickinson...). As to the power of either, both poets more or less have the same to say, illustrating how closely linked these two pieces are, though they were written maybe...80 years apart.

So, for all his unique cleverness, cummings' is a pilferer. Who was it who said "mediocre writers borrow, great writers steal"?  Eliot? Yet again that adage rings true.

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