The Erotic Poems of E. E. Cummings
By The Editors on 2.17.10
Editor’s note: For more erotic poems by E. E. Cummings, check out Erotic Poems, or learn more about E. E. Cummings erotic poetry by reading the Top Ten Most Unexpected Common Terms and Phrases in E. E. Cummings Erotic Poems. And, while you’re here, why not subscribe to Poems Out Loud if you enjoy poetry?
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Originally meant to shock the Puritanical sensibilities of the 1920s, Cummings’s poems of sexual and romantic love remain just as fresh and provocative today. The fifty poems included in Erotic Poems (all originally published in Cummings’s Complete Poems) are accompanied by twelve drawings by the poet himself which were recently featured in a slideshow on The Daily Beast. Poems Out Loud decided we’d call in the experts to take a close look at these erotic poems and report back on their findings. David Baker shows us how Cummings is in “so careful a rush”, Patricia Smith takes the express to Chicago, and Ann Townsend introduces the Grape-Vine Lady.
Is there a poet sexier than E. E. Cummings? At least in the pantheon of erotic love poets, Cummings stands at the front alongside Sappho, Whitman, and Dickinson, each in his or her distinctive way. In our day, poets as different as Marilyn Hacker, Carl Phillips, and Sharon Olds learn from his rich sensual methods and rhetoric. It’s not just the recurring erotic narrative of his poems, all those lovers and breathing bodies and entwined love songs, but it’s also Cummings’s fabulous insistence on the erotic essence of poetry itself—the music and shaping of the art—that makes him constantly sensual, such a flirt, such a convincing and true lover.
Cummings’s very forms woo us. Sometimes his love poems are dramatic scenes (“raise the shade / will youse dearie? / rain / wouldn’t that // get yer goat”). Sometimes they are pure songs (“my lady is an ivory garden, / who is filled with flowers”). One poem of his (“the boys I mean are not refined”) was deemed to be so lewd that the first publishers consented to print it only in Cummings’s handwriting, not in typescript—and of course the handwritten version is much more visceral and human, much sexier.
Sometimes his poems give us whole, highly compressed histories. Here is all of one of them:
wild(at our first)beasts uttered human words —our second coming made stones sing like birds— but o the starhushed silence which our third's
In just three lines Cummings presents the story of evolution as well as the evolution of lovers’ language from speech to song to silence.
Cummings adores the sensory and physical delights of words, as he takes them apart, caresses them, exposes their syllables and their other most private parts: a solitary letter here, a piece there, a rounded or dangling segment usually hidden immodestly in the body of the whole word or line. We feel the music and see the painterly movement of his poems like no other poet’s work. How delighted we are when we remember, once more, how formally true he is, even in his most rapturous disfigurations. More than a quarter of Cummings’s poems are—if you reassemble and rebuild their ragged parts—sonnets. And isn’t that the lyric form of lovers? Even the little poem above, with its self-interruptions and coinages, its hesitations and hurry-ups, is crafted into ten-syllable lines with a single sure rhyme. He is old and new at once. He is in so careful a rush. That’s Cummings.
David Baker, author of several volumes of poetry and criticism, is the Thomas B. Fordham Chair of Creative Writing at Denison University and Poetry Editor of The Kenyon Review. His most recent collection is Never-Ending Birds (Listen to Baker read “Too Many” on Poems Out Loud). He lives in Granville, Ohio.
“there is between my big legs a crisp city…”
When I read that line from /vii/, l felt a distinct and definitive ripple, a stinging buzz, a blue electricity in my nether-regions. The city that came immediately to mind? Chicago—its gilt edges and unbridled stank, back alleys and harmonica moans, train tunnels and gunshots. The only way I survived that city was to swallow it whole, to feel it’s arrogant pout threatening my ribs and heartbeat, to firm its blade edges edging their way into muscle. But once I read e.e.‘s line, I knew right away where Chicago lived, in that landscape bordered by my rambling hips. “…the streets beautifully writhe…all the houses terribly tighten/upon your coming”: I easily feel what he felt, a teeming metropolis rattled by weather—friction-fueled heat, a sudden absence of wind, a rain with a beauteous stink. “…you feel the streets of my city with children,” life where there was no life.
What can I say when I’ve said that this poem pulled me away from my chair, down a hall and into my husband’s study, there I tapped him lightly on the shoulder. “Yeah, babe?,” he said in the crime-fiction writer way of his, without moving his eyes from the computer screen. I answered simply: “I’d like to hotly shove the lovingness of my belly against you.”
And just like that, it was on. But we didn’t move to the bedroom. We settled on a trip to Chicago.
Patricia Smith is a poet, teacher, performance artist, and author. She is a Cave Canem faculty member and has served as the Bruce McEver Chair in Writing at Georgia Tech University. Her fifth book of poetry, Blood Dazzler, was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for Poetry. For more information, go to wordwoman.ws.
In May of 1919, Scofield Thayer, E. E. Cummings’s dear friend and patron, writes a letter to his friend in which he narrates a recent journey to Chicago to visit the offices of the Dial. Thayer, as it happened, served as both literary advisor and financial patron for this distinguished magazine, and had brought along a group of Cummings’s poems to show the editors. “Your sordid verses are now profaning the office-building gentility of the Dial,” he writes. Martyn Johnson, the magazine’s editor, had admired several from this group of Cummings’s newest poems “but,” Thayer notes wryly, “as I had expected, was discretely silent as to my favorites ‘Kitty’ and ‘The Grape-Vine Lady.’” Most devoted readers of the poet are familiar with “Kitty,” with its police-blotter-style portrait of a young prostitute. But his readers are perhaps less familiar with the poem that Thayer nicknamed “The Grape-Vine Lady.” “My girl’s tall with long hard eyes” is the second poem that profaned the civilized offices of the Dial; it is perhaps my favorite of Cummings’s erotic poems.
Like many of the verses in Erotic Poems, “My girl’s tall…” raised eyebrows when it was initially published in Tulips and Chimneys. Even as late as 1938, when Cummings was preparing the manuscript for his Collected Poems, his editors hesitated at the inclusion of “My girl’s tall…” But, as Richard Kennedy, Cummings’s biographer, tells it, “the Harcourt lawyers finally gave their opinion that none of the poems were going to invite prosecution.” I laughed when I first read that sentence; it seems so unlikely now, in an age where very little shocks us, and where the possibility that a poem might prompt an outraged lawsuit seems remote indeed.
Yes, like many of Cumming’s poems, it’s a sonnet. Yes, it masterfully uses the sonnet form as both a template and storyboard for seduction. In the poem’s octave the lovers assess each other, and in the sestet they leap in to bed; the poem ends in a tangle of lovemaking. It’s speedy from beginning to end. But what’s really engaging, for me, is that this isn’t a poem of praise of the feminine, not exactly. Her hands are big, and strong. She’s tall. In this seduction, she takes the lead. Carpe diem, the poet says. Lots of sonnets talk of seizing the day, but only rarely is it the woman who’s doing the seizing. Cummings praises her “long hard body filled with surprise / like a white shocking wire.” She is alive, tough, electric. And not sweet. When they “gravely go to bed,” their sex has the air of fierce desperation. After all, with her “thin legs just like a vine / that’s spent all of its life on a garden-wall, / and is going to die,” she has no time to waste. She’s passionate, she’s angry, she takes him to bed. His words tell us this, and more. The poem contains not only praise, but an equal sense of awe. This woman scares him a little, and he likes it.
Ann Townsend is the author of Dime Store Erotics and The Coronary Garden, and is the editor (with David Baker) of Radiant Lyre: Essays on Poetry. She directs the creative writing program at Denison University, and lives and works on a small farm in Ohio, where she is currently at work on her third collection of poems. For more information, go to AnnTownsend.com.