- March 21, 2014 at 12:30 pm #438602Hello,My chamber choir is working on Four Cummings Choruses by Vincent Persichetti. The texts are by the poet ee cummings. Sprinkled throughout are “&”s, since Persichetti is trying to stay true to ee cummings and has not changed the texts. I have thought there was not any big deal about the pronunciation of “&”—I was having my singers pronounce it “an” or more accurately “an’ ” but Tuesday a soprano asked if I wanted it “and” before the word “worlds”….sigh…..is there a rule I don’t know about?I have googled, youtubed and done other online research to see if I hear a difference but the spoken poems sound like “an” to me. I own a copy of ee cummings collected poems and have read the poem in question,aloud, myself, seeing if there was an internal rythme I wasn’t hearing with the music…doesn’t seem to be.Am I over thinking? Help!MarieMarch 22, 2014 at 9:39 am #438655I am a linguist, retired professor of English language and literature, and a choral singer. I often provide advice to various choruses on language matters. I hope this helps.Cummings was born in Cambridge, MA, and from the evidence of his recordings spoke with what can be casually described as a patrician Eastern Massachusetts dialect. (Think the Cabots and the Lodges here, not a Boston cop.) His articulation when reading is slow and careful, but not unnatural. I didn’t find any recordings of a poem with the ampersand, though my search was not exhaustive. But I think you would be quite safe treating the sign simply as an “and.” In that word he consistently pronounces the final “d” if the word comes before a vowel SOUND (e.g., a vowel or a [w]), but assimilated it with a following consonantal sound. In other words, he uses a careful oral variety of speech quite in keeping with the convention of the time that.recognized poetry as a somewhat elevated form.BTW, his linguistic changes are not as bizarre as they might seem at first. Basically he does two things: substitutes words from one asks to another (e.g., an adverb for a noun) or substitutes a paradigmaticly related word for another in a particular syntactic pattern. I wrote a short guide to his practices for one of my choruses a bit ago and will post it if there’s an interest.March 22, 2014 at 9:44 am #438656One error introduced by an overeager spell checker: the “one asks to another” in the last paragraph was and should be “one linguistic class to another.”March 22, 2014 at 3:22 pm #438680
Andrew MinearParticipantJeffrey,I’d be very interested in seeing your guide. I have done several settings of ee cumming poems with choirs over the years (including Persichetti), and there is always much lively debate among the singers about how to interpret what we are singing. Pronuncuation, however, never came up. I’m intrigued now about how we might approach vowel choices next time. Attempting an “Eastern Massachusetts dialect” would be a fun challenge. Thank you for sharing your expertise.-Andrew MinearMarch 22, 2014 at 8:46 pm #438696I think I’d like you to post this as well. I’ve done a few sets of ee cummings text choral works and never came across this question until Kari-my-soprano asked it. I love his poetry….had an English minor as an undergrad…..and am always looking for settings of his poetry. His “voice” in my mind’s ear, is child-like. I’d love to see your guide.Thanks!MarieMarch 23, 2014 at 3:46 pm #438734I am apparently bumping up against some internal limitatuion on thuis site because halfway through the formtting went crazy. So I’ve split it. Please note, this was written for a particular chorus preparing two specific poems. It is not thorough analysis of all cummings’ techniues. It is also pretty dense, packing into a couple pages something that would have taken a whole class period if presented orally. But if you have questions, come back with them.===================
Two e. e. cummings poemsHis spirituality: cummings was raised in a Unitarian family (his father an enchurched minister) and his spirituality is solidly in the rather complex set of traditions that have led to modern Unitarian-Universalism. Although the formal joining of the Unitarian and Universalist churches is only quite recent, there had been a great deal of overlap during the past 4 or 5 centuries, plus not a small amount of interaction with the Deist traditions whose adherents include the Founding Fathers of the US (Washington, Madison, Franklin, etc.) who were believers in a (rather distant) God but pointedly NOT Christian. (A side note: anyone who thinks our republic was founded as a “Christian nation” is simply not aware of the historical facts.)The “Unitarian” part of the conjoined title denotes a belief that the Sacred is the ultimately the same for every religion whose adherents seek meaning in something Holy beyond themselves. The “Universal” part is a belief that every human being shares the same kind of connection, even identity, with the Sacred—there is no specially “chosen people” and no individual or group is specifically excluded from that Sacredness. Beyond these fundamental assertions and a small set of basic ethical principles, UU is a non-creedal church. There are no “tests” for membership, such as those required beliefs listed in the Roman Credo all of us have sung so often, or in the acceptance of Jesus as one’s “personal Savior.”Thus, practically speaking, there is a very large range of beliefs espoused among individual UUs. (In the church we rehearse in, there are self-described Christian, Jewish and Moslem UUs; Buddhist and Zoroastrian UUs; plus Wiccans, agnostics, atheists, and no doubt some who would shun any label.) However, at the core of most UU congregations are common ethical standards and a spirit of inquiry and discovery—hence the basis for the joke that UU choirs are often a bit ragged because they are reading ahead to see if they agree with the text of their anthems.Nevertheless, one fairly common form of UUism is the kind of spirituality called Panentheism, which is an essentially nontheistic religion that acknowledges a pervasive Sacredness that is not centered in any one entity but in the Whole. The word’s etymology can be parsed as ‘god in everything’. (NB: this is not the same as Pantheism, which sees a multiplicity of individual gods, such as found in Hinduism.) Panentheists do, in fact, sometimes use terms such as “God” to refer to this pervasive Sacredness, because such terms already have an appropriately reverential resonance within the culture. However, even when used in this way, “God” (or the Lakota Wakan Tanka ‘Great Spirit’ you may know from Black Elk Speaks) actually denotes quite a different concept from the distinct entity called God in the three major monotheistic religions, whose very foundation depends inextricably from the separation or even estrangement of God and human beings.In short, all of us would inextricably be part of any Panentheist God, whereas a typical monotheistic God is a separate entity. We may focus on one aspect of such a monotheistic God but that is more a matter of looking at one attribute more intensely. The parallel here would be the same as the “Three Gods in One” doctrine of central Christianity. Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are distinct only as heuristic phenomena, viewable as one wills with one of those three “personalities” or as the unified Godhead (which means literally: ‘God-hood’ or ‘the condition of being God’). Cummings’ poem here, although using some unmistakable Jewish/Christian terminology, is fundamentally Panentheist.Although cummings’ innovative manipulation of language make his poems distinctively modern, his spirituality is actually much like that of the Metaphysical poets of the early seventeenth century, especially John Donne. As with Donne, we find common objects and images imbued with spiritual significance. Donne was Christian (first Protestant, then Catholic, at a time when those choices could literally cost one’s life) but the tendency to finding a greater meaning in ordinary things is something cummings and Donne share. However, dowever, espite his occasional use of terms like “God,” cummings’ work overall is more clearly Panentheist than monotheist, and that belief explains much of what his poems say, as I hope to demonstrate here.Finally, it is entirely within cummings’ UU tradition for you, should you choose, to give a traditional monotheistic slant to your reading of his texts, thinking “God,” “Allah,” “Jehovah,” or “Maheo,” although you would then be thinking somewhat more of your text than cummings’.His grammar: His basic bag of “tricks” is actually pretty simple. First, he will shift a word out of the grammatical constituent in which it normally would be found, typically resulting in a creative ambiguity that demands multiple interpretations. Second, he will often displace a word from its normally ordered place within a constituent, which causes us to rethink our reading. In both cases, the changes give a novel presentation, often a mark of successful poetry.Both techniques are found in the first sentence of the poem, quoted wholly just below. “Most” would normally be interpreted either as an adverb of intensity modifying the verb: “I thank you most (of all) for this amazing day” or modifying the adjective: “I thank you for this most amazing day.” But by shifting “most” to the place he has, he demands that we understand both meanings. Similarly, by shifting the unambiguously marked adverbial “greenly” to a position normally occupied by an adjective, he intimates a more active (more “verb-like) meaning that gives an intensity to the word. “Greenly” here might be paraphrased as “becoming more green”. He does this again with the use of the adverbial “illimitably” when an adjective form would be expected. These adverbials are more vibrant and intense than their corresponding adjectival forms would be in the same position.The second technique is in “the blue true dream of sky” where the meaning is not changed, but the presentation is strange and thus compelling. (The order of adjectives within an English noun phrase may look random but in fact we have rather strict rules for such things. Try changing the order around in this example phrase and see how odd the reformulations sound to you: “the little old discolored yellow ball.”)A third technique, shared by countless other creative users of language and thus not distinctive to cummings’ work, is word-play, often based on laying open a compound form so that its etymology is exploited: birthday => birth day, nothing => no thing.
Part one: “i thank You God”i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)March 23, 2014 at 3:53 pm #438735Part 2: The site for some reason is changing my text–substituting a diffefent font and not oberving the line breaks. So this is a tedious read. Sorry…
A thorough analysis of this poem would be awkward here, so I will simply outline some of the main thematic and grammatical features; if I am successful, you will be able to read more deeply on your own.
The Panentheist foundation is clear: not only is the “God” referenced here beyond limit and comprehension (indeed, even beyond imagination), but so is “everything which is natural,” the “great happening earth … which is infinite.” The first assertion is of course compatible with most monotheistic religions but the extension is not, although that would be standard Panentheism. Within this grand Holy Everything one may see particulars: the “greenly … trees and the true blue … sky,” but even here the mundane trees and sky are inextricably still implicated into the Holiness of Being, as indicated by “spirits” and “dream.” For us as human beings, the most important particular is ourselves, “lifted from the no of nothing” to being miraculously capable of “tasting touching hearing seeing breathing,” And those very sensual, physical capabilities are the “proof” of the ineffable, comprehensive Sacredness.
The justification of that last interpretation is based on a rather complex analysis (“unpacking” is a current synonym in lit-crit circles, but that’s just a Germanic equivalent of the Greek analysis ‘cutting apart’.) That third stanza is very intricately layered and involves the kind of structural ambiguity described above, so let me try to lay it out somewhat.
We must first read the list of senses as adjectives, rather than nouns (our first guess, but wrong, for this is one of cummings’ grammatical tricks). Next he used “being” both as a noun (“human being”) and as a verb “merely being” to get a double meaning. Finally we discover that “doubt” is the main verb of the sentence, not a noun.
A grand paraphrase of all its parts seems to be as follows: “How could any perceiving [tasting (etc)] human being, just because of the obvious fact of existing, doubt the truth of the Sacred, even if it is literally beyond imagination?” In other words, this is a kind of ontological proof: the very fact that we can perceive “reality” (*which is infinite, which is the Great Affirmation “Yes”) is the proof of its existence (a priori and by intellection). This is a classic argument for the existence of God, found in the works of the Persian philosopher Abū Alī Sīnā (Avicenna) and Anselm of Canterbury, and in a broader sense in Descartes’ phrase “Cogito, ergo sum.” The object of this perception, and therefore believing, is the “unimaginable You,” which is “God,:” which, is infinite which is “Yes.” The Sacredness beyond Time is constantly ongoing, infinite, and everlasting.
With all this being said about the obvious Panentheism underlying this poem, there are unmistakable Biblical echoes, the concluding “ears of my ears / eyes of my eyes”. I also can see the “infinite which is yes” as a possible echo of the Psalmist “the great I am,” although the echo is obviously more broadly semantic than lexical (in part because of the differences between Hebrew and the various Indo-European languages involved, including Greek, Latin, and English).
Further, cummings’ references the complex of images involving the rebirth of the sun (at the winter solstice) with a possible (but certainly not demanded) pun on “Son” of God, especially when coupled with “I who have died am alive again today.” We know of course that the historical Jesus was most likely born in April, but in the fourth century, as part of the grand institutionalization of the formal Church, the celebration of the birth of Jesus was deliberately moved from the spring to the winter solstice. This shift was motivated in part as an attempt to convert the followers of Mithras, a Persian Sun God whose feast day was celebrated at the solstice; in part as a counter to the pagan Roman Saturnalia; but most importantly as a brilliant metaphor for the rebirth of the immortal soul, a unique promise of the newly emergent Christianity.
In fact, this use of conventional Christian imagery with a broader meaning is also very Unitarian, for an explicit part of the UU practices is to see wisdom in all the world’s religious traditions. As said, you are free to read this all as the equivalent of “God” in the conventional monotheistic way, although I think cummings’ real religiosity was less specific and more integrative than that.
Part Two. “Thy fingers”
thy fingers make early flowers of
thy hair mostly the hours love:
a smoothness which
(though love be a day)
do not fear,we will go amaying.
thy whitest feet crisply are straying.
thy moist eyes are at kisses playing,
whose strangeness much
(though love be a day)
for which girl art thou flowers bringing?
To be thy lips is a sweet thing
Death,Thee i call rich beyond wishing
if this thou catch,
(though love be a day
and life be nothing,it shall not stop kissing).
The syntactic tricks are fewer and more obvious in this poem, such as the simple rearrangement of “the hours love mostly [most of all] thy hair” and the verb-final order of “are at kisses playing” and thou flowers bringing”.
The images, although lovely and striking, are mostly transparent, and again I am reminded of the Metaphysical poets, especially John Donne and Henry Vaughan (pronounced [voe-han]). A defining, although seldom noted characteristic of the Renaissance, is a profound change in the apprehension of time, from being a circular, repeated phenomenon (the sequence of seasons and of the hours of the day, for example) to a linear, non-repeating, and therefore disturbingly fleeting thing. So images of the transitoriness of time, and especially human life, are extremely common (think of Shakespeare’s sonnets for splendid examples). Robert Herrick’s “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” and Andrew Marvel’s “To His Coy Mistress” are two other specific examples of this concern with an explicit focus on love.
The refrain “though love be a day” evokes this focus. Note that the indefinite article here must be read in its etymological meaning “a single” (the a/an forms are reductions of the numeral one), and the meaning is “even if love is limited to only a single day”. But cummings, rather than concerning himself with the limits of a single day, instead emphasizes the joy of that single, special day: “we will go amaying” We must then think first and last, not of the loss after such a day, but of the splendor it brings (although merely “a sweet thing and small”). Even Death cannot stand against such splendor: “Death, I would call thee rich if you could experience this one expanse of joy and nothing else (“else missing [not experiencing everything else]). And the poem ends in one of his grammatical tricks, since “it shall not stop kissing” is ambiguous—that is, “Life [those of us truly alive] will not cease kissing” and “death cannot prevent kissing”. The conclusion is a gesture of joyful defiance in the face of time and death (a secular equivalence of Donne’s “Death, be not proud” if you will). Thus, even a single day of love is worth all else.
Concluding unscientific postscript
I hope these notes will help you sing these poems better, and in the future perhaps you will dip further into cummings’ other works without fear of horrible incomprehension. Being a 20th century person he could be more overtly sexual than Donne could (“she being brand new”) but in most respects, he shows the same astonishing range of intellect, sensualness, and simple profundity as we find in Donne, Shakespeare, and others of their time. Well worth the read….March 23, 2014 at 6:01 pm #438739Thank you! Will print this up for my Tuesday rehearsal….they’ll love it. And we’ve been discussing meanings since rehearsals started and perhaps this will help. Thanks again.MarieMarch 24, 2014 at 8:37 am #438773Yu’re welcome to use it, but please attribute it properly. If you want a better formatted version, contact me. If anyone wants to contact me directly, I may be found at the Hoosier university (dot edu) under my last name alone, which is also that of the former governor of Utah named Jon (Obama’s first ambssador to China, and for a short time on the Republican list of Presidentil candidates last election cycle). That convoluted explanation is to get around the spammers and their web-crawling bots!March 28, 2014 at 12:51 pm #439182I will certainly give you credit. As well, what choral organization did you write this for? I’d like to credit them as well. I think I can format this…if not, I’ll contact you personally. Thank you!Marie
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