Volume IX, Number 1, Spring 2013

"Review of Jiří Flajšar and Zénó Vernyik's Words into Pictures: E. E. Cummings’ Art Across Borders" by Zoltán Galamb

Zoltán Galamb received his degree in English Studies and Teaching English from the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. He taught American Literature at Kodolányi János College in Székesfehérvár, as well as British and American literature at the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest and in the Russian Teachers’ Retraining Program at the Budapest University of Economic Sciences (now Corvinus). He has focused on American culture and post-World War II literature, and received a grant from the US government to study curriculum development and Native American culture. He also took part as a fellow in Session 325 of the Salzburg Seminar – The Globalization of American Popular Culture. Currently, he works as a literary translator and e-journalist reviewing music and literature.

Words into Pictures: E. E. Cummings’ Art Across Borders
Jiří Flajšar and Zénó Vernyik (eds.)
Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
ISBN: 9781847183354
225 pages

Scholarship, like technology, usually tackles problems created by and, if only implicitly, for itself. This seems to be the case with the book entitled Words into Pictures: E. E. Cummings’ Art Across Borders. Its title and prefatory explanation suggest a division as well as a ranking between temporal and spatial arts which clearly contravenes E. E. Cummings’ less hierarchical, therefore more balanced definition of his own works as “picturepoems” with their practically interchangeable elements. The wording of the title, however, points out the basic fallacy present in Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s “Laokoon” aesthetic theory, who assumed that verbal representation with its multiple points of view is somehow superior to the static, single-point-of-view renderings of events in painting and sculpture. The German philosopher apparently disregarded, or was simply ignorant of the fact, that prehistoric cave paintings ‘told’ predictive visual stories that today seem comic book-like similar to many Native American or other ancient tales that ‘served’ as virtual maps that could be visually memorized in the minds of the listeners. The creation of such word-pictures was also frequently employed by modernist artists who sought a seemingly unadulterated source for their art. So did Cummings, too.

Like many other scholarly compilations, this collection of recent essays on E. E. Cummings’ work is characterized by a stimulating variety of ideas and, simultaneously, a liberal lack of true coherence regarding its approaches or topics. However, the volume is divided into five parts: Part I “New Contexts” with writings by Richard Bradford, Gilliain Huang-Tiller, and Isabelle Alfandary; Part II “Political Cummings” with essays by Milton Cohen and Ehren Helmut Pflugfelder; Part III “Cummings in Space” comprising works by Taimi Olsen and Zénó Vernyik; Part IV “Among Arts” with texts by Claudia Desblaches and Emília Barna; and Part V “Identity and Subjectivity” with an article by Kurt Harris.

Each contributor seems to have found particularly significant aspects of Cummings’ art: these elements opportunely correspond to the special fields of interest of the authors. For example, Zénó Vernyik, one of the volume’s editors, is concerned with the issue of spatiality and urban landscapes in Cummings’s Tulips & Chimneys (126-153). The fascination of his analysis lies in an overtly religious reading of the poems that transcends triviality by discovering meanings and dimensions in the words that may not be obvious even to the well-versed in the poet’s oeuvre. Similarly, Emília Barna tackles the chosen poems not so much from the Cummings scholar’s perspective, but with a focus on popular culture and feminist issues present in Björk’s adaptations of Cummings’s poems (170-186). Even though the essay supplies the Cummings criticism with new interpretations, it lacks the important emphasis on the singer’s simplistic and naive, therefore ostentatiously modernist attitude to the world, which is in contrast with Cummings’s own status as an outsider regarding modernist circles. This is, however, the position that is highlighted in Milton Cohen’s absorbing examination on the evolution of Cummings’s political convictions, his gradual disillusionment with leftist ideologies and social/artistic movements in general (68-89) and his denial of both Soviet communism and American liberalism. The portrait Cohen draws of the poet is that of a bitter, distrustful, anti-materialistic, and right-leaning individual with a strong emphasis on the values of honor and morality. Given that Cummings never unequivocally denounced Hitler’s Germany, nor did he embrace his contemporaries’ predominantly Marxist ideas or at least politically radical Modernist thoughts, no wonder he became increasingly alienated from almost everyone around him. Cummings’s anti-Soviet attitude is even more evident in Gillian Huang-Tiller’s “Reflecting EIMI” (27-57), in which the poet’s trip to Russia is shown to represent his descent to and ascent from Hell, where individuality and self becomes lost in the inferno of collectivity. The iconic nature of the meta-sonnet comprised in eighteen, mostly non-standard quatorzains in “No Thanks” is presented through a remarkable discussion on the visual structure and numerical relationships in Huang-Tiller’s text. Ehren Helmut Pflugfelder’s predominantly exegetic “Divine Excess” (90-105) indisputably adds new insights to the existing body of Cummings scholarship. The frequent appearance of the “leaf poem” in various contexts, most versatilely and convincingly explicated in Kurt Harris’ “Beyond the Scope of the ‘I’ in E. E. Cummings’ Leaf Poem”(188-200), proves that Cummings’s works can still inspire interesting critical investigation beyond a mere literary theoretical framework, since they continuously cross the boundaries between the visual/spatial and the temporal/auditory domains of art.

Each essay in the collection has its undeniable merits and the overall conclusion from reading the compilation of critical ideas in Words into Pictures is that it is impossible to consider Cummings simply as a poet and a modernist, since his art definitely defies clear categorization: is universal, not time-bound, and cannot be easily associated with any particular movement or art form. In the context of the current interdisciplinary world, Cummings remains a major influence on theorists and creative artists and an unfailing source of critical interest.