Thursday, April 17, 2008

"if everything happens that can't be done"

Although there are definite downsides to being a graduate student (lots of academic writing, a steady stream of criticism, and little money), one of the great things is being able to attend various lectures in academia. Today, rather than grade all of my undergraduate students' papers, I decided to attend a lecture given by Robert Pinsky, the former poet laureate of the United States and the founder of the Favorite Poem Project.

After the lecture, I started thinking about my favorite poems and poets. They change according to mood, and they range from Walt Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain!" (despite knowing that the movie is cloying and manipulative, my cynical heart is a sucker for this scene from Dead Poets Society) to Langston Hughes's "I, Too, Sing America" to Dorothy Parker's "Resume." However, perhaps my favorite poem of all time, and one that I consistently enjoy, is e. e. cummings's "if everything happens that can't be done."

cummings's was an interesting and eclectic poet, writer, and artist. Although some scholars criticize him for never transcending his gimmicky use of capitalization, he is actually much more complex than many people realize. His life saw a considerable amount of tragedy, yet he was able to write some incredible love poems (one of my favorite English teachers once commented that cummings is one of greatest [and most underestimated] love poets of all time).

"if everything happens that can't be done" is a return to the Romantic idea of feeling and emotion over books and facts. It is a poem that focuses on the sheer exhilaration of being in love, and it is undeniably giddier than Cope's "The Orange." Even though it acknowledges that love can be a "high that does nothing but fall," it still makes love sound inviting.

In addition to cummings's considerable prowess as a love poet, he also has some very trenchant satiric and political poems. "i sing of olaf glad and big" is one of his most provocative pieces. Although part of me really wanted to teach it when I was teaching high school English, I figured that discretion might be the better part of valor (read it and find out why I always talked myself out of teaching it).