Cummings rhymes with Playing...
Linguistics and Literature, a syntactic inquiry.
Article publié dans SPRING, THE JOURNAL OF E.E.CUMMINGS en 2003.
anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn't he danced his did.
What about wondering what a "pretty how town" means? If a speaker ever asked you what you understand when hearing this cluster of words, how aghast, appalled, not to say upset would you be! How indeed would you react? What about speaking of all those operations of thought you would do then?
Now, the same question arises when quoting "with up so floating many bells down".
Let's play together and consider the way we could interchange words so as to end up with a syntactically correct proposition...
We could of course replace "floating" by fleeting... some bells may be fleeting or even falling, or, otherwise, fugacious. We can apply all sorts of property to those enchanting bells! We can replace them by books or balls or blooms, no problem! We are allowed to play for our greatest pleasure.
Right, but then what does it mean? These are groups of words and we are perfectly entitled to expect them to mean something. We even, incessantly look for a meaning, whatever it may be.
So shall we say that this bit of a sentence is meaningless? At least there is a possible commentary: as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (a French philosopher of the 18th century) used to say for music, we may say that this bit is nice to hear. So at least if this sentence contains anything rational, this is prosody, melody. We can have a musical judgement concerning this sentence and say it is musically meaningful. Why not?
The stress pattern is binary. This means that the quantity of stresses contained within the sentence that we will from now on call "verse" is a multiple of two. Now, this is music. Instead of speaking of multiple, one should speak in terms of division. The so-called binary rhythm is a rhythm in which the number of stresses may be divided by two. It is different from the ternary rhythm in which the number of stresses may be divided by three. There also exists other kinds of rhythm particularly in contemporary music in which rhythm may very well be built around the cipher 9 which is particularly the case for Boulez opera entitled "cummings ist der Dichter". This is about cummings' work from 1923 to 1954. Those characteristics appeared with what is called serial music, a music escaping traditional criterion.
So writing sentences without meaning or apparently without meaning is to approach, to subscribe to the same dynamics of creation as the contemporary musical composition, that is, to be classical in our register of references, to proceed to what Levi Strauss used to call "patchwork".
Now, we've got a clue for our questioning: the meaning of the sentence, of the cluster of words we were looking for a few minutes ago is a poetical meaning. We perfectly know, everybody knows that poetry possesses the special right of saying meaningless things! Poetry says things we should not say. Poetry is built from a non-norm. Poetry is an anti-norm. So, here we are. Now, if looking for a meaning in a meaningless proposition is perfectly meaningful, lets wonder about what happens in our mind when reading this kind of "things", let's look for this irreducible bit of meaning, please!
Some questions arise when wondering about those syntactic processes: if we consider the verses have just no meaning, then the irreducible part we are looking for should appear in the isolated elements we are going to consider. However when looking at a poem such as anyone lived in a pretty how town, we very soon realize that the poem as a whole seems somewhat meaningful and that some patterns are borrowed from the normal discourse.
The position I ended up taking towards this poem and that I would like to define first so as to have a clue in order to understand what all this matter is about is that the text is a multi-entry message and that it contains a superposition of semantic layers organized thanks to syntax. This text is like a score for a piano or an orchestra in which several melodies can be played at the same time.
Let's choose a few examples and get into an analysis:
The first I will call is anyone. Anyone is an indefinite pronoun. You can find it in a sentence like:
If anyone comes while I'm gone, tell him to wait for me in the office and to read through his paper.
Did anyone come yesterday ?
Anyone will do it
I did not see anyone yesterday
In those sentences we can assert that the function of the indefinite pronoun is to refer to a shown entity in the direction of which we focus, we direct all our attention, our questioning without this entity being filled with a proper semantic content. This entity is a reference towards a person, or any person. This is why it is called an indefinite pronoun. It refers to a void the frame of which consists in formal clues such as human presence. We are invited to think in the direction of what Aristotle used to call gender. We are not in the field of specie, of a particular-identified. We are in the moment before the identification, we are in the moment founding the shape of a presence ready to welcome an identity. To the question did anyone come yesterday, we may answer no one came yesterday or John came yesterday
In this poetical context, anyone and no one are both masculine and feminine. They function as if they were names. In the general economy of the poem anyone and noone appear as characters. They are sort of given an identity. The indefinite pronouns are connected to a reference and this opens on a double reading which is founded on our recognition of the polarity of the couple of indefinites, of the information brought by the verb and the discursive frame that is marvellously woven for them all along the text. As such we may say that the link that binds both elements, both persons, both pronouns is a syntactic link. The functioning of the grammatical elements opens on a metaphorical dynamism so that we may even allow ourselves to speak, in this context of a syntactic feeling.
noone is then the answer to anyone since if we ask a question containing anyone, noone may appear in the answer, becoming, thus, someone, the other alternative, at the same time. The syntactic relation is what all this poem is originally designed with and more generally a feature of Cumming's writing identity. The syntactic relation is all that sustains the world of the poem which reminds us of Wittgenstein's proposition (6.124) in his Tractatus according to which "logical propositions (we may include syntax) describe the scaffolding of the world or they stand for it".
Now, the question becomes that of how indefinite pronouns get their identities for it sounds very well that we may speak of proper identities since we come to consider the indefinite pronouns as persons (John or Mary). They are filled with semantic features due to the syntactic context. However undefined they stand, they refer to something peculiar: a woman, a man. Predicates are linked to anyone and noone thanks to a copula that gives them their existential roles. The poem itself offers them their roles, their sheer syntactic status does not convey. This provokes a paradox because the same and its contrary are contained in the same element. We cannot recognize the Aristotelian principle of identity anymore. The meaning goes further, beyond Aristotle's lessons for:
A means as well nonA.
The undetermined is specifically meaningful, it has, it possesses an identity. The double entry meaning is at stake. This kind of making-sense you can find in Ancient Greece, much before Aristotle and E.E. Cummings was certainly familiar to this way of thinking since he made classical studies in Harvard and was particularly fond of Greek and the Greek Presocratic thinkers (we'll come back to this later). This kind of paradox (A is nonA) you find in Empedocles but also, in a different way, in Homer in whose Odysseus Ulysses tells the Cyclops his name is No one. When shouting his friends "No one is there", the Cyclop was taken for a fool because instead of grasping the word by its meaning, by the identity it referred to, the Cyclops took it by the little end of its indefiniteness.
This kind of "paradox" produces a game of come and go between the syntactic and the semantic fields. Anyone is at the same time the most determined and the less determined as well as noone, its (vs. his) counterpart. And yet from the point of view of syntax, anyone is still the most undetermined entity among any other part of speech. This is the essence of the free-choice morpheme.
So anyone is the most undetermined and, at the same time, from another point of view, namely the discursive point of view, the most determined, the Beloved one. "He" is the anonymous one being at the same time what we may call the being-in-proxi, the most well known being, the most well known by...noone. This is the expression of a love story between the poet and Marion Morehouse to whom this poem is addressed and who loves him more by more and for whom anyone's any becomes all to her.
The superposition of those antagonisms is made possible thanks to the cluster of semantic features contained in the pronoun, on the one hand, and the features set by the poem, by the story evoked by the poem, on the other hand. A gap is settled then and the movements from a side of things to the other creates the aesthetic emotion. That particular combination between syntax and semantics creates emotions just because we cannot believe anyone is no one nor noone is just anyone from the ordinary point of view. They become human beings, we care for their status, for their right of being!
Isn't it moving to notice that those semantic features that we may qualify as "built" are stronger, more "pregnant" than those belonging to the common code and use of language. How interesting wouldn't it be to understand how the hierarchy between both those scales of determinations work with one another. Why is it that the built features should mean in a more intense manner than the common features? How can we draw those characteristics? What kind of tool do we have at hand?
This means, as regards the principles of making-sense, that the intention of making sense is stronger than the meaning set by the norm which is a way of re-asserting the value of subjectivity over normativity.
Anyone and noone are then somebodys, they are persons, the pronouns have become first names and have even gained a gender. Anyone is masculine, noone is feminine. We gather the information allowing us to determine their identity through the anaphoric references of personal pronouns:
She laughed his joy, she cried his grief (4.2).
The "relocalisation" of semantic features, the syntactic re-configuration also shows but in another way in the use of the deverbals that are fully created in the text in verses such as:
he sang his didn't he danced his did.(4.1)
Did is not an auxiliary, he is the subject of the sentence the verb of which is danced. did is in fact the direct object introduced by the possessive pronoun his. It is a deverbal.
Once more we wonder how this makes sense, why it is that it may make sense. Syntactic-semantic mutations are very subtle and they fit and belong to the same art of building than those of the couple anyone/noone. But what then is the link between an anyone and a did? Should there be any link at all? Well let me be more accurate for when we wonder about a link between anyone and did, we wonder about the nature of the creative process in both cases. Are we allowed to say that this creative process is the same in both cases or is there a different kind of principle governing the laws?
We've seen in the study of anyone and noone that the governing principle is that of indeterminacy; an indeterminacy enabling a gap with the determinacy of the genuine reference to the word, namely a precise, thought-of human being. The distance between those two concepts provokes a movement responsible for the poetic emotion. The link between anyone and his did is, as a matter of course, a logical link accompanied by this poetic emotion. A did is a kind of nothing, it is even worse than a nothing because in a nothing you've got an ontological support conveyed by the word "thing" even if it is preceded by the negative entity no. The thing is named in the nothing whereas if you say a did, then there is no kind of ontological substratum a noun is capable of. Did is the past for do and do may not even be a verb, it is also an auxiliary, that is to say that it may have no kind of autonomy. Let us not darken the picture. Let us grant a verbal value to did, let us be generous in our judgement. So did is the past form of do and then? Well, what are we going to do with do? How to do things with words? A do would be an action. anyone sang his did, that probably means that he sang what he did or may be that he sang, yes, he did. The combinations are numerous and the true meaning once more lies in an irreducible semantic quantity: someone whose name is anyone and who could be referred to as Anyone with a capital letter. This seems to refer to the poet himself, all the more as E.E. Cummings possibly had his name legalized in e.e. cummings (anyone without capital letter).
So anyone, sang, and the content of his song is a pragmatic content located in the past: anyone remembers the past in the past: he remembered the past and sang. As for his didn't, either he didn't dance or he danced what he didn't do.
A come and go between negation and assertion is settled as well as between masculine and feminine: a network of polarities is drawn figuring the swing of the pendulum. Time is then a binary system engendering binary relations.
From a psycholinguistic point of view this entails movements of consciousness and little by little and more by more the reader builds his new linguistic model (the way words are associated in his or her mind) that he/she keeps comparing to his/her "normal" one so that the comparison of both keeps, as well, producing sense. This is a reason why we may say that E.E. Cummings' poetry is a multi-entry message we may as well call a syntactic-semantic polyphony. To tell it in the ordinary words one may encounter and use when going to the market: many things happen at the same time!
Martin Heidegger would have spoken of co-originality (Gleichursprünglichkeit) where gleich means the same and der Sprung, the spring (synonymous with leap or skip) but also the spring that soars out of the earth. Der Sprung in Heidegger's thought is as well the movement thanks to which one may enter the field of Thought.
Shall I suggest this place, where all the meanings cross, seems to be precisely the fourth dimension of this poetry? I would refer then to the pictorial illustration called the fourth dimensional abstraction and would associate the poetic world to the great oval and the semantic, syntactic, pragmatic and all the layers that build a language, the lines and patches interwoven according to the hidden laws of artistic creation.
This being said, we are perfectly entitled to wonder about the extension of the new values granted to words: do we deal with a new language, set once for all in the complete work of the poet or is there a language proper to each poem as a close world? The answer seems to be the second one. Each poem has got its own referential system, its own semantic world. For instance, if we look at Doveglion, taken from The Adventure in Value (New York, 1962), we notice that the use of the indefinite pronoun is really different from the way it works in anyone:
he isn't looking at anything
he isn't looking for something
he isn't looking
he is seeing
not something outside himself
not anything inside himself
not as some anyone
not as any someone
only as a noone (who is everyone)
The whole play here is focussed on a contrast between those indefinite pronouns, a contrast between two verbs, namely looking and seeing, a contrast between the inside and the outside, that is to say between normative differences. The poet plays with what the norm offers and extends the limits. Each poem brings up a new game, is somewhat a new toy.
Let's look closer at how he deals with the very little word did in he dances his did in his poem anyone...we quoted earlier. We know that did is in fact an auxiliary word, we know as well that it may be the preterit form of the verb do. So what's the real result of did being used in its new form, that is to say under the feature of ...a noun?
he danced his did (4.1)
Because of its shape, because of the letters we can either see or hear, we think of the two grammatical entities we've just named. But because of the place it has within the syntactic pattern of the verse, we immediately recognize a noun. We know that after a possessive pronoun, there is a limited number of possibilities and we automatically adapt the possibilities we know to what we see or hear for the only sake of making sense.
Now, we come to a common point compared to anyone and it lies within the projection of a word with a certain nature towards a word with another nature. In both cases, the word is used in non-conformity to the nature it possesses within the ordinary normative language.
The relationship between anyone and did is a verbal relationship: anyone danced his did. Now what appears as being strange is that supposing did would also stand for some kind of verbal notion or quantity, then we should not expect any mark for the preterit within the sentence. However this mark is conveyed by the verb: danced. This allows us to say that this past mark is then conveying another meaning than the simple notion of agreement it may have within a sentence. There also remains, however, that did in some way, lost its nature of auxiliary verb or of verb. And we immediately go and seek for a nominal statute for this word. The poetical intention is stronger than the grammatical norm.
In this respect, if we pay attention to what Martin Heidegger's On the way to language asserts, we understand that the poetical language is a language liberated from the bounds of grammar. Thus we should be allowed to say that the poetical language delivers meaning from its meaningless bounds. This also means that the genuine meaning of words has to be propelled by a creative process.
So what is the result of our inquiry for did? did implies two levels of interpretation. The first one activates the recognition of the auxiliary it normally is and calls for a context we look for. The second level of reading is the poetical level. It grants it with the status of noun. This would be, in a normal situation, in the ordinary language of communication, a distortion or mistake but as it occurs within a creative surrounding we'd rather call it a creation, a grammatical creation.
Let's describe some of the operations of reading, of interpretation, of recognition it induces:
1. Reading/Hearing (perception) and stop to inquire on the non-normal form (astonishment)
2. Recognition of did as an auxiliary.
3. Re-reading or feed-back allowing to re-locate the meaning.
4. Acceptance of the form after checking process.
5. Interpretative level: did = something like a noun.
6. Second level of interpretation: the level of translation and search for an equivalent:
ex: he danced his did = he danced his waltz.
and/or other kinds of interpretative processes: he did really dance, he danced what
he did/had done.
Where we really have to play hard is when did meaning a positive act means a negative one (he sang his didn't). This is my favourite grammatical moment. Indeed, we have to add a few steps to our process of reading/hearing (perception):
1. Reading/Hearing (perception) and stop to inquire on the non-normal form (astonishment)
2. Recognition of didn't as an auxiliary form + negative operator.
3.a. Checking, feed-back.
3.b. Search for meaning.
4. Acceptance of the form after checking.
5. Interpretative level: didn't = something like a noun
6. Second level of interpretation or reading:
ex: he didn't sing or he sang what he didn't do or hadn't done...or he sang he didn't...
But this still remains a draft and I now choose to focus on level 5 of this process of reading. In this level, we recognize didn't as a noun. But didn't contains a negative value shown by the negation. A conflict occurs: at level 2, we recognized the auxiliary charged with a negative value and at level 5 we recognize didn't as a noun, that is to say potentially charged with a positive value related to its existential value. We come back here to our Ancient Greek thinkers before the principle of identity was settled.
So let's play with logics. P is related to a noun thanks to the copula. If one means negation, then one should use a sign for it: ~p. However here we have a noun, namely didn't and we can transcribe it by p but this noun appears in another level of reading recognizing it as an auxiliary or copula + negation. Our p becomes ~p. That's where a conflict occurs: it concerns the attribution to p of a positive value and of a negative value. If we forget the negative mark then we have a positive noun. If we take this negative mark into account, then we have a negative noun. The choice is ours.
Creation at this level is particularly rich and fruitful for we have a positive value and a negative value at the same time in this proposition. The positive value and the negative value co-exist at the same time.
How is it possible to explain this, to find any reason why E.E. Cummings plays with these forms ? I suggest a way: the poet studied in Harvard and was very keen on ancient Greek as was said earlier. He even went so far as to sign his name in Greek when writing to some of his friends such as Ezra Pound. The study of Greek also meant at that time, being able to write like Aeschylus or Sophocles. This being said, what kind of problems do we find in Ancient Greek texts and particularly in ancient Greek philosophy but the very question of the possible or not possible coexistence of being and not-being at the same time? This is the aporia and it can very well be the problem our poet has been inspired by to find a way to play with it and to let it room in his syntactic games and poetic thought.
Such a game is also present in the title of a book called Six nonlectures.
When we have he sang his didn't he danced he did, the game becomes even more fascinating for it also comes to temporal superposition. Indeed, there is a temporal superposition between sang and didn't or between danced and did. How is it possible to understand it? Everything seems to belong to the same moment. This is different and even more stimulating when we come to they sowed their isn't because it contains a preterit verb and a deverbal (noun coming from a verb). The comparison of both those forms implies an extra operation: we have to imagine the verb (sowed) belongs to a fore-moment of the temporal axis compared to isn't, which belongs to the present tense. The fourth dimension here is the cohabitation of present and past tense in a same representation. This adorns the text with an original relief.
I'd like to quote a last-but-not-least example following this very mode of combination, that one may find in A Poet's Advice to Students :
"Of course they can wrote Shakespeare, but so did everybody else"
In all these creations, syntax gives way to a whole game of interpretation. Here if we analyse what is being said, Shakespeare has already written, that's why Shakespeare exists as such. To say they can write Shakespeare, is to say that an hypothetical "they" could indeed write Shakespeare. But since Shakespeare has already written the Complete Shakespeare Works, they become authors of what has already been done which alters the notion of authorship in a kind irony!
This game between syntax and semantics proposes a dynamic movement of interpretation. It reveals a very special capacity of the author to empty the contents of grammatical elements keeping them aside like shadows, and to build new multi-levelled meanings or movement of meanings thanks from, we have to remind it, ordinary elements taken from anyone's ordinary language and life! So, we'll remember that the root of a well-designed dream is but this very ordinary material. Thank you Mister E.E. Cummings.