Central to classical poetry is the concept of metaphor—metaphor not simply as a rhetorical device, but metaphor as central to the poem itself. Such use of metaphor is absent from modernist poetry. In a worldview that denies absolute truth outright or at least its knowability, nothing exists for metaphor to reveal.
In my last essay, I discussed the difference between classical and modernist poetry as a difference of worldviews. Classicism views the art as a vehicle to reveal universal truths, while modernism denies such truths and instead views the primary purpose of poetry as inducing an effect in the reader. This difference manifests itself chiefly as one of clarity. Because classical poetry conveys an idea, not primarily a feeling, its meaning must be clear for it to have its intended effect.
The idea of metaphor, however, failed to figure prominently enough. It is a key concept of classical poetics that deserves some discussion. And, as it turns out, the breakdown of metaphor has produced some spectacularly obscure modernist poetry. This essay aims to tackle both subjects.
Central to the classical poetry is the concept of metaphor—metaphor not simply as a rhetorical device, but metaphor as central to the poem itself. In any classical poem the centrality of metaphor is readily apparent. As noted previously, in Shelley’s “Mont Blanc,” the entire poem is one extended metaphor of the mountain as the Platonic ideal, eternal and unreachable, elevated above the titanic forces of nature, which in turn dwarf man and his works. Keats’s great odes also provide excellent examples of metaphor. The Grecian urn is art itself, and art as a vehicle for revealing eternal truth across time. The nightingale, calling through night unseen but heard, is the soul’s immortality in the face of death and fear of death.
Such use of metaphor is absent from modernist poetry. Indeed, modernism has no need of metaphor because it views metaphor as superfluous. In a worldview that denies absolute truth outright or at least its knowability, nothing exists for metaphor to reveal. Instead, when inducing an effect is the end of poetry, the images and objects in the poem become triggers to induce a feeling in the reader rather than vehicles to express a truth external to both the poet and the reader.
But some modernists take the inducement of an effect beyond the mere use of language to evoke feelings in the reader. They literally paint a picture with the text of the poem itself. No modernist poet more clearly exemplifies this technique than E.E. Cummings.
Before analyzing his poetry, it is essential to note that Cummings was also a modernist painter, and his painting “encouraged him to join the revolt against realism” in his poetry. He was very taken with the avant-garde visual techniques of the day—fauvism and cubism. But he was especially taken with the futurism of Balla and Duchamp because it could “paint the fact of motion.” Of these movements he wrote, “after the death of [Cézanne] European painting blew up in two places—Subject exploded so violently as to be carried piecemeal into psychology, while the explosion of Technique was straight up in the air and its denouement the precept of the perpendicular.”
But cubism, the cubism of Picasso, held a special place in Cummings’s esteem. He wrote, “The Symbol of all Art is the Prism. The goal is unrealism. The method is destructive. To break up the white light of objective realism, into the secret glory it contains.” Indeed, his fascination with Cubism crept up in his poetry:
. . .
axe only chops hugest inherent
Trees of Ego, from
whose living and biggest
you hew form truly
This passage is revealing. Cummings acknowledged that beauty (“prettiness,” as he calls it) was “lopped” from the representational forms, and that the “true” form was the individual elements of color separated from their integration into the entire image. In this view, beauty is in fact opposed to truth.
Cummings’s views fall perfectly in line with those expressed by cubist painters themselves. In the first and most influential manifesto of cubist visual art, Du “Cubisme,” the French painters Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger echo Cummings in articulating their aesthetic ideal: “Let the picture imitate nothing; let it nakedly present its raison d’être.” This is because “[t]here are as many images of an object as there are eyes which look at it” and “as many essential images of it as there are minds which comprehend it.” And more fundamentally, “[t]here is nothing real outside ourselves,” and indeed “nothing real” at all “except the coincidence of a sensation and an individual mental direction.”
As with modernism in poetry, cubism derived the meaning in the artistic work not from some absolute truth outside of both the artist and the viewer, but left it to the viewer to “assemble” the disparate angles depicted in the work in his own mind. Thus, the meaning of the work was entirely dependent on the viewer’s interpretation, and presumably was meant to vary with each individual observer.
And for Gleizes and Metzinger, as with modernists in general, advocacy for the “new” art is impossible without attack on tradition:
Some maintain that such a tendency distorts the curve of tradition. Do they derive their arguments from the future or the past? The future does not belong to them, as far as we are aware, and one be singularly ingenuous to seek to measure that which exists by that which exists no longer.
The future does not belong to those who seek to preserve tradition. Such a statement could appear convincing only to a mind that has rejected the existence of absolute truth. Truth, after all, does not change whether it is in or out of vogue. That any trend “is the future” not only fails to appeal to a classicist—it is not even an argument.
Armed with their non-argument, Gleizes and Metzinger press further. They brazenly attempt to isolate their ideas from any criticism by asserting that tradition “exists no longer”—and non-existence cannot measure something that exists. This is a grandiose rhetorical flourish, but a meaningless one. Classicism and tradition are ideas, and ideas exist out of time and space. Even if one accepts the premise that they were outmoded and had no place in the future, the ideas themselves remain. And neither Gleizes nor Metzinger could will any idea out of existence. Again, only a mind that rejects the existence of absolute truth could find itself convinced by such an argument. And the statement contains a glaring contradiction: the authors who assert on one hand that objective reality is impossible to know affirm in no uncertain terms the non-existence of an idea.
Suffice it to say that the polemics of cubism rest on the shakiest of grounds, grandiose and self-contradictory flourishes of non-argument, and nothing more. But having understood cubism, we may now return to Cummings and better understand his work. His fascination with cubism is the key that unlocks his facially inscrutable poetry. Let us take two examples. First, the opening poem in his 1958 collection, 95 Poems:
The analysis is simple. “A leaf falls” is inserted as a parenthetical into the word “loneliness,” which in turn is fragmented so that the two 1’s stand alone as reminiscent of the numeral 1 and the word “one” is spelled out. The cascade of two- and three-character lines evokes the motion of the leaf falling, and the image is framed within the idea.
Then there is this earlier and less laconic example from his 1935 collection, No Thanks:
a)s w(e loo)k
The same principles apply, only more is at play in this one. The word “grasshopper” appears three times scrambled before appearing correctly in the final line. These are inserted among a text that, unscrambled, reads, “Who, as we look up now, gathering into the leaps arriving to become rearrangingly.” (Cummings, incidentally, loved to create such words as this last one by using one part of speech as another.)
In both cases, it is not the text itself, but the arrangement of the text that supplies the poem’s meaning. As with the modernists, the primary concern of Cummings is the effect on the reader. Only whereas the modernists sought to achieve that effect purely through language, Cummings does so through the appearance of the language. He remains the cubist painter, only now he paints with text.
Cummings’s meanings are not subtle, either. In the first poem, the shape of the text reflects the falling leaf, and framing that object within the word “loneliness” visually depicts the object captured within the idea. It is a ham-handed attempt at metaphor. The poem does little more than shout, “This falling leaf symbolizes loneliness!” But that is not metaphor. It does not develop the idea, but only announces it prosaically, albeit in a visually whimsical way.
The grasshopper poem is hardly more subtle. The recurrence of the word “grasshopper” in three different scrambled rearrangements before appearing correctly in the final line resembles the inability to behold the leaping grasshopper fully until it comes to a stop. The variance in capitalization and the insertion of punctuation further echoes the broken vision. The insertion of “become” into “rearrangingly” suggests that the rearrangement of visions is itself a form of becoming, and indeed being, as “be” in “become” is isolated. Again, the poem does not treat the grasshopper as a metaphor.
Of course, neither poem is meant to be recited. Indeed, recitation would only detract from the intended effect of the poem. Cummings’s poems are cubist paintings using text rather than oils as their medium. To recite them would be akin to substituting a recited description of a Picasso painting for a view of the painting itself. As preferable as this might be in the case of the Picasso painting, it rejects millennia of poetic practice and indeed the very origins of poetry itself.
And Cummings’s legacy lives on. In his 1956 manifesto on “concrete poetry,” the Brazilian poet and critic Augusto de Campos defines the term thus:
– the concrete poem or ideogram becomes a relational field of functions.
– the poetic nucleus is no longer placed in evidence by the successive and linear chaining of verses, but by a system of relationships and equilibriums between all parts of the poem.
– graphic-phonetic functions-relations (“factors of proximity and likeness”) and the substantive use of space as an element of composition maintain a simultaneous dialectic of eye and voice, which, allied with the ideogrammic synthesis of meaning, creates a sentient “verbivocovisual” totality. In this way words and experience are juxtaposed in a tight phenomenological unit impossible before.
This encapsulates exactly what Cummings’s technique achieved. Cummings might even be considered a “concrete poet” forty years before concrete poetry itself existed. Reading de Campos’s poems, the influence of Cummings is readily observable. If anything, de Campos outdoes even Cummings by varying the typeface and color of the text.
But reading further into de Campos’s manifesto, it becomes readily apparent that his movement suffers from the same bellicosity as the cubists forty years earlier. He says of classical poetry, “[T]he old formal syllogistic-discursive foundation, strongly shaken at the beginning of the century, has served again as a prop for the ruins of a compromised poetic, an anachronistic hybrid with an atomic heart and a medieval cuirass.” And he goes on to deride traditional expression as “self-debilitating introspection and simpleton simplistic realism” opposed to the “absolute realism” of concrete poetry.
Cummings himself was no polemicist. Indeed, “disciplined intellectual analysis was not to his liking,” and “as time went on, he came to express an open scorn for philosophers.” It was therefore left to de Campos and others like him to weaponized Cummings’s style into an ideological attack on classical aesthetic.
De Campos’s rhetoric is little different than the cubist painters forty years before. Classicism in the twentieth century was to de Campos “the ruins of a compromised poetic” and “an anachronistic hybrid.” The “syllogistic-discursive” foundation de Campos describes is none other than classical metaphor, the poem’s use of the tangible to reveal an eternal, universal truth. What “shook” it at the beginning of the Twentieth Century was modernism itself. But as with Gleizes and Metzinger, to view modernism as “shaking” classicism requires equating trend with truth, which amounts to denial of absolute truth.
A shameless hypocrisy lies under all this rhetoric. “Concrete poetry,” as with cubism, claims that the only reality of which anyone is certain is the perception of the observer. Yet at the same time it asserts in no uncertain terms that it and only it depicts “absolute realism.” It knows no reality, but in knowing that it knows no reality, knows reality. Thus it presumes to attack not only classicism and tradition, but human reason itself.
In truth, however, “concrete poetry” depicts no “absolute” reality. Instead, it only mimics the metaphor of classical poetics in a primitive, sub-rational way. It needs an image. Its technique is indelibly linked to the visual, as it uses the medium of the text itself to convey its effect. Yet it is not depiction. It presents not merely an image, but a textual representation relating to the central image. This is a form of metaphor, but not metaphor in the classical sense: a reasoned presentation of ideas in language easily comprehensible to the reader. Instead, it represents a regression—a reduction of reason to innuendo and of ideas to effects. And it cannot even be bothered to present an argument, but instead must rely on the reader to supply whatever meaning he would.
And “concrete poetry” was really nothing new. Pictorial poems appeared centuries before. In the Seventeenth Century, George Herbert wrote poems in the shape of the objects that served as their central metaphor, notably “Easter Wings” and “The Altar.” What was new about Cummings’s poems and the “concrete poetry” after him was their perspective. Cummings painted cubist abstractions using words, rather than molding a discussion of ideas into a shape. But that is mere modernism. The work derives its meaning from the effect assigned to it by the reader. Cummings and the “concrete poets” may be deemed little more than modernism’s George Herbert.
In the end, Cummings and the “concrete poets” are just another stripe of modernist. Only their obscurity is much more inscrutable than, say, Yeats or Eliot. The latter content themselves with conveying their effect through the language itself. “Concrete poetry” goes one step further and conveys its effect with the visual representation of the text itself. But the worldview is the same: truth does not exist or is unknowable, and any meaning in the poem is left to the reader to formulate from the impressions he derives from the work.
Modernism found a way to obscure its obscurity further.
Republished with gracious permission from The Chained Muse (March 2019).
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics as we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
Campos, Augusto de. “Concrete Poetry: A Manifesto.” AD – Arquitetura e Decoração, No. 20 (Nov./Dec. 1956). Tr. John Tolman. (last visited Feb. 6, 2019).
Gleizes, Albert, and Jean Metzinger. On “Cubism.” Paris, 1912. Pp. 9-11, 13-14, 17-21, 25-32. In English from Robert L. Herbert, Modern Artists on Art, Englewood Cliffs, 1964.
Kennedy, Richard S. Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E.E. Cummings. W.W. Norton & Co., 1994.
 Kennedy, 4.
 Id., 4.
 Id., 180.
 Id., 180.
 Id., 4.
 Id., 180
 Gleizes and Metzinger, in Herbert, p. 46.
 Kennedy, p. 330.
 de Campos, paras. 8-10.
 Id., para. 5.
 Id., para. 4.
 Kennedy, p. 53.
Featured image is “Woman With A Horse” (1911-12) by Jean Metzinger (1883-1956), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.