The Crimson Bookshelf
LOW CEILING, by Lincoln Kirstein. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. $2.
IT is fitting to review together the recent volumes of verse by Cummings and Kirstein. Both are Harvard men (Cummings graduated in 1915, and Kirstein in 1930), and both names connote, at least in Philistia, the no plus ultra of that kind of modern literature which baffles the plain man, and rejoices in its baffling. As editor of the late lamented "Hound and Horn," Kirstein frequently published Cummings, and if he were now a publisher, he would not be among the unappreciative tradesmen who refused Cummings' present batch, perhaps because they felt that, in these days of mounting expenses, they could not afford to publish stuff sure of a small sale and equally certain to cause wonder whether a grown man can really indulge seriously in the sort of humor peculiar to Cummings. If we may believe Laura Riding and Robert Graves, however, the punctuation and spelling characteristic of Cummings are not the delirium tremens of the type-font, but originate in a wholly grave effort to make himself understood, to fix the attention of "bad readers" on the passage before them. Contemplating what has been done to Shakspere's punctuation, so that the meaning of many Shaksperian passages is often wrenched, Cummings was moved to adopt a system of punctuation which is singular, and its singularity will ensure him (a hundred years hence) of a pure text. His faith in textual critics, it seems, is unshakable.
Cummings may indeed get a pure text but if the present volume is any indication it will not be "pure" in the Brattle Street sense. With his usual acumen, he has already ensured against that. For his recipe for poetry is apparently a dash if wit, a sprinkle of imagery, and a pinch of smut. The last condiment is easy to find despite his commendable ruse in transliterating into Greek certain English monosyllables which always arouse Mr. Dirty Mind, the true-born censor. There is a blank page, whose missing text appears only in the holograph edition, and the penny arcade reader may well purchase that--at $99 a copy--if he wants Cummings straight. No. 16, as it is, has quite a bounce to it, and would hardly be given the imprimatur of a really alert censor, its only quotable stanza being
"but it's life said he
but your wife, said she
now said he
ow said she."
Personal satire is almost absent, though there is a terse and unkind quatrain about Ernest Hemingway, which is at the same time a parody of Longfellow's "Psalm of Life." Nor has Cummings forgotten his nursery rhymes:
"little joe gould has lost his teeth and doesn't know where to find them."
Cummings is also bold enough to refer to Sally Rand's fan dance at the World's Fair in Chicago, but Cummings is somewhat less satirical than of yore, though, to be sure, he was never in the great tradition, since as a satirist he is unique in that he attacks people so powerful as to be indifferent (e.g., Comrade Stalin) or too weak to defend themselves (e.g., be-spectacled Radcliffe girls, professors leading castrated pups down Brattle and Kirkland Streets, tired business men, etc.) As a lyricist, on the other hand, he is the same as ever--No. 55 is the high spot--and many another minor poet would be proud of such a line as "all things whose slendering sweetness touched renown," even if it means somewhat less than it promises, like Kirstein's volume, which is always trembling on the verge (horrible phrase!) and never quite slipping or soaring. The best pieces are "Chamber of Horrors" and "Kidnapped"; Kirstein is obviously strongly influenced by Spender and Auden, and that is a bad sign, one may venture to suggest, for there is no use or point in duplicating one's contemporaries, even if it seems heroic to join a swelling chorus when a duet or trio will quite suit the purposes of one's age.