Thursday, June 30, 2011

Was E.E.Cummings racist?

A previously unpublished poem by E.E.Cummings was recently discovered by literary professor James Dempsy in the course of researching Scofield Taylor, publisher of the influential magazine The Dial. The Awl as published it, a brief, spare observation that leaves you scratching your head, a typical response to Cummings best and worst writing. This poem, though, is different; the language makes us asks if Cummings were a racist. The start of the poem gets your attention quickly:
in nigger
the snow is perfectly falling,
the noiselessly snow is
sexually fingering the utterly asleep
The entire poem can be viewed here.

You can feel the hair rise one neck of those modern critics already defensive about the politics of a number of  Modernist poets. This was another era, a good while ago, and it wasn't an uncommon thing for otherwise smart and perceptive people, Cummings included, using the word "nigger" without intending to judge and subjugate an entire segment of the population on the basis of race. That is to that I doubt Cummings use of the word was used in a racist manner; from readings of Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner and Van Vechten, the use seems more idiomatic than hurtful. "Nigger", though, has morphed in the many decades since Cummings' quizzical poem, as the history of the Civil Rights movement reveals the insane, hateful cultural undercurrent from which the word emerges.The word is loaded with the freight of every racist thought, judgment, and agenda that has been enacted in this country and it has become something that none of us can use with any authority other than to be hurtful. The other explanation for saying or writing "nigger” in light of what the word has come to mean is the kind of weak-kneed "irony", that one needs to use the word in light of the pain we allow them to cause. Lenny Bruce maintained that these are only words and it is our forbidding the use that gives them their hurtful power; expose the words and the lies behind them and we neutralize their power over our emotions. Lester Bangs, contrarily, wrote years later in an essay titled "White Noise Supremacists", that he had tried Bruce's prescription and uttered and wrote "nigger" in what he meant as irony--he was attempting to empty the term of the potential to cause pain.

Bangs, though, gauged the response of readers, editors, and friends and discovered his humanist reasoning wasn't assuaging anyone. The roots of the pain were too deeply embedded in our culture's worst sustained tendencies: this word, and words like it, hurt.  Cummings, as a poet, can be excused in part because I suspect he meant "nigger" to be a synonym for "night" or a term equally nocturnal; A quiet winter night in winter, snow on the houses, the lights are out. There is subtext s here, to be sure, the obvious ones being the sexual attraction of whites to blacks, but there are nearly always subtexts and ambiguity in poems; Cummings purpose is to create tension between terms denoting abstract virtues of black and white and force a reader, perhaps force himself, that one is drawn to the other and that , in fact, one needs the other in which to exist, thrive, to find happiness in the many layers of grief life-as-it-is will hand you. This is a reading, though, that is lost in the sweep of history, save a protest from an apologist arising here and there.  Cummings fans will no doubt make like this poem had never emerged.Is Cummings a racist for using this odious term? No. Could he have gotten away with writing this poem today? Not on your life.

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