It seems like just about everybody falls in love with E.E. Cummings sometime during middle school or high school. Maybe it’s the way he thumbs his nose at conventions. Maybe it’s his revolutionary politics. Maybe it’s just the fact that the guy seems to get away with things that your high school English teacher would cream you for doing. Whatever it is, Cummings manages to top the list of most people’s favorite poets. Don’t believe us? Check out the Favorite Poetry Project (you can find the link in our "Best of the Web" section). We told you…
Cummings isn’t just a pretty face, though. Behind that jolly springtime life-is-a-bed-of-roses poetry we’ve been reading lies some stunning experimentation with acoustic and syntactic forms. In other words, the guy knows sounds. And words. His early works, which include Tulips & Chimneys (the book in which "in Just-" is printed) played deliberately simple language against unorthodox and even uncanny combinations of sounds.
Not content to play with new forms, Cummings also deliberately referenced tried and true classics. Chansons Inocentes, which includes "in Just-," riffs upon an über-famous poet William Blake. Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience depicted the lives of, well, the "innocent" and the…not-so-innocent. With good poets, there’s usually a twist. Lurking behind all the smiling children and laughing animals in Blake’s Songs of Innocence is the sense that innocence will inevitably fade. After all, you can’t stay young forever. A similar ominous note threads its way through Cummings's poem. Sure, it’s all about spring and happiness and youth. Then again, the balloonman isn’t a kid. He’s a man. Moreover, he’s old and rather creepy. Is he…the future?
We know, we know: it sounds like we’re trying to rain on a little kid’s parade. Reading the balloonman as an ominous figure definitely isn’t the only way to read "in Just-." It’s just a really unsettling way to read it!
Oh – did we mention that Cummings was a painter, as well? Yup. And a playwright and essayist. The guy had game. Modernist painting, however, deeply influenced Cummings’s poetry. He tried very hard to blur the boundaries between visual art and literary arts. After all, isn’t all life art? As he himself said, "Nothing measurable can be alive; nothing which is not alive can be art; nothing which cannot be art is true: and everything untrue doesn’t matter a very good God damn..." (Cummings, A Miscellany Revisited). We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.
Maybe you were never a small child. Maybe you hate the sun. Heck, maybe you like the cold, dirty, rainy, sleet-full days of winter. Maybe sitting in your basement with all of the lights off is your idea of a jolly time. In that case, you will think that this poem is totally without merit.
If you do happen to have a tiny bit more enthusiasm than the gloom-and-doomsters that started applauding when we talked about life in the basement, though, then this poem might just remind you of the happiest days of your existence. Remember when you had a countdown calendar to tick off the last days of school? When that calendar ended, man, things were good. All of a sudden the sun shone like five times brighter and you could run at least twice as far as you ever had before. The world was chock-full of promise and potential and boy, did you have plans. There was stickball to be played and lemonade to be sold and that was only the beginning…
This, folks, is what Cummings’s poem is all about. It’s a twenty-second ride back into those happy, happy times. And hey, who couldn’t use a little bit of happiness in their life?