"kontinue kuriousity to its illogical klimax": Krazy Kat, E. E. Cummings and the (Un)Grammar of Modernism

Like it or not, there is a grammar of modernism. A set of rules that helps us read and define modernist literary and artistic practice. We tend to think of modernist texts as pressuring the language of their medium to extract all possible energies; as suppressing connectives and transitions in favour of an impersonal, unlogical narrative. We also look for renewed diction, rhythmical variety, renovated tones and textures that excite the expressiveness and multiply the meanings of images, figures of speech and symbols.

Into this grammar fall two figures fighting for space in the modernist canon: E. E. Cummings and George Herriman. To most, Herriman is known parenthetically as the illustrator of early twentieth-century comic strips. Notably, Herriman is the creator of Krazy Kat, a comic strip that ran from 1913 to 1944 and which took its aesthetic cues from Surrealism, Cubism, and Dadaism. E. E. Cummings on the other hand, is a well-known poet, painter, and illustrator who, while closely associated with most major modernist writers and movements, remains on the periphery of serious critical attentions. In the 1920s Cummings' poetry was described as "a symbol of extreme modernism," yet he is noticeably absent from Lawrence Rainey's anthology Modernism.

Describing himself as "An author of pictures, a draughtsman of words," Cummings occupies a unique position as both painter and poet. Cummings works both sides of the representational fence conscientiously accounting for visual and auditory signals of language. Like the illustrator and writer of a comic strip, Cummings is very conscious of the formal arrangement of the page as it signals audible remarks, image forms, and narrative logic. As Slater Brown once said, Cummings was a master of the "translation of one art into another." And, as it turns out, he was also an avid collector of Herriman's Krazy Kat comic strips. Always on the look-out for what he called the "Kat of indescribable beauty," he devoured Krazy Kat comics sent to him by friends in America while he was living in the Paris milieu of the 1920s and all its converging artistic movements. During this time, he also adopted the strip's alliterative "K" in his letters and was beginning in earnest to explore the stylistic techniques that would come to identify his poetry so forcefully. Cummings' move to break the poetic line, place an emphasis on vernacular language, and a highly visual formulation of the page-space, all find their counterparts in the daily Krazy Kat strips of George Herriman.

Krazy Kat Gets Beaned

In 1922, Gilbert Seldes, a close friend of Cummings' from Harvard, proclaimed Krazy Kat "the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in America today." Herriman's playful use of the vernacular, his "strictly irrational landscape in perpetual metamorphosis"--as Cummings called it--and his presentation of the ordinary within the philosophical discourses of self-discovery, certainly must have appealed to Cummings' own burgeoning ideas about what constituted poetic expression. Herriman's Krazy Kat, the sole plot of which involves the repeated motif of Ignatz the mouse "beaning the kat" with a brick in the head, is at once philosophically poignant and wildly artistic. (click to show/hide figure a) Like Cummings' texts, Herriman's Krazy Kat pushes traditional formal modes of expression, breaking the line, space, syntax, and logic. Moreover, both Cummings and Herriman engage in sustained attempts to expand and explode the grammar of their media by operating within a creative paradigm that is highly intellectual while incorporating humour, pictorial representation and linguistic play.

It is important at this point to qualify somewhat Cummings' interest in comics. Krazy Kat was not only a comic strip for the funny pages, it was what we might call an "intellectual comic," loved by a diverse group of artists including Picasso, Hemmingway, Stein, Chaplin, Joyce, and Walt Disney. As Umberto Eco suggests "the spectator, not seduced by a flood of gags, by any realistic or caricatural reference, by any appeal to sex and violence, freed then from the routine of a taste that led him to seek in the comic strip the satisfaction of certain requirements, could thus discover the possibility of a purely allusive world, a pleasure of a 'musical' nature, an interplay of feelings that were not banal." In short, the comic appealed to interpretation and rumination rather than arrival at slapstick punch lines. "In Krazy Kat," Eco Continues, "the poetry originated from a certain lyrical stubbornness in the author, who repeated his tale ad infinitum, varying it always but sticking to its theme" which resulted in "what many critics felt was a genuine state of poetry, an uninterrupted elegy based on sorrowing innocence." Cummings was not strictly a fan of comic strips. In the second of his 1952 Norton Lectures, he takes pains to "devoutly thank a beneficent Providence for allowing me to live my childhood and my boyhood and even my youth without ever once glimpsing that typical item of an era of at penultimate confusion--the uncomic nonbook. No paltry supermen, no shadowy space-cadets, no trifling hyperjunglequeens and pantless pantherwomen insulted my virginal imagination."

That said, Cummings liked Krazy Kat enough to write an essay about it, published in the 1946 Sewanee Review, in which he calls the strip "a meteoric burlesk melodrama." The characterization is interesting when taken in concert with the technical explanation he offers for his poetry in 1926's is 5: "I can express it in fifteen words, by quoting The Eternal Question And Immortal Answer of burlesque: 'Would you hit a woman with a child?--No, I'd hit her with a brick." Aside from the burlesque reference, the glib answer and the nature of the joke reflect Herriman's humour in the strip itself: (SEE Fig. 4 and 5):


Oh, say, Krazy, have you always been a KayKay?
What do you mean KK?
A Krazy Kat.
Is it possible you've been something else?
Once I was Krazy Kittens Ignatz.
Krazy Kat Gets Beaned (click to show/hide figure b)

And...

A Falling star, Krazy. A remarkable phenomena
Shux, a falling star ain't so much
Is that so?
It's how they don't fall that's remarkabul.
Krazy Kat Gets Beaned (click to show/hide figure c)

The matter-of-fact, but insightful, responses Krazy delivers to Ignatz have affinities with Cummings' attempts to explain his technical nuances and with the surface simplicity of Cummings' more politically charged poems. Moreover, they emphasize a component crucial to understanding the congruencies between the two artists: playfulness with formal poetics.