Tuesday 6 July 2010

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

One of my favourite tunes a few summers ago was Goldfrapp's 'Ooh La La' from their album 'Supernature'. The mix of synths and bass was superb and the video (you can watch it here, but do expect to be dazzled by the flashing lights and the white/silvery costumes) was a beautiful combination of glam-rock and disco. However, what I loved above all was the raunchy lyrics ('Switch me on/Turn me up/Don't want it Baudelaire/Just glitter lust/Switch me on/Turn me up/I want to touch you/You're just made for love') and especially the refrain with its: 'I need la la la la la la/I need ooh la la la la/I need la la la la la la/I need ooh la la la la'. There's no reason to wreck one's brain trying to figure out where the title of the song came from.

Lately, though, this song has been playing on my head for reasons other than its quality. Like its refrain, made for hedonistic, sweltering summer nights, the world of literature is awash with half-muttered thoughts, non-sensical text and pixieish innuendos. When it came to choosing a piece to illustrate my thesis tonight, I didn't have to think twice, for there is a poem that perfectly encapsulates the saucy 'I need ooh la la la la' attitude: ee cummings' 'may i feel said he' (his lower case in both the title and most of the poem).

'may i feel said he
(i'll squeal said she
just once said he)
it's fun said she

(may i touch said he
how much said she
a lot said he)
why not said she

(let's go said he
not too far said she
what's too far said he
where you are said she)

may i stay said he
which way said she
like this said he
if you kiss said she

may i move said he
is it love said she)
if you're willing said he
(but you're killing said she

but it's life said he
but your wife said she
now said he)
ow said she

(tiptop said he
don't stop said she
oh no said he)
go slow said she

(cccome?said he
ummm said she)
you're divine!said he
(you are Mine said she)'

There are many elements on display here that make this poem innovative and traditional at the same time. The rhyming pattern is syntactically avantgarde, supported chiefly by the author's decision to alternate the personal pronouns 'he' and 'she' at the end of each verse. Secondly, the absence of punctuation shifts the responsibility onto the reader, to pause as and when he/she wishes. I tend to read it in the same way one would read a sonnet. Only that in this poem one is presented with sentences of four or five syllables each. That's where the traditional factor comes in. Although given a modern twist, this is a love poem above all. Sadly, it is thought that Cummings was describing an adulterous situation.

The 'I need ooh la la la la' approach is omnipresent in the poem. We don't know what made the woman change her mind after saying she would squeal if he touched her. We can only imagine. Likewise, when the author writes '(tiptop said he/don't stop said she/oh no said he)/go slow said she' we can only laugh as adults do when they're let in on a naughty joke.

The masterstroke, to me, is that capital 'm' in 'Mine' (that's how it appears on Poem Hunter) amidst a sea of lower-case letters. It subverts what was previously subversive tone and syntax. It leaves the reader with a half-chewed, non-sensical question floating above his/her head. I think that were ee cummings around today, he would probably be thinking analogue synths, disco beats, racy tunes and raunchy I need ooh la la la las.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Yella' (Review), to be published on Thursday 8th July at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Beautiful connection, Cuban, and oh, how I love that album!

  2. It is a cute poem. It is not an adulterous situation? She was the wife?

    It is a woman's prerogative to change her mind at anytime she chooses, but did she change her mind?

  3. Me encanta! Comos estas amigo?

  4. I definitely read it as an adulterous poem. I didn't see a love connection but lust.

    The capital 'M' was telling, I agree. Throughout the poem there's a feeling that he's in charge but in the end we realise that she's been in charge the whole time. That's how I read it anyway. The great thing about poetry is that it can be interpreted differently depending on where you put the stresses in your reading.


  5. Thanks for your comments.

    Oh, yes, it was adulterous, definitely. And delightfully decadent, too.

    Greetings from London.

  6. A charming ee cummings poem, especially because the lover-speaker asks, keeps asking in a playful way.

    Who knows what happened in life, but certainly the speaker in the poem is a successful seducer. Oh, the power of words.

  7. I love how you tie contemporary music to classic poetry. The “M” does stand out and sends a message. The video link was not available, but I can guess how it sounds from the images and lyrics.

  8. It may not be right, whatever that is..but you can always trust lust!

  9. One of my favourite poems: it seems so simple but perfectly shows the complex game couples used to have to play in order to inject a little ooh la la into their lives. It reminds me, too, of Ray Carver's short story 'The Lie' which does something similar.



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