unbeing dead is not being alivee. e. cummings
Sonnets – Realities
by e. e. cummings
the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls
are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds
(also, with the church’s protestant blessings
daughters,unscented shapeless spirited)
they believe in Christ and Longfellow, both dead,
are invariably interested in so many things—
at the present writing one still finds
delighted fingers knitting for the is it Poles?
perhaps. While permanent faces coyly bandy
scandal of Mrs. N and Professor D
…. the Cambridge ladies do not care, above
Cambridge if sometimes in its box of
sky lavender and cornerless, the
moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy
The sonnet above is the very first sonnet in Cummings first book of poetry Tulips and Chimneys published in 1923. There are 87 poems that precede it in the volume, none of them sonnets. Several have important historical significance and add textural context to Cummings as a writer and as a human being, but in my opinion there isn’t a one I would choose to read again and again, they are all rather forgettable and average. Its not that he didn’t write some great poetry during those years, it was that he was still too firmly under the overhang of Cambridge and the shadow of his father’s opinions to be bold enough to try and publish his best work.
Cummings first book of poetry is not that great. It followed his avante garde novel based on his war time experience in France called The Enormous Room which had been published in 1922 while Cummings was traveling in Europe. A fictional yet autobiographical experimental novel that was part confession, part metaphor for Cummings mind, the novel discussed the absurdity of aspects of the war and his confinement with 30 other men all under suspicion for one crime or another by French authorities. Cummings father had received a cable oddly coinciding with the start of his imprisonment in which it wrongly portrayed Cummings as lost at sea, rather than sitting for months awaiting arraignment in La Ferte-Maiche and it took several months to clear that up, and in doing so, drew Cummings father closer to his son again.
The reviews of The Enormous Room were positive, as there was a audience for satirical writing by intellectuals criticizing the war and it awarded Cummings both some well needed cash and the opportunity to publish the year later his poetry. It also helped heal up the relationship with his father, which had become fractured in previous years when Cummings was coming of age. His father gave Cummings positive feedback and encouragement as a writer and as an artist, something that had been sorely lacking when he first graduated from Harvard. Cummings wartime experience had reset the bonds between them. The critical success of the novel gave credibility to Cummings passions that he could be successful as an artist, a writer.
Cummings was shocked when he finally received his first printed copy of The Enormous Room. The editor had rearranged the order of some of the book, had replaced some of Cummings experimental word choices and illogical grammar, that was intentionally unconventional, had translated some of the French portions into English and generally made a mess of it in the first printing in Cumming’s eyes. Of course readers and critics were not aware of it and generally gave it favorable reviews. However, his experience with his publisher on his first printing of his first book caused Cummings to become extremely autocratic in the publishing process from there forward, demanding to review 7, 8 or 9 drafts, before agreeing to the final typeset copy as he was extremely distrustful of well meaning typesetters screwing up his poetry.
There are several things that jump out at me in Cummings first volume of poetry. He has already formulated the basis of his style that was to remain throughout his lifetime. His poetry looks commonplace today with irregular line spacing, made up words and odd use of punctuation, but all of those things were not common or accepted in 1919 – 1922 when he did the bulk of the writing for the manuscript. Cummings first book is less about the finished poems and more about establishing the process and the acceptance of his process. Cummings was testing the waters to see if the public and critics were ready to embrace linguistic gymnastics in the style that Cummings wanted to write. Tulips and Chimneys was a success because it proved to himself and his father that Cummings was a writer who could get paid, at least enough to scratch out the bohemian lifestyle in Greenwich village that he preferred over the comfort of Cambridge which he scorned.
There could not be a greater contrast between these two sonnets on today’s blog, separated by only a couple of pages in the book. Cummings sonnets are unconventional but retain aspects of convention. Cummings did not title his sonnets as a rule in his books, he numbered them, just like every influential Sonneteer who had preceded him. The sonnet below has the vestiges of the joy that Cummings channeled into some of his best poetry. It is a simple, playful, defiant embrace of the city that he would love and reside in for the remainder of his life.
Sonnets – Realities
by e. e. cummings
by god I want above fourteenth
fifth’s deep purring biceps,the mystic screech
of Broadway,the trivial stink of rich
frail firm asinine life
for what’s below. the singer. Wall. i want
the perpendicular lips the insane teeth
the vertical grin
give me Square in spring,
the little barbarous Greenwich perfumed fake
And most.the futile fooling labyrinth
where noisy colours stroll….and the Baboon
siniggering insipidities while. I sit,sipping
singular anisettes as. One opaque
big girl jiggles thickly hips to the kanoon
but Hassan chuckles seeing the Greeks breathe!