“Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit.”e. e. cummings
Sonnets – Actualities
by e. e. cummings
when I have thought of you somewhat too
much and a become perfectly and
simply Lustful….sense a gradual stir
of beginning muscle,and what it will do
in me before shutting….understand
i love you….feel your suddenly body reach
for me with a speed of white speech
(the simple instant of perfect hunger
how beautifully swims
the fooling world in my huge blood.
cracking brains A swiftlyenormous light
-and furiously puzzling through prismatic whims,
the chattering self perceives with hysterical fright
a comic tadpole wriggling in delicious mud
A glimpse into Cummings life over the next 3 years, from 1924 to 1926, has to be seen though the lens of Greenwich Village. By the start of 1925 Cummings was trying to dig himself out of the emotional wreckage of the previous year. Slowly but surely he got back into his regular daily routine of waking up, stoking his little stove at 4 Patchin Place, making some tea, having a wash cloth basin water clean up, fill his pipe and walk down to one of his favorite breakfast places for a bite to eat. Then he would head back to write or paint or both in the afternoon. When the creative juices left him he would set out to find a friend in New York City. During this time he established a new friendship with M. R. Werner who was a friend of Slater Brown’s from Colombia School of Journalism. Morie Werner had been a newspaper man in China and Japan before coming back to New York City and had a wide range of connections that would prove meaningful for Cummings, as well as being a good pal.
In addition to Werner, Cummings would seek out the companionship of John Dos Passos, or Mitchel, or Brown, or Nagy, sometimes to take a bath where hot water was more plentiful than his small apartment. Regardless of the company, Cummings would entertain his friends with stories or they would talk about art, politics or the latest edition of The Dial, of which Scofield Thayer remained editor. In addition, Cummings befriended a young Hart Crane and Allen Tate while both were living in New York City early in their careers.
It has not been until I began this January’s retrospective that I have realized how indirectly the lives of Cummings and Robert Lowell overlapped in a similar sphere, but a generation removed from each other. Cummings and Lowell grew up in the same neighborhood in Boston, both were New York City residents as adults and they had common friendships in Tate and Ezra Pound, and others, though at different points in time. Cummings opened the door for Lowell in terms of confessional poetry and harboring a unique style in writing sonnets, but not writing exclusively sonnets. Both had troubling marriages but found love, more than once in their lives. Both were somewhat immature and not particularly great Fathers, but sincere in the love they provided their children as best they could. Although they certainly met along the way late in Cummings life, the age difference prevented any kind of personal relationship, particularly during the 1920’s and 1930’s when Cummings was at some of his most productive years as an artist and Lowell was still a child.
For Cummings, 1925 was a year of legal wrangles and disappointments in losing battles with Elaine, but it was a year of productivity in terms of publishing and regaining his mojo. Cummings began writing comic sketches for Vanity Fair, parodies, drama reviews and anything that paid. It wasn’t satisfying artistically other than it scratched his satirical itch, but the money spent just the same as poetry. Thayer continued to showcase Cummings in The Dial, which had considerable influence in the literary world and provided some cash as well. In addition Werner would introduce him to a new benefactor, Muriel Draper, who collected struggling young artists, particularly handsome ones like Cummings.
By 1926, Cummings had a new girl friend, Anne Barton, a stunning model in New York City. Barton was introduced to him by his new friend Werner. It was good that Cummings had solid emotional support at the end of 1926, because tragedy would strike on Nov. 2 of that year, when the car being driven by Edward Cummings, Estlin’s father, was cut in half by a train at a rail road crossing, Edward was killed instantly and his mother was seriously injured but survived. Estlin was devastated. Fortunately, Estlin and Edwards had patched things up from the rocky period before the war and it doesn’t seem that there was much left unsaid between the two. Regardless the death of your father creates a new perspective on one’s place in the world and Cummings was a different man, a different writer from that point forward in his life.
As for his publisher, the success of his first novel and first book of poetry, created the opportunity to publish more daring fare during this period. The reading public may not have been ready for poems that included topics ranging from prostitutes, sex, erections and semen in 1923, but the times were a changing and Cummings confidence was growing. Cummings curated with his publisher some of his best latest work and combined it with some of the more risque or experimental material written from 1919 to 1923 and published it in two new volumes of poetry. Cummings published & (AND) in 1925, and is 5 in 1926. Cummings was becoming the poet he wanted to be, but sales of both books were meager, and the main source of his income remained his writing for Vanity Fair.
I intentionally selected two very testosterone driven poems, one from the 1925 volume and one from the 1926. I think it can be hard for women to sometimes relate to the constant nature of most young men’s sex drive (and some old men, or just men in general) and how the machinations of their penis goes beyond rational thought. The sonnet above is not one of Cummings best work, but it likely one of the most honest poems about arousal and the power of shared climax (or unshared) that had been published up to that point in literature. It is not thinly veiled or hidden behind fractured grammar. Cummings deals with a topic that few lovers articulate out loud or in black and white with each other – cum changes everything.
The second poem i suspect deals with topics that are both flash backs from Cummings war years, and a study in the people all around him in New York. Cummings and Lowell were different in one fundamental way that created an ocean between their lives as grown men, Cummings lived with other blue collar or even impoverished people, he lived in a poor neighborhood. He had friends who had money and benefited from those friendships, but he lived a simple life, with few possessions, and certainly not in an upscale neighborhood of New York like Lowell. Cummings was a working class artist his entire life, that is where he was most comfortable, where he was most productive. He lived at 4 Patchin Place for nearly 40 years. But it can be hard as a struggling artist to fit in with other working class people in your neighborhood. There is a lifestyle unique to the true Bohemian artist that people pulling down 12 hour shifts of manual labor can’t really relate. There is a certain freedom both in time and labor and thought, of self determination, by living off your artistic talents, that artists can take great pride in, even if it is meager fare, that working class people have a hard time relating too, despite their incomes being similar.
In my reading of the second poem, Cummings is channeling the feelings he had experienced during the war as a young man, when he didn’t fit very well among his fellow volunteers in the ambulance brigade, particularly alongside the older more sexually experienced or indulgent counterparts, because in part, he was too darn well behaved. Cummings didn’t indulge his youthful sexual energy, he didn’t take advantage of the proclivities available with prostitutes, either in Paris or in New York City, but he felt the same urges, like a gong on his Mother’s grandfather clock striking midnight.
p.s. – I suspect a Green River was a beer, a draft, common and affordable, probably their pet nickname for it and not the actual brand, kind of like my friends had nicknames for our cheap beer of choice in our late teens, that like many beers of the last 100 years, have a logo with a flowing clean river on their label….
Five Americans sV. Fran
by e. e. cummings
should i entirely ask of god why
on the alert neck of this brittle whore
delicately wobbles an improbably distinct face,
and how these wooden big two feet conclude
happeningly the unfirm drooping bloated
. . i would receive the answer more
or less deserved.Young fellow go in peace.
which i do being as Dick Mid once noted
lifting a Green River(here’s to youse)
“a bloke wot’s well behaved”…and always try
to not wonder how let’s say elation
causes the bent eyes thickly to protrude—
or why her tiniest whispered invitation
is like a clock striking in a dark house.