“The Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself.”e. e. cummings
by e. e. cummings
when serpents bargain for the right to squirm
and the sun strikes to gain a living wage—
when thorns regard their roses with alarm
and rainbows are insured against old age
when every thrush may sing no new moon in
if all screech-owls have not okayed his voice
—and any wave signs on the dotted line
or else an ocean is compelled to close
when the oak begs permission of the birch
to make an acorn—valleys accuse their
mountains of having altitude—and march
denounces april as a saboteur
then we’ll believe in that incredible
unanimal mankind(and not until)
Before I go any further in sharing the life story of Cummings, I want to circle back on a key point in his Harvard education that helps give context to the creativity of Cummings. There was one course that was required for all students at Harvard: English A, Rhetoric and English Composition, Oral and Written, taught by A. S. Hill, who was described by students as the “high priest of correctness and conformity to good usage.” The influence of this course, and the philosophy of writing taught by Professor Hill, possibly had more impact on American literature than any other college course in America at the time. This course was the foundation of what was considered “good” writing at Harvard and Hill maintained a strict norm, that writers became writers by writing, particularly writing well crafted expository prose.
At Harvard, there were plenty of opportunities for students to showcase their writing skills. There was the student newspaper, the satirical Harvard Lampoon, two literary periodicals that were student supported, The Harvard Advocate and the Harvard Monthly, both of which published verse, fiction, essays, reviews and literary criticism, as well as the quality of writing that was demanded by professors in classes throughout your time at Harvard. Because of the focus on the skill of writing and the opportunity to refine those skills in the public eye, with continuous feedback and encouragement during your degree, it meant Harvard churned out a prestigious group of writers during this period; Cummings, Conrad Aiken, Frederick Lewis Allen, T. S. Elliot, John Dos Passos, Robert Hillyer, Witter Bynner, Earl Biggers, Heywood Broun, Walter Lippman, John Wheelock, Robert Nathan, Samuel Morrison, Stuart Chase, Malcom Cowley, and so on….. Students who learned to write in Professor Hill’s course at Harvard went on to influence in the first half of the 20th Century in almost every aspect of American letters, from poetry, to fiction, to magazines, to non-fiction to newspapers, to screen plays.
Although creative writing was taught at Harvard in separate courses, the idea of ignoring the very foundation of writing, the craft of writing; proper spelling and grammar, correct use of punctuation, italics, and capitalization was unthinkable in the creation of verse to the faculty and students at Harvard in 1911. The style that Cummings would deploy very early after graduating from Harvard, abandoning the correctness of writing, throwing out convention, was an idea so radical, coloring so far outside the lines, it was heretical to Harvard’s version of literature when Cummings took this course. Today it looks common place, largely because of Cummings. It begs the question, why did Cummings gravitate so quickly to what would become his trademark approach to poetry? Where did his flat out rejection of what was considered proper verse at the time come from, what were his motivations and influence?
It’s a fabulous question and one best left to be answered by Cummings himself in his own words. Cummings penned several essays on his artistic ideals as a writer and painter. In his book of essays, titled A Miscellany Revised, he left us several important guideposts in his how-to manual in becoming an artist. He wrote:
As for expressing nobody-but-yourself in words, that means working just a little harder than anybody who isn’t a poet can possibly imagine. Why? Because nothing is quite as easy as using words like somebody else. We all of us do exactly this nearly all of the time — and whenever we do it, we’re not poets.
If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you’ve written one line of one poem, you’ll be very lucky indeed.
And so my advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something easy, like learning how to blow up the world — unless you’re not only willing, but glad, to feel and work and fight till you die.
Does that sound dismal? It isn’t.
It’s the most wonderful life on earth.
Or so I feel.
e. e. cummings; A Miscellany Revised
The idea of becoming an artist, a starving artist, was not what his father had envisioned for Estlin. Cummings had grown up with the expectations of following in his parents and his grandparents footsteps of success and high brow Boston respectability. For Cummings to become the man and artist he wanted to become, he had to overcome the tethers of those expectations that would hold him back. I see his rejection of conventional grammar as an armor he was building for himself in embracing his unconventional perspective he had of the world and his life.
Cummings originally published his essay; The Agony of Being an Artist(with a capital A), in Vanity Fair in 1927, and it was reprinted in A Miscellany Revised. In this essay he describes the three types of artists he sees around him New York;
First we have the ultrasuccessful artist, comprising two equally insincere groups: “commercial artists,” who concoct almost priceless pictures for advertising purposes, and “fashionable portrait painters,” who receive incredible sums for making unbeautifully rich women look richly beautiful….Next we have the thousands upon thousands of “academicians” — patient, plodding, platitudinous persons, whose loftiest aim is to do something which “looks just like” something else and who are quite content so long as this undangerous privilege is vouchsafed them. Finally there exists a species, properly designated as the Artist (with capital A) which differs radically from the ultrasuccessful type and the academic type. On the one hand, your Artist has nothing to do with success, his ultimate function being neither to perpetuate the jeweled neck of Mrs. O. Howe Thingumbob nor yet to assassinate dandruff. On the other hand he bears no likeness to the tranquil academician — for your Artist is not tranquil; he is in agony.e. e. cummings
Cummings artistic ideal in my opinion, is not one of rejection of convention, but one of acceptance of his true nature, both in his writing and his painting. He is not mercurial in his writing style, it is not an act of rebellion, it is I believe, his inner voice being allowed to be expressed upon the page. It is artistic, almost mystical in some poems, because it a shared experience between Cummings and the reader that is so pure, so intimate, it is absent of all the things we are expected to do as writers. Most of us who write took a similar College A English course, at one time or another, and still remember what we thought was a fine essay, or creative writing assignment, and it came back thoroughly marked with all its “faults” pointed out by some frustrated T. A. who acted like they got paid by the amount of red ink they slavished on student’s work.
Art is not something which may or may not be acquired, it is something which you are not or which you are. If a thorough search of yourself fails to reveal the presence of this something, you may be perfectly sure that no amount of striving, academic or otherwise, can bring it into your life. But if you are this something — then, gentle reader, no amount of discrimination and misapprehension can possibly prevent you from becoming an Artist. To be sure, you will not encounter “success,” but you will experience what is a thousand times sweeter than “success.” You will know that when all’s said and done….“to become an Artist” means nothing: whereas to become alive, or one’s self, means everything.e. e. cummings
Keep in mind, when Cummings wrote this essay, he had yet to achieve any kind of financial success or critical acclaim. His personal life was in shambles. He was toiling in obscurity except for a couple of good friends who continued to encourage him. Also remember that 4 Patchin Place was a cold water studio apartment, small and drafty. Cummings lived the ideal he was preaching, that the point of creating art was to find oneself, to liberate your soul, that was the payoff, not wealth or even comfort. The riches were in the richness of your life that expressing your art provides; in experiencing the best of being a human being. And in the end, we must find our own reward in this toil, not look outward for reassurance, but look inward for connection.
I started Fourteenlines, because I stopped feeling like I needed a poem of mine published in a bona fide journal to verify myself as a “poet.” I stopped caring that I enjoyed writing in a style that was largely out of favor. I decided to spend my time writing, rather than spending my time trying to get published. I was totally aware that my writing was never going to bring any kind of financial remuneration or critical acclaim, it wasn’t going to generate thousands of followers, or hundreds of likes, it was simply going to go out in the universe. The moment I stopped worrying about what happened to my writing or whether anyone would even read it, the more enjoyment I got from it. I write poetry when the mood strikes me to write poetry, because when I do, it is often the best part of my day, my week, my month, my year. If I can write one poem a year, that helps me better understand myself, I have totally succeeded in my artistic endeavors and it is no longer agony, it is bliss. When I give up the need to be appreciated and let the act of writing be its own reward, then I truly have become the writer I want to be and I can then let Cummings version of Agony, be my glory. And in that regard I think Cummings and I agree:
Our next problem is to find the necessary agony.Where is it, gentle reader?
Your answer:the agony lies in the fact that we stand no chance of being appreciated….e. e. cummings.
And yet, for all of Cummings unique artistic vision, the sway of Professor Hill and his Harvard education, a sort of intellectual gravity, constantly pulled him back to the classics, to the sonnet, and that magnetism never left him. Fourteen lines was the pallet on which he wrote more often than not. Today’s two poems come from late in Cummings career. The one above is from his 1950 book XAIPE, which means rejoice in Greek. It is a classic sonnet in every way except for punctuation and grammar. It has a surprise riddle ending that causes you to go back and reread it to figure out what is going on in your mind. Otherwise its construction follows the strict rules of the sonnet to a T, a form which most poets find too restraining to deploy.
The poem below is from his 1958 book 95 Poems. It’s simplicity is what I enjoy about it. There are only two words that are clearly articulated, the first and the last, both capitalized; Beautiful, Now. The rest in between, is a playful dissection, a deconstruction of the unmeaning of everywhere…. What more do you need in a poem, but to remind you, your life and you are Beautiful – Now!
by e. e. cummings