magnificence conquers magnificence

Scofield Thayer portrait by e. e. cummings 1921

One is not half of two; two is halves of one.

e. e. cummings

Epithalamion (An Excerpt)

3

by e. e. cummings

Lover,lead forth thy love unto that bed
prepared by whitest hands of waiting years,
curtained with wordless worship absolute,
unto the certain altar at whose head
stands that clear candle whose expecting breath
exults upon the tongue of flame half-mute
(haste ere some thrush with silver several tears
complete the perfumed paraphrase of death).

Now is the time when all occasional things
close into silence,only one tree,one
svelte translation of eternity
unto the pale meaning of heaven cling,
(whose million leaves in winsome indolence
simmer upon thinking twilight momently)
as down the oblivious west’s numerous dun
magnificence conquers magnificence.


Epithalamion is the first poem in Tulips and Chimneys.  It is unusual in several regards in looking at Cummings complete body of work.  First is its length, comprised of 21 stanzas eight lines each broken into three equal parts, its is the longest poem that Cummings published and yet it was one of his first paying gigs as a writer.  Second, it is one of the most formal, most conventional poems of Cummings career. The title Epithalamion draws on Cummings knowledge of Greek and Latin and it means a song or poem written in honor of a marriage.   Cummings wrote it as a  commission in 1916 for Scofield Thayer, his friend from Harvard, on the occasion of Thayer’s marriage to Elaine Orr.   Thayer paid Cummings the exorbitant sum of $1,000 dollars for the poem and was absolutely thrilled with it.  The money, along with the shot of confidence it created, helped Cummings establish his first move to New York City, before his war years.   But the relationship between Scofield and Elaine was convoluted from the very beginning and only gets more so over the next decade.   

Cummings is quoted as saying in the years leading up to the publishing of Tulips and Chimneys that in Paris he was a poet, but in New York City he was a painter.  Although Cummings legacy as an artist is most widely known for his words, he was a prolific and talented painter though out his lifetime. Cummings had a tilt towards cubism in his water colors and oils, with a penchant towards experimental shapes and compositions (many of which he titled Sound) or portraits, like the one of Scofield Thayer that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.  Several of Cummings paintings have been collected by prestigious museums, like the Metropolitan museum in New York.  A quick google search and you will find there are as many or more images of Cummings as self portraits as sketches or paintings as there of photographs of him on the internet.   

Cummings worked very hard on his craft as a painter.  He entered numerous shows prior to the war and was thrilled at getting his paintings placed in galleries and exhibits in New York City and his success at selling some of them.  Cummings received more positive feedback as a painter in those years than he did as a writer.  There’s no financial accounting in his biographies, but in the years from 1917 to 1922, it is fair to guess that Cummings made more money on the sale of his paintings than he did on the sale of his poetry.  His father prior to the war was disdainful of Cummings focus on all his artistic pursuits, but in particular his painting.  When Cummings returned his father changed his position and was much more supportive with a standing offer in several letters to buy paintings if Cummings  was in need of cash.  Its unclear if Cummings ever took him up on the offer as he was steadfast in trying to make it as a struggling artist, it was part of his psyche and it was in part his driver, his creative force, a sense of him having to make it in the world on his own. 

There was a striking contrast to Scofield and Elaine’s lifestyle in New York City and Cummings’ in those years.  The Thayers lived in an upscale residence with ample funds for dining and entertainment, while Cummings bunked with male room mates in drafty small quarters in Greenwich village.  Scofield and Cummings had a long running friendship.  Cummings was completely smitten by Elaine, her poise, her social skills, her beauty.  Cummings was known throughout his lifetime as an interesting dining companion with endless opinions, quotes, quips and stories to entertain his friends.  Scofield enjoyed his company, appreciated his mind and his art, and encouraged what started out as a platonic flirtation with his wife.   It was well known among Scofield and Cummings circle of mutual friends that everyone was either in love with Elaine or in love with Cummings, (men and women).   

Prior to the war, the Thayers and Cummings relationship was one of youthful exuberance, but it took on a darker tone when Cummings was released from the Army in 1919 and returned to Greenwich Village.  Scofield had somehow lost interest in Elaine and had established separate residences for each of them.  Cummings was still smitten with Elaine and Scofield encouraged their friendship and time together to keep Elaine happily distracted while he did his own thing.   All three were miserable in some regards and it was clear the situation was not sustainable. 

Elaine gave birth to her daughter Nancy on December 20, 1919.  It is not clear exactly when both Estlin and Scofield knew it was Cummings’ daughter and not Scofield’s, but it came to light pretty quickly.   It is possible that Scofield was not having sex with Elaine, and may have been gay, but regardless, the paternity of Nancy was never in dispute, though it did remain a closeted secret until Nancy was an adult.  Eslin, Scofield, Elaine and Nancy’s lives were intertwined from that point forward, before and after Elaine and Scofield’s divorce in 1921, in which Scofield generously established financial support for both Elaine and Nancy, (and by extension, Estlin).   Elaine maintained a separate residence from both Scofield and Estlin, as she had much greater financial resources than Estlin, both from her family and the divorce settlement from Scofield. Also Estlin was not ready to be a family man and did not want to be a financial burden on Elaine.  But Estlin was a presence in Nancy’s life from the time she was a toddler on-ward, kind of the fun friend of the family, like a young Uncle who took Nancy out to the park, the circus, did art together during that period.

 In 1921, Cummings decided to follow in the footsteps of his Harvard friend John Dos Passos and head to Lisbon, Portugal.  Cummings would go on to travel and live across Europe from 1921 to 1924,  meeting and establishing friendships with Ezra Pound, connecting with Conrad Aiken and T. S. Eliot, among other friends from Harvard, while in Europe.  During this period both Elaine and Nancy and Scofield frequently visited Paris to see Cummings, or Cummings traveled with Elaine and Nancy or Scofield, to London, to the French seaside, to Italy, etc.   Cummings and Elaine connected frequently in this period and Estlin was part of Nancy’s early childhood if somewhat distantly.

If you consider the period, it was the roaring 20’s, an improving economy in both the United States and across Europe. It was a period of incredible change in science, art and ideas, with jazz, modernist painting, literature exploding on the cultural landscape.  In addition radical new ideas on the social compact was clashing with the monarchies of the past, with socialism, communism and a rethinking of  the idea of government and wealth distribution all churning in the urban centers across Europe and the east coast of the United States.  There was an era of sexual liberation among the educated elite that ran parallel to the evolving ideas on philosophy and psychology that were coming from Freud and others.  Cummings and his liberal Harvard friends used those years, to figure out where they were headed as writers, artists, social commentators, activists and human beings.    

Two things caused Cummings to return to New York City in 1924: he needed to attend to matters with his publisher (as he needed the funds) and Scofield was encouraging both Cummings and Elaine to get married.   Scofield had consulted Freud himself on the matter, as Scofield was a patient of Freud’s,  and thought it a good idea. 

Some of Cummings best work published in Tulips and Chimneys was written with Elaine as his muse, prior to and after the Thayer’s divorce.  His relationship with Elaine was not public information at the time of its first printing, but looking back with the benefit of history, all the love poems and many of the poems on art and spirituality connect in some ways with the convoluted three way love story that had existed between Scofield, Elaine and Estlin.   . 


Sonnets – Unrealties
Tulips and Chimneys

V

when my sensational moments are no more
unjoyously bullied of vilest mind

and sweet uncaring earth by thoughtful war
heaped wholly  with high wilt of human rind —
when over hate has triumphed darkly love

and the small spiritual cry of spring
utters a striving flower,
                                          just where strove
the droll god-beasts

                                        do though distinctly bring
thy footsteps,and he rushing of thy deep
hair and the smiting smile didst love to use
in other days (drawing my Mes from sleep
whose stranger dreams they strangeness must abuse….)

Time not being for us,purple roses were
sweeter to thee
                               perchance to me deeper.

by god i want above fourteenth

E. E. Cummings circa 1912

unbeing dead is not being alive

e. e. cummings

Sonnets – Realities
Tulips and Chimneys

 
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
Tulips and Chimneys

V

 
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
                                        (I pant
 
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!
 

 

goodby Betty,don’t remember me

E. E. Cummings in France in 1917

It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.

e. e. cummings

Sonnets – Realities
Tulips and Chimneys

III

by e. e. cummings

goodby Betty,don’t remember me
pencil your eyes dear and have a good time
with the tall tight boys at Tabari’
s,keep your teeth snowy,stick to beer and lime,
wear dark,and where your meeting breasts are round
have roses darling,it’s all i ask of you –
but that when light fails and this sweet profound
Paris moves with lovers,two and two
bound for themselves,when passionately dusk
brings softly down the perfume of the world
(and just as smaller stars begin to husk
heaven)you,you exactly paled and curled
with mystic lips take twilight where i know:
proving to Death that Love is so and so.


The quote from Cummings above is often given to young people in a card  who are graduating from high school or college.  But really it should be mandatory reading when we turn 30, because for most adults who actually achieve becoming the person they want to be, they don’t do it until their 30’s, 40’s or 50’s, everything leading up to that is simply the prerequisite experience, successes and failures, needed to shape  and reshape the clay.  Artists rarely wake up at age 18 and are the artist that we look back on as the seminal genius history remembers. Cummings was no different. The period from graduating from Harvard (1916) and publishing his first book of poetry (Tulips and Chimneys, 1923) are not even the period when e. e. cummings summoned the courage to be who he wanted to be, it was the period where he was trying to figure it out.

It is not easy to follow in the footsteps of a father who is as accomplished as the Reverend Edward Cummings. Edward the elder had grown up in a comfortably wealthy family in Cambridge and as a young man was a successful sociology professor at Harvard.   But midlife, he realized that was not his calling, and so he went back to Harvard Divinity College and became an ordained minister, supercharging his considerable intellect and focus on religion, social justice and peace.  Estlin grew up under the shadow of expectations watching his father lead a large congregation and as the head of the World Peace Foundation.  So when Estlin graduated from Harvard and the U. S. not yet in the conflict in Europe, he became more active in the peace movement, attending antiwar rallies and becoming more and more concerned about the war. Cummings did what many educated intellectuals had done before him potentially facing the draft, he volunteered for the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Service in France, a non-combatant duty that fit his inclinations of service and pacifism.  In route to France via ship, he was seasick and in his common misery struck up a friendship with William Slater Brown.  Upon arrival in France he, along with his fellow volunteers, got themselves to the office in Paris, only to find the city relatively little impacted at that time by the war.  They put themselves up in an affordable and suitably shabby-chic hotel along the Seine and promptly set out to do what most 18 years old would in a bright urban city; figure out how to get laid. Paris in 1917, allowed a certain amount of sexual freedom, with beautiful and sometimes partially clad women on stages and in night clubs, a sexual vibrancy that clearly set it apart from the still relatively conservative New York City where he had been living. But Estlin was a late bloomer in terms of puberty and sexual confidence. Combine that with being the son of a famous Minister and for Estlin that period in Paris was more titillation than actual tits, as he would come back from his war years at least professing to still be a virgin. 

However, all that sexual tension may have contributed to what would become a seminal moment in his life, an actual act of rebellion.  Cummings had arrived in Paris in mid-April and was not placed on his assignment in the town of Germaine until mid June, giving him and his buddies 2 full months to explore all that Paris had to offer young men in uniform. But the fun and freedom of Paris rapidly turned into the drudgery, boredom and barbarity of the front.  Ambulance drivers were assigned in pairs and Cummings and Brown grew closer as their world view differed from some of their coarser counterparts in their unit.   The two became a bit estranged from their unit and didn’t follow protocol, preferring the company of French troops over their own.   The two also began using their down time to try and outwit the censors by using their considerable intellectual powers and poetry skills to try and insert secret messages in their letters to family and friends back home.   The combination of their questionable correspondence and non-compliant attitudes and pacifist leanings eventually got them both arrested and thrown in detention on suspicion of espionage.  The culminating act when in September of that year, Cummings was detained at a border point by French authorities and refused to answer the question ” Do you hate the Germans?”

Fortunately for Cummings his malfeasance was not taken as seriously as it could have been and although he was arrested and taken to La Ferte-Mace, a holding station for aliens awaiting their investigation to determine if they were to be deported or turned over to the military for trial, the ordeal had the pleasant side benefit of giving him time to write in relative comfort.  La Ferte-Mace was a pleasant enough Normandy agricultural station that had been retrofitted for its current purpose and Cummings and Brown were put in with other detainees in one large room.  Cummings and Brown immediately found comaraderie with their fellow prisoners and this experience would become the creative fuel for Cummings first book in 1922, which in turn would open the gates of the publishing world for his poetry.  Cummings was detained for three months, and despite his father’s attempts to intervene sooner, Cummings had to wait for the process to work itself out.  As expected he was deported back to the United States by January of 1918.   Obviously the U. S. Government did not consider his shenanigans in the French ambulance service a threat to the war effort because he was drafted in July and told to report to Camp Devin in upstate New York for training immediately.  Fortunately for Estlin, his conscription into the Army came late enough that although he spent six miserable months as a private at Fort Devin, he was released before ever having to see combat or go overseas again.  Cummings accepted his time in the army with grim fatalism, knowing that doing what he was required and keeping his head down was better than being defiantly noticed by his superiors.  However, having stood for his principles as a pacifist and as a budding artist during his brushes with the stodgy bureaucracy of both the French and U. S. armed forces emboldened Cummings for what would be the next stage in his journey, leaving Cambridge,  Massachusetts,  and the shadow of his families legacy for good and establishing himself in New York City by early 1919. 


Sonnets – Unrealities 
(Tulips and Chimneys)

III

by e. e. cummings

A connotation of infinity
sharpens the temporal splendor of this night

when souls which have forgot frivolity
in lowliness,noting the fatal flight
of worlds whereto this earth’s a hurled dream

down eager avenues of lifelessness

consider for how much themselves shall gleam,
in the poised radiance of perpetualness.
When want’s in velvet beyond doomed thought

is like a woman amorous to be known:
and man,whose here is always worse than naught,
feels the tremendous yonder for his own – 

on such a night the sea through her blind miles

of crumbling silence seriously smiles

love’s a universe beyond obey

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s home in Cambridge, across from which E. E. Cummings grew up

My father moved through theys of we,
singing each new leaf out of each tree
(and every child was sure that spring
danced when she heard my father sing)….

and nothing quite so least as truth
—i say though hate were why men breathe—
because my Father lived his soul
love is the whole and more than all

e. e. cummings (Excerpt from my father moved through dooms of love), written after Edward Cummings death in an automobile accident in 1926.

nothing false and possible is love

by e. e. cummings

Nothing false and possible is love
(who’s imagined, therefore is limitless)
love’s to giving as to keeping’s give;
as yes is to if, love is to yes

must’s a schoolroom in the month of may:
life’s the deathboard where all now turns when
(love’s a universe beyond obey
or command,reality or un-)

proudly depths above why’s first because
(faith’s last doubt and humbly heights below)
kneeling, we-true lovers-pray that us
will ourselves continue to outgrow

all whose mosts if you have known and i’ve
only we our least begin to guess


Edward Estlin Cummings was destined to be a poet. He was conceived and grew up in a house across the street from where Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had lived, poetry part of the pageantry of his youth, but more importantly he wanted to please his mother, who wanted nothing else for her son than to become a poet. Cummings began writing a poem a day from the time he was six years old, learning an important lesson, that to become a writer you have to write, even if most of what you write is not very good. What’s interesting to me is how poets become poets, and not just writers, particularly poets that we look back on that influenced the trajectory of poetry in the 20th century. How did Estlin become a poet, preferring his middle name over his first name Edward, the mantle of wearing the same name as his father a bit to much to carry.

Several important factors steered him in a poetic direction, his father’s influence as a Unitarian minister and prominent reformer and proponent of social justice, seeped into his soul listening to his father’s sermon’s each Sunday, combined with the permanent chip on his shoulder stemming from his rather smallish physique and his preferred self stylized temperament as the struggling artist. When you then stir in a Harvard education in the classics with his experience during World War I, when he was imprisoned on charges of desertion, it set the stage for a young, slightly smug, immature writer to develop into the Greenwich village poet we admire today. Although Cummings first artistic commission occurred shortly after he graduated from College, a friend asking him to write a poem in honor of his engagement, in which he paid Cummings the handsome sum of $1,000 in 1916, enough to sort of establish the young Cummings as a man of independence from his father, it was not until 1922, that Cummings career as a poet, writer and playwright would take root.

But to understand Cummings maturity as a poet, one has to balance both how he benefited and scorned the bubble that was the posh and coddled society of Cambridge from whence he came. Cummings best poetry is relatively simple with a whiff of satire, or even scorn, taking nothing much seriously, except for the very seriousness of his favorite topic – love. Cummings seemed to never have escaped the puritan expectations that goes with being a minister’s son and yet that very yoke seemed to be the thing he needed most to eventually put to paper some of the most beautiful love poems of the past 100 years. The fact that sex was not a topic of conversation in the Cummings household growing up maybe why he was more than a bit fixated on it as an adult. However, Cummings faith and his father’s influence never left him and so in Cummings creativity, the playfulness of language becomes the smokescreen to purify the passion that still clearly rests beneath the surface of his best work. Cummings unconventional use of language was a way to make acceptable even the most graphic of his emotions. Though Cummings would live a most unconventional, conventional life, fathering his only child, a daughter, while having an affair with his best friend’s wife, his best love poems convey the unconditional love that he found compelling in his faith and yet a bit elusive in his real life as a young man, at least until he met Marion Morehouse.


it is at moments after i have dreamed

by e. e. cummings

It is at moments after i have dreamed
of the rare entertainment of your eyes,
when(being fool to fancy)i have deemed
with your peculiar mouth my heart made wise;
at moments when the glassy darkness holds

the genuine apparition of your smile
(it was through tears always)and silence moulds
such strangeness as was mine a little while;

moments when my once more illustrious arms
are filled with fascination, when my breast
wears the intolerant brightness of your charms:

one pierced moment whiter than the rest

– turning from the tremendous lie of sleep
i watch the roses of the day grow deep

the ears of my ears awake

 

i thank You GOD for most this amazing
by e. e. cummings (1894 – 1962)

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginably You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)


Welcome to 2022!   I have been debating for some time what poet I was going to showcase in January and I finally settled on e. e. cummings.  Several things factored into my decision; few poets are more closely connected to the sonnet during their career and yet are known for pushing the boundaries of poetry forward.   Cummings best work still sounds fresh, yet it is the structure of the sonnet that kept Cummings  grounded. 

As we head into the month, I’ll explore Cummings’ life, friends, influences and demons. Before I start there is one thing I want to address that may sound trivial but which I have given much thought; how should I present his name?   If you are a fan of Cummings you know that capitalization and punctuation were something he eschewed from his very earliest published poems.  I have seen Cummings’ name presented as E. E. Cummings, e. e. cummings and e e cummings, in various articles, books and anthologies.  But in reference to the man, I am going to capitalize his last name and in giving credit to his poetry I am not.  

I have included Cummings’ poetry sparingly on Fourteenlines to this point in part because it would have been too easy, his poetry is playful, popular and accessible, something I applaud, but I also like to spread the spotlight around and so I work hard to not mine a too familiar vein too deep.  So why do it now?   To be honest, after two long years of the pandemic, I figured I needed a bit more light-hearted for the upcoming month, given the predictions of a difficult 60 days ahead of us with Omricron, and the vast majority of his best work are love poems, something we all need a bit more of in our lives. 

I will be using two primary books to inform the month ahead; the biography by Kennedy titled Dreams in the Mirror, and the recent new edition of Cummings collected work from 2015, edited by Firmage and published by Norton.   In an earlier blog entry I had counted the number of sonnets from his 1962 complete anthology, (which of course turned out to be not be complete, because there were unpublished poems that were included in the 2015 edition) and found that nearly one quarter of the total poems he shared with the world out of the more than 900 poems now in print are sonnets or sonnet influenced.  Not all of these sonnets look like a traditional sonnet on the page in the placement of the words and not all of them follow exactly the rhyming schemes of a classical sonnet but none the less they are unmistakably sonnets.   And its not that Cummings wrote sonnets only in the beginning of his career, by my count in reading through every published volume of poetry that Cummings published in his lifetime, at least one sonnet was included in every volume, which says something about the pull of the sonnet on Cummings creativity and literary soul.  It begs the question, why was the sonnet so influential on a poet for whom from the very earliest examples of his writing was desperate to escape the shackles of tradition?   Why keep coming back to 14 lines over and over again as the basic canvas on which to paint his words?   I have not found a definitive answer to that question in my reading, (yet), but in my opinion there may be two reasons, Cummmings had a short attention span for his own writing and two, despite wanting to be known as pushing poetry into new spaces, evolving the art, he also desperately wanted to be accepted, by his peers, by his father, as a legitimate “artist”.  And there is nothing like successfully mastering the sonnet to the point that your readers forget you are using it to accomplish both objectives. Robert Hillyer, who was a classmate at Harvard of Cummings, and who published his first poems alongside 8 poems of Cummings and several other classmates, including John Dos Passos, may have expressed it best in his first book of poetry in 1916, as all three men were heading off into the world;

reading those imperfect boyish rhymes,
I hear through the blown dust of many storms
The hymns of the advance-guard of my life.

 

XXIV.  (There was a boy in some forgotten spring)

by Robert Hillyer

There was a boy in some forgotten spring
Who fled from all his comrades at the school,
And in the hills beside a forest pool
Lay on the grass, watching, and listening.
And as he listened, melancholy delight
Stirred in his heart a pang he did not know,
And voices of new passion bade him write
Of the vague thoughts that shook his spirit so.

Now on the battlefield of later times,
I meet those dreams returning in the forms
Of mighty friends and foes amid the strife;
And reading those imperfect boyish rhymes,
I hear through the blown dust of many storms
The hymns of the advance-guard of my life

I Am Resolved

Rudyard Kipling (1865 – 1936)

New Year’s Resolutions

by Rudyard Kipling

I am resolved throughout the year
To lay my vices on the shelf;
A godly, sober course to steer
And love my neighbors as myself—
Excepting always two or three
Whom I detest as they hate me.

I am resolved—to flirt no more,
It leads to strife and tribulation;
Not that I used to flirt before,
But as a bar against temptation.
Here I except (cut out the names)
Perfectly Platonic flames.

I am resolved—that vows like these,
Though lightly made, are hard to keep;
Wherefore I’ll take them by degrees,
Lest my back-slidings make me weep.
One vow a year will see me through;
and I’ll begin with Number Two.


Good Riddance, But Now What?

By Ogden Nash  (1902 – 1971)

Come, children, gather round my knee;
Something is about to be.
Tonight’s December thirty-first,
Something is about to burst.
The clock is crouching, dark and small,
Like a time bomb in the hall.
Hark! It’s midnight, children dear.
Duck! Here comes another year.

Cold And Getting Colder

“It is never too late to be what you might have been.”

George Elliot

Cold and Getting Colder

by T. A. Fry

Why listen to conventions drab advice?
The crowd that quietly eats their porridge
without cream, their modest life should suffice
but cloisters dreams in dusty storage. 

It’s much more interesting to wade
into the fray, to fight and dance away
the night, mine to lose, mine to choose
what and who’s to be obeyed.

Take my hand, together, if we can,
we’ll climb solo or on belay,
hearts directing what to say,
finding where and when to plan.

Shall I kneel before the altar
to pray for sins, lucid or not,
lose or win, the past forgot,
a future, mine to steal or redesign, should I falter.

Why listen to conventions drab advice?
Eyes closed I clearly see brilliant colors
floating ageless above the others
love emanating from a rosy grace.

Gingerly I wade into deeper waters.
It’s cold and getting colder.
There’s no way around it
I’m getting bolder.


Death Is A Deadline

by T. A. Fry

Where were you born?  What have you farrowed
Before the world turned towards misshapen things?
What will you plant, fertilize and harrow,
A farm to be proud,  fit for wise kings?
Sow ancient love in concentric rings,
Hoe blood bound soil, beneath pregnant clouds.
Cultivate laughter, while Gaia’s soul sings,
Black dirt on tan girls, their spirit’s endowed
By a jubilant song, defiantly loud,
All dancing beneath a bright harvest moon,
Wind calling their names from a nearby wood.
Rise to your journey and go there soon!
Bask in the sunshine, drink finest wine.
If death is a deadline, live this lifetime.

 

It Is The Singular Gift

Lisel Mueller (1924 – 2020)

Poetry, for me, is the answer to, ‘How does one stay sane when private lives are being ransacked by public events?’ It’s something that hangs over your head all the time.

Lisel Mueller

Hope

by Lisel Mueller

It hovers in dark corners
before the lights are turned on,
it shakes sleep from its eyes
and drops from mushroom gills,
it explodes in the starry heads
of dandelions turned sages,
it sticks to the wings of green angels
that sail from the tops of maples.

It sprouts in each occluded eye
of the many-eyed potato,
it lives in each earthworm segment
surviving cruelty,
it is the motion that runs
from the eyes to the tail of a dog,
it is the mouth that inflates the lungs
of the child that has just been born.

It is the singular gift
we cannot destroy in ourselves,
the argument that refutes death,
the genius that invents the future,
all we know of God.

It is the serum which makes us swear
not to betray one another;
it is in this poem, trying to speak.

Why We Tell Stories
(Excerpt)

2
 

by Lisel Mueller

We sat by the fire in our caves,
and because we were poor, we made up a tale
about a treasure mountain
that would open only for us

and because we were always defeated,
we invented impossible riddles
only we could solve,
monsters only we could kill,
women who could love no one else
and because we had survived
sisters and brothers, daughters and sons,
we discovered bones that rose
from the dark earth and sang
as white birds in the trees

 
3
 

Because the story of our life
becomes our life

Because each of us tells
the same story
but tells it differently

and none of us tells it
the same way twice

Because grandmothers looking like spiders
want to enchant the children
and grandfathers need to convince us
what happened happened because of them

and though we listen only
haphazardly, with one ear,
we will begin our story
with the word and

What I Can I Give

Giovanni di Paolo’s Adoration of the Magi, circa 1460.

 

In The Bleak Midwinter

By Christina Rossetti
 
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
 
Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
 
Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.
 
Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.
 
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.


I Syng Of A Maiden

Middle English original (1400s)

I syng of a mayden
That is makeles,
king of alle kinges
to here sone che chees.

He cam also stille
Ther his moder was
As dew in Aprylle,
That fallyt on the gras.

He cam also stille
To his modres bowr
As dew in Aprylle,
That falleth on the flowr.

He cam also stille
Ther his moder lay
As dew in Aprylle,
That falleth on the spray.

Moder & mayden
Was nevere noon but she:
Well may swich a lady
Godes moder be.

Modern English version

I sing of a maiden
That is matchless,
King of all kings
For her son she chose.

He came as still
Where his mother was
As dew in April
That falls on the grass.

He came as still
To his mother’s bower
As dew in April
That falls on the flower.

He came as still
Where his mother lay
As dew in April
That falls on the spray.

Mother and maiden
There was never, ever one but she;
Well may such a lady
God’s mother be.

One Must Have A Mind Of Winter

Minnesota Winter

The Snow Man

Wallace Stevens – 1879-1955

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.


Beyond the Red River

By Thomas McGrath (1916 – 1990)
 
The birds have flown their summer skies to the south,
And the flower-money is drying in the banks of bent grass
Which the bumble bee has abandoned. We wait for a winter lion,
Body of ice-crystals and sombrero of dead leaves.
 
A month ago, from the salt engines of the sea,
A machinery of early storms rolled toward the holiday houses
Where summer still dozed in the pool-side chairs, sipping
An aging whiskey of distances and departures.
 
Now the long freight of autumn goes smoking out of the land.
My possibles are all packed up, but still I do not leave.
I am happy enough here, where Dakota drifts wild in the universe,
Where the prairie is starting to shake in the surf of the winter dark.