i am a little church (no great cathedral)

E. E. Cummings (1894 – 1962)

the great advantage of being alive

(instead of undying)is not so much

that mind no more can disprove than prove

what heart may find and soul may touch….

e. e. cummings, 66 XIAPE (1951).

i am a little church (no great cathedral)

 
by e. e. cummings
 

i am a little church(no great cathedral)
far from the splendor and squalor of hurrying cities
-i do not worry if briefer days grow briefest,
i am not sorry when sun and rain make april

my life is the life of the reaper and the sower;
my prayers are prayers of earth’s own clumsily striving
(finding and losing and laughing and crying)children
whose any sadness or joy is my grief or my gladness

around me surges a miracle of unceasing
birth and glory and death and resurrection:
over my sleeping self float flaming symbols
of hope,and i wake to a perfect patience of mountains

i am a little church(far from the frantic
world with its rapture and anguish)at peace with nature
-i do not worry if longer nights grow longest;
i am not sorry when silence becomes singing

winter by spring,i lift my diminutive spire to
merciful Him Whose only now is forever:
standing erect in the deathless truth of His presence
(welcoming humbly His light and proudly His darkness)


It feels a shame to wrap the final 12 years of Cummings life up in one post.  But like most of us, Cummings had settled into such a routine that the remaining years were in some ways unremarkable other than for their consistency.   I think it is hard to look at Cummings today, revered and successfully published and understand that throughout his entire lifetime, his publishers made nothing or next to nothing.  Cummings book XIAPE in 1950 added to the list of publishers who saw the promise, but not the rewards. It contained two very controversial poems, one seen as racist and one was widely criticized as antisemitic.   His editors had strongly objected and warned him not to go forward with either.  But Cummings was blinded from how his work was interpreted by others, by his almost childish views on the world.   He stubbornly moved forward with his vision of the book and it cost him.   Long time literary friends left him, critics attacked him and publishers turned their backs.  Like is usually the case the bad poems reflected more than the good. 

Fortunately, a multitude of windfalls began to be set in motion to keep Marion and Cummings financially in the black.  His mother’s estate had left him around $7,500, his Aunt Jane’s several years later, $17,000, the Poetry Foundation gave him the honor of a fellowship and with it $5000.   Unbeknownst to him, and before all the controversy around XIAPE, a good friend of his had submitted his nomination for a Guggenheim on his behalf and it was granted in 1950.  Cummings realized he could make more money doing poetry readings and lectures in the 1950’s than he could from publishing his poetry, and so began a series of lectures, at Harvard and elsewhere around the country that paid well enough.   He was awarded the Bollingen Prize for Poetry in 1957 and with it his demand, and fee, for speaking increased. His painting had always provided a modest source of income.  That along with some other financial grants, and friends largess, some coming just in the nick of time, kept Marion and Cummings afloat.

In his private life, Nancy embraced Estlin lovingly in her heart, although their time together was more infrequent.  Nancy’s first marriage ended and she met the love of her life, Kevin Andrews, a kind of real life Indiana Jones, a Harvard educated, globe trotting archaeologist, academic and writer, with which she would have two more children.  As their lives took them around the world, the opportunities for Estlin and Nancy to see each other declined.  And although their letters and correspondence remained positive and loving, they only saw each other face to face a few more times in the remaining years of his life.

Cummings would publish one final book during his lifetime, 95 Poems, in 1958.  It contains one of the greatest love poems ever written, a testament to the incredible relationship between Estlin and Marion.  Though there were aspects of their relationship that could be interpreted as co-dependent to outsiders, there is no question that they loved each other deeply and were completely committed.  The poem of course is the following, a sonnet no less, in Cummings unique style:

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in

by e. e. cummings

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
                                                      i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
 
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
 
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
 
 
There is nothing more that needs to be said about Cummings as a man, as a partner, as an artist, in my opinion.  
 
January has gone by much to quick, mostly with the help of Cummings.   Cummings has grown on me throughout the month and even with my rose colored glasses on I have to admit I have learned some lessons spending a month with him.
 
  • Persevere, believe in yourself and your art no matter how it is received.   
  • Be original.  Be yourself, even if its painful and clunky, for a long, long time, even for a lifetime.  Originality wins over brilliance in the end, because the basis of what is considered brilliant changes with time, but originality is always original and genuine. 
  • Feed your passions.  Love your family, as best you can.  Stand by your friends.  
  • Worry less about making money and worry more about making art.  Somehow things tend to work out. 
  • A life measured by art alone, can be a pretty lonely life.  

The last 12 years of Cummings life distill the dichotomy of who Cummings was as a man and as an artist.  Some January’s I have written a poem in honor of the retrospective with the poet as muse, having spent so much time with them.   That didn’t happen this year, mostly because I can’t figure what I would say that Cummings hasn’t said better already.  I think the biggest tribute I provided was I made Cummings fun again, for a month, for not only myself, but also for lots of you who joined me on this journey. 

Cummings died from excessively embracing life,  having smoked too much, drank too much.   I don’t think it was his goal to grow old at Silver Lake, like Frost at his farm.   Cummings didn’t leave much left in the tank.  He died of a brain bleed after chopping wood at the farm.  He was 67.  Marion was devastated and never fully recovered dying just a handful of years later. 

It may feel odd that I selected two spiritual poems on this final post.  Cummings had returned to his religious roots late in life.  After his Freudian long time therapist passed in  the early 1950’s, he turned to Jung, and with it his little g – god, became a big G – God once again.  Each of us manages our own relationship with the unknown and the universe.  Cummings seemed at peace with his place in it when he died. God Bless you Edward Estlin Cummings.  Thank you for the poetry you sent out into it this incredible world we all inhabit. 


65
XIAPE

by e. e. cummings

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 of 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 unimaginable You?

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

the aim of waking is to dream

Nancy Thayer Andrews (daughter) and E. E. Cummings

“If a poet is anybody, he is somebody to whom things made matter very little — somebody who is obsessed by Making.”

e. e. cummings

 

19
Collected Poems (1938)

by e. e. cummings

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old

may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it’s sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young

and may myself do nothing usefully
and love yourself so more than truly
there’s never been quite such a fool who could fail
pulling all the sky over him with one smile


The story of Nancy and Estlin’s reunion is bittersweet and incredibly complicated.  Nancy came to know  Cummings first as a poet and a writer by a friend when she was 16, who introduced her to both T. S. Elliott and e. e. cummings.  Nancy, ever curious about her Mother’s past, who continued to maintain a complex web of deceit, constantly was vigilant about learning more of her Mother’s life. Nancy was a clever listener when old New York friends of her mother would visit London.   Elaine had steadfastly maintained that Scofield Thayer was Nancy’s father and that he was dead; neither was true.  Since Elaine never returned to the United States with her new husband, it was easy to keep up this charade. 

The truth eventually came out in pieces, when several of Elaine and Estlin’s mutual friends from the happy years in New York, visited Elaine in London. During these visits and dinner parties, there was talk about Scofield and Estlin, reminiscing about the old Dial crowd and Dos Passos.  From these dinner parties, Nancy  learned Scofield, who she believed was her father, was not dead.  A very different picture of her Mother’s past was painted than she had been led to believe.  During one of these dinner parties, Elaine let slip in front of Nancy, something about an event when she had been married to Cummings.  Nancy was intrigued, as she had already read The Enormous Room, had read most poems Cummings had published up to this point in 1938 and knew Cummings as a writer only.  She was amazed her mother could be so interesting as to have been married to him.  Elaine immediately brushed it off casually, once this was out in the open, saying, it was so long ago and very brief and refused to discuss it more, letting the mystery only deepen. 

In the fall of 1939,  Nancy was studying for entrance exams at Oxford, and Elaine and MacDermott moved to Dublin. The war had begun, but London was not yet being bombed.  Nancy was accepted into Oxford in spring of 1940, with plans to begin that fall, but the war would intervene.  By June of 1940 the bombings had begun and Elaine demanded that Nancy come join them at the “family” home in Ireland.  Nancy arrived in Dublin only to learn that the border between Ireland and England had been closed and she could not return to England to attend college that fall, something she had worked very hard to achieve.   Nancy was furious that she had not been consulted or been made aware of this issue.  She was given 24 hours by Irish authorities and her step-father,  to decide; either stay in Dublin or sail for the United States.  She choose to sail for New York, as it represented something looking more like independence than being stuck in Dublin with Elaine.

Before departing, Elaine cautioned  Nancy of not trying to find the man she still believed was her father, and the man whose last name she had chosen to keep, Scofield Thayer.  Elaine lied once again and told her Scofield had suffered a mental breakdown, but that she needn’t worry as it “wasn’t genetic.”  

Nancy thrived during the war years, living in both New York and Washington, D. C.  She trained as a Morse code operator, got her first job as a typist and used her literary skills to obtain meaningful work.  Along the way she met her soon to be husband, through her employer, who was her second son Willard, a talented musician and composer, who was currently in the Navy.  In 1943, while Willard was on leave, the two married. 

In the summer of 1945, Nancy, now pregnant with their first child, and Willard, back from the Navy, spent the summer with Willard’s Mother in New Hampshire,  The neighbors of the cottage they had rented just happened to be Billy James, Estlin’s good childhood friend from Cambridge, MA,  who had stayed in touch over the years with Cummings and knew everything about Cummings past.  Of course letter’s were exchanged from the growing circle of acquaintances of Estlin, who were now bumping into Nancy, sharing news of her life in the United States.  When Nancy’s first son was born, in September 6, 1945, Billy wrote to Estlin and congratulated him on being a grandfather, Billy well aware of Nancy’s parentage.  

Estlin of course was intrigued, and despite Marion’s protectiveness, Estlin began thinking about a reunion.  The following summer, while at Joy Farm in Silver Lake, New Hampshire, he arranged for Billy to bring Nancy and her son to visit for tea.  There was an immediate connection between the two.  Nancy, who had considerable poetic inclinations as well, was captivated by Estlin.   She instantly realized how much both her and her son, looked like Cummings.  Using the excuse to paint her picture, Nancy began visiting more frequently, sometimes alone, without the interruptions of an infant, and their talks became more intense.

The following summer, Nancy was pregnant with her second son, and returned for the summer in New Hampshire.  Marion was not sure that Estlin should reveal the truth and was a bit upset by Estlin’s interest in Nancy.  Marion had wanted to have a child and Estlin had refused.   Estlin had been so emotionally traumatized from being cut off by Elaine in Nancy’s life, combined with the constant lack of money, and Estlin’s complete focus on art, had prevented the two of them from having a family.  Nancy represented a loss to Marion more than a gain. But she did not stand in the way, despite her misgivings,  and more visits were arranged.  The summer of 1947 deepened, the connections between Estlin and Nancy, but other than the awareness of Estlin having been married to her Mother and having known her as a child, the rest remained unspoken.  Estlin during this time, brought out and reconnected Nancy with the fables, and paintings and poems he had created and read to her as a little girl.  These distant memories of the past, only cemented the bonds between all the more, but also confused both on where to proceed.

It was not until the following year in 1948, when Cummings and Marion were staying in Greenwich Village, that Nancy began sitting for a larger portrait.  During one of those sessions, Estlin finally said; ‘has no one ever told you, I’m your father?” At first this revelation, that was so obvious to everyone, opened up a burst of positive energy for both Estlin and Nancy.  Estlin set about writing several screenplays which were fabulous flops.  Nancy was incredibly happy.  She desperately wanted her children to know their true Grandfather, and it shed light on her growing difficult marriage with what would become her first husband. But all of this enlarged family complexity was too much for Estlin.  He was too set and childlike in his ways. Years of being in a back brace had worn him down.  His ill health had sapped him of creative energy, and now that he had some of that back, he was selfishly more committed to creating art than being a father and grandfather, as the opportunity provided.  He carefully turned his back ever so slightly over the next several years, refusing to become very much involved in his grandson’s lives, turning away from what he had wanted for so long.

Nancy, though disappointed, took it in stride.  She did not cut him off, but she retreated into the busy life of being a mother with two young boys.  She understood and accepted, Cummings limitations.  Nancy and Estlin would stay connected, with the truth of their lives now in the open, but neither having the opportunity to fully explore the much greater relationship that could have been possible. 

I’ll let you sort today’s two poems and your feelings about each given all that background.  The poem below is from his 1958 book 95 Poems.  The poem above, written much earlier in his life, and published 20 years prior.    In each is hidden Cummings vast possibility and his childlike limitations.   You can decide if this represents our shared humanness, or judge Cummings transparency for being his true nature.


16
95 Poems (1958)

in time of daffodils (who know the goal of living is to grow)
forgetting why,remember how
in time of lilacs who proclaim
the aim of waking is to dream,
remember so(forgetting seem)
in time of roses(who amaze
our now and here with paradise)
forgetting if,remember yes
in time of all sweet things beyond
whatever mind may comprehend,
remember seek(forgetting find)
and in a mystery to be
(when time from time shall set us free)
forgetting me,remember me

we are everything more than believe

E. E. Cummings

i love you much (most beautiful darling) more than anyone on the earth and i like you better than everything in the sky.

e. e. cummings

38
50 Poems

by e. e. cummings

love is the every only god

who spoke this earth so glad and big
even a things all small and sad
man,may his mighty briefness dig

for love beginning means return
seas who could sing so deep and strong

one querying wave will whitely yearn
from each last shore and home come young

so truly perfectly the skies
by merciful love whispered were
completes its brightness with your eyes

any illimitable star.


Estlin and Marion scrapped by the mid to late 1930’s and limped into the war years financially, but their love affair and intellectual and artistic pursuits thrived.  Cummings was publicly ridiculed following the publication of No Thanks by several snobbish critics who seemed to get a thrill of berating Cummings in print.  It got so bad that Cummings was singularly nominated by a New York critic linked to one of his former publishers for having written “the worst book of the year” in 1936.  There was a one time silver lining out of all this combined commercial failure of the previous 14 years; it meant its was incredibly cheap to repurchase the rights of everything he had published up until that point.  This fact opened the door for a partnership with a savvy editor at Harcourt Brace, Charles Pearce, known as Cap among colleagues. Pearce was a fan of Cummings and felt his best work was not getting the respect it deserved.  He believed there was a market, particularly among younger poetry readers, for Cummings best poems, repackaged as an early retrospective.  Cap convinced Estlin to work with him to evaluate the past and add a solid addition of 22 new poems, including; you shall above all things be glad and young and may my heart always be open to little, and release it in 1938 as Collected Poems.   Cap also had some unique marketing ideas, including having Cummings record an album of a selections of more popular poems from this edition and his next to co-promote with the book.  It resulted in slowly improving sales and generally favorable reviews for both volumes.  Pearce was a capable editor, not only with a keen eye, but also a steady hand to reign in Cummings  more self destructive tendencies in terms of publishing.  Pearce guided Cummings to showcase his more positive poems in the book that imprint his artistic vision and to leave out the experimental poetry that was to most readers, confusing and a turn off. 

Cummings and Marion were largely happy during the war years, despite huge concerns for their friends all around Europe.   The success of the 1938 edition, opened the door for 50 Poems in 1940, which contains some of Cummings most iconic poems or at least his most anthologized, anyone lived in a pretty how town, my father moved through dooms of love and love is more thicker than forget.  Cummings was on an upswing career wise.  Marion and Estlin continued to foster strong friendships among artistic and intelligent younger people, attracted to his poetry and artistic spirit and Marion’s gentle beauty.

They each started also having some health issues, Cummings suffered from chronic back pain and Marion began experiencing painful symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Their health issues seemed to strengthen their commitment to each other.  They stood by each other, visiting daily when one or the other was hospitalized.  It was also during this time that Rebecca, Cummings’ Mother died in September of 1946.  It meant Cummings and his sister received the remainder of the estate that their Father had created, though it had been diminished by the impact of the depression.   However, for Estlin and Marion, who had always lived beyond thrifty, there was a little more breathing room in terms of finances, allowing them the freedom to travel a bit more, connecting with friends in the western U. S. during the war year and Europe once it was over.

I picked two poems for today’s post with a similar theme; love with a bit of theological influence Cummings style thrown in.   The one above is from his 1940 volume 50 Poems and the one below is from his 1944 volume. It would have been easier to share the more popular poems from these two volumes, but I have already done so for most of them in posts before this January retrospective began, so I choose to not revisit old territory.  The poem love is thicker than forget, is an amazing poem in my opinion.   It once again delivers on the promise of Cummings’ unique style and content fusing into something truly beautiful and unique.  Neither of these poems on today’s blog rise to that level in my mind, but they are close.  And it is this greater consistency in the poetry that he published in these years that will open the door to greater recognition and better sales in the final years of his writing career.


LIV
1 X 1
(One Times One)

by e. e. cummings

if everything happens that can’t be done
(and anything’s righter
than books
could plan)
the stupidest teacher will almost guess
(with a run
skip
around we go yes)
there’s nothing as something as one

one hasn’t a why or because or although
(and buds know better
than books
don’t grow)
one’s anything old being everything new
(with a what
which
around we come who)
one’s everyanything so

so world is a leaf so a tree is a bough
(and birds sing sweeter
than books
tell how)
so here is away and so your is a my
(with a down
up
around again fly)
forever was never till now

now i love you and you love me
(and books are shuter
than books
can be)
and deep in the high that does nothing but fall
(with a shout
each
around we go all)
there’s somebody calling who’s we

we’re anything brighter than even the sun
(we’re everything greater
than books
might mean)
we’re everyanything more than believe
(with a spin
leap
alive we’re alive)
we’re wonderful one times one

what if a dawn of a doom of a dream

Noise #13 by e. e. cummings 1925

“The doom lies in yourself, not in your name.”

J. R. R. Tolkien

in spite of everything…

by e. e. cummings 
 
 
in spite of everything
which breathes and moves,since Doom
(with white longest hands
neatening each crease)
will smooth entirely our minds
-before leaving my room
i turn,and(stooping
through the morning)kiss
this pillow,dear
where our heads lived and were
 
 

One of the things I really enjoy about the January retrospective is the opportunity to focus over 30 days on a single poet.  Each year, I buy the collected edition of  the author in November, along with some older used copies of single volumes of their poems and a biography (or biographies) as well.   Although the actual poems are generally identical, there are interesting tidbits in the liner notes, introductions, etc that give background on the individual volumes that sometimes isn’t included in the collected works edition.   And then, I sit down and I read them, try to read it all the way through once, some of it twice or three times.   The entire kit and caboodle.  This isn’t the way I normally read poetry.  I generally read a couple of poems by an author, and read and re-read the same ones I like many times before I include it in a blog entry.  But in January, I speed read the entire body of work and it creates a different perspective in my mind.

Have you ever done this?  Read every word published by a poet?  If not, try it sometime.  One of the things that happens is that you start to see certain words pop up with greater frequency when you try and read all the poems a poet published.  Cummings word frequency list includes the words; yes, this, how,  where, love, what, star, universe and world off the top of my head. But, this December and January, the word that seeped from my unconscious to conscious mind in reading Cummings entire body of work is the word –  doom.  It’s an odd word to come rushing through.  It made me sit back on my heals. Why was Cummings so focused on the word “doom”.  Is that my current psyche or his that is bringing out to the front?  I admit the current state of the world with the pandemic it may be all about me.  But, Cummings liked the word.  It shows up again and again. Several things come to my mind, is it a function of the impact of WWI and WWII on his psyche?  Is it the impact of striving for decades as an artist and getting little financial support and  even less street credibility in the ivory halls of literature?  It is a really weird word to pop up as much as it does in Cummings vocabulary.    

Another writer that had an influence on me as a young man is J. R. R. Tolkien. Today The Hobbit and the entire trilogy have been so meticulously created in digital splendor by Peter Jackson’s movies, that it is almost embarrassing to admit that it is his novels that I am referring.  As a teenager, I read, and then re-read Tolkien’s four novels multiple times.  Doom plays a major role in Tolkien’s imagination.  He and Cummings are using the word in the old English sense – a meaning akin to law and fate. But just the sound of the word, its meaning goes back much further.  In an Anglo-Saxon settlement there was a Ring of Doom, a place where judgement was handed down to wrong doers.  The chief or community leader would discuss weighty matters with his Thains (nobles), before handing down sentences.  Doom was not just a sense of undoing or ending, it was the thoughtful execution of justice among members of a community that were largely family.  Doom was what was intended based on the group morality of the community, not something haphazard or unfortunate, or evil.  

I am not sure, but in that context it is an odd word for Cummings to use again and again and again.  The question is why?  Find a poet in the past 20 years that uses the word doom in any poem. I challenge you.  And yet for Cummings it was so top of mind it shows up over and over again.  Doom…. Look back on the poems I have shared this month and you will find the word doom multiple times.   What an odd word for a man whose philosophy was much more based on Yes and Love.   Is it possible that in Cummings poetic world that Yes and Love are our doom?  I sure hope so. Try giving Cummings the benefit of the doubt that his doom is both our undoing, and our salvation.  Cummings wanted each of us to turn the rules on its head, inverse the meanings.  . And with Cummings I embrace his Yes and use its miraculous nature as my secret decoder ring to interpret everything he created.  You can decide.  I might be naive.  But my embrace of Yes is way more fun than someone else’s judgement of No.   Doom might yet be our salvation. 


[what if a much of a which of a wind]

By e. e. cummings
 
 
what if a much of a which of a wind
gives truth to the summer’s lie;
bloodies with dizzying leaves the sun
and yanks immortal stars awry?
Blow king to beggar and queen to seem
(blow friend to fiend:blow space to time)
—when skies are hanged and oceans drowned,
the single secret will still be man
 
what if a keen of a lean wind flays
screaming hills with sleet and snow:
strangles valleys by ropes of thing
and stifles forests in white ago?
Blow hope to terror;blow seeing to blind
(blow pity to envy and soul to mind)
—whose hearts are mountains, roots are trees,
it’s they shall cry hello to the spring
 
what if a dawn of a doom of a dream
bites this universe in two, 
peels forever out of his grave
and sprinkles nowhere with me and you?
Blow soon to never and never to twice
(blow life to isn’t: blow death to was)
—all nothing’s only our hugest home;
the most who die,the more we live

love is a place

Marion Morehouse (1906 – 1969)

“You are my sun, my moon, and all of my stars.”

e. e. cummings

58
No Thanks

by e. e. cummings

love is a place
& through this place of
love more
(with brightness of peace)
all places

yes is a world
& in this world of
yes live
(skillfully curled)
all worlds


Beauty is not attracted to the beast as a rule, beauty begets beauty. Is that the reason we remember most the beautiful people of the period when we ourselves were the most beautiful?  I couldn’t name one superstar model of the past 20 years, but I can name at least 5 off the top of my head from the 1980s; Cindy Crawford, Iman, Brooke Shields,  Christie Brinkley, Faye Dunaway, Susan Surandon, etc.  I name drop these superstars, because in 1932, the top model of the day in New York City was Marion Morehouse.  No model was more sought after for fashion house coture, or fashion photography than Morehouse.  She may have been the original superstar model, without the financial rewards of today, but she set the standard by which all other models were judged from then on.

Morehouse was taller than Cummings, with graceful lines of her face, neck, arms, hands and legs.  Cummings was instantly smitten when he met her through mutual friends who had given him some assistance during his negotiations with the divorce from Anne.  In the summer of 1932, Marion was living on Long Island, while Cummings was digging out of the emotional basement again at 4 Patchin Place.  Cummings did not have a telephone, so their budding romance is documented in letters and cards and drawings that they sent back and forth to each other.  

Marion was 12 years Cummings junior, born in Indiana out of wedlock, her parents having gotten married, divorced and remarried during her childhood. She had a sister, Lillian, nearly equally as beautiful.  Marion was unlike any woman that Cummings had been in a relationship before; hard working, self sufficient, dedicated, competent in her own affairs, and not particularly impressed with Cummings Harvard education, which she found at times a bit too much.  But she was completely charmed by his poetic vision of the world.  Cummings pursued her singularly, completely in love with her from the very beginning. 

And so its fitting, in successful relationships to keep it simple and skip to the end of the story.  Cummings and Marion wrapped their hearts around each other and never let go.  Although I find no reference that they formally married, Estlin within months of their meeting, would introduce her as his wife everywhere they went and would continue to do so for all their years they were together up until his death in 1962.  The two of them were contented domestic partners for the next 30 years.  Marion was the perfect partner for Estlin;  lover, muse, housekeeper, cook, model, travel companion, gardener, secretary, hostess and accountant, leaving Cummings the mental free space and the time to paint, to write, to breathe.  Marion continued to work early in their relationship. She quickly joined Cummings in his modest studio at 4 Patchin Place and would remain by his side where ever he went, trips to Paris, travels in Europe, summers at Silver Lake, time spent in New York City from there forward.  They each had found their true love. 

Rebecca, Cummings mother, was overjoyed that her son was so happy after the tumultuous previous 10 years.  Now in her 70’s, she moved to New York City to be closer to Estlin, volunteering at a Traveler’s aid station in Grand Central Station.  Marion and Rebecca formed a deep emotional bond, which had to be satisfying for all three of them.  Rebecca was terribly proud of her son and was pleased that a woman finally loved him as much as she did. 

The boost of energy that comes with stability and emotional security improved Cummings confidence.  He had been encouraged by several friends to apply for a Guggenheim Fellowship as a means for financial support and also recognition.  His application was accepted and in fall of 1932 Cummings received notice that he would receive a Guggenheim grant for the next year, but at half the normal amount because of the depression.  Still, $1500 in 1933, was a considerable sum and combined with some financial assistance from his Mother, he had the resources to go to Paris, where the standard of living was even lower than New York.  And so only months after they met, Estlin and Marion departed for France. 

Lots of things happened while in Paris, Estlin continued to work on his manuscript about his experience in Russia, which was in some ways is a complicated reworking of Dante’s Inferno, linguistically ambitious, lengthy and doomed to be a dismal commercial bomb because of its overly academic literary styling.  Though a tough read, even for the most dedicated Cummings fan, it would eventually  be published in 1933 and the process of working on it kept Cummings writing and confident.   

Marion had been in the theater in New York, as well as a model,  and she was completely taken by Paris life.  The two of them took in shows, met with fellow poets and painters and generally had a marvelous time.  Estlin took Marion on a long trip throughout Europe, even going across the straight of Gibraltar to North Africa, into  Tunisia, and then back through Italy to France.  Estlin wrote and painted along the way.  Marion found all of it compelling and invigorating.  Cummings and Marion would live abroad for a good portion of 1933.   

Something else happened while he was in Paris during this period.  Estlin and Marion bumped into Elaine and her Irish husband, by chance, at a cafe.  The meeting was cordial, but Cummings was thrilled to make Elaine a tiny bit jealous of the incredible beauty on his arm.  Elaine followed up that chance encounter with a series of notes and requests.  She was pregnant with her new husband’s future son, he was running for a prestigious elected office, and the societal expectations of Catholic Ireland demanded a Cathedral wedding between the two. For that to occur, both of Elaine’s prior marriages had to be annulled and it needed to happen fast.  Scofield was only too happy to oblige, but Estlin saw a moment of leverage to get back what he still wanted, the right to be involved in Nancy’s life.  Estlin dug in and only agreed to meet with the requisite Priest to sign the annulment papers, if he could get first in writing, a signed statement from both Elaine and her husband with the promise that he and Marion were welcome to visit Nancy anytime they came to Ireland.  It was not legally binding, but it was a tangible agreement based on honor, the very thing Elaine was wanting as well. Elaine had placed Nancy in a series of boarding schools  in recent years, with scant news of her ever available to Cummings and his Mother. None the less, it felt like a long over due victory for Cummings, though in the end not much changed, other than Elaine confirmed that the packages, gifts and letters that Estlin and his Mother sent each year to Nancy, and would continue to send, were in fact given to her, though she had no idea why these nice friends of her Mother were so generous. 

This period into 1934 and 1935, although establishing the happy foundation of Cummings personal life, did not improve his finances nor his professional success.  His publisher, Covici-Friede, had sold less than 10 copies of the 1391 printings of the edition of Eimi the previous year, all 1391 of which Cummings had been required to sign with ink and pen.  In the previous 12 years he had published 5 volumes of poetry, countless articles, a screenplay, 2 books and a smattering of commercial writing, yet despite this impressive body of work, he got 14 rejections for his current manuscript. which he eventually titled No Thanks.   When he finally found a publisher, he dedicated it to the 14 publishers who had declined it, by name and in the order they had rejected the manuscript. Cummings was undeterred.

In reading through No Thanks, it is strangely stern in nature, given how settled his personal life had become.  It lacks the tender love poems that one would almost expect, given how much in love he was with Marion.  It wildly bounces from his version of sonnets, many of which are slightly pugilistic in nature, to experimental dissections that go to great lengths to place words, or parts of words in a highly schematic nature on the page, using them almost to create diagrams as much as poems.  It was a major flop.  

Our two poems today come from this volume of poetry.   There is a surprisingly few poems in No Thanks that reflect on Marion as his muse overtly. In several of the biographies about Cummings, there is mention that Cummings consciously realized he had maybe intertwined his poetic vision of his artistic life a bit too closely with his personal life and in doing so undermined his previous failed relationships.  Cummings right from the start with Marion, is a bit more protective of her, still sharing privately his artistic life and world with her, but preferring to keep an element of privacy of their intimacy in his art, thereby giving their relationship time to mature, so that it could withstand the rigors that making that type of poetry public in the future. 

Many of Cummings most iconic love poems will be written in the next 30 years with Marion at his side.  But only one of them in my opinion is included in this volume and it is my favorite short poem of Cummings.  I read it at my Mother’s funeral, because Cummings distilled the essence of my Mother’s outlook on love, in love is a place.  Cummings lived in a Yes world and invited all of his readers to join him.  Yes is a powerful place to inhabit, in our minds, in our bodies, in our relationships.   For all of the confusion that Cummings creates in some of his poems, there is a clarity in this poem, that combines his personal style with the content perfectly.    

The poem below after many careful readings, I don’t believe is about Marion.   I can’t interpret its context.   I included it because its is another example of Cummings talking about this concept of us being our most beautiful yes.   I liked the poem on the basis of that one line alone, setting my imagination free, to wonder, will anyone ever bestow on me so great a compliment?



18
No Thanks

by e. e. cummings

ecco a letter starting “dearest we”
unsigned remarkably brief but covering
one complete miracle of nearest far

“I cordially invite me to become
noone except yourselves rsvp”

she cannot read or write,la moon.     Employs
a very crazily how clownlike that
this quickly ghost scribbling from there to where

-name unless i’m mistaken chauvesouris—
whose grammar is atrocious:but so what

princess selene doesn’t know a thing
who’s much too busy being her beautiful yes.
The place is now
                … …               let us accept
                              … …                       (the time

forever,and you’ll wear your silver shoes

 

Beautiful….Now

E. E. Cummings self portrait.

“The Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself.”

e. e. cummings

22
XAIPE

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!


41
95 Poems

by e. e. cummings

Beautiful

is the
unmea
ning
of(sil

ently)fal

ling(e
ver
yw
here)s

Now

 

and thou shalt stand.

e. e. cummings painting Surf North Africa

“Listen, there’s a hell of a good universe next door, let’s go.”

e. e. cummings

XLII
W (VIVA)

by e. e. cummings

structure,miraculous challenge, devout am

upward deep most invincible unthing
-stern sexual timelessness,outtowering
this noisy impotence of not and same

answer,beginning,ecstasy,to dare:
prouder than all mountains,more than all
oceans various
                                  ..     … and while everywhere
beneath thee and about thyself a small
hoping insect,humanity,achieves
(moult beyond difficult moult)amazing doom
who standest as though has hast stood and thou shalt stand.

Nor any dusk but kneelingly believes
thy secret and each morning stoops to blend

her star with what huge merciful forms presume

In 1931, Cummings decided to travel by train from Paris to Moscow, a lengthy complicated undertaking.   Upon arrival he was interrogated by a Russian customs official on the nature of his trip?   Cummings reproduced the essence of that discussion in Eimi, the book he published based on that experience in 1933.  

Why do you wish to go to Russia?
because I’ve never been there.
(He slumps,recovers). You are interested in economic and sociological problems?
no.
Perhaps you are aware that there has been a change of government in recent years?
yes(I say without being able to suppress a smile).
And your sympathies are not with socialism?
may I be perfectly frank?
Please!
I know almost nothing about these important matters and care even less.
(His eyes appreciate my answer). For what do you care?
my work.
Which is writing?
and painting.
What kind of writing?
chiefly verse;some prose.
Then you wish to go to Russia as a writer and painter? Is that it?
no; I wish to go as myself.

e. e. cummings, Eimi – 1933.

Cummings experience in Russia was difficult and drab, yet he found even that exhilarating in some ways.  Upon arrival, Soviet officials placed him in the most expensive hotel in Moscow, possibly knowing that would be the quickest way to get rid of him or at least shake some money out of his pockets.  Of course, Cummings could not afford it and so promptly checked out.  He found alternative arrangements through a chance meeting of an old Harvard acquaintance., who had a friendship with a couple that were leaving Moscow.  The accommodations proved to be so vile, (because of the odor from the common latrine for the building that was right outside the door of his room), it made sleep almost impossible. Cummings did what he did best, make additional friends and get by,  in some ways couch surfing as best he could during his trip.  

Cummings would spend five weeks in Russia, most of that time in Moscow but also some time in Odessa.  He attended the theater, met with painters and writers and generally tried to absorb the social experiment of the Soviet Union at that time.  But other than his time in Odessa, in which he experienced some of the best of the communist ideal, he found the conditions of the country distressing, overly censored, grimy, gray, uninspiring in both its propaganda and his surroundings.   As time went on he began to have the distinct feeling that he was being followed and watched, everywhere he went. It may have been just the paranoia that he was hearing from the Russian intellectuals he was meeting with in private, but it was none the less real.  In the end Cummings felt a tremendous relief when he left Russia, traveling back through Turkey and eventually back to Paris.  It could be that it was exactly that aspect of dealing with adversity and at times a tangible sense of fear, and then the resulting relief when the adrenaline drops and it is over, that was the main purpose of his trip. 

When he got back to Paris, Anne had already left and was back in New York City.  Cummings departure for his long journey to Russia, had not coincided at a good time for Anne and its unclear whether Cummings was even aware of her circumstances, except from letters post marked after the start of his trip.  Anne was pregnant with Cummings child,  it was early in her first trimester.  Anne did not want another child.  With Cummings gone, she was left to find an abortionist in Paris on her own.  Also, it was during this time that Anne found out that her father had killed himself, (the stock market crash and the start of the depression having wiped out his wealth, and his fourth wife divorcing him, the cause of his despondency).  Anne sadly realizes that her back up source of financial support from her father was gone.  With this as context, Anne, with the aid of a former boyfriend, takes Diana and leaves for New York City.   Upon arriving she promptly sets about terminating the pregnancy. 

By the time Cummings returned to the United States, things with Anne were complicated. Initially Cummings, Anne and Diana went up to Silver Creek, the farm in New Hampshire, that had been a place of happiness for both.  Anne and Cumings called it Joy Farm.  She had invested a considerable amount on repairs and furniture in their brief marriage, even though it was still owned by Cummings’ Mother Rebecca, with the understanding that it would pass to Cummings upon her death.  Anne felt some fair bit of ownership in the property, both because of her fondness for it and the money she had spent.  But that happiness didn’t last long and they soon returned to 4 Patchin Place in New York City and things went sour quickly in their marriage. 

As Cummings caught up with his New York City friends, Anne would drink too much and publicly insult Cummings in front of them.  Anne was verbally abusive both in public and private. Cummings wanted the marriage to work, but Anne was back to her old ways of sleeping with multiple boyfriends and Cummings was decimated by her unabashed adultery.

Anne soon ran off to Mexico with a new surgeon boyfriend, and got a Mexican divorce.  He was a big brute of a man. Anne humiliated Cummings by comparing not only their difference in height but other statures as well, financial and otherwise. Cummings was at a loss as to what to do.  Anne came back from Mexico demanding a return of all the furniture and additional funds for her financial investment in the farm.   Cummings didn’t have it and he was not going to ask his Mother for it and flatly refused.

It was 1931 and some of Cummings sources of income had dried up.  He had fallen out of favor with Vanity Fair and was scraping by.  The Dial was in the process of going belly up and no longer buying Cummings’ work.  He had a one person show in a gallery in New York, his first, which showcased his paintings.  It got good reviews, and generated a few sales, but times were tough.  He was getting by with occasional gifts from his Mother, doing odd bits of writing, while working with a new publisher, whom he had met in Paris.   His new benefactor was like Scofield Thayer, in that he was a wealthy publisher and used that wealth in part to support the arts.  He genuinely believed in Cummings artistic dreams and was buying and publishing some of his work on a limited basis. 

The smartest thing that Cummings did at that moment in time was not panic.  He had grown more savvy having gone through the ringer with Elaine, and this time, through Morie Werner, found a lawyer and got some legal advice regarding his divorce and the demands made by Anne.  The lawyer said; don’t agree to anything, don’t put anything in writing with Anne, and tell her you are not agreeing to her terms.  As the new wife of a prominent surgeon, Anne needed respectability in the circles she now ran.  It was not clear if the Mexican divorce was legally valid in New York. So Cummings decided to play offense and filed for divorce, on the basis of adultery, in the county Anne was now residing.  Anne quickly realized this was not going to turn out in her favor and disgraceful publicity was going to create problems for both her and her wealthy new husband.  Anne quickly agreed to Cummings offer that in exchange for settling the divorce quietly in the United States, she would get exactly nothing.  Anne relinquished all claims to any aspect of the property Silver Lake and would receive zero financial support from Cummings moving forward.  The Anne Barton era in Cummings life was over.  

Even though this is a poetry blog, I wanted to showcase some of Cummings paintings today.  Cummings was a prolific painter his entire life.  He painted on his travels, he painted in Paris, he painted at the farm, he painted in New York City.  Cummings artistic and poetic experience of life was more than just words, it is an expressive imagery, that is characterized by bright colors and swirling lines.  

Today’s poems are both from his 1931 book W (ViVa).  An interesting title that shows Cummings positive attitude in his poetry, despite the continued challenges in his life.  The first poem stopped me in my tracks the first time I read it.  It is one of the few poems of Cummings in which you will find a punctuating period.  Take notice of it’s placement and what it portends in your mind.  Look at the language throughout.  Although Cummings frequently deploys religious terminology in his poetry and with common references to god (usually lower case), his biographer describes him mostly as an atheist or at least having significant doubts about the Christian version of God (uppercase).  The first poem is complicated, there is lots to unpack, and it required a few readings even to generate solid impressions in my mind. 

The second poem I think is building on similar themes in Cummings imagination. Pick out a color in the surf or in the ocean from the painting above or the video.  Hold that color in your mind as you read the poem below.  Then let yourself not think in words as you reread each poem and try on a Cummings pallet of colors instead.  I am not sure I can really interpret either of these poems logically, and I am definitely sure I don’t want to.  I know that Cummings is beaming something into my brain the more I read them. And I have complete trust in Cummings poetic vision, of his universe of his own creation, that where ever it is that he is taking me, whatever it is he is sharing with me, its going to be great. 

L
W (ViVa)

when hair falls off and eyes blur And
thighs forget(when clocks whisper
and night shouts)When minds
shrivel and hearts grow brittler every
Instant(when of a morning Memory stands,
with clumsily wilted fingers
emptying youth colour and what was
into a dirtied glass)Pills of Ills
(a recipe against Laughing Virginity Death)

then dearest the
way trees are Made leaves
open Clouds take sun mountains
stand and Oceans do Not sleep matters
nothing;then(then the only hands so to speaak are
they always which creep budgingly over some
numbered face capable of a largest nonglance the
least unsmile
or whatever weeds feel and fish think of)

there is some shit i will not eat

E. E. Cummings self portrait.

Is it because we are vain and hollow, that the smallest pill is the toughest swallow?

T. A. Fry

next to of course god america i

by e. e. cummings

“next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn’s early my
country ’tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?”

He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water

 


Both of today’s poems were written or at least published in this period why Cummings was with Barton.  The poem above was published in 1926, and the poem below was published in 1931.   Cummings was a pacifist and an individualist, with a big dollop of hedonism thrown in for good measure.  One of the reasons that I think Cummings poetry resonates with young people and the young at heart, is his primary themes align with things that young people think about; sex, their place in society, striking your own path in the face of convention or what’s expected and resisting whatever war is being fought at that moment in time.  It’s likely Cummings could remain relevant for a millennia on that basis alone.  

The poem below, i sing of Olaf glad and big, is based on an actual encounter with a fellow soldier at Camp Devin when Cummings was in the army.  He came across this very blonde, very large private reading Thomas Moore.   The two had a conversation about being a pacifist and from there Cummings’ imagination took over and this poem took shape in his mind.   It is autobiographical in the sense that Cummings understands the courage it takes to stand up for your anti-war principles.  It was those moral standards that landed him in detention in France and though he kept a lower profile in the army back in the states, I suspect it grated upon him that his time in the U. S. army preparing to fight in battle inspired more respect from those around him than the time he spent in the French ambulance corp.  During the legal custody battles with Elaine over Nancy during these years, at one point Elaine’s lawyers took before one of the judges information on Cummings detention and deportation from France as a sign of his lack of fitness as a custodial father.  It was a cruel and unjust smear.  Elaine used the very best of Cummings as a man to deny him his visitation rights as a father.  

Cummings months of waiting for French authorities to determine his fate, was a critical juncture in the poet and man Cummings was to become.  Although his novel based on that experience is oddly positive in its tone, its because Cummings chose for it to be positive, not because it was a pleasant experience.  Cummings was surrounded by criminals and actual spies, not youthful idealists and pacifists like himself. And although he could relate to his fellow prisoners humanity, he also had to be on guard while looking inward to find his own splendor in the face of being accused of violating the very principles he stood for when he joined the ambulance core.  If I put myself in his shoes, it takes a lot of courage to say, “there is some shit i will not eat,” to French authorities, knowing they are the ones that will decide to either set you free or send you to jail.

Cummings political persuasion is a little harder to peg.  He was extremely interested in socialism, had high hopes for communism, but found the collective and rather drab reality of both a bit too suffocating for his free spirit.  He had good friends who were active in the socialist movement in Spain and Mexico during the 1920’s and 1930’s. It might surprise you based on his poetry that as he got older and particularly after WWII he began to despise liberalism and liberals. This dislike extended beyond liberal Democrats and was even more virulent in his opposition to the censorship of free thought and the arts that became part of socialist and communist authoritarian regimes. It is likely, Cummings belonged to a political party of one for most of his life.  When he applied for his visa to Russia he listed his political affiliation as none. 

As you read i sing of Olaf glad and big, take into account the breadth of the inclusiveness of Cummings vision.  And as you read it realize the language of the taunts hurled at Olaf are likely based on actual taunts and threats that Cummings faced during his time in France and back in the U. S. Army for standing up for his principles.  Cummings bayonet below is a metaphor for the searingly painful words that the righteously patriotic shove up other people’s ass who see the world a little differently in what constitutes patriotism as a conscientious objector.


i sing of Olaf glad and big

by e. e. cummings

i sing of Olaf glad and big
whose warmest heart recoiled at war:
a conscientious object-or

his wellbelovéd colonel (trig
westpointer most succinctly bred)
took erring Olaf soon in hand;
but-though an host of overjoyed
noncoms (first knocking on the head
him) do through icy waters roll
that helplessness which others stroke
with brushes recently employed
anent this muddy toiletbowl,
while kindred intellects evoke
allegiance per blunt instruments-
Olaf (being to all intents
a corpse and wanting any rag
upon what God unto him gave)
responds, without getting annoyed
“I will not kiss your fucking flag”

straightaway the silver bird looked grave
(departing hurriedly to shave)

but-though all kinds of officers
(a yearning nation’s blueeyed pride)
their passive prey did kick and curse
until for wear their clarion
voices and boots were much the worse,
and egged the firstclassprivates on
his rectum wickedly to tease
by means of skillfully applied
bayonets roasted hot with heat-
Olaf (upon what were once knees)
does almost ceaselessly repeat
“there is some shit I will not eat”

our president,being of which
assertions duly notified
threw the yellowsonofabitch
into a dungeon,where he died

Christ (of His mercy infinite)
i pray to see;and Olaf,too

preponderatingly because
unless statistics lie he was
more brave than me:more blond than you

 

consider rather heavenly things

Anne Barton circa 1927

Kisses are a better fate than wisdom.

e. e. cummings

XIV
W (Viva)

by e. e. cummings

what time is it i wonder never mind
consider rather heavenly things and but
the stars for instance everything is planned
next to that patch of darkness there’s a what
is it oh yes chair but not Cassiopeia’s

might those be stockings dribbling from the table
all which seemed sweet deep and inexplicable
not being dollars toenails or ideas
throughly ‘s stolen(somewhere between

our unlighted hearts lust lurks
slovenly and homeless and when
a kiss departs our lips are made of thing

in beginning corners dawn smirks

and there’s the moon,thinner than a watchspring


In Richard Kennedy’s biography of Cummings,  dreams in the mirror,  Kennedy introduces Barton this way,

“Anne was very different from Elaine, not only in economic and social background, but in personality and temperament.  She was witty, and vivacious, mischievous, much given to laughter.  She loved parties, good jokes, the attention of men.  She had the kind of female allure that made every male in a room aware of her as soon as she entered.  She drank heavily and smoked incessantly….”   

Kennedy goes on to quote Cummings from an interview, when he said, “she (Anne) was also my first real introduction to sex,” or what I interpret to mean, a regular sex life.  But Anne was not a committed partner, at least not at first.  She had multiple boyfriends during the time she started dating Cummings, including a more wealthy suitor who provided some financial support for Anne and her daughter (who was not Cummings’ and born before the two met).  

Barton brought out the playfulness in Cummings and restored his equilibrium.  Unlike Elaine, Anne loved to pose for Cummings when he painted.  Anne was a party girl, and with her introduction into his life, he began to change his ways, frequenting more parities, and bars, where the literati and theater people in Greenwich village hung out.  Anne expanded his group of friends and got him interested in the theater in ways he hadn’t been before, particularly experimental theater that had sprung up in New York City at this time. But there was a dark side too.   Barton also created a lot of negative energy with drama over what Cummings called “the merchant Prince” her older benefactor along with the inevitable foolishness that excessive drinking brings about. 

To detail the on-again, off again relationship of Cummings and Barton from 1926 up until the time they got married in 1929, would take more paragraphs than is the style of this blog.  I’ll sum it up by saying, it was a total soap opera, on again, off again, on again, with a few interesting high points.  Cummings had become increasingly fascinated by Freud, and had done a lot of reading on psychotherapy.   Following his Father’s death, he had received $1,000 of what was a considerably larger estate.  Always determined to live on his own, he had told his Mother he wasn’t interested in any more financial gifts, but in his desperation to find a way for Anne to overcome what reads like a manic, bi-polar condition, he asked his Mother for funds to assist Anne to undergo treatment in New York.   That talk therapy, combined with the fact that Cummings was a much more interesting, romantic man than her other suitor, eventually sorted things out.  Cummings also offered one more thing that none of Barton’s other boyfriends could offer; a personally guided trip of Europe.

Cummings had also come into some money from a generous cash prize awarded by The Dial for one of Cummings poems, along with some income from a play he had written and paintings sold, he had a modest stash of cash for travel. And what better excuse for a long trip in Europe, and also a way to generate more cash from Cummings considerable group of well wishers, than a honeymoon.  Anne and Cummings got married in summer of 1929 and promptly departed for France. The honeymoon did not get off to a good start.  The couple, along with Anne’s daughter Diana, met Anne’s father and his fourth wife in Paris.  There were petty jealousies and bickering between Cummings and her father, Anne and her father and Cummings and Anne, all around the stresses of forming a new marriage, and trying to impress her father, (who  had also provided a generous wedding gift of cash as well and so they were beholden to put up with some of his bad behavior). Also there was the added complexity of having a child in tow on their honeymoon in Paris and so things were a bit bumpy.  A solution was hatched; Anne placed Diana in a French convent for a month for child care, and Estlin and Anne headed off to Austria for a month alone.

By fall of 1929, Estlin, Anne and Diana headed back to America as a new family unit.  One of the legacies that Estlin’s Father had left that he felt comfortable accepting was a refuge in New Hampshire, a farm called Silver Lake. Cummings was not flush with cash following the honeymoon, and so over the next several years, to save money, the couple and Diana would spend limited time in New York City, where 4 Patchin Place lacked the room for a family of 3, and instead spent summers at Silver Lake and winters in Paris, as a way to save money, resident’s that more aligned with Cummings income as an artist.

Meanwhile, Cummings continued to have success publishing, but wasn’t getting much credibility among the critics or literary establishment for his work.  Cummings was not yet on the map in 1930 in the literary canon of American poets like he is today.   This lack of critical acclaim was a chip on Cummings shoulder that continued to fuel his creative energy.  Anonymity also offered him a certain amount of freedom and lack of expectations.  In other words he was still under the radar, which has its own advantages.  Morie Werner, who had introduced him to Anne, had just completed a biography of William Jennings Bryant and was free to travel and so the two of them begin cooking up a trip to Russia.  But Cummings simply didn’t have the funds, so Werner left without him and returned with a comically dismal account of how brutal and grim life was in the new Soviet Union.  This of course, made Cummings want to go there all the more. 

It is fair I think to decipher that the book of poetry that Cummings published in 1931, arose from this period of writing between 1926 and 1930.  It is a fascinating little book, a bit simpler with some truly great poems.  I picked two from that volume for today.  The first is clearly written with Anne as his muse, the inspiration a late night, after being out on the town, possibly post sex, with stockings that were washed in the sink hanging up to dry, and Estlin, with the adrenaline of the night keeping him awake, pondering his place in the Universe.  One has to remember that Cummings had a Harvard education in the classics with a deep knowledge of history, language and literature.  Cummings spoke five languages, English, Spanish, French, German and Portuguese, and could read Greek and Latin.  Cummings does not name drop a constellation by chance and besides, the narrow streets of Greenwich Village the stars aren’t even visible, so its highly unlikely its autobiographical.  In classical mythology, Cassiopeia was the wife of King Cepheus of Ethiopia.  Cepheus consulted an oracle for help on domestic matters and kingly responsibilities of rule.  The oracle gave him bad advice and told him to appease Poseidon, (who was at the center of his difficulties) he and Cassiopeia had to sacrifice their daughter Andromeda to the sea monster.  Basically an earlier take on biblical stories of sacrificing one’s children for your own ambitions.  Take that into account and Estlin’s loss of access to Nancy and now his involvement as a step Dad in Diana’s life as you read the poem. 

I know from experience, that we never know what a poet is thinking when they write, and that many poems are not intended to be interpreted.  My own writing is often an expression of an emotion or idea or post-card of an experience that at the time of its writing leaves me with different impressions than it does years later, when the inner workings of my subconscious is more evident. Poetry, particularly, confessional poetry, can be a substitute for talk therapy for the poet.  I see in Cummings work, and this may just be me projecting, Cummings interest in Freudian therapy and that processes’ fascination with childhood experiences and our relationships with our Father and Mother.   

In the second poem I selected what I read as an inner dialogue with his Father.  The loss of that relationship at a time that Estlin had not achieved critical success or success in his personal life, leaves a lasting aspect of disappointment between the two that is hard to shake.   Edward (the elder) departed his son’s life while his life was still in chaos.  Having spent a lot of time in my life in a church as a child and as a young man, watching a minister talk, with whom I had a less than favorable personal relationship, I can tell you from experience that you watch the hypocrisy as well as brilliance that comes out of that person’s mouth with great focus.  You stare directly at their face as they are talking with a mixture of fascination and horror. Cummings watched his father from the front pew for hundreds of sermons. Regardless of whom Cummings is thinking about, he pays the orator a great compliment, “the best mouth I have seen on any man.”  I will you leave it to you to figure out what the entirety of the poem means to you and not bias you further in my personal interpretation. 

One last suggestion with the first poem at the top if you would like to have some fun with words.  Go back to it and read it three times.  The first time, from top to bottom out loud, don’t be self conscious.  The second time bottom to top silently. Then close your eyes for 30 seconds and then read it again from top to bottom out loud.  What happened in your mind as Cummings’ words sank deeper into your psyche and your mouth and breath formed the words?  Did you commune with Cummings in a way that was different than the first time you read it?


XXXXV
W (Viva)

by e. e. cummings

what is strictly fiercely and wholly dies
his impeccable feathered with green facts
preening solemnity ignoring.through
its indolent lascivious caring eyes

watches;truly,curvingly while reacts
(sharp now with blood now accurately wan)
keenly.to dreamings more than truth untrue,

the best mouth I have seen on any man—
a little fluttering,at the enchanted dike
of whose lean lips,hovers how slenderly
the illustrious unknown

. . .                                 .    (warily as
their master’s spirit stoopiong,Crusoelike
examines fearingly and tenderly

a recent footprint in the sand of wax)

the simple instant of perfect hunger

E. E. Cummings apartment from 1923 – 1962 at 4 Patchin Place, Greenwich Village, NY.

 “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
& (AND)

II

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
Yes)
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
is 5

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
calves
.               . 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.