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.

and eyes big love-crumbs

Elaine Thayer circa 1920

“Elaine was living alone in a lovely apartment on Washington Square. She was the Blessed Damozel, the fair, the lovable, the lilymaid of Astolat. To romantic youth, she seemed the poet’s dream. Those of us who weren’t in love with Cummings were in love with Elaine…. (Cummings and I) would go home to work and then would meet in the late afternoon at Elaine’s for tea. (Edward) Nagel would appear, or Slater Brown, or (Stewart) Mitchell and after an hour or so of talk – though she was silent as a mouse nobody ever dared show off too much at Elaine’s – we would go out to our Italian speakeasy of the moment….

John Dos Passos, Memoir – The Best Times.

i like my body when it is with your

by e. e. cummings

i like my body when it is with your
body.  It is so quite new a thing.
Muscles better and nerves more.
i like your body.  i like what it does,
i like its hows.  i like to feel the spine
of your body and its bones, and the trembling
-firm-smooth ness and which i will
again and again and again
kiss,  i like kissing this and that of you,
i like, slowly stroking the, shocking fuzz
of your electric fur, and what-is-it comes
over parting flesh… And eyes big love-crumbs,

and possibly i like the thrill

of under me you so quite new


I wonder if Cummings learned the beautiful Portuguese word “saudade” during his time in Lisbon?   It roughly means the feeling of longing in fulfillment of desire or the melancholy following the attainment of a long held desire, the realization that achievement has not brought about the contentment you thought it would.  Saudade is what happened to Elaine and Estlin before and after they married in March of 1924. 

Cummings and Elaine had traveled and lived in Europe together and separately since her divorce from Scofield in 1921, much of that time living in Paris.  Elaine returned to New York in September of 1923 and Cummings followed shortly after New Year’s in January of 1924.  Cummings increasingly wanted to be part of Nancy’s life, she was 3 1/2  years old, Mopsy as he called her, was charming, intelligent and fun, though Cummings was not really capable of being a full time father, as he had a tendency to focus on his own interests and needs.  In March, Estlin and Elaine were wed, with the main reason behind the wedding to allow Estlin to formally adopt Nancy, despite the two of them tending to their usual ways, maintaining separate residences at the start of the marriage.  Scofield, ever Estlin’s benefactor,  payed for adoption papers to be drawn up and on April 25, 1924 Nancy became Cummings legal daughter, though Nancy was never told.   Several weeks earlier, before the finalization of the adoption,  Elaine’s younger sister had died.  Elaine and Nancy left to see after her Sister’s affairs in Europe, while Cummings remained in New York.  During the passage over, Elaine met an Irish banker and politician and fell in love.   She broke the news to Cummings in a letter later that spring, and by June of 1924, Elaine was demanding a divorce. 

At first Cummings was furious and considered violence, either to himself or Elaine’s lover, Frank MacDermot.  But as time went on, he realized that Elaine didn’t love him anymore and that he had been more like another dependent on Elaine than partner, and so he agreed to the divorce without explicitly spelling out visitation and custody arrangements in respect to Nancy. Cummings mistakenly thought the recent adoption papers would protect his rights as a father.   Cummings quickly realized his error, as his paternity had not been set out explicitly in the divorce.  Although Cummings quickly tried to rectify his mistake, even seeking  his parents assistance, Cummings soon learned that with Elaine having quickly wed MacDermot and residing in Ireland or Paris, that he had little leverage or legal backing on which to establish his visitation claims.  Elaine and MacDermot would make it increasingly impossible for Cummings. In the end, Cummings would only see his daughter 4 more times as a child between 1924 and 1927, Nancy never aware that Cummings was his father.  It was not until 1946, when Cummings and Nancy had reconnected when she was an adult in New York City, that as he was painting her portrait, Cummings blurted out, “did no one ever tell you I am your father?”  Nancy had spent her entire life up until that point believing that Scofield was her father.  

Following Cummings death, Nancy published the children’s books, four fables, that Estlin had written and read to her as a little girl.  The books were published with illustrations by a Canadian illustrator who approximated some of Cummings style into his compositions.  Their publishing is evidence of the reconciliation between them, as the stories took on more meaning for Nancy once she realized the significance behind them.  

No one ever truly knows what goes on in another person’s marriage.   Cummings and Elaine were never equals financially and that had to be difficult for both.  Cummings suffered from the feelings of inadequacy because he lacked the financial resources to care for Elaine (and Nancy) in the manner to which she was accustomed.  But if you appreciate some of the best of Cummings early poetry, both the beauty and the sadness that permeates it, there was obviously a deep connection between the two during the time that Cummings wrote and published his first three volumes of poetry, from which, both of today’s  poems come.  It makes Elaine’s actions all the more hard to understand, seeing how callously visitation rights and the sudden estrangement played out, and the ultimate betrayal of never telling Nancy that Estlin was her father. 

 

Illustration by John Eaton from the Children’s Book The Little Girl Named I, a story Cummings created privately for his daughter, Nancy, that was published posthumously.


My sweet old etcetera 

by e. e. cummings

my sweet old etcetera
aunt lucy during the recent
war could and what
is more did tell you just
what everybody was fighting

for,
my sister

Isabel created hundreds
(and
hundreds) of socks not to
mention fleaproof earwarmers

etcetera wristers etcetera, my
mother hoped that

i would die etcetera
bravely of course my father used
to become hoarse talking about how it was
a privilege and if only he
could meanwhile my

self etcetera lay quietly
in the deep mud et
cetera
(dreaming,
et
   cetera, of
Your smile
eyes knees and of your Etcetera)

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!
 

 

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