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 won the Pulitzer.  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)

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