“If a poet is anybody, he is somebody to whom things made matter very little — somebody who is obsessed by Making.”e. e. cummings
Collected Poems (1938)
by e. e. cummings
may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old
may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it’s sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young
and may myself do nothing usefully
and love yourself so more than truly
there’s never been quite such a fool who could fail
pulling all the sky over him with one smile
The story of Nancy and Estlin’s reunion is bittersweet and incredibly complicated. Nancy came to know Cummings first as a poet and a writer by a friend when she was 16, who introduced her to both T. S. Elliott and e. e. cummings. Nancy, ever curious about her Mother’s past, who continued to maintain a complex web of deceit, constantly was vigilant about learning more of her Mother’s life. Nancy was a clever listener when old New York friends of her mother would visit London. Elaine had steadfastly maintained that Scofield Thayer was Nancy’s father and that he was dead; neither was true. Since Elaine never returned to the United States with her new husband, it was easy to keep up this charade.
The truth eventually came out in pieces, when several of Elaine and Estlin’s mutual friends from the happy years in New York, visited Elaine in London. During these visits and dinner parties, there was talk about Scofield and Estlin, reminiscing about the old Dial crowd and Dos Passos. From these dinner parties, Nancy learned Scofield, who she believed was her father, was not dead. A very different picture of her Mother’s past was painted than she had been led to believe. During one of these dinner parties, Elaine let slip in front of Nancy, something about an event when she had been married to Cummings. Nancy was intrigued, as she had already read The Enormous Room, had read most poems Cummings had published up to this point in 1938 and knew Cummings as a writer only. She was amazed her mother could be so interesting as to have been married to him. Elaine immediately brushed it off casually, once this was out in the open, saying, it was so long ago and very brief and refused to discuss it more, letting the mystery only deepen.
In the fall of 1939, Nancy was studying for entrance exams at Oxford, and Elaine and MacDermott moved to Dublin. The war had begun, but London was not yet being bombed. Nancy was accepted into Oxford in spring of 1940, with plans to begin that fall, but the war would intervene. By June of 1940 the bombings had begun and Elaine demanded that Nancy come join them at the “family” home in Ireland. Nancy arrived in Dublin only to learn that the border between Ireland and England had been closed and she could not return to England to attend college that fall, something she had worked very hard to achieve. Nancy was furious that she had not been consulted or been made aware of this issue. She was given 24 hours by Irish authorities and her step-father, to decide; either stay in Dublin or sail for the United States. She choose to sail for New York, as it represented something looking more like independence than being stuck in Dublin with Elaine.
Before departing, Elaine cautioned Nancy of not trying to find the man she still believed was her father, and the man whose last name she had chosen to keep, Scofield Thayer. Elaine lied once again and told her Scofield had suffered a mental breakdown, but that she needn’t worry as it “wasn’t genetic.”
Nancy thrived during the war years, living in both New York and Washington, D. C. She trained as a Morse code operator, got her first job as a typist and used her literary skills to obtain meaningful work. Along the way she met her soon to be husband, through her employer, who was her second son Willard, a talented musician and composer, who was currently in the Navy. In 1943, while Willard was on leave, the two married.
In the summer of 1945, Nancy, now pregnant with their first child, and Willard, back from the Navy, spent the summer with Willard’s Mother in New Hampshire, The neighbors of the cottage they had rented just happened to be Billy James, Estlin’s good childhood friend from Cambridge, MA, who had stayed in touch over the years with Cummings and knew everything about Cummings past. Of course letter’s were exchanged from the growing circle of acquaintances of Estlin, who were now bumping into Nancy, sharing news of her life in the United States. When Nancy’s first son was born, in September 6, 1945, Billy wrote to Estlin and congratulated him on being a grandfather, Billy well aware of Nancy’s parentage.
Estlin of course was intrigued, and despite Marion’s protectiveness, Estlin began thinking about a reunion. The following summer, while at Joy Farm in Silver Lake, New Hampshire, he arranged for Billy to bring Nancy and her son to visit for tea. There was an immediate connection between the two. Nancy, who had considerable poetic inclinations as well, was captivated by Estlin. She instantly realized how much both her and her son, looked like Cummings. Using the excuse to paint her picture, Nancy began visiting more frequently, sometimes alone, without the interruptions of an infant, and their talks became more intense.
The following summer, Nancy was pregnant with her second son, and returned for the summer in New Hampshire. Marion was not sure that Estlin should reveal the truth and was a bit upset by Estlin’s interest in Nancy. Marion had wanted to have a child and Estlin had refused. Estlin had been so emotionally traumatized from being cut off by Elaine in Nancy’s life, combined with the constant lack of money, and Estlin’s complete focus on art, had prevented the two of them from having a family. Nancy represented a loss to Marion more than a gain. But she did not stand in the way, despite her misgivings, and more visits were arranged. The summer of 1947 deepened, the connections between Estlin and Nancy, but other than the awareness of Estlin having been married to her Mother and having known her as a child, the rest remained unspoken. Estlin during this time, brought out and reconnected Nancy with the fables, and paintings and poems he had created and read to her as a little girl. These distant memories of the past, only cemented the bonds between all the more, but also confused both on where to proceed.
It was not until the following year in 1948, when Cummings and Marion were staying in Greenwich Village, that Nancy began sitting for a larger portrait. During one of those sessions, Estlin finally said; ‘has no one ever told you, I’m your father?” At first this revelation, that was so obvious to everyone, opened up a burst of positive energy for both Estlin and Nancy. Estlin set about writing several screenplays which were fabulous flops. Nancy was incredibly happy. She desperately wanted her children to know their true Grandfather, and it shed light on her growing difficult marriage with what would become her first husband. But all of this enlarged family complexity was too much for Estlin. He was too set and childlike in his ways. Years of being in a back brace had worn him down. His ill health had sapped him of creative energy, and now that he had some of that back, he was selfishly more committed to creating art than being a father and grandfather, as the opportunity provided. He carefully turned his back ever so slightly over the next several years, refusing to become very much involved in his grandson’s lives, turning away from what he had wanted for so long.
Nancy, though disappointed, took it in stride. She did not cut him off, but she retreated into the busy life of being a mother with two young boys. She understood and accepted, Cummings limitations. Nancy and Estlin would stay connected, with the truth of their lives now in the open, but neither having the opportunity to fully explore the much greater relationship that could have been possible.
I’ll let you sort today’s two poems and your feelings about each given all that background. The poem below is from his 1958 book 95 Poems. The poem above, written much earlier in his life, and published 20 years prior. In each is hidden Cummings vast possibility and his childlike limitations. You can decide if this represents our shared humanness, or judge Cummings transparency for being his true nature.
95 Poems (1958)
in time of daffodils (who know the goal of living is to grow)
forgetting why,remember how
in time of lilacs who proclaim
the aim of waking is to dream,
remember so(forgetting seem)
in time of roses(who amaze
our now and here with paradise)
forgetting if,remember yes
in time of all sweet things beyond
whatever mind may comprehend,
remember seek(forgetting find)
and in a mystery to be
(when time from time shall set us free)
forgetting me,remember me