If You Can

Rudyard Kipling (1865 – 1936)

Sonnet (On Being Rejected by One’s Horse)

by Rudyard Kipling

Give me my rein, my syce! Give me my rein!
I have a need of it, an absolute need,
To climb upon the bounding back again
And curb the bad, mad gambols of my steed.
‘Tis strange we are thus parted—by no lust
Of mine, but rather blind, unwearied force
That worked upon the sinews of my horse,
And drove me from him, howling in the dust.
Now he is neither gentle, kind nor quiet,
And he strives (though vainly) to outleap his girth,
While right and left the armed hooves are hurled.
Oh Destrier!  bethink thee that this riot
Shall, in the end, bring neither rest nor mirth….
Only the heaviest bit in all the world.

If

By Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son

Unheard In The Transition

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), April 2021

“But jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul—the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile.”

Langston Hughes.

Limitations

by Henrietta Cordelia Ray (1852 – 1916)
 
The subtlest strain a great musician weaves,
Cannot attain in rhythmic harmony
To music in his soul. May it not be
Celestial lyres send hints to him? He grieves
That half the sweetness of the song, he leaves
Unheard in the transition. Thus do we
Yearn to translate the wondrous majesty
Of some rare mood, when the rapt soul receives
A vision exquisite. Yet who can match
The sunset’s iridescent hues? Who sing
The skylark’s ecstasy so seraph-fine?
We struggle vainly, still we fain would catch
Such rifts amid life’s shadows, for they bring
Glimpses ineffable of things divine.
 
 

Langston Hughes, was one of the founders of the jazz poetry movement, a style of poetry in which the beat of the words flow like the syncopation of jazz.   It is a style that would be adopted by other writers, including Amiri Baraka, Marvin Bell, Sterling Brown, Hayden Carruth, Allen Ginsberg, Michael Harper, Ted Joans, Bob Kaufman, Jack Kerouac, Yusef Komunyaaka,  Mina Loy, Kenneth Rexroth, and Sonia Sanchez, just to name a few.  This February, I’ll explore some of these writers work and spend some time with jazz poetry.

An interesting question is whether today’s hip hop and rap music is directly connected to jazz poetry?  In my mind the answer is a great big YES!   Jazz poetry was written by African American writers for black audiences, using language and symbolism that grew out of a uniquely black art form – jazz.   Although white writers were attracted to the modernist aspects of jazz poetry and contributed to it’s evolution, it’s legacy, like jazz, has to remain firmly tethered to the great black poets who gave the master class in its halls.  

From an academic standpoint, The Weary Blues, by Langston Hughes, is often cited as part of the beginnings of jazz poetry.  Published in 1925, it broke free from the traditional verse that still confined most publishing of its time.  Hughes playfulness in his rhyme is a big jump from Henrietta Cordelia Ray’s sonnets, though both are dealing with a similar theme, only approaching it from opposite poles.  

Jazz poetry has gone through peaks and valleys of popularity over the years in academia and publishing, but has remained popular among black poets since its inception.   A testament to the staying power of jazz poetry is since 2002, when the Smithsonian launched Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), they have produced a jazz poetry event every April as part of National Poetry Month. 

Do you have a favorite jazz poet, a favorite jazz poem?   To find out more, check out this link to The Power of Poetry blog series, that has a host of great stories and poems:  https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/stories/search


The Weary Blues

 
by Langston Hughes (1901 – 1967)
 

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
     I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
     He did a lazy sway . . .
     He did a lazy sway . . .
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
     O Blues!
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
     Sweet Blues!
Coming from a black man’s soul.
     O Blues!
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—
     “Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
       Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
       I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
       And put ma troubles on the shelf.”

Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more—
     “I got the Weary Blues
       And I can’t be satisfied.
       Got the Weary Blues
       And can’t be satisfied—
       I ain’t happy no mo’
       And I wish that I had died.”
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.

love is a place

Marion Morehouse (1906 – 1969)

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

e. e. cummings

58
No Thanks

by e. e. cummings

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



18
No Thanks

by e. e. cummings

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

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

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

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

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

forever,and you’ll wear your silver shoes

 

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)

As Swimmers Into Cleanliness Leaping

If you are depressed you are living in the past if you are anxious you are living in the future, if you are at peace, you are living in the present.” 

Lao Tzu

 On Peace

by John Keats

O PEACE! and dost thou with thy presence bless
The dwellings of this war-surrounded Isle;
Soothing with placid brow our late distress,
Making the triple kingdom brightly smile?
Joyful I hail thy presence; and I hail
The sweet companions that await on thee;
Complete my joy let not my first wish fail,
Let the sweet mountain nymph thy favourite be,
With England’s happiness proclaim Europa’s Liberty.
O Europe! let not sceptred tyrants see

That thou must shelter in thy former state;
Keep thy chains burst, and boldly say thou art free;
Give thy kings law leave not uncurbed the great ;
So with the horrors past thou’lt win thy happier fate!


Peace

by Rupert Brooke

Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!

Oh! we, who have known shame, we have found release there,
Where there’s no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending,
Naught broken save this body, lost but breath;
Nothing to shake the laughing heart’s long peace there
But only agony, and that has ending;
And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.

Fruitful Crops In Every Field

Harvesting wheat by hand.

“Poetry is a sort of truancy, a dream within the dream of life, a wild flower planted among our wheat.”

— Michael Joseph Oakeshott

Portrait of a Machine

by Louis Untermeyer

What nudity as beautiful as this
Obedient monster purring at its toil;
These naked iron muscles dripping oil
And the sure-fingered rods that never miss.
This long and shining flank of metal is
Magic that greasy labour cannot spoil;
While this vast engine that could rend the soil
Conceals its fury with a gentle hiss.
It does not vent its loathing, it does not turn
Upon its makers with destroying hate.
It bears a deeper malice; lives to earn
It’s masters bread and laughs to see this great
Lord of the earth, who rules but cannot learn,
Become the slave of what his slaves create.


One hundred years ago it took 40 hours of labor from planting to harvest with the best horse drawn equipment at the time to raise 100 bushels of corn.   Today it takes around 2 hours.  We have 20X increased productivity and with it 20X increased the cost of production and reduced 20X the workforce needed to produce it.  The reason we’ll never go back is no one would want to work that hard ever again for so little wages.  We have grown comfortable in the marvels that the internal combustion engine and fossil fuels have created and there is no bridge back to a pastoral rural economy.  But as these poems both remind us, there is a cost to our efficiency that goes beyond finances.   There is a human cost in our souls being tethered to the very machines that have transformed lives. 

 


Agricultural Implements and Machinery

by James Mcyintre (1828- 1906)

Poor laborers, they did sad bewail,
When the machine displaced the flail ;
There’s little work, now, with the hoes,
Since cultivators weed the rows.

Labor it became more fickle
When the scythe took place of sickle ;
Labor still it did sink lower
By introduction of mower ;

And the work was done much cheaper
When they added on the reaper.
Another machine to it they join,
Mower, reaper, binder, they combine.

Machines now load and stow away
Both the barley and the hay,
And the farmers do get richer
With the loader and the pitcher.

There’s little work now for the hoes,
Since cultivators weed the rows ;
They sow and rake by the machine-
Hand labor’s ‘mong the things have been.

Armed with scythes, the old war chariot
Cut down men in the fierce war riot ;
Round farmer’s chariot falls the slain,
But ’tis the sheaves of golden grain.

This harvest, now, of eighty-four,
Will great wealth on farmers pour,
For there is abundant yield
Of fruitful crops in every field.

Thus From My Lips

Romeo and Juliet

Brevity is the soul of wit.

Shakespeare, Hamlet Act 2 Scene 2

What Will Not Be Spoken

by Rodney Jones

Because I had this faint memory of the thought
of a taste in my mouth and could not name it

I went through school sad I could not say it
if I had swallowed it or was it even edible

maybe I was too young when I first had it
I did not know the word yet though the taste stayed

as I grew older some nights I could nearly
describe it and would put my tongue to chalk

and paraffin and iodine and go into grocery stores
sniffing along every aisle thinking I would find it

but I did not find it until one day when
I was not looking there it was for an instant

it came to me I said it so I would remember
though in time I forgot that is why now I write


I think the official answer to the question of how many sonnets did Shakespeare write is 154, but I object!   History confirms there were two separate volumes of Shakespeare’s sonnets published, one in 1609 and one in 1640, both contain 154 sonnets so its easy to explain that answer.  I have two issues with the proclamation that 154 is correct.  First – the sonnet structure is deployed throughout his plays, either in full or in part, time and again.  If we include the sonnets contained within the 38 plays that Shakespeare wrote, it would add extensively to that list.  And second, why do we believe that the 154 sonnets that were published are the only ones he wrote?   Unlike his plays, in which many copies were published, edited and made public so they could be performed,  there is evidence that the publishing of his sonnets in 1609 was done without his consent.  The first edition was littered with errors, some of which have remained,  which suggest he was not directly involved in oversight of its publishing.  The sonnets content and  in some cases the casual nature of the writing, although brilliant but not polished suggest these were private poems intended for his lover, lovers or friends.  And because some of the content suggests he may have been bi-sexual and that if proven,  could have landed him in prison adds further evidence that he may not have intended for the sonnets to have been made public.   

But do we honestly believe that the 154 that were published are all the sonnets that Shakespeare wrote if these were private missives not intended for the public’s eyes and ears?  Maybe these poems were his way of satisfying his fantasies privately and he never wanted them to be shared.  Or, as prolific a writer as Shakespeare, maybe there were far more than 154 sonnets hidden about under pillows some place in England over his lifetime.   

Anyone who writes sonnets can tell you part of the reason they write them is they are ONLY 14 lines.  Sonnets still require a fair amount of work, but you aren’t writing Hamlet.  I write sonnets as play,  in part because I know if I get sick of the poem I am working on, I can quit, discard it and it isn’t like I have wasted six months on a draft of a screenplay I now hate.  I have a feeling that Shakespeare wrote sonnets as a way to relax and possibly as a way to not discard some ideas that maybe didn’t fit into the play he was writing at the time.  I think he wrote sonnets because he knew those he shared them with would enjoy them.  He may have written them to get laid.  And because poetry can have that desired effect on romance, my guess is its entirely possible that some of his best poetry died with the lucky lover who received it and no copy was left lying around to be discovered by whatever means the publisher acquired them. Regardless of what you believe about the conspiracy theories regarding the work attributed to Shakespeare possibly being penned by himself and others, despite no direct evidence that Shakespeare did not author everything attributed to him, it feels like the true answer to the question of how many sonnets did Shakespeare(s) write  – is a lot.  

One of the reasons that Shakespeare included the rhyme and meter of sonnets in portions of his plays are that 10 syllables is about what most people can say comfortably and project loudly in a theater on stage without taking a breath and second rhyme helps actors remember their lines.  The lines from this section of Romeo and Juliet below are 14 lines, with a rhyming convention of ababcdcdeef(e like)fg.  Is it a sonnet?  I think so but I am one to bend the rules a bit on what is and isn’t a sonnet. 

How would you classify the poem above by Rodney Jones?  All the lines have 10, 11 or 12 syllables, its fourteen lines long, but is it a sonnet? There is no rhyme at all, its certainly not a traditional sonnet, but how you interpret its construction depends on how you think about the influence of sonnets on poetry over time.  I offer these two poems up as evidence to the question as to how many sonnets did Shakespeare write in his lifetime?  You decide….  Have you ever sat down and read all 154 in a row in one sitting?  If you have, what jumped out at you as you progressed through the most famous sonnets of all time?  


Romeo and Juliet (Act 1, Scene 5, line 104)

by William Shakespeare

Juliet
Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this:
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.
Romeo
Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Juliet
Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in pray’r.
Romeo
O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do,
They pray—grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
Juliet
Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
Romeo
Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take.
(Kisses her)
Thus from my lips, by thine, my sin is purg’d.
Juliet
Then have my lips the sin that they have took.
Romeo
Sin from my lips? O trespass sweetly urg’d!
Give me my sin again.

Kind Air Breathed Kindness Everywhere

Louis Untermeyer (1885 – 1977)

Poetry is the power of defining the indefinable in terms of the unforgettable.

Louis Untermeyer

Prayer For This House

by Louis Untermeyer

 

MAY nothing evil cross this door,
And may ill-fortune never pry
About these windows; may the roar
And rains go by.

Strengthened by faith, the rafters will
Withstand the battering of the storm.
This hearth, though all the world grow chill,
Will keep you warm.

Peace shall walk softly through these rooms,
Touching your lips with holy wine,
Till every casual corner blooms
Into a shrine.

Laughter shall drown the raucous shout
And, though the sheltering walls are thin,
May they be strong to keep hate out
And hold love in.


Louis Untermeyer was a businessman, poet, translator, educator and editor who followed his passion mid-life to become one of the most influential anthologists of poetry in the early 20th Century.   Untermeyer spent his 20’s and early 30’s in the family jewelry business in New York City, but eventually followed his literary passions.  He was fond of puns and rhymes and felt that poetry didn’t need to be an elite artistic endevour but was something that should be enjoyed by everyone.   He focused on a wide range of poetry, from children’s verse to poetry anthologies used in Universities to introduce countless college students to English literature.  

Untermeyer was a liberal all his life and aligned his politics around civil rights and a more just society.  Late in life he left New York City and like Frost,  retired to the country, preferring the solitude of his gardens and nature over the busy streets of New York City. 

Untermeyer is known more for his work as an anthologist and translator, but his own poetry I find playful and inspiring.  I was particularly taken with the poem above, but wonder how successful he was in his own right in the affirmation expressed.  Married and divorced four times, martial harmony in Untermeyer’s households seemed to have eluded him, now matter how strong the sentiments he successfully put to rhyme. 

Both Adams and Untermeyer share the distinction of serving as Poet Laureate when the title was known as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.  Adams poem below took a bit for me to wrap my head around.  It is an example of a poem that I have a hard time connecting to the whole of it, but I was taken with these three lines; Thus I lived then, till this air breathed on me.  Till this kind are breathed kindness everywhere, There where my times had left me I would stay.  For me sometimes a couple of lines is all I take from a poem and the rest takes a while to sink in before the emotion or thoughts expand beyond the portion that I am attracted.  Sometimes the entirety of a poem I  never understand.   Do you have poems like that; where there is only one line that stays with you, inspires you? 


Alas, Kind Element!

By Leonie Adams 
 
Then I was sealed, and like the wintering tree
I stood me locked upon a summer core;
Living, had died a death, and asked no more.
And I lived then, but as enduringly,
And my heart beat, but only as to be.
Ill weathers well, hail, gust and cold I bore,
I held my life as hid, at root, in store:
Thus I lived then, till this air breathed on me.
Till this kind air breathed kindness everywhere,
There where my times had left me I would stay.
Then I was staunch, I knew nor yes nor no;
But now the wishful leaves have thronged the air.
My every leaf leans forth upon the day;
Alas, kind element! which comes to go.