goodby Betty,don’t remember me

E. E. Cummings in France in 1917

It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.

e. e. cummings

Sonnets – Realities
Tulips and Chimneys

III

by e. e. cummings

goodby Betty,don’t remember me
pencil your eyes dear and have a good time
with the tall tight boys at Tabari’
s,keep your teeth snowy,stick to beer and lime,
wear dark,and where your meeting breasts are round
have roses darling,it’s all i ask of you –
but that when light fails and this sweet profound
Paris moves with lovers,two and two
bound for themselves,when passionately dusk
brings softly down the perfume of the world
(and just as smaller stars begin to husk
heaven)you,you exactly paled and curled
with mystic lips take twilight where i know:
proving to Death that Love is so and so.


The quote from Cummings above is often given to young people in a card  who are graduating from high school or college.  But really it should be mandatory reading when we turn 30, because for most adults who actually achieve becoming the person they want to be, they don’t do it until their 30’s, 40’s or 50’s, everything leading up to that is simply the prerequisite experience, successes and failures, needed to shape  and reshape the clay.  Artists rarely wake up at age 18 and are the artist that we look back on as the seminal genius history remembers. Cummings was no different. The period from graduating from Harvard (1916) and publishing his first book of poetry (Tulips and Chimneys, 1923) are not even the period when e. e. cummings summoned the courage to be who he wanted to be, it was the period where he was trying to figure it out.

It is not easy to follow in the footsteps of a father who is as accomplished as the Reverend Edward Cummings. Edward the elder had grown up in a comfortably wealthy family in Cambridge and as a young man was a successful sociology professor at Harvard.   But midlife, he realized that was not his calling, and so he went back to Harvard Divinity College and became an ordained minister, supercharging his considerable intellect and focus on religion, social justice and peace.  Estlin grew up under the shadow of expectations watching his father lead a large congregation and as the head of the World Peace Foundation.  So when Estlin graduated from Harvard and the U. S. not yet in the conflict in Europe, he became more active in the peace movement, attending antiwar rallies and becoming more and more concerned about the war. Cummings did what many educated intellectuals had done before him potentially facing the draft, he volunteered for the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Service in France, a non-combatant duty that fit his inclinations of service and pacifism.  In route to France via ship, he was seasick and in his common misery struck up a friendship with William Slater Brown.  Upon arrival in France he, along with his fellow volunteers, got themselves to the office in Paris, only to find the city relatively little impacted at that time by the war.  They put themselves up in an affordable and suitably shabby-chic hotel along the Seine and promptly set out to do what most 18 years old would in a bright urban city; figure out how to get laid. Paris in 1917, allowed a certain amount of sexual freedom, with beautiful and sometimes partially clad women on stages and in night clubs, a sexual vibrancy that clearly set it apart from the still relatively conservative New York City where he had been living. But Estlin was a late bloomer in terms of puberty and sexual confidence. Combine that with being the son of a famous Minister and for Estlin that period in Paris was more titillation than actual tits, as he would come back from his war years at least professing to still be a virgin. 

However, all that sexual tension may have contributed to what would become a seminal moment in his life, an actual act of rebellion.  Cummings had arrived in Paris in mid-April and was not placed on his assignment in the town of Germaine until mid June, giving him and his buddies 2 full months to explore all that Paris had to offer young men in uniform. But the fun and freedom of Paris rapidly turned into the drudgery, boredom and barbarity of the front.  Ambulance drivers were assigned in pairs and Cummings and Brown grew closer as their world view differed from some of their coarser counterparts in their unit.   The two became a bit estranged from their unit and didn’t follow protocol, preferring the company of French troops over their own.   The two also began using their down time to try and outwit the censors by using their considerable intellectual powers and poetry skills to try and insert secret messages in their letters to family and friends back home.   The combination of their questionable correspondence and non-compliant attitudes and pacifist leanings eventually got them both arrested and thrown in detention on suspicion of espionage.  The culminating act when in September of that year, Cummings was detained at a border point by French authorities and refused to answer the question ” Do you hate the Germans?”

Fortunately for Cummings his malfeasance was not taken as seriously as it could have been and although he was arrested and taken to La Ferte-Mace, a holding station for aliens awaiting their investigation to determine if they were to be deported or turned over to the military for trial, the ordeal had the pleasant side benefit of giving him time to write in relative comfort.  La Ferte-Mace was a pleasant enough Normandy agricultural station that had been retrofitted for its current purpose and Cummings and Brown were put in with other detainees in one large room.  Cummings and Brown immediately found comaraderie with their fellow prisoners and this experience would become the creative fuel for Cummings first book in 1922, which in turn would open the gates of the publishing world for his poetry.  Cummings was detained for three months, and despite his father’s attempts to intervene sooner, Cummings had to wait for the process to work itself out.  As expected he was deported back to the United States by January of 1918.   Obviously the U. S. Government did not consider his shenanigans in the French ambulance service a threat to the war effort because he was drafted in July and told to report to Camp Devin in upstate New York for training immediately.  Fortunately for Estlin, his conscription into the Army came late enough that although he spent six miserable months as a private at Fort Devin, he was released before ever having to see combat or go overseas again.  Cummings accepted his time in the army with grim fatalism, knowing that doing what he was required and keeping his head down was better than being defiantly noticed by his superiors.  However, having stood for his principles as a pacifist and as a budding artist during his brushes with the stodgy bureaucracy of both the French and U. S. armed forces emboldened Cummings for what would be the next stage in his journey, leaving Cambridge,  Massachusetts,  and the shadow of his families legacy for good and establishing himself in New York City by early 1919. 


Sonnets – Unrealities 
(Tulips and Chimneys)

III

by e. e. cummings

A connotation of infinity
sharpens the temporal splendor of this night

when souls which have forgot frivolity
in lowliness,noting the fatal flight
of worlds whereto this earth’s a hurled dream

down eager avenues of lifelessness

consider for how much themselves shall gleam,
in the poised radiance of perpetualness.
When want’s in velvet beyond doomed thought

is like a woman amorous to be known:
and man,whose here is always worse than naught,
feels the tremendous yonder for his own – 

on such a night the sea through her blind miles

of crumbling silence seriously smiles