Kisses are a better fate than wisdom.e. e. cummings
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?
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)