Friday, October 14, 2011

e. e. cummings—Playful, Lyrical Iconoclast

A self portrait of the artist/poet
O.K., I admit it.  I have posted the biographical sketch of poet e.e. cummings that follows at least twice in the life of this blog—once as part of my annual National Poetry Month series in April, and again just a year ago on his birthday.  But I do love cummings and want you to.

Rereading some of his work tonight I was reminded again how profoundly he influenced my own work—maybe more than any other poet.  I’ll share a couple of examples after the bio.  One is an example of how no matter how unusual he was in form, he remained something of an old fashioned lyrical poet at heart.  The second one is an example the playfulness and creativity for which he is sometime best remembered.  Stick around for the show after my boring educational crap.

Edward Estlin Cummings was the most daring innovator in style and typography of 20th Century American poets yet embodied the soul of a lyric poet.  An iconoclast in youth, in age he strove to re-discover the timeless, creedless spirituality at the core of his father’s faith.  Cummings was born on October 14, 1898 in the shadow of Harvard where his father was the first professor of sociology and later the minister of South Congregational Society, Unitarian in Boston.  His mother nurtured of a love of poetry and literature and his father tried to instill a rigorous sense of duty and personal rectitude. 
Bookish and shy, but with a taste for amusements from the circus to the ballet, young Cummings entered public high school at the age of only 12.  He was a correspondingly early entrant to Harvard.  For the first three years he broke tradition by living at home, by which his father hoped to insulate him from the more vicious and competitive parts of Harvard social life.  Instead, it simply isolated the young man.  An outstanding student, his only extracurricular activity was his participation in The Monthly, considered to be the more intellectual of Harvard’s two competing literary magazines.  In his senior year he finally moved on campus and developed a handful of friendships among the magazine staff and contributors, most notably John Dos Passos.  Interested equally in poetry and art, he contributed both to the magazine.  He graduated with high honors and was selected one of the class speakers.  His discourse on  The New Art referencing Amy Lowell and Gertrude Stein scandalized faculty, parents, and even many of his fellow graduates.  Still, he enjoyed himself enough to stay an additional year to earn his master’s degree and continue his association with The Monthly.  During that senior year Cummings and Dos Passos delighted in thumbing their nose at conventional morality, assumed Bohemian personas and generally caroused delightedly around Cambridge. 

After college Cummings plunged into the working world in New York, but found office life boring and stifling.  Within three months he threw up regular employment to concentrate on his painting and poetry.  He never again engaged in what his father would have called honest labor.  Apolitical among the Greenwich Village Reds, Cummings took no part in the debate on the war in Europe, but when it became apparent America would join the war, he elected to enlist in the French ambulance corps.  At his heart, he shared his father’s essential pacifism.  The elder Cummings was then executive director of the World Peace Foundation.  He found service in the medical service preferable to life as a draftee infantryman, where he would be forced to shoot someone.  

The war and France provided the seminal experience of the young man’s life when he and a close friend were arrested on suspicion of being German sympathizers and possible saboteurs.  He was held for three months in an internment camp, thrown in among deserters, stateless persons, working class radicals and common criminals. He claimed to have found the company more congenial than at Harvard.  In three months his father’s influence led to pressure from the American government and Cummings was released. 

Back in Greenwich Village, Cummings furiously returned to both painting and poetry.  He wrote scores of increasingly experimental poems.  They found a home in The Dial, an ambitious new literary magazine backed by some wealthy friends from his days at The Monthly.  The first issue, in 1920, contained five of Cummings’s poems and a selection of drawings.  The controversy over his experimental forms helped make the poet’s reputation. 
Meanwhile, at his father’s suggestion, he wrote up his war time experiences in a breezy, colloquial style, sometimes with ribald frankness.  His father edited the manuscript and deleted the most shocking language, then shopped the book around until he found a publisher.  The Enormous Room was published in 1922 to critical hostility, public indifference, and an enthusiastic, but tiny audience of fellow artists and bohemians.  Cummings had found his voice. 

Through the ‘20’s he published successive volumes of poetry, many culled from and updated from the work he completed in college and after the war.  He continued to experiment wildly with typography and capitalization.  As a painter, he had a sense of the picture the words themselves could make on the page.  He never capitalized the personal pronoun “I” and took to signing his name e.e. cummings as a supposed rejection of egotism and ostentation.  Academic and newspaper critics alike sneered at Cummings’s work, calling it stilly, presumptuous and ironically egotistical, but among his peers he was, like his friend Dos Passos, a hero.  In 1931 his fifth poetry collection VV or sometimes called ViVa, was published.  To his avant-garde admirers it seemed less adventuresome and more world weary, but it finally began to catch the attention of at least some “serious” reviewers.  The book contained the savagely bitter I sing of Olaf glad and big.  

The early thirties were a troubling time.  His father, the subject of so much love, admiration and rejection, was killed in a horrible automobile-train collision and his second wife—he kept much of his private life very secret—left him in a huff over his chronic womanizing.  To occupy himself, he made a pilgrimage to the Soviet Union that year.  While he had never been personally politically active, something that would have required both the smugness and the immersion in a group identity that he had rejected in his father, Cummings did share a vague enthusiasm for what he imagined was the better world made by working people.  He was given relatively free run of the nation.  The Commissars expected that, like other Western intellectuals, he would see what he wanted to see and send back glowing reports on the worker’s paradise.  Instead, he found disillusion—a nation wracked by fear, haunted by the secret police, dominated by Joseph Stalin, and crushing to the individual spirit.  His travelogue of his Russian adventure was a bitter pill for many American leftists.  For others it was a critical early warning.  

Cummings continued the criticism in his poetry throughout the decade.  Like his friend Dos Passos he let his anti-communism drive him increasingly to the right.  He mocked the New Deal and even attacked labor unions and collective bargaining.  This turn alienated him from what had been his core audience.  

Collected Poems in 1938 was finally received with critical praise.  Time had caught up to him and the great early poems, once so startlingly innovative, were now comprehendible to the ordinary reader.  Despite the newfound popularity and prestige, Cummings could care less about either the ordinary reader or the doyens of the critical establishment.  Despite some brilliant work in the 1940’s--…”listen:there’s a hell of a good universe next door;let’s go”--he was largely under appreciated.  His spiritual quest was bringing him closer to his father.  While still rejecting his social creed, he wrote admiringly of his personal qualities and strength of character.  He even made peace with his father’s religion, adopting a personal faith drawn from an Emersonian and Transcendental belief in the unity of the Spirit and oneness with nature.  

In the late 1950’s Cummings’s poetry, especially the early poems, were re-discovered by a new generation of college students who identified instinctively with them. He became the second most widely read contemporary poets after Robert Frost.  For once, the attention beguiled him.  He even forgave his new followers their rejection of his later conservatism.  He lectured and mingled easily on college campuses, despite his reputation for a prickly personality.  After his death in 1963, hippie anti-war protestors, recalling his scorn of the First World War experience, adopted him again.  Today he is treasured both the youthful rebel and the mature spiritual seeker.

Adapted  from the Biographical Notes for 400 Years of Unitarian and Universalist Poets from John Milton to Sylvia Plath, a reader’s theater style production by Patrick Murfin.

when faces called flowers float out of the ground.
when faces called flowers float out of the ground
and breathing is wishing and wishing is having-
but keeping is downward and doubting and never
-it's april(yes,april;my darling)it's spring!
yes the pretty birds frolic as spry as can fly
yes the little fish gambol as glad as can be
(yes the mountains are dancing together)
when every leaf opens without any sound
and wishing is having and having is giving-
but keeping is doting and nothing and nonsense
-alive;we're alive,dear:it's(kiss me now)spring!
now the pretty birds hover so she and so he
now the little fish quiver so you and so i
(now the mountains are dancing, the mountains)
when more than was lost has been found has been found
and having is giving and giving is living-
but keeping is darkness and winter and cringing
-it's spring(all our night becomes day)o,it's spring!
all the pretty birds dive to the heart of the sky
all the little fish climb through the mind of the sea
(all the mountains are dancing;are dancing)
buy me an ounce and i'll sell you a pound.
buy me an ounce and i'll sell you a pound.
slimmer the finger the thicker the thumb(it's
round and round
early to better is wiser for worse.
order a steak and they send us a pie(it's
mine is yours
ask me the name of the moon in the man.
hole in the ocean will never be missed(it's
yours is mine
either was deafer than neither was dumb.
under the wonder is over the why(it's
here we come
e.e. cummings

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