Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘e. e. cummings’

23 OCTOBER, 2013

Vintage Illustrations for the Fairy Tales E. E. Cummings Wrote for His Only Daughter, Whom He Almost Abandoned

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What elephants and butterflies have to do with the failures and redemptions of fatherhood.

In 1916, at the peak of WWI and shortly after graduating from Harvard, beloved poet E. E. Cummings penned an epithalamion — a poem celebrating nuptials — for his classmate and close friend Scofield Thayer’s marriage to his fiancé Elaine Orr. The newlyweds moved to Chicago and Cummings was drafted to serve in France, where he spent some months in prison for his unapologetic anti-war views. By the time he returned to New York in 1918, the Thayers were living in two separate apartments at Washington Square. Cummings’s old friend, who had risen to an influential position in literary circles, became the poet’s patron, supporting his poetry and even purchasing his paintings — a context that makes the affair Cummings undertook with Elaine all the more morally suspect, even though the poet knew his friend’s insistence on wanting to focus on work was merely a veil for his loss of interest in his wife. In May of 1919, Elaine became pregnant with Cummings’s child — something that threw an even more destabilizing curveball in what was already a triangle of impending disaster. To make matters worse, Cummings shirked his responsibility as a father and abandoned Elaine. Thayer, even though he knew the truth of paternity, stepped in to raise little Nancy once she was born on December 20, 1919. It took Cummings nearly a year to come around — in October of 1920, once it became clear that the Thayers were divorcing, he rekindled his relationship with Elaine and began seeing his daughter, who came to call him Mopsy, daily. The following year, the three moved to Paris, but Elaine, supported by Thayer’s alimony, lived comfortably in a large apartment, while Cummings, having lost his patron but bent on keeping the remnants of his dignity, lived the classic poor-writer’s life in his own humble quarters. He did, however, set out to build a relationship with his baby daughter, his only child, which he did the best way he knew how — by telling her original stories he made up for her.

In 1965, three years after Cummings’s death, four of these stories — “The Elephant & the Butterfly,” “The Little Girl Named I,” “The House That Ate Mosquito Pie,” and “The Old Man Who Said ‘Why?’” — were collected in a slim volume simply titled Fairy Tales (public library) — a fine addition to the little-known children’s books of famous authors, including gems by Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Anne Sexton, T. S. Eliot, and John Updike.

The stories, while closer to fables than to fairy tales, are nonetheless charming and doubly so thanks to the gorgeous illustrations by Canadian artist John Eaton. I’ve tracked down a surviving copy of the original edition for our shared enjoyment:

Complement Cummings’s Fairy Tales with 17 whimsical songs based on his poetry.

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05 APRIL, 2013

E. E. Cummings Reads “Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town” (Harvard, 1953)

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“…and noone stooped to kiss his face…”

“Writing, at its best, is a lonely life,” Hemingway observed in his short and stirring 1954 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “One can never be alone enough to write,” Susan Sontag sighed. “Learn to be alone,” Tarkovsky advised young people. And yet the art of being alone comes with a dark side, the loneliness of a nonconformist amidst the herd mentality of society — something e. e. cummings captures poignantly in his poem “[anyone lived in a pretty how town],” originally published in the 1940 edition of Poetry Magazine and later included in E. E. Cummings: Complete Poems, 1904-1962 (public library). Tucked inside it is one of the most beautiful poetry lines of all time: “down they forgot as up they grew.”

On May 28, 1953, while lecturing as a visiting professor at Harvard, cummings recorded this mesmerizing reading of the poem — let his voice sweep you away:

anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did.

women and men (both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain

children guessed (but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
autumn winter spring summer)
that noone loved him more by more

when by now and tree by leaf
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone’s any was all to her

someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake hope and then)they
said their nevers they slept their dream

stars rain sun moon
(and only the snow can begin to explain
how children are apt to forget to remember
with up so floating many bells down)

one day anyone died i guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was

all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
wish by spirit and if by yes.

women and men (both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain

The recording appears on Essential E.E. Cummings CD, which is altogether sublime. Complement it with the poetry of cummings set to song.

Thanks, Tom

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28 AUGUST, 2012

17 Songs Based on the Poetry of E. E. Cummings

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“lovers go and lovers come/ awandering awondering/ but any two are perfectly alone/ there’s nobody else alive”

As a lover of the intersection of music and literature, I’m utterly enamored with the rain is a handsome animal — a magnificent new 17-movement song-cycle based on the poetry of E. E. Cummings by Tin Hat, composed of the inimitable violinist and vocalist Carla Kihlstedt (whom you might recall from recent Literary Jukebox volumes), guitarist Mark Orton, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, and Rob Reich on the accordion and piano.

Whimsical and unusual, with a cinematic quality and just the right amount of defiant idiosyncrasy, Kihlstedt’s haunting vocals and the extraordinary instrumentation add a whole new level of mesmerism to the familiar magic of the beloved poet. Though I was thrilled to find my favorite E. E. Cummings line, “down they forgot as up they grew” (from “anyone lived in a pretty how town”), I was most enchanted by the softly dreamsome “sweet spring” and the heart-warming “2 little whos” — though the entire album is absolutely exquisite.

the rain is a handsome animal is the finest musical homage to literature since Natalie Merchant’s Leave Your Sleep, based on Victorian children’s poetry, and is bound to remain on repeat for quite some time.

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