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Posts Tagged ‘e. e. cummings’

11 DECEMBER, 2014

A Burst of Delight and Recognition: E.E. Cummings, the Art of Noticing, and the Spirit of Rebellion

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“Cummings despised fear, and his life was lived in defiance of all who ruled by it.”

“The art of seeing has to be learned,” Marguerite Duras memorably wrote. Half a century earlier, a young poet began teaching the world this art, and teaching us to question what is seen, then made another art of that questioning. In E. E. Cummings: A Life (public library | IndieBound), memoirist, biographer, and journalist Susan Cheever chronicles the celebrated poet’s “wildly ambitious attempt at creating a new way of seeing the world through language.”

Cheever considers the three ways in which modernists like Cummings and his coterie — which included such icons as Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Marcel Duchamp — reshaped culture:

Modernism as Cummings and his mid-twentieth-century colleagues embraced it had three parts. The first was the exploration of using sounds instead of meanings to connect words to the reader’s feelings. The second was the idea of stripping away all unnecessary things to bring attention to form and structure: the formerly hidden skeleton of a work would now be exuberantly visible. The third facet of modernism was an embrace of adversity. In a world seduced by easy understanding, the modernists believed that difficulty enhanced the pleasures of reading. In a Cummings poem the reader must often pick his way toward comprehension, which comes, when it does, in a burst of delight and recognition.

One can’t help but feel the particular timeliness, today, of the third — how often are we offered “a burst of delight and recognition” in our culture of monotonously shrill linkbait as we struggle to glean any semblance of wisdom in the age of information? Cummings knew that equally essential was the capacity to notice the invitation to experience that burst — a capacity ever-shrinking, ever-urgently longed for in our age of compulsive flight from stillness — and he made an art of that noticing. Cheever writes:

[The modernists] were trying to slow down the seemingly inexorable rush of the world, to force people to notice their own lives. In the twenty-first century, that rush has now reached Force Five; we are all inundated with information and given no time to wonder what it means or where it came from. Access without understanding and facts without context have become our daily diet.

(Cummings’s name itself provides tragicomic evidence of our modern hubris in flaunting half-understood, partially correct “facts” — while many people believe, and some would adamantly insist, that the only acceptable spelling of the poet’s name is lowercase, he himself used both lowercase and capitalized versions in signing his work; in fact, he capitalized more frequently than not.)

Cummings cultivated this art of noticing one’s own life with emboldening tenacity. Despite being one of the most popular poets of the 1950s and 1960s, Cheever writes, Cummings lived in a tiny, dilapidated Green Village apartment and often struggled to make rent. And yet, “this bothered Cummings not at all”:

He was delighted by almost everything in life except for the institutions and formal rules that he believed sought to deaden feelings.

Indeed, the spirit of rebellion against institutions was central to Cummings’s character and permeated his art. Cheever met Cummings in 1958, toward the end of “his brilliant and controversial forty-year career as this country’s only true modernist poet,” when he did a reading at the “uptight girls’ school” where she was an unhappy teenager “with failing grades.” Cummings was a friend of her father’s — the famed novelist John Cheever — so the evening of the reading ended with the trio sharing a car ride together, during which Cummings delighted himself and his companions by making fun of young Susan’s teachers:

He said the place was more like a prison than a school. It was a hatchery whose goal was to produce uniformity. I was unhappy there? No wonder! I was a spirited and wise young woman. Only a mindless moron (Cummings loved alliteration) could excel in a place like that. What living soul could even survive a week in that assembly line for obedient girls, that pedagogical factory whose only purpose was to turn out so-called educated wives for upper-class blowhards with red faces and swollen bank balances?

When the small party stopped to grab a bite at a burger joint, the two men proudly shared a flask to spike their coffee, but Cheever recalls being “already drunk on a different kind of substance — inspiration” as she fathomed for the first time the idea that authority is to be questioned, that “being right was a petty goal,” and that “being free was the thing to aim for.” Noting that “history has given us very few heretics who have not been burned at the stake,” she anoints Cummings her generation’s “beloved heretic, a Henry David Thoreau for the twentieth century.” (Thoreau, of course, was the grand master of the art of noticing.) Cheever writes of Cummings’s ennobling heretical sensibility:

In his almost three thousand poems he sometimes furiously, sometimes lovingly debunked anything or anyone in power — even death, in his famous poem about Buffalo Bill, with its spangled alliterations and intimate last lines: “and what i want to know is / how do you like your blueeyed boy / Mister Death.”

Cummings despised fear, and his life was lived in defiance of all who ruled by it.

Illustration from the little-known fairy tales Cummings wrote for his only daughter, whom he almost lost. Click image for story.

Both the great irony and the great affirmation of Cummings’s spirit of rebellion against culture’s soul-deadening institutions is that he grew up with parents who were “Harvard royalty,” was educated at the iconic institution himself, and even stayed an extra year after graduation to earn a master’s degree in Classics. But he also — and perhaps precisely because of that brush with privilege — exiled himself from the Cambridge community and only returned, reluctantly, shortly before his death thirty years later. Cheever writes of the formative act of rebellion that was his self-expulsion:

His self-imposed exile from Cambridge — a town he had come to hate for its intellectualism, Puritan uptightness, racism, and self-righteous xenophobia — had seemed necessary for him as a man and as a poet. Soon after his 1915 class lecture and after serving in World War I, Cummings had permanently fled to sexy, law-breaking Greenwich Village, where he could hang out with other modernist poets like Marianne Moore, talk with writers like Hart Crane, be admired by Dylan Thomas and Edna St. Vincent Millay, have an affair with another man’s wife, go to burlesque performances at the National Winter Garden, and ask William Carlos Williams for medical advice.

Even though he wrote in one early poem that “the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls / are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds,” the reason for his eventual return was that he was offered the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship of Poetry at Harvard — the same prestigious yearlong lectureship that produced Calvino’s unforgettable final legacy and over the years featured such luminaries as Jorge Luis Borges, T.S. Eliot, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, John Cage, and Umberto Eco. But while Cummings took the gig, he brought to it his own rules and co-opted its conventions for his mission of rebellion.

When 58-year-old Cummings arrived at Harvard that fall, wearing a neck-to-hip corset prescribed by his doctor that he called “the Iron Maiden,” he left no doubts as to his irreverence. He titled what he was about to deliver “nonlectures” and lived up to the promise by delivering them with the same galvanizing, acrobatic, highly performative technique he had developed for his poetry readings. Cheever captures the mesmeric mischief of Cummings’s presence at Harvard by quoting one woman, then a Radcliffe student dragged to the lecture by her mother:

There was a hush when he walked out onto the stage. He was enchanting, captivating, and magnetic. He was very virile and sexual on the stage. I think he made some of the men uncomfortable.

Despite having anguished over whether or not to accept the lectureship, and having almost cancelled it on several occasions, Cummings, according to his wife Marion, never worked harder on anything. Perhaps he saw them as a way to solidify what he stood for, to claim position as a generation’s “beloved heretic” and claim it from within the walls of the institution that stood for the very authority he had made an art of defying and deriding. Cheever writes:

Everything he stood for— a puncturing of pretension, an openness to adventure, a deliciously uncensored attitude when it came to sex, a sly sense of humor fueled by a powerful defiance — is in his opening phrases. He stood at the lectern under the fifty-foot carved ceilings and won the hearts of the audience in a few words. “Let me cordially warn you, at the opening of these so called lectures, that I haven’t the remotest intention of posing as a lecturer.”

Exactly ten years later, he died in the same defiant spirit. Cheever recounts the bittersweet story her father so loved telling:

Marion had called him in to dinner as day faded and the glorious sky lit up with the fires of sunset. “I’ll be there in a moment,” Cummings said. “I’m just going to sharpen the axe.” A few minutes later he crumpled to the ground, felled by a cerebral hemorrhage. He was sixty-seven. That, my father let us all know, was the way to die— still manly and useful, still beloved, still strong. “‘how do you like your blueeyed boy / Mister Death,’ ” my father growled, his eyes wet with tears.

In the remainder of the altogether entrancing E. E. Cummings: A Life, Cheever goes on to explore the beliefs, irreverences, and experiences that coalesced into the character of this extraordinary man who rebelled through the art of noticing and who continues to bewitch us with his undying “burst of delight and recognition.”

Complement it with the little-known story of Cummings’s only children’s book, which he wrote for the daughter he almost lost, this enchanting album of seventeen songs based on his poems, and the poet’s magnificent reading of “anyone lived in a pretty how town.”

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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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