e.e. cummings -- 1/13/15

Today's selection - from E.E. Cummings: A Life by Susan Cheever. The poet E.E. Cummings was part of a literary movement known as Modernism, along with an illustrious group of artists including James Joyce, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso:

"Primarily remembered these days for its funky punctuation, [E.E.] Cummings's work was in fact a wildly ambitious attempt at creating a new way of seeing the world through language. Part of a powerful group of writers and artists, many of whom were Cummings's friends -- James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Hart Crane, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, Marcel Ducharnp, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse -- he struggled to reshape the triangle between the reader, the writer, and the subject of the poem, novel, or painting. As early as his 1915 Harvard College graduation valedictorian speech, Cummings told his audience that 'the New Art, maligned though it may be by fakirs and fanatics, will appear in its essential spirit ... as a courageous and genuine exploration of untrodden ways.'

"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. Like many of his fellow modernists (there were those who walked out of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, and viewers were scandalized by Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase), Cummings was sometimes reviled by the fakirs and fanatics of the critical establishment. Princeton poet Richard P. Blackmur said Cummings's poems were 'baby talk,' and poetry arbiter Helen Vendler called them repellent and foolish: 'What is wrong with a man who writes this?' she asked.

Duchamp -- Nude Descending a Staircase

"Nothing was wrong with Cummings -- or Duchamp or Stravinsky or Joyce, for that matter. All 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.

Although in the 1950s and '60s Cummings was one of the most popular poets in America, he sometimes didn't make enough money to pay the rent on the ramshackle apartment in Greenwich Village on Patchin Place where he lived with the incandescently beautiful model Marion Morehouse. 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. 'Guilt is the cause of more disauder/than history's most obscene marorders,' Cummings wrote.

"Cummings was an American aristocrat with two degrees from Harvard; my father had been headed for Harvard when he was expelled from high school, and he adored Cummings's combination of academic success and lighthearted lack of reverence for academic success. In spite of his establishment background, Cummings treated the establishment with an amused contempt.

"At a time when The New Yorker annoyingly bowdlerized ... mentions of kissing, Cummings got away with writing graphic erotic poetry, neatly stepping around the Mrs. Grundys of the magazine world. 'may i feel said he / (i'll squeal said she / just once said he),' he wrote, in a famous poem that doesn't upset the apple cart as much as give it a new team of wild horses. He also wrote some of the sweetest love poems of the century:

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)


Susan Cheever


E. E. Cummings: A Life


Pantheon Books a division of Random House


Copyright 2014 by Susan Cheever


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment