E.E. Cummings is the sort of poet one loves at the age of 17 and finds unbearably mawkish and vacuous as an adult. But in the mid-20th century he was the most popular poet in the United States after Robert Frost, and from early in his career, among the most admired by writers and critics. It wasn’t just the usual modernist suspects like Pound, Williams, Stevens and Marianne Moore who sang his praises, but other, very different kinds of poet too: Robert Graves, Dylan Thomas, Octavio Paz, Louis Zukofsky and Charles Olson. As did any number of critics: Edmund Wilson, Harry Levin, Jacques Barzun, Lionel Trilling, Guy Davenport. Were all of them hornswoggled, taken in by the surface polish and acrobatics of Cummings’s style and, those who knew him, by his great personal charm, unable to register the paucity of content, limited range and shallowness of his work? The short answer is yes.
Cummings’s innovative style was a perfect reflection of the modernist Weltanschauung: he dismantled, fractured and reassembled traditional forms; cocked a snook at the canon and at received opinion; he was radical, not only in technique but in his challenging of contemporary notions of propriety, status, decorum; above all else, he made it new. He arrived at his mature style early, by the age of 23 or so, in 1916, and his approach to form didn’t alter or develop in any significant way. And perhaps it wasn’t that new after all: there are examples of visual poems in English as early as the Elizabethan era, many of which he would have known. It’s less clear how well he knew Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (1897), or the work of Apollinaire, who by 1916 had almost finished his Calligrammes, perhaps the closest thing to Cummings’s poetry, if more pictorial in emphasis – the caligrams form images of a bunch of flowers and a bird, or the head and front legs of a horse.
As Guy Davenport pointed out in the 1980s in an essay terribly entitled ‘Transcendental Satyr’, Cummings’s ‘eccentric margins, capricious word divisions, vagrant punctuation, tmeses and promiscuously embracing parentheses’ resemble the texts he read as a Greek major at Harvard. The first passage here is by Sappho; the second by Cummings:
These girls al[l
[ ] these [
Own cousin [
Laughing away [
the like,a)slEEping neck a breathing a ,lies
(slo wlythe wom a pa)ris her
in little streets
while exactlygir lisHlegs;play;ing;nake;D
chairs wait under the trees
Many commentators have suggested that Cummings’s use of the lower case was intended as a populist move, an announcement that he, like Chaplin, was a little guy, an everyman. Davenport speculates more convincingly that Cummings got the notion from Don Marquis’s comic newspaper column Archy and Mehitabel, which first appeared in 1916 and featured Archy, a former vers libre poet who had been reborn as a cockroach, and wrote poems and stories on an old typewriter. Since Archy couldn’t use the shift key at the same time as the letters, his poems were, of necessity, in the lower case. The column was illustrated by George Herriman, creator of Krazy Kat, a comic strip that first came out in 1913 and that Cummings was mad about (he wrote the introduction to the first collection of the strip in book form in 1946). He loved the mad, Dada-inflected burlesque as well as the unique, phonetically spelled patois which incorporated any number of dialects and languages. Cummings himself was a tireless mimic, both on the page and in performance among friends. He could do low-life street talk or a delicious impersonation of T.S. Eliot.
Cummings always cited Ezra Pound as his main influence in terms of the visual organisation of words and lines on the page, and the use of line lengths and spacing to follow the patterns of speech. The two first met in Paris shortly after the end of the First World War and Cummings was immediately drawn to the older poet’s ‘gymnastic personality’, as he described it in a letter to his parents. Both men were possessed of an electric vitality. Both were attractive, brilliantly talented, puerile, and resolute in their ambition to revolutionise the medium of poetry. That first meeting began a lifelong friendship: Cummings, who shared Pound’s anti-Semitism, was one of the few who kept in touch with him throughout the Second World War when he was broadcasting on behalf of Mussolini.
The key to Cummings is his exaltation of the condition of childhood. He was in thrall to the notion of the child’s capacity for wonder, its natural spontaneity, openness, playfulness. In much of his poetry he is seeking to tap the child’s freshness in experiencing the world around him:
i like my body when it is with your
body. It is so quite new a thing.
Muscles better and nerves more.
i like your body. i like what it does,
i like its hows. i like to feel the spine
of your body and its bones and the trembling
-firm-smooth ness and which I will
again and again and again
kiss. i like kissing this and that of you,
i like,slowly stroking the,shocking fuzz
of your electric fur,and what-is-it comes
over parting flesh… .And eyes big love-crumbs,
and possibly i like the thrill
of under me you quite so new
This is one of Cummings’s better poems, and it was written early, as most of his memorable work was (‘Buffalo Bill’s’, ‘the Cambridge ladies’, ‘in Just-/spring … ’). The poem is adolescent in outlook − and oh, how I and countless other adolescents have been enchanted by it − but Cummings, both poet and man, never evolved beyond adolescence. The pronouns he favours here are ‘I’ and ‘you’; this remained true throughout his work. This is one characteristic that distances his work from most modernist poetry, in which the use of the first person is uncommon, especially the breathless, faux-naïf first person. The diction is simple in the extreme, another characteristic of all his work. It also contains some of the words he liked to recycle. He would use the same ones in poem after poem: ‘young’, ‘sudden’, ‘keen’, ‘delicious’, ‘kiss’, ‘thrilling’, ‘sweet’, ‘stars’. The word ‘flowers’ turns up nearly fifty times in his first collection, Tulips & Chimneys, published in 1923. Some of his sonnets − this is one of scores − stick close to the traditional sonnet form, others take liberties with it; but the idiosyncratic typography makes them look more mould-breaking than they are.
Occasionally, though, typography takes over and makes a poem work interestingly, kinetically:
(inquiry before snow
Cummings here manipulates words and letters to achieve his effects, unsullied on this occasion by the use of the first person and the other mannerisms that took over early and hardened with time. One of his chief gifts is to atomise and reorganise letters, words, punctuation and parts of speech, and in that way disrupt our habituated ways of reading for meaning. By forcing the eye to move in unexpected ways he choreographs in these more visual poems something like a dance of attention.
Then there is his satire, which is more successful than the childish wonder poetry. Perhaps having a mean streak, as Cummings certainly did, helps. Here he takes a potshot at Auden and Spender:
flotsam and jetsam
are gentlemen poeds
our spinsters and coeds)
they scout the inhuman
that man isn’t a wuman
vive the millenni
um three cheers for labor
give all things to enni
one bugger thy nabor
(neck and senecktie
are gentlemen ppoyds
even whose recktie
are covered by IIoyd’s
One of his favourite poems, and the one he seemed to enjoying reciting the most, was Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations of Immortality’:
Thou little Child, yet glorious in the might
Of heaven-born freedom on thy being’s height,
Why with such earnest pains dost thou provoke
The years to bring the inevitable yoke.
Cummings tried hard to avoid the yoke. He never had a job, claimed not to read the papers and tried to steer clear of all mundane concerns, distractions or responsibilities, the better to experience the world as if for the first time when he emerged each day from the mews on Patchin Place in Greenwich Village, where he lived for most of his adult life, sketchbook in hand, probably headed for Washington Square Park, having partaken of his morning pear, ‘eaten with a fork in the French style’, with a spot of brandy or a pill to calm his nerves.
He read the Wordsworth poem when he delivered his six nonlectures at Harvard in 1952-53 – ‘nonlectures’ because he didn’t like ‘intellectuals’, and so just chose to read out some of his favourite poems, prefaced by a few general statements. Near the beginning of his first lecture he announced that ‘while a genuine lecturer must obey the rules of mental decency and clothe his personal idiosyncrasies in collectively acceptable generalities, an authentic ignoramus remains quite indecently free to speak as he feels. This prospect cheers me, because I value freedom; and have never expected freedom to be anything less than indecent.’
He had begun reading in public in order to supplement his meagre income: now that his mother was dead he no longer received the small stipend she’d given him. One evening in 1958 he turned up at the private girls’ school that Susan Cheever attended in Dobbs Ferry, about an hour’s drive up the Hudson from New York City. Her father, John Cheever, drove her to the school. ‘Joey!’ Cummings shouted when he spotted Cheever, whom he’d first met in the 1930s (‘Joey’ was Cheever’s boyhood nickname). Cheever remembered that first meeting: Cummings’s ‘last book of poetry had been rejected by every estimable publisher; his wife was six months pregnant by her dentist and his Aunt Jane had purloined his income and had sent him, by way of compensation, a carton of Melba toast.’ Now he was at the height of his fame and a seasoned public performer.
The Cheevers drove Cummings back to Greenwich Village. He was in good form, ‘unabashed and very funny’, with ‘an astonishingly mobile face and a flexible dancer’s body. He wasn’t just an inspired mimic; he seemed to become the people he was imitating.’ The threesome stopped for a burger in the Bronx, where Cheever pulled out a flask and spiked the coffee. Cummings had heads turning with his imitations, including Susan’s headmistress. In fact, that evening he persuaded Cheever to move his daughter to a less uptight school, for which – as she writes in her new life of Cummings – she was forever grateful. A future biographer could hardly have had a more charming introduction to her subject.
For all of the bumps along the way, Cummings had something of a charmed life. His father was a Harvard professor and Unitarian minister, his mother came from a distinguished Boston family. William James introduced the pair and became one of Edward Estlin’s godfathers. As well as the grand house at 104 Irving Street where he was born, Cummings’s family had a summer house in New Hampshire, which he would enjoy until the end of life. He died there in 1962 of a brain haemorrhage while cutting wood, a month before his 68th birthday.
At Harvard he roomed with John Dos Passos and could hardly have had a better time acting as boho, bolshy and radical as Harvard boys of that era were allowed to be, while at that same time calling attention to himself as an avant-garde poet. He volunteered as an ambulance driver in the First World War and wound up being imprisoned by the French for ‘seditious behaviour’ after he was caught sending letters home that were deemed ‘detrimental to the war effort’. His father was well enough connected to appeal to Woodrow Wilson, who helped procure the boy’s release after three unpleasant months. While he was in jail he gathered material for The Enormous Room, a graphically detailed account of his time in the Dépôt de Triage, La Ferté-Macé. It is his best work: direct, with no fancy typography, its narrator – for once – a keenly observant adult, unembarrassed by his own large intelligence.
After the war he wound up in Greenwich Village, mixing with the likes of Williams, Hart Crane, Marianne Moore, Edna St Vincent Millay, Allen Tate and Djuna Barnes, who also lived on Patchin Place, as Theodore Dreiser once had and Marlon Brando later would. He had become well regarded as an experimental poet, but he hadn’t yet become famous. Then, in 1931, he visited the USSR and was horrified by what he saw. His disenchantment with communism and frankness about it was not well received by his friends in the Village, a number of whom ostracised him. His politics would drift ever further right. His account of his time in Russia, EIMI, published in 1933, is written in his more experimental, Cubist-influenced style, and is largely unreadable. Viz:
the atremble wrinkling stood:stares;now for the 1st time I realize(that mount has eys, that long long ago these eyes marvellingly were unafraid)some--perhaps fragment of an aspect ; of a shadow, of that unexplorable negative thrown by the infinite mystery of old age. And quietly ‘I’ said behind all wrinkles exquisite Theness which begat Aness .
He spent most of the rest of his life in the Village. His work became ever more attenuated and more predictable, while he became more celebrated for it.
Susan Cheever is particularly good on Cummings’s relationships with his wives. For all his poetic interest in it, Cummings seems not to have been too keen on sex. His first wife, who had been married to his best friend, and with whom he had his only child, found him more interested in sighing and professing his love. His second, an enthusiastic and serial adulteress, continually ridiculed him for his sexual inadequacy. He married her because his analyst, Fritz Wittels, a student and biographer of Freud, and the author of The Sex Habits of American Women, told Cummings that getting married would ‘make a man of him’. His third, common-law wife, Marion, an actress and successful model who towered over Cummings, also from time to time sought comfort in the arms of strangers (including A.J. Ayer, which did not please the anti-Semitic Cummings). Cheever’s book is written in a style reminiscent of a Vanity Fair article and she is clueless about poetry, but the book moves along briskly. Its principal virtue is its brevity. There are already a number of biographies of Cummings, including two very good ones − Richard Kennedy’s Dreams in the Mirror (1980) and Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno’s E.E. Cummings: A Biography (2004) − but who wants to read six hundred pages about this most unpleasant of men?
Cheever struggles with Cummings’s anti-Semitism, treating it as a sociological phenomenon endemic to the era and his social circle, like heavy smoking, drinking and lack of exercise. But with Cummings it was a bit more than that. The following document from 1939 is quoted in Sawyer-Laucanno’s biography. Pencilled at the top of the typed page Cummings writes: ‘how well I understand the hater of Jews!’
The Hebraic they – it permeates everything, like a gas or a smell. It has no pride – any more than a snake has legs. Above all:it is low – this heavy,hateful shut something crushes-by-strangling whatever isn’t it … makes any quick bright beautiful beginning impossible – stops inspiration just as the spirit’s lungs are opening:for it cannot endure free,loving,gay; its own imprisoning pain perpetually must revenge itself on every soaring winged singful bird! …
Here he is writing to Pound in October 1941, with Leningrad under siege and the transfer of Jews to the east beginning:
Dear Ezra –,
whole,round,and heartfelt greetings from the princess & me to our favourite Ikey-Kikey, Wandering Jew,Quo Vadis,Oppressed Minority of one,Misunderstood Master,Mister Lonelyheart,and Man Without a Country
re whose latest queries
East Maxman has gone off on a c-nd-m in a pamphlet arguing everybody should support Wussia,for the nonce. ‘Time’(a loose) mag says Don Josh Bathos of London England told P.E.N. innulluxuls that for the nonce writers shouldn’t be writing. Each collective choisi (pastparticiple,you recall,of choisir)without exception and – may I add – very naturally desires for the nonce nothing but Adolph’s Absolute Annihilation,Coûte Que Coûte(SIC). A man who once became worshipped of one thousand million pubbul by not falling into the ocean while simultaneously peeping through a periscope and sucking drugstore sandwiches is excoriated for,for the nonce, freedom of speech.
Then there was this, from Cummings’s 1950 collection, Xaipe:
a kike is the most dangerous
machine as yet invented
by even yankee ingenu
ity(out of a jew a few
dead dollars and some twisted laws)
it comes both prigged and canted
The last line of the poem originally read: ‘it comes both pricked and cunted.’ The editor, Theodore Weiss, a Jew, objected and had Cummings change it. The book won the Harriet Monroe Poetry Prize and a fellowship of $5000 from the Academy of American Poets. But this is not the author of Homage to Sextus Propertius, The Waste Land or Journey to the End of Night. This is the poet celebrated for:
spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little
whistles far and wee
and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s
when the world is puddle-wonderful