E.E. Cummings: Someone who “always wrote poetry”
One of my colleagues – an avid reader of poetry – recently asked me why E.E. Cummings was never referenced by the Beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg. I think, as I explained to him, it is probably because his verse is more often than not regarded as frivolous. And yet, in truth, Cummings wrote quite solemn poetry. Posterity has had fun with his legacy, which is somewhat unfortunate. Edward Estlin Cummings was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on 14th October 1894, to parents of old New England stock. Cummings once described his mother, Rebecca, as “the most amazing person” he had ever met and someone who had a judicious facility to “to understand how people really felt.” Speaking of his father, Edward, Cummings said he had loved him with a love which was in fact “worship” but noted that later it turned into one which incited “battle” as he realised his father’s shortcomings. A Harvard sociologist and later a Unitarian minister, Edward Cummings died in a locomotive-automobile accident in 1926. Cummings was greatly affected by his father’s death, despite the growing schism between them, and later celebrated his life in a poignant expression of filial veneration called my father moved through dooms of love (“through sames of am through haves of give/singing each morning out of each night/my father moved through depths of height”). The poem is perhaps one of Cummings’ most explicitly sentimental ones in dealing with affirmative love (“because my father lived his soul/love is the whole and more than all”) as typically his themes revolve around the difficulty of love and the hardship of understanding it as “the mystery of mysteries”.
Speaking about his craft Cummings once stated, “I did not decide to write poetry – I always wrote poetry.” It is thought that he began as early as 1904, while still at Cambridge Latin High School. Strongly encouraged by both his parents, Cummings pursued his interest in writing when he enrolled in Harvard in 1911 to study Classics and Literature. Four years later, he graduated magna cum laude, staying on an additional year to earn his MA in English. Cummings published his first poem in The Harvard Monthly in 1912, and within a year was elected to serve on its editorial board. During this time he studied leading 19th century English poets such as John Keats, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Percy Bysshe Shelley, thus much of his early work was derivative of his idols. He later discovered the works of James Joyce, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and the modernist thinkers inspired him to take a new and more progressive direction, including typographical wordplay, which eventually became his pennon. In 1925 a critic by the name of William Russell Clarke berated Cummings’ collection, XLI Poems, saying: “To say that Mr Cummings is a modern would be adding insult to injury. He is a supermodern – a super supermodern. His poetry is so new – so dazzlingly green and uripe and so amazingly unreconcilable with anything – that to attempt to interpret it is as useless as would be the measuring of the Indian Ocean with a tape line. If there is method in his madness, the method is not obvious.” Incredibly scathing in retrospect, but yet today it seems subversively praiseworthy of Cummings’ originality and daring radicalism.
Cummings is someone I discovered later in life. I sometimes wonder how the discovery came about but have no recollection. Whenever I think of him, however, the poem that springs to mind is always one and the same, i carry your heart with me. It is the latent romantic in me that knows the poem by heart and swoons every time, upon recollecting the following lines: “here is the deepest secret nobody knows/(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud/and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows/higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)/and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart/i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)”. There is something immeasurably beautiful in the notion of everlasting devotion, which keeps one forever in someone’s heart unbeknown to the person or the world at large. In another poem, of the same theme, i love you much(most beautiful darling), Cummings simply says if everyone could feel the same about a beloved, as he does about his then “everyone certainly would (my most beautiful darling)believe in nothing but love”. A lot of Cummings’ poems on the subject matter resonate with distant echoes of Keats and the Romantic tradition, presented above with a modern take reflecting both the poet’s ingenuity and influences.
In his playful and more frivolous moments Cummings wrote lighter verse epitomised by the likes of may i feel said he (“cccome?said he/ummm said she/you’re divine! said he/ you are Mine said she”), the boys i mean are not refined (“the boys i mean are not refined/they go with girls who buck and bite/they do not give a fuck for luck/they hump them thirteen times a night”) and Me up at does (“Me up at does/out of the floor/quietly Stare/a poisoned mouse/still who alive/is asking What have i done that/You wouldn’t have”). Cummings moved to New York in 1917 after securing employment with P.F. Collier, a company that published a magazine called Collier’s Weekly. It also had a commercial book distribution service, where Cummings worked. The fledgling poet described the work as “warming the chair for three and four hour intervals” thus in between his duties scribbled verse and read newspapers. On one such occasion after reading that William F. Cody, aka Buffalo Bill, had died Cummings wrote Buffalo Bill’s. A poem which is both an elegy and a plangent confrontation: “Buffalo Bill ‘s defunct/who used to/ride a watersmooth-silver/stallion/and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat/Jesus/he was a handsome man /and what i want to know is/how do you like your blueeyed boy/Mister Death.” A short time after that, and two weeks into his job, Cummings quit, and the rest became documented in his poetry and a flurry of biographies that followed his death of a stroke on September 3rd 1962, at the New Hampshire Memorial Hospital.
Irrespective of the general opinion about him, Cummings always made me contemplate the topics which I would not have done without him such as when he said in but if a living dance upon dead minds that “love everywhere exploding maims and blinds/(but surely does not forget, perish, sleep cannot be/photographed, measured; disdains/the trivial labelling of punctual brains…/-Who wields a poem huger than the grave?/from only Whom shall time no refuge keep/though all the weird worlds must be opened?” And opened they were, in a way that no other poet opened them and no other contemporary had the courage to. So, for that reason and many besides I will always remember Cummings as someone who wrote candidly, as someone who dared to use the word “fuck” in poetry, as someone who was an impertinent disciple and ploughed his own furrow but also as someone who penned something I only felt once towards another captured in the following lines: “your slightest look easily will unclose me/though i have closed myself as fingers”.