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Tag: James Joyce

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”.


Seminal Lines

“Her lips touched his brain as they touched his lips, as though they were a vehicle of some vague speech and between them he felt an unknown and timid pressure, darker than the swoon of sin, softer than sound or odour.” 

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man — James Joyce

An Interview: Talking Flann with another fan

While searching for a photograph of Flann O’Brien to go with my review of The Third Policeman I came across Shane Crotty’s artwork inspired by the book, and was intrigued to find out more about the Galway-based artist.

Born in 1981, Crotty grew up in Galway and has studied at The National College of Art and Design in Dublin and the GMIT Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology where he specialised in Fine Art Printmaking. He is one of the founding members of Knife to a Gun Fight Inc, a triumvirate of print and video artists, collaborating on interactive web-projects, video performance, music production and website design.

Crotty experiments with various subjects including architecture, landscape, graphics and abstraction. He uses a combination of mediums in his printmaking, but is also interested in painting, drawing and digital design. His work has featured in a poetry book published by Baffle, the annual poetry festival in Loughrea in 2001 and again in 2003, a group exhibition entitled Lough Reaction in 2005, the Galway Arts Festival and Clifden Arts Festival in 2007, and a 2009 exhibition at The Kenny Gallery.

How did you first discover Flann O’Brien and The Third Policeman?

I came across The Third Policeman while watching the US sci-fi show Lost. I got curious about this relatively unknown Irish writer and after reading The Third Policeman read everything else I could find penned by Flann. You could say I became a bit obsessed.

What was it about O’Brien’s work and particularly The Third Policeman that inspired you?

While reading the book, I was struck by its visual elements. It is a supernatural, science fiction, murder mystery set in 1950s Ireland and you can’t get any more surreal than that. Along with the alternate story in the footnotes on De Selby, the idea of the paranormal inextricably entwined with the Irish landscape was a great starting point for some designs. I prefer to work with a particular theme thus creating a series of illustration for the story provided a very precise framework.

As for Flann, I was struck by his sense of bitterness, his mockery of Irish identity and his twisted sense of humour, which are all very Irish characteristics in a way. Anthony Cronin’s biography of O’Brien, No Laughing Matter,  gives great insight into the writer’s life; the combination of his personal and professional failures, his success as a senior civil servant, and the other elements that shaped him as a writer. I know Flann’s work is as highly regarded, by some, as that of James Joyce’s (a comparison that he both detested and exploited) and Samuel Beckett’s but his story was different. While they left Ireland and gathered acclaim, he stayed and died in anonymity from alcohol abuse.

How did you go about trying to capture the ideology of the book through illustration?

I am a printer and by this very nature a reproduction artist. I began by sketching a few scenes from the story, some of which I developed further but most materialized organically. I sourced images of old Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) officers, bicycles, prosthetics and barracks and combined them with my own photography and drawings. Using photo editing software, I over-laid some pieces with more traditional methods of printing, and although I had a specific brief, the final images came out quite different from the starting point.

Who are your favourite Irish writers?

Flann O’Brien, goes without saying, Pat McCabe, Samuel Beckett, Tim Pat Coogan, Eddie Lenihan and Spike Milligan.

Do you think you’re particularly fond of Irish literature being Irish yourself?

I work in Kennys, a bookshop and art gallery here in Galway, which focuses on Irish literature and language. While I am a geek at heart and love to read about technology and little green men, I have gained great appreciation for Irish writing, identity and culture over the last few years. Ireland’s position on the periphery of Europe has lent us a certain outsider mentality, which is, I think, reflected in our culture. While not always the most original, we do have a distinct style that has an appeal extending far beyond this small island.

What else apart from literature inspires you?

I love film, science, history, heavy metal, and kicking that football right in the sweet-spot. Oh and as Flann would say, “A pint of Plain (Guinness) is yer only man!” Some of the ideas I try to express in my abstract prints come from a less traditional approach. Seeing the similarities between the scientific, artistic and symbolic aspects of human nature, I try to adapt similar methods in my artwork. Using elements such as graphs, grids and geometry, and juxtaposing those to natural and organic forms like splashes, stains and random marks representing our need to document and contain our perceptions and understanding of the world around us.

What’s your favourite medium to work in?

I use many methods: drawing, photography, painting and numerous printing techniques such as monoprinting, linoprint, etching and digital printing. I have no one favourite method as each has its advantages and drawbacks. Draughtsmanship, however, is a quality that I have a great admiration for.

When did you become interested in art?

I think everyone has the ability to express themselves through drawing when they are children, and I guess that’s how it began for me. I remember trying to draw landscapes and architecture as realistically as possible and winning a small prize for a drawing of a ruined castle which spurred me on. Art has always been my favourite subject but I was also interested in maths and engineering. Funnily enough, it was the conceptual side of maths that put me off!

I know you have expressed an interest in sci-fi, history and Irish culture but who would you say have been your key artistic influences?

I am very open to all sorts of styles. My favourites being: Pop Art, Historical Painting, Expressionism, Abstraction and Surrealism. I also admire a great number of artists including Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Jean Michel Basquait, Max Ernst, Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer, and Jean de Buffett. I love the atmospheric artistry of the old masters, particularly Rembrandt and Carravaggio. Irish Art and Irish identity is also of particular interest to me and the work of Hughie O’Donoghue, Robert Ballagh, Patrick Scott, Tony O’Malley, Sean Illen and Sean Keating.

You’ve cited a number of artist and painters, but do you have favourite book covers or illustrators?

Alan Lee’s Lord of the Rings illustrations are great, anything by Ralph Steadman (his illustrations of O’Brien’s Collected Stories and Plays are perfect), and I like the designs of Iain Banks’ novels, very simple but effective. Sometimes how you feel about a story is shaped by how you feel about the cover. I find the difference in covers for the same stories by various artists more interesting than the images themselves. They tend to reflect more the fashion and style of the time than anything else. I would say that even the designs for the various editions of The Third Policeman, offer a great variety of responses to the same source of inspiration.

If you could illustrate the cover for one book which book would it be?

Anything by Phillip K. Dick. His characters are very easy to identify with, even though the actual settings of the books are extraordinary and far from the everyday. The Man in the High Castle, Valis and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? are full of a variety and interesting imagery.

Lastly, do you have any definitive ideas or projects for the future?

I am doing quite a lot of life drawing at the moment working toward some finished prints based on the human figure. Other themes that I am preoccupied with are the current social and economic situation here in Ireland. We are re-evaluating our priorities and there is a feeling that our actions will have a great bearing on our evolution as a society. There are many positives to be taken from how we have managed so far, especially when it comes to our ability to adapt to the difficulties and our determination to overcome them. The story of Modern Ireland is somewhere between a melodrama, a farce and a tragedy, something I am sure Flann O’Brien would have great fun with.

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