March 2014

J P Poole

nonfiction

E. E. Cummings: A Life by Susan Cheever

After confirming I would review Susan Cheever's E.E. Cummings: A Life, I went straight to the library and snagged every available Cummings from the shelf. I was twenty-six when last I read a Cummings poem; I was at an old high school friend's apartment -- the sort of abode where the sheet-partitioned living room moonlights as a bedroom -- I had had one too many drinks and, like a true snob, threatened to judge my friend's book collection. "Please don't," he said, handing me Tulips & Chimneys opened to a dog-eared page, "read this." The poem begins:

consider O
woman this
my body.
for it has

lain
with empty arms
upon the giddy hills
to dream of you,

A make out session ensued, and I doubt my experience of canoodling under the influence of Cummings is unique. But I forgot about Cummings -- as I forgot about Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller -- writing him off as a phase. In truth, I'd never read more than a handful of his poems. And so, while waiting for my review copy of the biography to arrive, I read every Liveright edition of Cummings I could find and discovered a poet who I now worship nearly as much as Whitman -- and for me, Whitman is God.

If the study of poetry is akin to the study of music, then Cummings learned every note, and how to play it backward and forward. He could pick out trochees, anapests, and dactyls on sight. He could write a Petrarchan sonnet in his sleep. The training he received in poetics at Harvard cannot be compared to any MFA program in existence today. To think that I had associated him with free verse (the incorrect definition of it at that), rule-lessness, and willy-nilly punctuation, makes me shudder now -- he was a master of form -- heart packaged in the vessel of form. He pulled from a wide swath of influences, from the fragments of Sappho to the "picture-poems" of Apollinaire. But more than any American poet that I can think of, he drew inspiration from the arts -- the Impressionists, Cézanne, Matisse, Stravinsky's ballet Pétrouchka, Debussy's piano pieces -- the strange, wonderful world of futurism, cubism, and dadaism. As Richard S. Kennedy writes in Selected Poems, Cummings "trie[d] to express in words what Picasso achieved in line and color."

At times, Cummings is a difficult poet to read. In fact, many of his poems cannot be read aloud. In his work, nouns become verbs, verbs become nouns; words are telescoped together "manunkind," dialects are spoken "dooyuh unners tanmih," and neologisms are invented, such as "childering" and "unalive." He's the only poet I've read in which having minor dyslexia works in my favor. Here's a poem from his book 95 Poems:

l(a

le
af
fa

ll

s)
one
l

iness

After a while the loneliness of this falling leaf surfaces from the page; Cummings teaches you how to read his poems.

When Cheever's book finally arrived, I practically tore it open with my teeth; its cover jacket is stunning. Cummings's name is respected -- all lowercase, as he would have preferred. In a beautiful green-tinted photo, he sits in profile. He looks like a character from Mad Men -- handsome, a devilish glint, full lips incapable of scowling, hands defiantly plugged into his trouser pockets, as if to say "take that, puritans!" Generations of little boys, before and after Cummings, were warned that hands in pockets equals sin. Even the wool-pants pouch seems characteristic of a man who exhibited a cheeky, playful sort of sexuality that drove women wild. Starry-eyed undergraduates traveled from "far and wee" to Patchin Place in Greenwich Village to recite poems under his studio window and leave behind little bouquets as one leaves lipstick kisses on the tomb of Oscar Wilde.

Cheever begins her biographical tour of Cummings's life with a story in the preface about how she first met the poet in 1957. Cummings's late career on the lecture circuit brought him to The Masters School in Westchester where Cheever was a "miserable fourteen-year-old sophomore with failing grades." She accompanied her father John Cheever, or "Joey," as Cummings called him, to the lecture, and afterward they hopped into an old Dodge and drove Cummings back to Manhattan. From the back seat, she hangs onto his every word and delights at his ability to do impersonations of her school's English department. Through Cheever, Cummings's character positively blooms; he isn't the sort of man who ignores children. In fact, he sympathizes with her, commenting that her school looks "more like a prison than a school... what living soul could even survive a week in that assembly line for obedient girls" -- a school that groomed young women to become obedient pets for their future husbands. If there was anything that Cummings hated, it was upper class snobbery and blind conformity.

After all, he'd grown up among the New England aristocratic elite. He was born Edward Estlin Cummings in Cambridge, Massachusetts. On October 14, 1894, his mother, Rebecca, delivered him at home in a beautiful three-story mansion with a fireplace in every room. Harvard, where he was destined to attend college, was just a hop, skip, and jump away. His parents were remarkable people for any era. His father, Edward, was the first Harvard professor of sociology, and later a Unitarian minister. His mother, Rebecca, was an independent woman who didn't marry until she was thirty-two years old. She learned to drive the family's various automobiles, from the Orient Buckboard to the luxurious Franklin (at a time when few people had cars at all). She read aloud to her children from Scott and Dickens, and more than anything wanted her son to grow up to be a poet.

Cummings's parents supported his career financially and emotionally in a way that would have made Hart Crane, or any poet today, a bit envious. His father gave him a living stipend so that Cummings could complete his first book The Enormous Room, a modernist war memoir about his three-month imprisonment at La Ferté Macé during WWI. And his mother, too, put up money to publish No Thanks, a book no other publisher would touch. No strings attached, Rebecca would send Cummings monthly checks for his living expenses for the remainder of her life. He lived frugally, but there was always a net to catch him if he fell. His impoverishment was worlds away from Langston Hughes's who, even as a successful poet, did not have enough money to bury his mother when she died.

Like a child drawn to a hot stove, Cummings reached out for the flame of experience, aware on some level that it would lead to excruciating pain. He rebelled, and continued to rebel throughout many stages in his life. As a young man he brought his father to tears by staying out late drinking, leaving his father's car parked in front of a bordello. In France, while he was deployed to be an ambulance driver, he befriended two beautiful prostitutes, Mimi and and Marie Louise, in Paris. (But apparently kept his virginity intact out of fear of disease.) There's his imprisonment at La Ferté, where, as Cheever puts it, Cummings sassed himself into trouble by being a sort of "irrational Yankee who prized perversity over safety." In refusing to simply say that he hated all Germans, he landed himself in detention with straw for a bed. After traveling to Russia he returned unconvinced that Communism was the be-all and end-all for bridging the gap between the rich and poor. After his second memoir Eimi was published in 1933 he became a Greenwich Village outcast. As Cheever writes: "He lost friends, and people crossed the street to avoid him. Malcolm Cowley and Edmund Wilson were horrified at what seemed to them, accurately, to be a sudden veering into right-wing conservatism..." He veered in his romantic relationships too -- having affairs with two married women, Elaine Thayer and Anne Barton. Both relationships would lead to disastrous outcomes. He detested the rah-rah-rah of American politics to such an extent that he refused an invitation to the White House from Mrs. Kennedy.

Midway through his life, however, experience in the cloak of tragedy would find him. Cheever's most compelling chapters deal with the dual losses that affected Cummings most: the loss of his father in a tragic accident, which she writes about in stunning cinematic detail, and the loss of his daughter, Nancy, who he was barred from seeing until she was a grown woman with two children of her own. Cheever is correct is saying that the story of Cummings and his daughter is worthy of a standalone book. In the short version: It begins with an affair with the beautiful Elaine Thayer, the wife of his friend and patron, Scofield Thayer. It ends in a bitter divorce between Cummings and Elaine that is so fraught with tension Nancy grows up never knowing the truth about her real father. In a strange plot twist, that would be unfair to reveal here, by the time Nancy discovers that Cummings is her father, the potential for a relationship seems doomed.

As with any individual, his "I's" are multiple, and in his poetry, Cummings was capable of showing a profound sense of wonder and appreciation for the world around him; for this, he is a direct descendant of Whitman. While reading Cheever's biography, I had been waiting for her to capture his tender side. (He eventually found the love of his life, Marion Morehouse, and they stayed together for the remainder of his life.) Midway through, I finally found a line that I didn't know that I had been searching for: "Cummings loved women," Cheever writes simply, matter-of-factly. And it's true, he loved them as friends, confidants, as full human beings who enjoy sexual pleasure as much as men. The women he writes about contain multitudes. Not since Whitman's "Calumus" poems has there been better poetry written about sex. And it's more than a matter of pushing the right buttons with a few juicy adjectives, some thrusting verbs, an erotic poem has to seduce -- as with the beginning of this sonnet from Tulips & Chimneys:

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,

But where Cummings's love poems succeed, a few of his more satirical poems fail. He's far from perfect, and his anti-Semitism got the better of him in both his work and life. Cheever writes about what has been and what will remain the primary difficultly for biographers: how to approach the discussion of racism.

She writes:

In the study of art and literary history, one of the great problems is how to separate the art from the artist, how to separate the masterworks of a Wagner or a Richard Strauss, a Pound or even a Cummings, from the terrible things they said and wrote in their roles as puny, deluded human beings -- men.

This is such an important conversation, worthy of a book in itself, but I bristled at its inclusion in the midst of talking about the poet's life.

Further on she writes: "Should poems and books be understood in a vacuum... or should they be understood as pieces of the web of their time and ours?" I can't speak for other readers, but I would have preferred to connect all the dots myself, to draw my own conclusions about Cummings's character. Furthermore, on numerous accounts Cheever describes Cummings as angry, an angry adolescent "an angry man, and an angry poet" She queries "[W]here did all that anger come from?" The adjective comes up so often that I began marking each and every "angry" that I found -- and they were plentiful.

In terms of speaking about Cummings's poetry, she also seems a little adrift. For any Cummings biographer, Richard S. Kennedy's biography Dreams in the Mirror looms large in the background. His biography, published in 1980, was sixteen years in the making, a true labor of love, written by a writer who seemed to eat, sleep, and breathe the poet's work. What Cheever offers is a compact biography that hits all of the major notes in Cummings's life, but neglects the music -- how central the craft of poetry and art were to his daily existence.

It is true, though, that what Cummings called his "before breakfast" self was angry and at times he despised his country, yet his individualism makes him just about as American as apple pie; and as vital to the tradition of American poetry as Whitman, Dickinson, and Frost. I can only express gratitude to biographers like Cheever for keeping him alive today.

E.E. Cummings: A Life by Susan Cheever
Pantheon
ISBN: 978-0307379979
240 pages