Alright, I’ll admit it. I once loved the poetry of E.E. Cummings. Then, as I grew up in age and in poetry, I came to think of him, as many have, as just having stopped capitalizing “I,” running words together, and eschewing punctuation. But I just read a new biography of Cummings, called A Life, by Susan Cheever, and have come away with a renewed appreciation of him.
But first, here are some of his famous lines, lines I have loved. Sometimes playful: “in Just spring/when the world is mud-/luscious . . . .” Sometimes sensual: “I like my body when it is with your/body. It is so quite new a thing . . . .” Sometimes both: “may I feel said he/(i'll squeal said she/just once said he)/it's fun said she . . . .” I must confess, this next one so well expressed my once lovesick heart:
It may not always be so and I saythat if your lips, which I have loved, should touchanother's, and your dear strong fingers clutchhis heart, as mine in time not far away. . . .if this should be, I say if this should be --you of my heart, send me a little word;that I may go unto him, and take his hands,saying, Accept all happiness from me.Then shall I turn my face, and hear one birdsing terribly afar in the lost lands. I share Cummings’ love of nature and his sense of god inhabited there:
I thank you God for this amazingday:for the leaping greenly spirits of tressand a blue dream of sky; and for everythingwhich is natural which is infinite which is yes
In A Life, Susan Cheever describes Cummings’ larger-than-life father, his generous mother, and the trauma Cummings endured as a teenager, when he purposefully drowned his beloved dog in order to save his sister from that fate.
Cheever describes two disastrous marriages, resulting in Cummings losing touch with his daughter, Nancy, until she herself was married and had children. In the book, we learn that Cummings eventually found happiness with Marion, a gorgeous younger woman, with whom he shared his life for thirty years.
Cummings was well-educated, double-degreed. He became a soldier in WWI, but was imprisoned for his rebellious, playful antics. Later, before WWII, at a time when other writers thought Communism would be a positive force in the world, Cummings’ view was colored by his travels to Russia, where he saw firsthand that, in practice, Communism did not live up to its promise.
A contemporary of Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, Hart Crane, Ezra Pound and others, Cummings, like Pound, would be reviled as anti-Semitic. Ms. Cheever tries to reconcile this aspect of Cummings, but does not go so far as to, in my view, lose credibility in her analysis of him in more psychological terms.
As a poet who enjoys memorizing poems and reciting in a reading, I was delighted to learn that Cummings’ readings were pure performance – his voice modulating, his audiences rapt, himself engaging.
Had I ever attended one of his readings or been able to visit Patchin Place, where he lived and wrote in New York City for most of his life, like many young women of his day, I would have left for him a love note – and flowers.
Speaking of flowers, Cummings’ poetry has been criticized for overusing bird and flower images. Yet on this Mother’s Day in Colorado, as I fret over my tulips and bleedings hearts weighed down with falling snow, I wonder, can there ever be too many flowers?