Reviews — From the March 2014 issue

Mostpeople’s Poet

Is E. E. Cummings a serious writer?

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Discussed in this essay:

E. E. Cummings: A Life, by Susan Cheever. Pantheon Books. 240 pages. $26.95.

E. E. Cummings: Complete Poems, 1904–1962, edited by George James Firmage. Liveright. 1,136 pages. $50.

I cannot be the only member of my generation who was introduced to E. E. Cummings by Woody Allen. The poet has a cameo in Hannah and Her Sisters, when Elliot, the buttoned-up British businessman played by Michael Caine, is attempting to woo Lee (Barbara Hershey), the most bohemian and romantic of the characters — and the sister of his wife. Running into her accidentally-on-purpose on the gritty SoHo block where she lives, he asks, somewhat absurdly, if there is a bookstore nearby, and she takes him to a crowded secondhand shop. As “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” plays in the background, Elliot takes an edition of Cummings’s poetry from the shelf and tells Lee he wants to buy it for her. The poem on page 112 reminds him of her — perhaps they could discuss it sometime? It’s the one that ends with the line “nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands,” and as Lee reads it in bed that night, she realizes Elliot is in love with her.

Illustration by Demetrios Psillos

Illustration by Demetrios Psillos

When Hannah and Her Sisters came out, I was twelve — a little young for Woody Allen, but the perfect age to discover E. E. Cummings. With his refusal to play by grammatical rules, his shameless sentimentality, his sexual frankness, and his easy quotability, he is the ideal poet of youth. The poet Harvey Shapiro, who for years was one of Cummings’s neighbors on Patchin Place in Greenwich Village, reported that young women would appear in front of the building “at all hours,” reciting poems and leaving flowers. Susan Cheever, in her thoughtful new biography of Cummings, recalls the poet’s visit to the prim girls’ school she attended, and his hilarious send-up afterward of the stuffy administrators. Anatole Broyard, the onetime New York Times book critic, wrote of saving up his money as a teenager to buy Tulips & Chimneys, Cummings’s first collection of poetry. I, too, remember spending my babysitting earnings on Cummings paperbacks; and I still have in my possession a hardcover edition of his Poems, 1923–1954 that appears to have been pilfered from my school library.

One can only imagine how many suitors, in the ninety years since Tulips & Chimneys first appeared, have appropriated the poems for their own declarations of love. Like Elliot, they must take care to get the page number right, because the Cummings oeuvre is something of a minefield. What might Lee have thought had she stumbled first on the graphic description of lovemaking that begins with “her careful distinct sex” (Cummings never gave his poems titles) and ends with orgasm? Or the justifiably notorious “a kike is the most dangerous / machine as yet invented,” which polluted Cummings with an odor of anti-Semitism that has never fully dissipated? Or a dark, late meditation such as “this is a rubbish of human rind,” which concludes with the mysterious lines “and the eyes of his eyes / are as lost as you’ll find”? The innocent reader who knows only the sap-sticky Cummings of greeting cards and wedding toasts (“I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing / than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance”) will be taken aback by both the variety of his forms and the nihilistic rage that, toward the end of his life, he indulged more and more.

Elliot’s suggestion that he and Lee “discuss” the poem is surely intended as a lame effort to disguise his true intentions. He wants to fall into bed with her, not conduct a seminar. Yet the joke is on him, because the critical establishment has been asking for years whether there is in fact anything to discuss in Cummings’s work. Broyard, describing how he and many other readers of his generation grew out of their love for Cummings, likens his disillusionment to a literary “puberty rite”: “One day the elders in the tribe inflicted painful scars on us and we were no longer boys, but men who were not allowed to play games with Mr. Cummings” and instead “pitched our tents in the wasteland of T. S. Eliot.” Cummings was not taken seriously by the poetry establishment until his Collected Poems was published, in 1938, fifteen years after his first collection; and no sooner was he admitted to the canon than his detractors began trying to pry him out of it. The critic R. P. Blackmur mocked Cummings’s overreliance on certain sentimental words (“flower,” Blackmur pointed out, appears in Tulips & Chimneys forty-eight times) and disparaged his “special use of language” as “baby-talk.” Randall Jarrell, reviewing Poems: 1923–1954 for The New York Times Book Review, called Cummings “a magical but shallow rhetorician.” Helen Vendler has described him as “a phenomenon — an interesting writer, a bad writer, a popular writer, a self-deceiving writer.” As Cheever acknowledges, he has become “better known for abjuring uppercase letters than for his poems.”

Cheever has set out to rescue Cummings’s reputation. She argues that he is “this country’s only true modernist poet” and compares his critics to the audience members who walked out on the Paris premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or the exhibition-goers who raged at the art of Marcel Duchamp. His typographic experiments were intended to do more than make “poetic art out of commas and parentheses,” as his New York Times obituary put it; rather, Cheever argues, they represented his “wildly ambitious attempt at creating a new way of seeing the world through language.” And Liveright, Cummings’s longtime publisher, backs Cheever up with a handsome new edition of the Complete Poems that corrects typographic errors introduced by the original typesetters and includes several batches of previously hard-to-find work, mostly juvenilia.

It’s a treatment fit for a major poet, though the book’s editor, George J. Firmage, pointedly avoids making such claims on Cummings’s behalf. There’s no introduction — the poetry is left to speak for itself — and the jacket copy states modestly that Cummings was “among the most influential, widely read, and revered modernist poets.” His previous biographers (Cheever, depending on how you count, is either the third or the fourth) have been equally circumspect. Richard S. Kennedy, the author of Dreams in the Mirror — which appeared in 1980 and is still the definitive take on the poet’s life — declines to vouch for Cummings’s greatness, preferring to call him “unique” and “one of the leading American poets of the twentieth century.” Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno, whose 2004 E. E. Cummings: A Biography incorporated material from previously restricted papers but (as Wyatt Mason pointed out in these pages) was so derivative of Kennedy’s book as to plagiarize it, also speaks of Cummings’s “unique voice” and quotes Marianne Moore’s rather oblique description of him as “a concentrate of titanic significances.” (A third biographical work, E. E. Cummings: The Magic-Maker, by the poet’s friend Charles Norman, is more of a memoir of Cummings’s life.)

What does Cheever bring to this rather crowded table? First, that bold assertion that Cummings is America’s “only true modernist poet,” which unfortunately is never fully defended. (What about Ezra Pound? William Carlos Williams? Wallace Stevens? T. S. Eliot?) Next, her literary pedigree: her father, John Cheever, was a friend of the poet’s, and she writes at the start of her book that, thanks to him, she grew up “steeped in Cummings stories that few people had heard.” Yet her biography largely follows the territory already trampled by her predecessors. With the exception of the first chapter, a wonderfully written set piece describing Cummings’s 1952 Norton Lectures, there seems to be little in the way of new material here. But her streamlined approach will appeal to Cummings enthusiasts who find it difficult to get through Kennedy’s and Sawyer-Lauçanno’s much weightier tomes. And she writes with fine psychological insight about the interpersonal muck in which the poet found himself continually mired, particularly his difficult relationships with women.

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