“Singing birds shouldn’t talk,” E. E. Cummings told Hildegarde Watson, evading the requirement of making a speech at Rochester. But there was no law against writing letters. The editors of the Selected Letters have chosen 265 specimens from an available correspondence which runs to a thousand letters. There are bound to be more, hoarded for years, then lost, or gathering dust somewhere in vacant lots. Cummings did not hold to the principle that a letter a day keeps the doctor away, but he must have enjoyed typing these prose poems, using the whole Corona, commas, parentheses, capitals, numerals, spaces, 2 for two, 4 for for. The first letter is a pen-and-ink promise to his grandmother: “I am sorry dear Nana but I will be a good boy”; the aspirant to virtue was five years old, November 27, 1899. The last letter was written a few months before his death in 1962.
The selection is admirable. The letters give a lively impression of Cummings’s work and play over the whole range of his prolific years. The editors have given us a clean text, beautifully printed, little or no comment, very few notes. Perhaps they have been too abstemious. The book is addressed to “the common reader, especially the reader who is familiar with Cummings’s poems, plays, and prose narratives.” But editorial tact often gives the reader a headache. In 1919 Cummings wrote to his father, telling him in block capitals to read The Nation, May 3, pages 682 and 684, apparently an article on Russia. But it would be useful to know who wrote the article and, roughly, what he said. In many cases the common reader is likely to be puzzled by private detail; though there is pleasure in working things out. “Your excoed Billy the Medico made a far from noncelike W.C. of himself”; meaning, William Carlos Williams made a fool of himself. I suppose this is easy, but some of the conundrums are likely to keep the common reader busy.
Even Ezra Pound had trouble with Cummings’s letters. In 1950 he received a short epistle which referred to “Mr.Best” and “the Broad.” Confused, he asked the writer to explain himself. Mr.Best turned out to be Aristotle, the Broad became Plato, one up for Cummings in the etymological game.
The first letters are precocious works, young Estlin displaying his plumes for the approval of Mother and Dad. Toward his experience he adopted a stance of condescension, represented by inverted commas qualifying common nouns. His sensibility was already bending the language. In 1917 he reported to his mother from France:
At 11, 12 or 1 the next day they are “relieved” by their “comrades,” and go “home.” “My” conducteur is the most despicable, perhaps, “fellow” in the “camp.” He’s a tight-fisted, pull-for-special-privilege, turd, about 5 feet high, with a voice in b natural upper.
The same attitude persisted when he joined the Norton-Harjes American Ambulance Corps to serve with the French army: he never feels secure without his commas. The Enormous Room is an elaborate essay in the art of rising above one’s experience. The political equivalent is registered in the change from the “furiously socialistic” Cummings of enlistment to the lover of “limousines and Debussy” which he declared himself in 1918. Aesthetically, he was an aristocrat from the beginning, his birth at 104 Irving Street, Cambridge, Mass.
He was fortunate in his parents. Normally, a child finds it difficult to explain to his parents that he is different, and that the difference is his own invention, a personal illumination. But in 1918 Cummings found it easy, apparently, to persuade his father to acknowledge “my übermench and totally original and disgusting attitude.” The young poet’s mind is not to interfere “with the sealed letters of sensation brought to my soul by these eyes, these ears, this nose & tongue.” “Mine is the perspiration of my own existence, and that’s all I give a proper and bloody damn for,” he tells Dad. He translates the sentiment into French Esperanto for his mother’s benefit:
It must be comprehended, however, that I have my own unique & furiously placid way in this, which differs from the ordinary—that is, accepted—manner of dealing with an “unpleasant” situation. John Doe says I hate to sleep en bloc, dine a la merde, breathe per ordens and die en masse.
In poetry, he claims to possess a personal rhythm; and in The Enormous Room “there is a binding rhythm which integrates the whole thing and makes it a single moving ThingInItself.” In a later version he speaks of “putting huge pieces of myself into whens & people & wheres & animals & trees & stones.” When a group of poems appeared in The Dial in May 1920, the poet’s father was an appreciative reader. He did not like the reference to Spring’s “sloppy body” in “spring omnipotent goddess,” and his son chose to differ, but that did not “necessitate a diminution of the gaiety of nations.” Cummings’s thank-you letter enters a large claim for the poem “into the strenuous briefness”:
After all, sans blague and Howells, it is a supreme pleasure to have done something FIRST—and “roses & hello” also the comma after “and” (“and, ashes”) are Firsts.
Poetry is Spring, first light, vermilion departure, and the poet is its voice. To be good is to be different. “What matters to me is UNIQUENESS.” The way to live is to do it now: “there is nothing like Now.” Years later, Cummings wrote to Cynthia Gooding:
However that may be, it’s impossible to have “enough emotion;” as for “experiences,” the most profound I know are breathing: and “enough words” would be a fine title for every novel. No woman is illdressed. Live first, “want to” afterwards.
Later still, he committed himself to “illimitable now” in strict preference to “measurable when.” The personal style has not changed. Now he has read Santayana, but he is still Nana’s little boy blue, gifted son of genial parents.
He loves his own voice, his great gift, Nature, his friends. He hates “unman,” later designated as socialism, communism, society, time. History means nothing to him. He distrusts everything which impedes the sensibility, imposing delay: the past, consecutive thought, concepts. “Are dogs, organ-grinders, mountains any the less alive for a complete ignorance of concepts?” As for ideology: he wrote to Ezra Pound in 1935:
The kumrads sound as if they’d folded. I recommend the Irving Place Burlesk (stripteasers in excelsis) & to hell with I.D.Ology.
In politics, he was a short-term artist, he held opinions when they enforced themselves, but unwillingly. In 1956, enraged at the Russian invasion of Hungary, he spoke of the American response: “whereupon the never defeated United States Of America shrugged her peaceloving shoulders & murmured ‘too bad’.” Then his mind went back a generation:
when “America” cheered wildly for Finland while secretly selling hightest gasoline to Russia so Its tanks could murder Finns, I ceased to be—in the only true sense, that is spiritually—an “American.” If my bookofpoems ever comes, look at p.390 (iv), & 393 (vii) & 396 (xiii)…proving that PearlHarbor didn’t fool someone…not to mention 357 (poem 11), lest anyone suppose that the man who wrote Him Act II Scene 8 (Mussolini-as-Caesar & the homos) was a “fascist.”
When Senator McCarthy emerged as Satan, Cummings said that the man would never have existed “if Mrs&MrsFDR (doubtless with “the best of intentions”) hadn’t spent decades persuading All Good Americans that a supergang of hyperthugs—openly & avowedly dedicated to the proposition that freedom of anything is nothing at all—were just the lovingest & loveliest infraangels this side of Nonexistence.”
But Cummings did not speak the political language as a native, it was always alien to him. He was happy with Spring, sunbeams, “sun moon stars rain,” and he was convinced that “not all matterings of mind equal one violet.” A poet concerns himself with sensation, then with its accordant song: that is enough. In the letters, Cummings plays scales and arpeggios, keeping the jinks high. A postscript to John Dos Passos reads:
nbps) Q; Whence the phrase “virgin forest”? A; only G-d can make a tree.
Another to John Peale Bishop:
Speaking of brainstormers and barntrusters and buggery boobs—how’s Mason Dixoning? does Hooey long? sommeil aux porcs. A bas Stalin. Mort aux vaches.
A wordsmith, he rejoyces to his sister: “then, O Hera, will Sanyclaws come down the chimbley.” A letter to Pound in 1935 reports a miracle in New York City, the Museum of Natural History, in terms so baroque and curlicued that the ThingItself dissolves in the words. After these frolics, a sentence in plain prose, subject and predicate, strikes like Revelation; as a letter to “dear Miss Moore” begins, “Thank you for your letter, enclosing the cheque for my poems in the January issue.” A brilliant sentence; no one since Defoe has written like that. The recipient makes the difference; Miss Moore, an exacting taskmistress who spent an hour of her aesthetic life persuading Cummings to change “spittoon” to “cuspidor” in a contribution to The Dial. Cummings knew when the larking had to stop.
It always stopped when he wrote to an innocent reader of his poems. Some of the most moving letters are those in which the poet explains, in words of orthodox syllables, what a particular poem is up to. He tells one correspondent how the books are organized: they begin with Fall, then Winter, ending with Spring and Nature, defined as “wholeness innocence eachness beauty the transcending of time & space.” Poem 12 in XAIPE, beginning “tw”, is about two old men, old zeroes, moving closer at the end. In “chas sing does (who” the Chinese laundryman does not, in spite of his name, sing; instead, he “smiles always a trifle while ironing nobody knows whose shirt.” In another letter Cummings explains to his Japanese translator, Ishibashi, why the acrobatic cat in the poem “(im)c-a-t(mo)” carries on so nonchalantly; then tells him that the poem “after screamgroa” is about a farmer sharpening a bush-scythe on a grindstone.
Readers who think that the last three lines of this poem include textual errors should turn to Letter 217, where all will be revealed. The poet’s explanations are extraordinarily patient and helpful; even where the poem is not remarkably difficult, as in “Hello is what a mirror says,” Cummings is ready to paraphrase it, helping Susan F. Copley, a bewildered reader in 1956. A letter to Miss Leta Hannan about the poem “mortals)” in 50 Poems is as charming as the poem itself, the prose continuous with the acrobatic Him. Mostly, the gloss supplies the situation behind the poem, and it opens the lock at once. The poem “applaws)” in 1X1 gives the rise and fall of “a socalled public figure i.e. windbag.” Poem 68 in 95 Poems, beginning “the(oo)is,” is clear enough if the o’s are taken as eyes, wideopen and staring as in “lOOk.” It is all pleasant and gentle; and I must confess that Cummings had me fooled about the farmer and the scythe.
Some of the comments on other writers are interesting, but Cummings rarely goes to the bother of detail. Pound was his hero: “altogether, for me, a gymnastic personality; or in other words somebody, and intricate.” Freud is always praised, but Cummings does not stop for reasons. Yeats is praised for his “equal understanding of perfectly opposed viewpoints—collective & individual, systematic & spontaneous, rational & instinctive.” To Eliot, Cummings was grossly unjust, almost shabby. Worse still, he trimmed sail according to the wind of the recipient. “I found your friend wearied (as was natural,” he writes of Eliot to Pound, “& kindly (as is surprising).” But within a few days he gave Sir Solly Zuckerman a different version:
Per contra (alias entr’ ourselves) a not unrecent peep at Tears Eliot, or maybe 2 I-s, has mightily confirmed my negligible suspicion that be it never so humble there’s no: Solly, after entertaining that hombre for 15 minutes you feel like taking out a patent for manipulating the dead.
Later, he comes clean with Pound, referring to “Doubting TAcquinas (not to be confused with Doting Tommie, hO.huM.”) and a few days thereafter Eliot is “your ultra-marsupial friend.” The only point he thinks of making in praise of Gertrude Stein is that she stood up for Pétain. Normally, he takes his contemporaries for granted, that is, ignores their work. The sole recipient of detailed appreciation is Isak Dinesen: there is a wonderful letter to Cicely Angleton, praising Out of Africa, the Winter’s Tales, and “my favorite,” the Seven Gothic Tales:
Could all the Flakners in Missouriissippi ever dream of Peter And Rosa? And what a miracle of momentous complexity is The Poet!
The praise was repeated in a letter to Cummings’s sister Elizabeth.
Fortunate in his parents, fortunate in his friends: he had a fine crew. Bill Brown, Dos Passos, Pound, Bishop, Allen Tate, The Dial people, but also (how?) Sir Solly, and (how?) A.J. Ayer. “May I ask you something,” he writes to the philosopher; “how would you define the unc(onscious) in your own words?” In return, “the foremost ‘logical positivist’ quote-philosopher-unquote extant” went for a walk with the poet near his Joy Farm: “during which stroll, my guest observed (probably anent some entirely spontaneous tribute to Nature which had escaped me) ‘you’re almost an animist, aren’t you.”‘
Cummings recalled the Joy Farm episode in 1960, writing to Hildegarde Watson. But even in New Hampshire, joyful farms and silver lakes could not conceal the fact that the world was dying. “Though the sun in his heaven says Now,” other forces tell a different story. “As it was in the beginning it is now and always will be,” perhaps, but time oppresses. Many of the last poems try to banish time from the poet’s garden: we are to be “hosts of eternity, not guests of seem.” Besides, “Time cannot children, poets, lovers tell.” There are poems in the last pages of the Complete Poems which go back to the first green nursery rhymes, the neo-Elizabethan Chansons Innocentes, dances of finches, flowers, April, and bells. But Poem 62 in the last collection, 73 Poems, is inescapable: “now does our world descend.” It is impossible to sing songs of “Now” and know that the ghosts will vanish. Paris is burning: “cruel now cancels kind; / friends turn to enemies.”
The descent is clearer in the poems than in the letters. But there are signs, visible in a poignant letter to Hildegarde Watson reporting the death of little birds, “the barnswallows of my childhood.” A letter to Mayor Wagner thanks him for saving Patchin Place from “renovation,” but Cummings’s real sentiment emerges in the next letter, “I appeared not long since,” he says, “at City Hall (NY) & was copiously snapshotted with-&-without Mayor Wagner…this being the price we paid, M&I, for not being thrown out of our 35year residence at 4 Patchin; after a lawsuit lasting about a year.” Happily, the letter does not end there. Cummings is writing to the Israeli teacher Matti Meged, sharing Platonic words, quoting an enchanting passage from the Republic. It is hard to think of him as a Platonist, and yet his next-to-last poem, “all worlds have halfsight,” is in Plato’s spirit. Imagine Cummings a Cambridge Platonist, at the end: perhaps this is the right way to go, invoking a lover who “(looking through both life and death) / timelessly celebrates the merciful / wonder no world deny may or believe.” So the last word of the Complete Poems is “believe,” and the last word of the Selected Letters is “bravissimo!”
October 9, 1969