January 4, 2015

e.e. cummings: a life

I had other books piled up for the winter break.  This one was a surprise, the best kind, one that reminds me of what and why I love reading.

Until I listened to part of this interview in the car {and, happily, the rest when I got home}, I hadn't known that e.e. cummings was from Cambridge, growing up a short walk away from my office. He was the son of a Harvard professor turned Unitarian minister and a mother the author describes as a quintessential New Englander, with William James and his family {he introduced the Cummings parents to each other} as friends and neighbors, both in Cambridge and in a summer community in New Hampshire. So, my first pleasure in reading this was a glimpse of Cambridge, and a horrifying one of an anti-Semitic, intolerant Harvard, at the turn of the 20th century.

Cheever describes a quiet, dutiful, small, poetry-writing boy who enrolled in Harvard when he was sixteen, and rebelled against seemingly everything by the time he graduated at the beginning of WWI.  Being outspoken, rebellious, always pushing against the ordinary and the expected colored his life and his poetry, but the story unfolds with moments that are wonderful, moving, and sometimes almost unbearably sad. It was fascinating to read about a class he took at Harvard, where the students were drilled, relentlessly, in formal poetic forms -- a background that allowed him to play with punctuation, diction, sound, and even how words looked on the page. The poet was married twice, each for only a brief time, and then had a long, loving common-law marriage that lasted until his death. He had a daughter with his first wife, and when she remarried, he didn't see his child for more 20 years. {At the point in the story where he begins to reconnect with her, I almost had to stop reading for a while.}

Cummings spent most of his adult life in a tiny mews house in Greenwich Village, which might be why I wouldn't have associated him with Boston.  He was a friend of Ezra Pound, and a neighbor of Marianne Moore's, and had T,S. Eliot over for tea.  Cummings was an older friend and mentor to John Cheever, the author's father, and the book opens with a wonderful story about her meeting the poet when he gave a reading at her high school. He was perennially, and elegantly, strapped {'Having little money had never bother Cummings -- in fact it seemed to delight him. ... He had grown up in a world where money didn't matter, and he embraced the shabby eccentricity of intellectual Cambridge where professors were too wrapped up in the world of ideas to care if their clothes were shabby or their roofs leaked'}, until he began to give poetry readings later in life.

Asked to lecture in the poetry series at the Manhattan YM-YWHA...Cummings perfected what would become his mature lecture style. His invitation to Bennington [College] brought far more than a pleasant evening; it was the beginning of a satisfying and lucrative new career. Much like another of his heroes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Cummings found that he was able to become a famous poet not by writing poetry but by reading poetry. ,,,
      By the time he took the stage at the Y in December of 1954, Cummings had developed a precise and powerful way of reading his poems to an audience. He never read behind a lectern. Before he read, the organizers and the venue got a list of very specific instructions. He would need a straight-backed chair, a table, and a gooseneck lamp. He would not answer questions, sign books, or agree to any of the social folderol that usually surrounds a reading -- the dinner with the English department, the interview with the local reporter... There would be no photographs. ...
      A Cummings reading was a formal, dramatic event, It was more like a play than a reading. ... On the shadowy stage, the gooseneck lamp was the only light. Cummings quietly entered and began to read, using his mimicking skills for different characters and voices to great effect.  He could be side-splittingly funny and sadly sentimental within a few moments.
      His voice -- aristocratic, reassuring and yet somehow filled with the wonder of childhood -- was electrifying. ... Whether he was reading something playful ... or angry or deeply serious and sad, his voice was brilliantly adapted to the material.  Cummings played his voice, letting it go loud and soft, high and low, using vibrato and falsetto, as the poems demanded.
      In a line like 'my father moved through dooms of love,' he would modulate his voice, drawing out the long syllables in a way that echoed with grief and longing. In the playful poems you could almost hear him smiling; in the sad ones he sounded close to tears. The words seemed to sob of their own accord. His pauses were electric; his vowels, endless and sad. Cummings understood the power of sounds and the possibilities of language in a unique, pioneering way, and this came through when he read.
      Until he began to read all over the country, Cummings had been a well-respected poet among poets. His was a name well known in the small community of ideas in literature, poetry, and art, especially at Harvard and in Greenwich Village. Now, partly because of his extraordinary readings, he became a national celebrity.

The author notes in an afterword that e.e. cummings' reputation as a poet is 'on the wane,' and that he isn't taught in schools much anymore.  He was, in my student days, and now knowing more about him and his poetry has been a wonderful way to start my reading year.

Going back to Cambridge for a minute.... the Cummings and James families lived across from each other on Irving Street,  where someone else we know and love lived, but that was half a century later.  I've found it on a map, and knowing that I'm going to be a little stir-crazy this week when I'm back at work, I have a little lunchtime field trip in mind...

1 comment:

Lisa said...

This sounds like a wonderful book! I have to admit, I know nothing about e.e. cummings, though I've read some of his poetry. You've made me curious to learn more.