WONDERFUL ONE TIMES ONE
An Appreciation of E.E. Cummings
Compiled and directed by Charles Deemer
Musical direction by Mark Slegers
Cummings art exhibit arranged by Harriet Levi
rain or hail
the best he kin
till they digged his hole
October 14, 1894. Edward Estlin Cummings is born in the home of his parents in Cambridge, Mass. His father, Edward, teaches sociology and political science at Harvard. When Estlin is six, his father is ordained minister of the South Congregational Church, Unitarian, in Boston.
His mother, Rebecca, is one of the more remarkable women Estlin has ever known. Cummings will write poems about each of his parents.
The Cambridge home is often full of extended family. A younger sister is born. Estlin attends Cambridge public schools, vacations in Maine, and spends summers in a family home in New Hampshire.
Ever since I can remember, I've written & painted or made drawings.
Cummings always would look back at his childhood with special fondness.
I am only incidentally a writer: primarily I am the son of my parents and whatever is happening to him. But let me begin with an almost inconceivable assertion: I was born at home.
For the benefit of those of you who can't imagine what the word "home" implies, or what a home could possibly have been like, I should explain that the idea of home is the idea of privacy. But again - what is privacy? You probably never heard of it. Even supposing that (from time to time) walls exist around you, those walls are no longer walls; they are merest pseudosolidities, perpetually penetrated by the perfectly predatory collective organs of sight and sound. Any apparent somewhere which you may inhabit is always at the mercy of a ruthless and omnivorous everywhere. The notion of a house, as one single definite particular and unique place to come into, from the anywhereish and everywhereish world outside - that notion must strike you as fantastic. You have been brought up to believe that a house, or a universe, or a you, or any other object, is only seemingly solid: really (and you are realists, whom nobody and nothing can deceive) each seeming solidity is a collection of large holes - and, in the case of a house, the larger the holes the better; since the principal function of a modern home is to admit whatever might otherwise remain outside. You haven't the least or feeblest conception of being here, and now, and alone, and yourself.
A long poem about his father begins this way ...
my father moved through dooms of love
through sames of am through haves of give,
singing each morning out of each night
my father moved through depths of height
And later in the poem …
his sorrow was as true as bread;
no liar looked him in the head;
if every friend became his foe
he'd laugh and build a world with snow.
My father moved through theys of we,
Singing each new leaf out of each tree
(and every child was sure that spring
danced when she heard my father sing)
Even better known is a poem Cummings writes about his mother.
It isn't often you meet a true heroine. I have the honor to be a true heroine's son. My father and mother were coming up from Cambridge to New Hampshire one day in 1926 in their newly purchased automobile - an air-cooled Franklin, with an ash frame. As they neared the Ossippees, snow fell. My mother was driving; and, left to herself, would never have paused for such a trifle as snow. But the snow increased, my father made her stop while he got out and wiped the windshield. Then he got in, and she drove on. Some minutes later, a locomotive cut the car in half, killing my father instantly. When two brakemen jumped from the halted train, they saw a woman standing - dazed but erect - beside a mangled machine, with blood spouting out of her head. One of her hands kept feeling of her dress, as if trying to discover why it was wet. These men took my sixty-six year old mother by the arms and tried to lead her toward a nearby farmhouse; but she threw them off, strode straight to my father's body, and directed a group of scared spectators to cover him. When this was done (and only then) she let them lead her away.
if there are any heavens my mother will (all by herself) have
one. It will not be a pansy heaven or
a fragile heaven of lilies-of-the-valley but
it will be a heaven of blackred roses
my father will be (deep like a rose
tall like a rose)
standing near my
(swaying over her
with eyes which are really petals and see
nothing with the face of a poet really which
is a flower and not a face with
This is my beloved my
(suddenly in sunlight
he will bow,
and the whole garden will bow)
Estlin enters Harvard at 17, majoring in classical Greek and other languages. He contributes poems to the campus literary magazine. 4 years later he graduates with honors, magna cum laude, and delivers the commencement address. His topic: "The New Art." He already is beginning to define his stance as an artist, both as a poet and as a painter.
Art is a mystery. A mystery is something immeasurable. Nothing measurable can be alive; nothing which is not alive can be art; nothing which cannot be art is true; and everything untrue doesn't matter a very good God damn.
My credo is this: I am a man; I am an artist; I am a failure.
A year after graduation he earns his Masters Degree. The next year he moves to New York.
The year is 1917, and the United States is at war. In April, Cummings joins the Norton-Haries Ambulance Corps and sails for France. A fellow recruit, Slater Brown, becomes a lifelong friend, and they are assigned to the same sector.
When Brown's letters home arouse the suspicions of a French censor, Cummings refuses to disassociate himself from his friend, and both are arrested as spies and sent to a concentration camp. This experience in prison becomes the material for Cummings' book The Enormous Room.
Strenuous efforts by his father gets Estlin released in December, and Cummings arrives in New York on New Year's Day, 1918.
Experiencing war affects Cummings in many ways. His poetry begins to reflect the passionate energy of a pacifist. This is a far cry from the patriotic feelings in his youthful writing.
O flag of the nation! O Red, White and Blue!
O symbol of liberty, waving anew!
All through our lives may we reverence thee,
The nation's bright ensign for liberty!
Dear flag, thou art sacred in peace and in war,
Where many have died for the stripe and the star,
Where many have died that the slave may be free,
Have died for the nation and liberty!
What a different sensibility we meet when a more mature Cummings writes about patriotism and about the experience of war.
READER 3 (female, bass voice):
"next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims' and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn's early my
country 'tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deaf and dumb
the sons acclaim your glorious name by gory
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than those heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?"
He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water.
my sweet old etcetera
aunt lucy during the recent
war could and what
is more did tell you just
what everybody was fighting
Isabel created hundreds
hundreds) of socks not to
mention shirts fleaproof earwarmers
etcetera wristers etcetera,my
mother hoped that
i would die etcetera
bravely of course my father used
to become hoarse talking about how it was
a privilege and if only he
could meanwhile my
self etcetera lay quietly
in the deep mud et
Eyes knees and of your Etcetera
why must itself up every of a park
anus stick some quote statue unquote to
prove that a hero equals any jerk
who was afraid to dare to answer "no"?
quote citizens unquote might otherwise
forget (to err is human; to forgive
divine) that if the quote state unquote says
"kill" killing is an act of christian love
"Nothing" in 1944 A.D.
"can stand against the argument of mil
itary necessity" (generalissimo e)
and echo answers "there is no appeal
from reason" (freud) - you pays your money and
you doesn't take your choice. Ain't freedom grand
In 1918, Cummings rooms with the released Slater Brown in NY, writing and painting. He meets and marries Elaine Orr, the mother of his only child, Nancy. The marriage ends in divorce when Elaine leaves him for another man.
it may not always be so; and I say
that if your lips, which I have loved, should touch
another's, and your dear strong fingers clutch
his heart, as mine in time not far away;
if on another's face your sweet hair lay
in such a silence as I know, or such
great writhing words as, uttering overmuch,
stand helplessly before the spirit at bay;
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 bird
sing terribly afar in the lost lands.
In 1920, at his father's urging, Estlin writes The Enormous Room, an account of his and Brown's experiences in prison in France during the war. The book is published two years later in what one biographer calls a "mutilated version."
Meanwhile Cummings is working seriously at his painting. He visits France again, returning in 1923 to the NY address where he will remain until his death almost 40 years later.
His first book of poems, Tulips and Chimneys, is published in 1923. The book is met with hostile reviews, one citing the "eccentric system of punctuation." The qualified exception is a review in The New York World: "…it is a very disconcerting thing to be compelled to admit, reluctantly, that the book is very good, that it is extraordinarily good, that it contains, in its own individual and unprecedented style, as beautiful poems as have been written by any present-day poet in the English language. When I first met Mr. Cummings' poetry, some years ago in magazines, it inspired me with rage and scorn; from which it appears that disgust is a half-way station on the road to admiration."
Cummings marries for a second time in 1927; this marriage also ends in divorce.
this little bride & groom are
standing) in a kind
of crown he dressed
in black candy she
veiled with candy white
carrying a bouquet of
pretend flowers this
candy crown with this candy
little bride & little
groom in it kind of stands on
a thin ring which stands on a much
less thin and very much more
big & kinder of ring & which
kinder of stands on a
much more than very much
biggest & thickest & kindest
of ring & all one two three rings
are cake & everything is protected by
cellophane against anything (because
nothing really exists)
(once like a spark)
In 1928, Cummings' first play is performed in NY by the Provincetown Players. The play is entitled "Him." When the play is published, printed on the book-jacket is an Imaginary Dialogue Between An Author And A Public.
Mr. Cummings, what is Him about?
Why ask me? Did I or didn't I make the play?
But surely you know what you're making-
Beg pardon, Mr. Public; I surely make what I'm knowing.
So far as I'm concerned, my very dear sir, nonsense isn't everything in life.
And so far as you're concerned, "life" is a verb of two voices - active, to do, and passive, to dream. Others believe doing to be only a kind of dreaming. Still others have discovered (in a mirror surrounded with mirrors) something harder than silence but softer than falling: the third voice of "life," which believes itself and which cannot mean because it is.
Bravo, but are such persons good for anything in particular?
They are good for nothing but walking upright in the cordial revelation of the fatal reflexive.
And your play is all about one of these persons, Mr. Author?
Perhaps. But (let me tell you a secret) I rather hope my play is one of these persons.
In one moment in the play, the title character, Him, reflects on what is important in life:
I feel only one thing, I have only one conviction; it sits on three chairs in Heaven. Sometimes I look at it with terror; it is such a perfect acrobat! The three chairs are three facts - it will quickly kick them out from under itself and will stand on air; and in that moment (because everyone will be disappointed) everyone will applaud. Meanwhile, some thousands of miles over everyone's head, over a billion empty faces, it rocks carefully and smilingly on three things, on three facts, on: I am an Artist, I am a Man, I am a Failure…
As far as I am concerned, poetry and every other art was and is and forever will be strictly and distinctly a question of individuality. If poetry were anything - like dropping an atom bomb - which anyone did, anyone could become a poet merely by doing the necessary anything, whatever that anything might or might not entail. But (as it happens) poetry is being, not doing. If you wish to follow, even at a distance, the poet's calling (and here, as always, I speak from my own totally biased and entirely personal point of view) you've got to come out of the measurable doing universe into the immeasurable house of being. I am quite aware that, wherever our so-called civilization has slithered, there's every reward and no punishment for unbeing. But if poetry is your goal, you've got to forget all about punishments and all about rewards and all about self-styled obligations and duties and responsibilities etcetera ad infinitum and remember one thing only: that it's you - nobody else - who determine your destiny and decide your fate. Nobody else can be alive for you; nor can you be alive for anybody else. Toms can be Dicks and Dicks can be Harrys, but none of them can ever be you. There's the artist's responsibility, and the most awful responsibility on earth. If you can take it, take it - and be. If you can't, cheer up and go about other people's business; and do (or undo) till you drop.
In 1932, the twice-divorced Cummings, who today is perhaps best known for his love poems, meets and soon marries the well-known model, actress and photographer, Marion Morehouse. Henceforth they are rarely apart. Cummings has found his mate.
somewhere i have never traveled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near
your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully, mysteriously) her first rose
or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;
nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility: whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing
(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands
Most people are perfectly afraid of silence.
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,
i like, slowly stroking the, shocking fuzz
of your electric fur, and what-is-it comes
over parting flesh…And eyes big love-crumbs,
and possibly i like the thrill
of under me you so quite new
Great men burn bridges before they come to them.
yes is a pleasant country:
let's open the year
both is the very weather
when violets appear
love is a deeper season
my sweet one
(and april's where we're)
i carry your heart with me (I carry it in
my heart) I am never without it (anywhere
I go you go, my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling)
no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet) I want
no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and it's you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)
Porky and porkie
Cummings becomes the great poet of love, whether love be new and adventuresome …
may I feel said he
I'll squeal said she
May I touch
Not too far
What's too far
Where you are
May I stay
If you kiss
May I move
Is it love
If you're willing
But you're killing
But it's life
READER 2 :
But your wife
You are Mine
Or whether love be old and seasoned …
it is so long since my heart has been with yours
shut by our mingling arms through
a darkness where new lights begin and
since your mind has walked into
my kiss as a stranger
into the streets and colours of a town-
that I have perhaps forgotten
how, always (from
these hurrying crudities
of blood and flesh(Love
coins His most gradual gesture,
and whittles life to eternity
--after which our separating selves become museums
filled with skilfully stuffed memories
Cummings finds happiness before he finds success. His poetry books don't sell well; in the first six months of 1935, one recent book sells thirteen copies, another two. He can't find a publisher for his new book, No Thanks, finally picking up a small press when his mother agrees to pay the printing costs.
Around the same time, however, Cummings discovers what will become a major source of income for him after the war: giving readings on the college circuit, particularly at women's colleges. He gives a reading at Bennington College and is an immediate hit. The word will spread swiftly. By the time Collected Poems is published in 1938, Cummings is receiving good reviews and his reputation as an important poet grows steadily and widely. He is productive and happy. All the same, money remains a problem, and his mother is paying his rent.
Finding love with Marion doesn't temper Cummings' biting satire and ruthless criticism of the society he sees all around him, where institutions and politicians and salesmen try to repress and destroy the chaotic energy of individuality. His satiric poems come as frequently as his love poems.
a politician is an arse upon
which everyone has sat except a man
a salesman is an it that stinks Excuse
Me whether it's president of the you were say
Or a jennelman name misder finger isn't
important whether it's millions of other punks
or just a handful absolutely doesn't
matter and whether it's in lonjewray
or shrouds is immaterial it stinks
a salesman is an it that stinks to please
but whether to please itself or someone else
makes no more difference than if it sells
hate condoms education snakeoil vac
uumcleaners terror strawberries democ
ra(caveat emptor)cy superfluous hair
or Think We've Met Subhuman Rights Before
pity this busy monster, manunkind,
not. Progress is a comfortable disease:
your victim(death and life safely beyond)
plays with the bigness of his littleness
--electrons deify one razorblade
into a mountainrange; lenses extend
unwish through curving wherewhen till unwish
returns on its unself.
A world of made
Is not a world of born - pity poor flesh
and trees, poor stars and stones, but never this
fine specimen of hypermagical
ultraomnipotence. We doctors know
a hopeless case if-listen: there's a hell
of a good universe next door; let's go
seeker of truth
follow no path
all paths lead where
truth is here
The flipside of his biting social and political satire is Cummings' deep religious faith. It's a faith based in the natural world and particularly in the promise and resurrection of Spring.
(While you and i have lips and voices which
are for kissing and to sing with
who cares if some one-eyed son of a bitch
invents an instrument to measure Spring with?
you shall above all things be glad and young
O sweet spontaneous
earth how often have
prurient philosophers pinched
,has the naughty thumb
of science prodded
often have religions taken
thee upon their scraggy knees
buffeting thee that thou mightest conceive
to the incomparable
couch of death thy
them only with
i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears are awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
I am a man …
Cummings' mother dies early in 1947. She is 87.
I am an artist …
The following year he has a show of watercolors and oils at the American British Art Gallery.
I am a failure.
In 1952 Cummings gives the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard. In 1954, Poems 1923-1954 is published to high critical praise. In 1958 he wins the Bollingen Prize in Poetry.
In 1962, on a hot September afternoon, Cummings is outside splitting wood. Afterwards he turns the grindstone and sharpens the axe, leaving it ready for the next use, just as his father had taught him. He goes inside and walks upstairs. Downstairs Marion soon hears a fall and rushes up the stairs. She finds him lying in the hallway, unconscious.
Edward Estlin Cummings is pronounced dead on September 3 at 1:15 a.m., the cause a brain hemorrhage.
Every artist's strictly illimitable country is himself. An artist who plays that country false has committed suicide; and even a good lawyer cannot kill the dead. But a human being who's true to himself - whoever himself may be - is immortal; and all the atomic bombs of all the antiartists in spacetime will never civilize immortality.
Nowadays, I see people who've been endowed with legs crawling on their chins after quote security unquote. "Security?" I marvel to myself, "what is that? Something negative, undead, suspicious and suspecting; an avarice and an avoidance; a self-surrendering meanness of withdrawal; a numerable complacency and an innumerable cowardice. Who would be 'secure'? Every and any slave. No free spirit ever dreamed of security - or, if he did, he laughed; and lived to shame his dream. No whole sinless sinful sleeping waking breathing human creature ever was (or could be) bought by, and sold for, 'security.' How monstrous and how feeble seems some unworld which would rather have its too than eat its cake!"
Miracles are to come. With you I leave a remembrance of miracles: they are by somebody who can love and who shall be continually reborn, a human being; somebody who said to those near him, when his fingers would not hold a brush, "tie it into my hand."
if everything happens that can't be done
(and anything's righter
the stupidest teacher will almost guess
(with a run
around we go yes)
there's nothing as something as one
one hasn't a why or because or although
(and buds know better
one's anything old being everything new
(with a what
around we come who)
one's everyanything so
so world is a leaf so tree is a bough
(and birds sing sweeter
so here is away and so your is a my
(with a down
around again fly)
forever was never till now
now I love you and you love me
(and books are shutter
and deep in the high that does nothing but fall
(with a shout
around we go all)
there's somebody calling who's we
we're anything brighter than even the sun
(we're everything greater
we're everyanything more than believe
(with a spin
alive we're alive)
we're wonderful one times one
Equality is what does not exist among equals.
i shall imagine life
is not worth dying, if