[Spring 3 (1994): 7-15]
I am pleased indeed to be here this afternoon, thanks to Norman Friedman and the others who have put all this together. Cummings is a very particular person and poet for me. When I was an undergraduate in college, the magazine with which I was happily associated, the Harvard Wake, got together materials in 1946 to honor Cummings with the help of a friend of his, the poet Jose Garcia-Villa. It was he who got in touch with all of Cummings' friends and neighbors in the art, Williams, Stevens, others like Lloyd Frankenberg, Paul Rosenfeld, all of whom came through gloriously. I remember Cummings' characteristic remark when we first asked for his cooperation (he sent us, as I recall, Santa Claus [A Morality]). He said he thought a "wake" a bit premature. But we nonetheless persisted and so got out the issue in his honor.
As it happens, the magazine itself continued, primarily under Seymour Lawrence's editorship, although for a time he shared the job with the novelist John Hawkes while both were still undergraduates. Then Lawrence took it out of the college and kept it going for awhile with interesting additional contacts such as Dame Edith Sitwell. In some ways it served him as a stepping stone to the first primarily literary editing he did at the Atlantic Monthly Press. Sitwell's anthology for that publisher is a simple instance of my point.
But this afternoon one wants to hear of the particular effects Cummings had on any one of us then, either as writers or readers coming into that world. It's curiously hard to manage because Cummings is really the fact of a climate, I want to say, a determining possibility which is particular in so many ways--for example, his imagination of the agency of typography echoes through all the art, both in practice and in reference--a signature all could recognize.
It was Louis Zukofsky who pointed out to me years later that what I [end p. 7] took for granted, i.e., the fact that I didn't have to worry at all in writing as to whether or not the first letter of the first word of each line of a poem had to be capitalized-mean, Louis emphasized what an extraordinary battle it had been to have that convention dropped. And Cummings was probably the most heroic participant in that battle to overcome this peculiarly distracting convention, at least for such poetry as was then moving to find a renewed articulateness.
One of our pleasant company here was talking to another person just now, saying that he had been reading The Enormous Room and that in some ways it was disappointing to him as a novel, simply that it seemed only to be a report of Cummings' situation when he was imprisoned by the French during the First World War. It was only done for his family's use in their appeals to the French government to release him and get some reparation, etc., etc. The fact that persons of government A talking to persons of government B does result in Cummings being released would really seem the end of it, and the point. But I remember Robert Duncan quoting some professor in Berkeley who was fond of saying to his class something like, "You have heard a great deal of talk about the complexities of Moby Dick, but to me it's nothing but a whopping good sea story...".
As a young reader/writer it was just The Enormous Room which had the most impact on me and just because of the particular way in which it is written. I was fascinated by the intriguing rhetoric of that prose, really far more than I was by Joyce's, finally. It wasn't for me the point that it was or was not a "novel" in the usual sense of that term. In other words, I was caught by what it was doing, not by what it wasn't. Its humor, its invention, its exceptionally apt way of locating persons and their relationships, its registrations of time and the fact of a place so confined--were all to me delights.
Then there was another, more personal reason why I so liked it, which was not only that I'd also been an ambulance driver as was Cummings (had just returned, in fact, from time in Burma) but that a crucial friend of my life was a very literal person of this very book. I was a student at Harvard at this time, and one pleasant evening I had gone to what was then McBride's [end p. 8] Tavern right in the center of Harvard Square. Being shy, I had wedged myself as far up the bar as I could manage to get, almost at the very end in a brief space between the main stretch and the wall. Just beyond me, even more enclosed, was another person, an older man who was sort of half-standing/leaning, and drinking quietly by himself. Because we were both so placed together at the end of the bar's curve, we began to talk. I recall he asked me in the old fashioned way what it was I was studying, and I answered that I was an English major especially interested in poetry, and that my great respects were Hart Crane, Cummings, and other of the Moderns. Imagine my feelings when he then told me that he had known Cummings. All I could say was, "Oh!" "Yes," he said, "I was 'B' in The Enormous Room." "You were 'B'? " I said. Wow! So those of you familiar with Cummings and his life will know that I had just by great good luck discovered his old friend, the writer Slater Brown.
It turned out that Slater was then living close to Boston in a pretty anonymous part of West Newton, working as a gardener. He was a wonder to me, and remarkably kind. So we became close friends, and it was really he who gave me not only an immensely useful measure and report of the whole period of my heroes, but who equally could locate me in a sense of writing well away from either academic concerns or else the necessarily romantic vagaries of any young person wishing to change his or her life. He told me therefore of a Cummings at the time when both of them were fresh out of college, really not that much older than myself, and of how they imagined the world and then dealt with it, socially, politically, and intellectually. His stories of Cummings' wry wit and droll parodies were so transforming of all the stock-in-trade judgments and descriptions I'd otherwise known. If it was the "biographical fallacy," it was delicious. In short, he made both Cummings and the company of that place and time real people in common circumstance and possibility.
I wonder if that enterprise ever stops. Recently a very valuable colleague indeed, the poet (and my fellow teacher at Buffalo) Charles Bernstein, published a book called A Poetics, which includes a substantial piece called "Artifice of Absorption." Much that he says continues with [end p. 9] Cummings' preoccupations, that is, defines a resistance to generalization, to a use of language that only recognizes it as a handout, something you pass along without thought or need for thought (which, in some ways, it truly is). But it's not only that: yes, it's a story about mother, and we love her, and see you later, and that's the end of it. It's also the intense particularization not only of words but of the literal letters which compose them, and the syntax that gains them order, the grammar that comes of that accumulating habit-- all these are really the literal fact of something.
As I was sitting here today waiting to speak, I was looking out the window at those various trees there. I wasn't dreaming them. They were there. Simplest, obviously, to call them "trees" and have done with it. Like the joke that says there are two kinds of birds in New York, birds and pigeons. But if one were to want to note the particularity of each leaf, or feather? The dark brown lattices of those leaves, the interstices of the branches? In other words, there is another aspect of seeing, or saying, that wants not just to include but to make specific either what something is or what one feels it to be, or both at one and the same time. It was this interest on Cummings' part, and the power of the writing that came of it, which then most engaged me.
I think I felt disappointed, frankly, in the later years, by what seemed to happen to his work. The Santa Claus "morality play" I mentioned he'd sent us for our magazine is an instance. Somehow the edge wasn't there, the sentiment had begun to get sticky. His own presence was seemingly faint, as if he were now presently a general decor for things rather than their specifics. Was that finally a further irony on his part? I know we then didn't think so. It seemed far too close to platitude for our hero's usual temper.
Nonetheless we published it in gratitude and respect. But we did think his work had become more generalizing. When I asked Slater's advice as to whether or not l might try to meet Cummings, which I certainly wished to if only to thank him for all that he had done for us, Slater suggested I might not find that person of my imagination as I clearly expected to. Times change and people do also. Now Cummings was a Republican (!), much more conservative than I might care to know. [end p. 10]
Still, what delighted me as a young writer was that here was a poet who could not only say the obvious but could say it with such venom. Pound called it "Catullian ferocity." There was no mistaking its intention. For one instance, which I could quote forever, there is the immortal, "i sing of Olaf..." (W [ViVa], 1931: XXX). In the early forties it was immensely relieving to come upon "I will not kiss your fucking flag" and "there is some shit I will not eat," albeit neither of the then offending words appeared as I say them but rather abbreviated to avoid legal argument. Whatever, I thought it excellent advice. That it could be written by someone so clearly "well educated," like they say, and so determined by a middle class background, made it all the more emphatic. No one could excuse it as simple wise-guy lip. It was plain common sense.
The books of his poems I had were the Collected Poems (1938) and 1 X 1 from the early forties. Here's another poem which makes clear another use he had for me--the crunky, relaxed rhyming, and the use he makes of the quatrain:
Huge this collective pseudobeast
(sans either pain or joy)
does nothing except preexist
its hoi in its polloi
and if sometimes he's prodded forth
to exercise her vote
(or made by threats of something worth
than death to change their coat
--which something as you'll never guess
in fifty thousand years
equals the quote and unquote loss
of liberty my dears--
or even is compelled to fight
itself from tame to teem)
still doth our hero contemplate
in raptures of undream
that strictly (and how) scienti
fic land of supernod
where freedom is compulsory
and only man is god.
Without a heart the animal
is very very kind
so kind it wouldn't like a soul
and couldn't use a mind
1 X 1 (1944): #4
Glorious contempt! Pound continues elsewhere ["National Culture: A Manifesto," (1938)]: "Williams is international. Cummings on the other hand who has been driven abroad for his two major subjects (Enormous Room and the Russia of Eimi) is indelibly New England. And, though it be almost oxymoron to say so, 'Whitman's one living descendant'." That's a curious but very interesting proposal, that Cummings is quintessentially "local" ("New England"). He is the one generally American poet, in a sense, the one that doesn't have to think about it at all. Williams is, no doubt, the far more complex instance and the insistent multicultural example. But Cummings is "the American" altogether. As Pound says, "There is, I think, little doubt that [end p. 12] I should have more quickly attained a unity of expression had I been also New England without disorderly trek of four or five generations across the whole teeming continent" (134). Or just got off the boat.DIRGE
flotsam and jetsam
are gentleman poeds
useappeal netsam urseappeal
our spinsters and coeds)
they scout the inhuman
that man isn't woman wuman
vive the milenni
um three cheers for labor
give all things to enni
one buggar thy nabor bugger
(neck and senektie senecktie
are gentleman ppoyds gentlemen
even whose recta recktie
are covered by lloyds lloyd's
("Visiting" 294-95; 50 Poems : #6)
It is probably the last time in our history that one will find a poet of this situation and genius so given such stable place. After Cummings things simply become very different. So I couldn't learn how to live, let's say, from his example. I wasn't of his world despite I grew up only twenty miles away. But I was very moved by his unexpectedly shy and enduring courage, which might sound rash and confident but still spoke of ladies and hope and love in the grand metaphysical tradition with all the romantic trappings:
somewhere i have never travelled,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
That used to give me goose pimples, and still does. But it's not only because of what it's saying, or even particularly. Rather, it's the shifting and the cadence of, the words that attract me, the off-centered determinations of the syntax, the pace. Back of it is a frame that's quite familiar, even in its rhetoric. The last line seemed to me a tour de force of emphasis. So, of course, in my own way and with other significant influences--especially Charlie Parker's transforming music of the time--I tried to manage statement of like order, tactically, call it--not really to imitate just the explicit manner and pattern:
I spent a night turning in bed,
my love was a feather, a flat
sleeping thing. She was
and quiet, and above us on
the roof, there was another woman I
also loved, had
addressed myself to in
a fit she
encompasses it. But now I was
lonely, I yelled.
but what is that? Ugh,
she said, beside me, she put
her hand on
my back, for which act
I think to say this
So that was my own way of saying, I love you--which any one of us has finally to "speak" for him or herself. Otherwise all that I've been trying to say here and now is that this poetry cannot be pinned down, so to speak, to an apparent chain of command or line of descent that will, historically, argue its necessary significance. Cummings was one of those few poets-Stein and Frost are anomalously two others--whose art moved out of the enclosure of validated "literature" to the common world of readers and writers and speakers of every kind, many of whom would not probably have known even his name. Yet the stance of his poetry, the effects he was master of, the insouciant wit and clarity despite it often "looked" complicated were, in the old sense, both singular and universal. I suppose he is finally what the word "individual" is intended to mean, a "one of many." Let him, then, have appropriately the last word(s), which I'll try now to read, but which you will also see (as he intended) there on the sheets provided:
whO perfectly whO
newly alOne is
oNLY THE MooN o
SLoWLY SPRoUTING SPIR
(No Thanks : #1)
[end p. 15]
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