Liner Notes to E. E. Cummings Reading His Poetry (1953, Caedmon TC 1017)

    In his latest book [i: six nonlectures], comprising the text of his l952-1953 Charles Eliot Norton "nonlectures" at Harvard University, Cummings describes his first (1927) play, HIM, as "a drama whose loving nonhero and lovely heroine are called Him and Me; whose possibly principal protagonist impersonates (on various occasions) nine other people; whose so-to-speak-chorus consists of a trio of Weird Sisters; and whose twenty-one scenes revolve the distinction between time and eternity, measurable when and illimitable now."

    Then, commenting on the passage from HIM here recorded, he continues, "Speaking for myself — this fragment of dialogue renders vivid a whole bevy of abstractions; among which I recognize immediately three mysteries: love, art, and selftranscendence or growing. Since our nonhero calls himself an artist, let us take him at his word; and give art the emphasis. Our artist (whose agonizing privilege is to feel himself, except at timeless moments, a would-be artist) here visualizes this anguished himself as a circus acrobat: performing an impossible feat above a vast multitude of un-understandingly enthralled spectators. Aside from their failure to understand him, nothing (doubtless) could be a greater violation of fact — yet precisely by this violation he tells us something far beyond either fact or fiction; a strictly unmitigated personal truth: namely, how he feels. And how does he feel? As someone absolutely and totally alone from the beginning of the world: a solitary individual who ‘sits on three chairs in heaven’; separated from everybody else by an at-any-moment-fatal chasm which symbolizes his individuality, and without which he would cease to exist at all. No mere temporally measurable nonmystery can have any slightest meaning for this illimitable aloneness — yet (and here is perhaps the essence of the mystery) this incarnation of isolation is also a lover; so deeply identified with one particular member of the multitude beneath him that, if selftranscendence actually occurs, and someone who has died in time is reborn in timelessness, he will feel his beloved’s heart leap with joy. On the one hand a complete fanatic, dedicated to values beyond life and death, he is on the other hand a profoundly alive and supremely human being.

    "Please note, and note well, the ‘trivial colourless microscopic idiom’ which (in his birth-agony) our nonhero ‘mutters and remutters’ — ‘an artist, a man, a failure, MUST PROCEED.’ Proceed: not succeed. With success, as any world or unworld comprehends it, he has essentially nothing to do. If it should come, well and good: but what makes him climb to the top of the tent emphatically isn’t ‘a billion empty faces.’ Even success in his own terms cannot concern him otherwise than as a stimulus to further, and a challenge to more unimaginable, selfdiscovering — ‘The chairs will all fall by themselves down from the wire’; and who catches or who doesn’t catch them is none of his immortal business. One thing however, does always concern this individual: fidelity to himself. No simple (if abstruse) system of measurable soi-disant facts, which anybody can think and believe and know — or, when another system becomes popular; and the erstwhile facts become fictions — can unthink and unbelieve and unknow has power over a complex truth which he, and he alone, can feel." [i: six nonlectures 81]

    Later, Cummings says of the passage here recorded from his Soviet Russian diary (1933), "Since most of my auditors have neither visited Karl Marx’s paradise nor encountered a vastly unpopular book entitled EIMI (which, by the by, is written in a style of its own) I shall take the liberty of describing just what happens during the next fifteen minutes. On Saturday, May thirtieth, nineteen hundred and thirty-one, in the desolate city of Moscow, I glimpse an apparently endless line of unimaginably uncouth figures (each a tovarich or comrade; a soi-disant citizen of the subhuman superstate USSR) moving imperceptibly toward, and disappearing into, the tomb of their human god Lenin; whose embalmed body supposedly lies some where within and below. I approach an officer of the nonlaw, looming near the tomb’s entrance; and (mustering all my mendacity) tell him I'm an American newspaperman: whereupon he salutingly shoves me in the very front of the line. As the line unmovingly moves, I enter the tomb; I descend; I view the human god Lenin; I ascend and then (breathing fresh air once more) I marvel: not so much at what I have, as at what I have not, seen.’

    EIMI earned its author the hatred of America's selfstyled intellectuals and a denunciation by Moscow.

    SANTA CLAUS, Cummings’ second play (1946), is an allegory in five scenes. Its characters are Death, Santa Claus, Mob, Child, and Woman; its medium, blank verse.

    As Scene One opens, that symbol of understanding-love, the human family (Santa Claus Woman Child), has disintegrated; each member having lost the others — thanks to an inhuman lust-for-knowledge (Science). In this disintegration, Death, for whom love is lust, sees his chance to possess Woman.

    Death’s first attempt is an indirect one: based on the proposition that two negatives make an affirmative. When Santa Claus (in despair at having lost Woman and Child) enters, Death —emanating sympathy — explains that "this is a world of salesmanship" in which "everybody wants knowledge" at any price and that Santa Claus should forget his understanding ("which simply can't be sold") and become a salesman of mere knowledge, a Scientist. Taking Santa Claus’ mask, Death gives him his own in exchange and himself puts on the mask of Santa Claus. Death then suggests that, since people (who don’t in themselves any more exist) want (above all) things which don’t exist, Santa Claus should sell the Mob "wheelmines."

    Next (Scene Two) we see our Scientist Santa Claus masked as Death — in the act of selling nonexistent wheelmines to the nonexistent Mob; whose rampant skepticism is transformed, at the magic name of Science, to wild enthusiasm. But havoc (as Death foresaw) results from the conjunction of the two nonexistences; and this havoc is the subject of the passage here recorded.

    50 Poems (1940), One Times One (1944), and XAIPE (1950) are Cummings' most recent books of poems. None of them is contained in his miscalled Collected Poems (1938).

Back to:
E. E. Cummings Reads page

Him page

Eimi page

Santa Claus page

i: six nonlectures page

People, Places, and Publications page

the Spring home page