|Selected Letters of E. E. Cummings
Ed. F. W. Dupee and George Stade
New York: Harcourt Brace & World, 1969.
Cummings' letters are written in his usual amusing, typographically inventive, idiosyncratic, and allusive yet straightforward style. Early letters show Cummings' rebellion agaist his father, his interest in Freud and Krazy Kat, and his efforts to emancipate himself from conventional thinking. For example, he advises his sister on May 3, 1922: "NEVER TAKE ANYONE'S WORD FOR ANYTHING" (84). Cummings' verbal and typewriterly pyrotechniques often act to shield his private emotions. The most unguarded of the letters are written to his friends J. Sibley and Hildegarde Watson; the showiest and most obscure are to his poetic mentor Ezra Pound. Unfortunately, this book is no longer in print, but it is available in many libraries. You may also be able to purchase a copy at used book seach sites like abebooks.com. We reprint below a sample from one letter, along with some notes.
[At right: frontispiece photo, "EEC 1952 (Marion Morehouse Cummings)"]
To his aunt Jane, March 11, 1935 (on the difficulties of setting up No Thanks):
am fighting—forwarded and backed by a corps of loyal assistants—to retranslate 71 poems out of typewriter language into linotype-ese. This is not so easy as one might think;consider,if you dare,that whenever a typewriter "key" is "struck" the "carriage" moves a given amount and the "line" advances recklessly or individualistically. Then consider that the linotype(being a gadget)inflicts a preestablished whole—the type "line"—on every smallest part;so that the words,letters,punctuation marks &(most important of all)spaces-between-these various elements,awake to find themselves rearranged automatically "for the benefit of the community" as politicians say. Oddly,this malforming or standardizing process is technically called "justify"ing:thanks to it,the righthand margin of any printed page which has been "set" on a linotype has a neat artificial evenness—which the socalled world-at-socalled-large considers indispensable forsooth. Ah well;you should see the army of the Organic marching against Mechanism with 10,000th-of-an-inch(or whatever)"hair-spaces";you should watch me arguing for two and a half hours(or some such)over the distance between the last letter of a certain word and the comma apparently following that letter but actually preceeding the entire next word;you should hear my printer's blasts against his "operator"(as is called the Slave of the Linotype)when said unfortunate playfully smashes the machine while "he's thinking of giving Rockyfeller a bomb or something"(like all "operators",or all that I've met,this bird is a communist). But something tells me we'll succeed — ! (Letters 140-141)
Notes for Selected Letters
page / letter number
23 / 20: under fire (?) by "Sapper"
= probably Le Feu (1916) by Henri
Barbusse. EEC may have been reading the French edition, since the American
edition of Under Fire did not appear until August
71 / 55: my own favorite among the "poems" . . . ["little
tree"]: Dupee and Stade's inserted note is in error: the favorite poem
in this group is not "little tree" (CP 29), but rather "into
the strenuous briefness" (CP 108), which is the first of five poems
published in The Dial in May 1920 [68 (May 1920): 577]. (The
poem "little tree" was the first of seven poems published in The
Dial in January 1920.)
sans blague and Howells = "no joke and [no William Dean] Howells." In his 1916 term paper "The Poetry of a New Era," written in his final semester at Harvard, Cummings quotes from a September 1915 column that William Dean Howells wrote on the New Poetry: "The best things in the new poets are of the oldest form, and where some of the second-best brave it in the fashions which are supposed new, after all it is only a reversion to the novelties of an earlier day” (634). Despite what Howells may say, Cummings asserts that he has done something "FIRST."
"roses & hello" . . . "and,ashes" --these are quotes from "into the strenuous briefness" (CP 108).
92 / 69: o Munson Munson woe is me I
lived too soon 2 sup with thee = a parody of Ezra Pound's epigram
"Translator to Translated," first published in Canzoni (1911):
Gorham B. Munson was the founder and editor of the little magazine Secession (1922-1924). Cummings published
poems in issues 2 (July 1922) and 5 (July 1923). Munson wrote a review
(titled "Syrinx") of Tulips and Chimneys
in issue #5.
92 / 70: the indubitable Delanuxe Duet
= Robert and
Delaunay, Parisian avant-garde painters.
93 / 70: the Boy(or Garçon)stood
on the "burning" Deck = a reference to the poem "Casabianca"
(1826) by Felicia Dorothea Hemans:
The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle's wreck
Shone round him o'er the dead.
Lars Posthumus of Cloaca parodies
Thomas Babington Macaulay's "Horatius":
Lars Porsena of Closium
By the Nine Gods he swore
That the great house of Tarquin
Should suffer wrong no more.
100 / 74: Incidentally,none of us were
in Paris on the 14th July: EEC refers to a highly inaccurate July
20, 1923 New York Times article,
"The Battle of Montparnasse." The article claims that on Bastille Day,
July 14, Cummings, John Dos Passos, Gilbert Seldes, and Malcolm Cowley attempted
to "liberate" the Rotonde café by telling "the proprietor what they
thought of him." In Exile's Return,
Cowley characterizes this incident as a dadaist provocation (instigated
by Louis Aragon and Laurence Vail). According to Cowley, he, Vail, and
Aragon decided to insult and assault the proprietor of the Rotonde because
"he had betrayed several anarchists to the French police" and also "had
insulted American girls, treating them with the cold brutality that French
café proprietors reserve for prostitutes" (164). Cowley's account also
places the assault on July 14th; however, he makes no mention of Cummings,
Dos Passos, or Seldes. In addition, Cowley asserts that he was the only one
who was arrested.
101 / 74: M. Josephson = Matthew Josephson (1899-1978), one of the editors of the little magazines Broom and Secession, and later the author of Life among the Surrealists, a Memoir (1962). Balai = ballet.
104 / 78: The dating of this letter indicates that EEC moved into his 3rd floor studio at 4 Patchin Place sometime before February 2, 1924.
108 / 81: BLACK MARIA = A police paddy wagon. [pronounced muh-rahy-uh. As Kevin Young says, "rhymes with pariah."]
116 / 87: The NR = The New Republic. Townsend Ludington says
in his biography of Dos Passos that the article was titled "New Theatre in
Russia" (288). (Hence the reference to journeying to "the amen soviet yeastcake."
Despite his demurral, Cummings would visit Russia in May and June of 1931—chronicling
the trip in his book EIMI.)
paxvobiscumbed = "left in peace," based on pax vobiscum = "peace be with you" [Latin, from the Roman Catholic mass]. Later on in the sentence, viz should probably read via. M. R. Werner (1897-1981) was a biographer and good friend of Cummings. (See Kennedy, Dreams 269-270, 306-307, 324-325.)
eheuing = "lamenting the passing of time"—a reference to Horace, Odes, II.14:
"Ah, Postumus, Postumus, how fleeting / the swift years--prayer cannot
delay / the furrows of imminent old-age / nor hold off unconquerable death."
(Cummings refers to this passage in Horace quite often: See Complete Poems
234, 492, 986 and EIMI 20/21 and 220/213.) .
Whan that Ap Reely = "Whan that Aprille," first phrase of the Prologue to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Cummings may also be referring to Dos Passos' early poem " 'Whan That Aprille'," published in Eight Harvard Poets (1917). In the poem Dos Passos speaks of how "the song of the meadow lark" and "the merry piping / Of a distant hurdy-gurdy" makes him "faint with desire / For strange lands and new scents" (39).
Mudumunmushoo = Madam and Monsieur = Dos Passos and his wife Katy, who were in Key West visiting Hemingway, after a trip to Europe and return via Havana.
Sir Silbert Geldes = Gilbert Seldes (1893-1970), former editor of The Dial, author of The Seven Lively Arts (1924), and friend of Cummings.
117 / 88: True Row = Truro, Massachusetts.
In 1929 Dos Passos and his wife Katy bought a "small house" in South Truro.
"Hidden from the main road that ran along the Cape, it was quite isolated,
'in a lonely and rather somber little hollow where the occasional booming
of bitterns was the only sound to be heard,' was how Edmund Wilson described
the place to Scott Fitzgerald the next year. Here they sometimes lived
during succeeding summers, but mostly they farmed the land around it and
resided at [Katy's place in Provincetown on] Commercial Street" (Ludington
135 / 102: Douglas . . . "South Wind"
= George Norman Douglas (1868-1952), author of the novel South Wind (1917), a lightly-fictionalized
account of goings-on among the expatriate community on the Italian island
of Capri. Pound was talking of C. H. Douglas (1879-1952),
a British engineer who promoted a theory of economics called "Social Credit" that
advocated fair payment to workers based on the cost of the goods they
136 / 102: does Hooey long? =
Huey Long (1893-1935), populist Governor
of Louisiana (1928-1932) and United Stares Senator from 1932 until his
assassination in 1935.
sommeil aux porcs. À bas Stalin. Mort aux vaches / vive / the "basilique / d'esprit" = sleep to the pigs. Down with Stalin. Death to cows / Long live / the “basilica / of wit” [French].
138 / 104: Doomer Fees = "Doom et fils" or "Doom and son."
The poems and prose passages mentioned by Cummings from Pound's Active Anthology are as follows:
179-181 = A passage from the "June 8" chapter of EIMI beginning "O have you seen a prophylactic station?" (EIMI 366-368 / 351-353). (While Cummings is waiting for his ship to leave Odessa, an enthusiastic American woman gushes about the Soviet Union's efforts to reform prostitutes.) On pages 173-178, the Active Anthology also reprints a passage from the "June 4" chapter EIMI beginning "soon rain" (EIMI 314-317 / 304-307). (The passage narrates Cummings' visit to his Russian teacher's mother.) The Active Anthology also reprints Cummings' translation of Louis Aragon's "The Red Front" (157-169). Cummings translated this poem as a favor to Louis Aragon for helping him with a visa and introductions for his trip to the Soviet Union, chronicled in EIMI (1933). Charles Norman quotes Cummings as saying that the translation was undertaken "as a friendly gesture of farewell" (256). In two letters reprinted in Pound/Cummings, Pound gives his reasons for wanting to publish the translation (P/C 22-24). (See also Barry Ahearn's note on page 23.)
45 = William Carlos Williams, "The Red Wheelbarrow." In a 1951 letter to his daughter Nancy, Cummings writes that "the only poem of Doctor WCWilliams . . . which ever truly pleased me as a poem should(from finish to start and vv)is one affectionately concerning a red wh-b" (Letters 214).
185-6 = Ernest Hemingway, "They All Made Peace--What Is Peace?"
The poem is a satrical look at the negotiators at the the Peace Conference
of Lausanne, 1922-1923, convened to rewrite the Treaty of Sèvres,
which partitioned the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Of all the characters
at the conference, perhaps Mussolini (who Hemingway says, had "his picture
taken reading a book upside down") comes in for the most ridicule.
189-209 = Marianne Moore, "Camellia Sabina" (Poems 201-203),
"The Jerboa" (Poems 190-194), "The Plumet Basilisk" (Poems
196-200), "No Swan So Fine" (Poems 189), and "The Steeplejack" (Poems
138 / 104: the lucid movements of the royal yacht upon the learned scenery
of Egypt --from Marianne Moore's poem "Novices" (Poems 152), first
published in The Dial 74 (Feb. 1924) and reprinted in Observations.
(See Becoming Marianne Moore 113-114, 278-279.)
the shadows of the Alps / imprisoning in their folds like flies in amber the rhythms of the skating-rink --from Marianne Moore's poem "Snakes, Mongooses, Snake-Charmers, and the Like" (Poems 148), first published in Broom 1.3 (Jan 1922) and reprinted in Observations. (See Becoming Marianne Moore 111, 274.)
Notty = Stanley Nott, British publisher.
Jacobs = Samuel Aiwaz Jacobs (1890–1971), Cummings' personal typesetter. For more on Jacobs and Cummings, see the headnote to ViVa, Walker Rumble's short piece "Reclaiming S. A. Jacobs: Polytype, Golden Eagle, and Typographic Modernism" as well as Rumble's recent article from Spring "The Persian Typesetter: S. A. Jacobs, E. E. Cummings, and the Golden Eagle Press." See also Michael Webster's "An Old Door, Cummings' Personal Printer, and W [ViVa]" at the EEC Society Blog.
155 / 119: This letter should be dated sometime in late October, 1946.
Seldes' adaptation of Lysistrata
received only four performances, October 17-19, 1946 (IBDB).
194 / 168: a religion of the entocosm = "a religion of the inner cosmos or universe."
ento- = a combining form meaning "within," used in the formation of compound words: entoderm. [Origin: Gk entós]
mesocosm = middle universe.
meso- = a combining form meaning "middle," used in the formation of compound words: mesocephalic. [Origin: Gk mésos middle, in the middle.]
ectocosm = outer universe.
ecto- = a combining form meaning "outer," "outside," "external," used in the formation of compound words: ectoderm. [Origin: Gk ektós outside.]
218 / 200: relived perhaps should read "relieved"?
229 / 214: EEC refers to books in the Bollingen series by their numbers:
7 = Friedmann, Herbert. The Symbolic Goldfinch, Its History and Significance in European Devotional Art. 157 illustrations. Bollingen series 7. Washington: Pantheon Books, 1946.
12 = Cairns, Huntington, ed. The Limits of Art: Poetry and Prose Chosen by Ancient and Modern Critics. Bollingen Series 12. Washington: Pantheon Books, 1948.
243 / 225: The quote from Henry David Thoreau occurs towards
the end of the first chapter of Walden
"I never dreamed of any enormity greater than I have committed.
I never knew, and never shall know, a worse man than
myself." One half of an earlier 1939 letter responding to Pound's rants consists
of a longer quote from this passage from Walden (Pound/Cummings 142).
1 Sam XVII = The first book of Samuel relates the story of David and Goliath: "And he took his staff in his hand, and chose him five smooth stones out of the brook, and put them in a shepherd's bag which he had, even in a scrip; and his sling was in his hand: and he drew near to the Philistine" (1 Samuel 17:40). (This letter is also reprinted in Pound/Cummings 364-365.)
- A letter from EEC to Ezra Pound, page 1 (1935; Beinecke Library, Yale University)
- A letter from EEC to Ezra Pound, page 2
- A letter from EEC to Ezra Pound, page 3
- Piepenbring, Dan. "Ultrarumpus: A Letter from e.e. cummings to Ezra Pound." [8 Oct. 1941] From the Archive: Paris Review blog. (14 Oct. 2014). Web.
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