[Spring 3 (1994): 80-86]


Although until now I've written nothing with specific reference to this golden poet, I've annually, throughout my thirty-three years as a professor of literature at Dowling College, taught Cummings poems--lyric and satiric--including "POEM,OR BEAUTY HURTS MR.VINAL," a devastating assault on the Vinalhaven, Maine aesthete. I corresponded with him first in 1945 when, as editor of the then-distinguished quarterly Voices, he published my long poem "The Mayflower." Four years later, as Secretary of the Poetry Society of America, he wrote on behalf of several Society leaders, inviting me into its ranks, where I remained for the next decade and served as chairman of various awards committees until the mean politics of the organization became unbearable. Indeed, on more than one occasion the mannerisms and thinking I had the unhappiness to witness at meetings reminded me of the pseudo-poetic qualities exposed in that poem.

Even now I smile at one incident that comes to mind. It was the Society's practice to set aside a portion of each month's meeting for the recitation and discussion of several new poems by members One month I found the whole group beyond endurance for its aridity and egocentrism, but was not yet entrenched enough to dare say so. But Samuel DeWitt of Yonkers, a down-to-earther respected by the bluebloods surrounding him only for the wealth with which he endowed the Lola Ridge and other awards, got up to his full six-and-a-half feet, waved the pages of sterile verses we had just heard, and declared: "There are three kinds of poetry: epic, lyric, and pupik. These are perfect examples of pupik poetry!" The silence that greeted him was one of tolerance--they knew the word was Yiddish but could not guess that it meant "belly-button." I, however, broke the silence with a bellow of laughter as rough as his comment, and rushed from my seat to shake his hand. Had E. E. Cummings been foolish enough to attend such meetings, I'm sure he would have been grateful to DeWitt for declaring in concise prose what "BEAUTY HURTS MR.VINAL" does in slashing poetry. [end page 80]


One other Cummings piece comes especially to mind. For my Freshman English students--no friends to literature (with few exceptions), and open enemies to poetry as a result of traumas with high school teachers resentful of having to include a two-week unit on poetry they themselves did not comprehend--the breakthrough always came with "in Just--"(Tulips & Chimneys [1922]: Chansons Innocentes I)--that extraordinary celebration of puberty. Every student, having himself or herself just experienced the rites of passage "from marbles and piracies...hop-scotch and jump rope," became "eddieandbill," "bettyandisbel" jumping and dancing into the spring of adolescence at the whistling summons of Pan, no less than did the fourteenyear-olds in Wedekind's Frühlingserwachen (Spring's Awakening). Not only did they learn all at once that poetry can be about and for them, but also that words can be set out on a page in marvelous new ways that are musically and visually as appropriate as they are original.


The esteem in which I hold E. E. Cummings was demonstrated in my l972 Macmillan anthology, On Freedom's Side: American Poems of Protest, published exactly when Nixon was escalating the war in Vietnam and attempting to characterize his youthful critics as "bums" and "traitors." The section on War, beginning with verses by Peter Folger (Benjamin Franklin's grandfather) on the King Philip's War against the Narragansetts, and ending with such denunciations of the Indo-Chinese debacle as Denise Levertov's "What Were They Like?", includes four poems by E. E. Cummings--more than by any other writer: "'the season 'tis, my lovely lambs," "next to of course god america i," "look at this)," and "lis/-ten"--all from section "Two" of is 5 [1926], and given by me the collective title "Let Us Now Passionately Remember." The astonishing freshness and relevance of these fierce poems was widely noted by readers. I prefaced the next section, on Justice, with Cummings' even more searing lines: "come:let us mildly contemplate..."("the season 'tis").


But two references in my correspondece, now archived at the University of Michigan Library, might be of interest to researchers, [end page 81] particularly those specializing in our poet.

Early in February of 1954, in the depths of the McCarthy era (later named Scoundrel Time by one of its most distinguished victims, Lillian Hellman), the world was startled by banner headlines announcing the double murder of the once flamboyant Greenwich Village poet and novelist Maxwell Bodenheim, along with his young fourth wife Ruth Fagan. Bodenheim's early fame rested less on his brilliant imagist verse than on such randy novels as Replenishng Jessica and Naked On Roller Skates, along with an assortment of notorious episodes that resulted in his expulsion from the Poetry Society as well as the loss of his family. A second, deeply Catholic wife had unsuccessfully crusaded to reclaim him in her aptly named Grace Court apartment in downtown Brooklyn. More recently, news and photos of the unkempt, ragged poet asleep on a subway train had appeared in the papers. I myself had found him half-frozen in the shade of a Washington Square building on whose wall he had placed various inscribed manuscripts, one of which, the lovely "To a Rose," I bought for a dollar.

At his trial the murderer claimed he deserved a prize for "killing a couple of reds." I'm certain part of the public agreed, having some months earlier celebrated the electrocution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg like a mob at a lynching. I vividly recall, about that time, waiting for the Astoria train at Queens Plaza. A man was dragged out of another train, hurled onto the platform, and beaten by a frenzied bully because of his Stalinesque moustache, while the onlookers, including me, watched in silence.

Since my employer did not allow me to take time off from the miserable job I needed, my eulogy had to be read at the funeral by my dearly loved friend Alfred Kreymborg, a once famous anthologist, editor, memoirist, and poet, utterly blacklisted since the advent of the Cold War. Kreymborg, along with Bodenheim, Langston Hughes, and I, had been among the Seven Poets in Search of an Answer, a very popular 1944 symposium volume also featuring Joy Davidman, now being idealized by Debra Winger in the film Shadowlands. I had also written a joint review of Bodenheim's and Kreymborg's selected poems in 1947.

On February 10th our mutual friend, the Irish-American bellettrist Shaemas O'Sheel (who had provided a superb introduction for Seven Poets), wrote: [end page 82]

Dear Aaron:

It lifted the heart to hear your tribute to Max Bodenheim as Alfred Kreymborg read it today at the funeral services. If you could have been there, of course you would have; I hope it doesn't mean that you are ill.

Persons whose presence I noted in addition to Alfred were Louis Untermeyer, Anna Strunsky Walling, De Hirsh Margolies, Helene Mullins, Peadar Nunan, and Harold Preece. I was told that Bob Clairmont was also present. Mullins, Nunan, O'Sheel--not a bad proportionate representation of the Irish...

Max will be known in a better future as a bigger poet than he is generally seen to be, now.

Ah, me lad, Max and Alfred and I count on you to carry the fire forward now that he is gone and we are going!

I expected to see Estlin Cummings; I hope he is in Bermuda or somewhere like that. I'd hate to think he is here and ducked joining...

For me this document is especially poignant, since O'Sheel was my choice to supply the foreword for my soon-to-appear anti-McCarthy collection, Roll the Forbidden Drums! which the liberal William-Frederick Press had already set up in print but at the last moment decided was too great a risk. It was instead grabbed up by Cameron and Kahn, a new publishing house established when Angus Cameron lost his post at Little, Brown for protesting its rejection of Howard Fast's Spartacus. O'Sheel, however, died on April 2nd, a few hours before my letter of invitation arrived, and the introduction was undertaken by Alfred Kreymborg, who walked across Manhattan--from Charles Street to Tompkins Square--at the age of 70, to hand-deliver his essay.

Defiant as we remained against the repressiveness at home, O'Sheel and Kreymborg, like me, were increasingly disgusted with the narrowness of the cultural Left in the United States, and with the blatant double standard [end page 83] that demanded civil rights here while denying or even defending the deprival of civil rights in the "socialist" world. By 1954 I had withdrawn from all political allegiances and was on the verge of responding with bitter verses to that farewell letter in which O'Sheel had exhorted me "to carry the fire forward." Years later Xanadu published my "Disappointed Ghosts," which ends with the line: "Lift high what flame? Ash is in my hand."

The names mentioned in O'Sheel's letter hark back to the generation before mine, and I would do them an injustice to offer my fuzzy biographical recollections. What interests me is the care with which he surveyed the scene for faces courageous enough to be seen under such circumstances, in the presence of news cameras and reporters. It reflects perfectly the atmosphere of a time when people of discretion avoided questionable gatherings. That he "expected to see Estlin Cummings" was more of a tribute than O'Sheel could at that moment have realized. The name that does surprise me is Louis Untermeyer. Kreymborg's classic Anthology of American Poetry, long a nationwide college text, had been removed from syllabi and been allowed to go out of print. It took some guts for Untermeyer to risk his own standing as a big-money anthologist by showing his face, and indeed he had paid a price for his indiscretions by losing his position as a charming radio host. I still wonder whether political prudence was involved in his omission of Maxwell Bodenheim from later editions of Modern American Poetry after having included six of Max's Poems in 1942. (Though far less significant and interesting, he continued to include a large number of his own pieces.)

A final irony regarding this incident came in the form of an official invitation from Gustav Davidson, who had replaced Vinal as Secretary of the Poetry Society of America. I was asked to speak about, and read from, the work of Maxwell Bodenheim at the Society's next meeting. The time allotted me was six minutes. Among the poems I chose was "Pierrot Objects," a perfect companion-piece to "BEAUTY HURTS MR.VINAL," and I read it with special zest before the audience for whom its thrust was intended.


The second reference comes in the postscript of a February 21, 1957 letter from Walter Lowenfels. The previous August he had been shown by Martha Millet (another of the Seven Poets) my New York Times sonnet, "Threnody," a bitter political recantation which ended: [end page 84]

...the dream by which I lived is dead.

And I, that bellowed so, must learn to be

silent--except for this one threnody.

His first response, dated August 31, 1956, had snapped: Dear Aaron--Now that your career as a poet is finished (I refer to your NY Times sonnet which Martha showed me), you have no more worries about what any of us think of your work. Anyway, what counts, I believe, is persistence--it doesn't take vision any more to see ahead--just patience... So much for vision in the Lowenfels world that year! But apparently there was more to be said on the matter of my publicly acknowledged embarrassment and contrition. So, my private comments to him (in a letter) about the Stalinist cultural cluster--of which he was then and till death a prominent leader--provoked him the next February into a rebuke entirely new in tone from his earlier adulation: Dear Aaron--I know you know that the more creative you are the less time there is for venom--so--get yourself a Selected Poems! In the postscript he adds: Incidentally, I gave up poems about the time you started--in fact, when I was given half the Aldington Poetry Award with Cummings, circa 1932. I wrote a piece called No More Poems. Most of it is probably still valid for most of the USA today--only, as Wittgenstein says of his propositions, you have to climb the ladder of No More Poems, and then throw the ladder away to get anywhere. The reference to "a Selected Poems" may have come in response to an anecdote from me about my relationship with the novelist Howard Fast in 1953. On February 11th of that year Fast had written: [end page 85] Dear Aaron:

I have been re-reading some of your poems...and I find myself additionally enormously impressed by them...I have this small operation which we call Blue Heron Press, for putting out m own books. I would be happy to get out a volume of you poetry, that is, all of your poetry collected in one volume...

Following an ugly dinner-conference at the Fasts's home a week or two later the idea of publishing me became "unfeasible," simply because I refused to omit my personal poems and include only those of a political nature. His abusiveness had grown so egregious that his wife protested "Oh Howard!" and was told: "Go up to the children! They're crying." (They weren't.) Two years later it was Lowenfels the Blue Heron Press published--not because (as the jacket claimed) it was "the work of a major poet of our time...one who is considered by many the boldest, clearest and most significant voice in American poetry today," but because he was in jail under the infamous Smith Act.

For Lowenfels, between the writing of that postscript and his death in the mid-'70s, the odd fact is that he produced, in my opinion, very little poetry of consequence but an extraordinary number of anthologies and other books--so that without the ladder of new poems he certainly managed "to get" somewhere. We read together, along with Art Berger, Allan Katzman and Joel Oppenheimer in mid-60's, at what was called "A Seder of Poets," In Rochdale Village, Jamaica, N.Y. He was identified in the publicity as having shared the Aldington Prize with Cummings. Several poems, in which he told of nursing his sick wife, were truly touching, but my personal resentment kept me from acknowledging their power at the time. I privately accused him of self-dramatization; but that was fifteen years before my own wife was stricken.

--Oakdale, NY

Ed. Note: SPRING has made some mention of Harold Vinal in a previous issue and plans to fill in a few more details in a future issue.

[end page 86]

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