E. E. Cummings—Not for Mostpeople
E. E. Cummings has long been a passion of mine, and this personal essay gives a glimpse into my connections with this unconventional yet surprisingly traditional poet. First published here on 23 May 2019. And yes, it’s an urban myth that his name should be all lowercased.
The first time I remember hearing of E. E. Cummings and his poetry was when I was in high school, in grade ten. I don’t recall which specific poems I encountered in an English class that year (thank you Mr. Goodburn, who also introduced me to haiku), but here was a poet who scattered his words and letters and punctuation across the page in ways that completely upended poetry—or at least my perception of poetry at that time. I had written poems myself as a child, most of it rhymed and metered, and written badly, but here was a poet who took a much more creative and uninhibited approach to sharing his words. E. E. Cummings gave me permission to play.
In addition to reading most of the poet’s output in poetry, and selections of his prose and drama, I’ve also become a modest collector, now with a bookcase full of Cummings. Back in high school, college, and graduate school, I still believed that the poet lowercased his name, and I continued to collect and read whatever I could find in used bookstores—before the opening age of Amazon. For years I wondered if there might be a Cummings Society, and even in the early days of the Internet I never discovered that there was. I had been an active member of the Haiku Society of America and the Lewis Carroll Society for a number of years, and hoped that there was a Cummings Society too, but despite searching in academic and other library databases, I never found it (I remember visiting Claremont Graduate School and researching Cummings scholarship at length around 1990—and I specifically remember searching for the society, with no luck).
Then, around 1992, in an AOL poetry or writing chat room, I happened to talk with well-known poetry therapist John Fox, who later became president of the Institute for Poetic Medicine and authored books on poetry therapy (we later had lunch together at a restaurant in Palo Alto, California). In discussing our various poetic interests, such as haiku, I mentioned Cummings, and casually said that I was wondering if there was a Cummings Society. “Yes there is,” I remember John saying immediately. He knew Arthur Lerner through poetry therapy, and knew that Arthur was involved with the Cummings Society. After nearly a decade of searching, with one quick online contact, I finally knew that the society existed. And with information that I believe John got from Arthur, one email message later I had the address of Norman Friedman and finally confirmed that the E. E. Cummings Society really existed (the society now also has a blog). And from there I joined the society and subscribed to its journal Spring (where I learned that the poet himself preferred not to lowercase his own name), and later provided the journal’s copyediting, layout, and design. I soon became a contributing editor and continue to advise and contribute to the journal.
In addition, I also began writing a number of papers, most of which I delivered at Cummings Society panels at American Literature Association conferences—at the Bahia Resort in San Diego, the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco, a conference center in Long Beach, California, and at a hotel I forget in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was a supreme pleasure to get to know fellow Cummings scholars, aficionados, and fans, especially Norman Friedman (whose books about Cummings I already had, and who was particularly nurturing to me), Bernard F. Stehle Jr., Michael Webster (current society president and Spring editor), and many others. At ALA conferences, Cummings folks and haiku folks would often gather for dinner together if there was a haiku panel as well (I organized the first one in 2000), and I remember Lee Gurga and I hamming up “may i feel said he” in an impromptu and over-the-top fashion with Norman and Bernard and Yoshi Hakutani in attendance. We loved the poetry, not just analyzing it, but we all liked to analyze and appreciate it too. The following are those papers, the second of which I remembering drafting feverishly by flashlight in a tent in Yosemite National Park just days before delivering it for the centennial of Cummings’ birth, celebrated with a full day of panels at the 1994 ALA convention.
“Occasional Cummings” (1996)
“Trains to Moscow: A Comparison of Lewis Carroll’s Russian Journal and E. E. Cummings’ Eimi” (1998)
“‘l(a’: A Haiku by E. E. Cummings” (1998) (currently in a greatly expanded draft awaiting republication; I delivered a version of this expanded paper at the 2013 Haiku North America conference)
I’ve also written a number of poems inspired by Cummings, such as “Tusks” (about Cummings’ fondness for elephants) and “E. E. Cummings Updates His Facebook Page,” two of numerous poems I’ve had published in the journal Spring. When it came time for me to make a website for myself, I procrastinated for at least a couple of years, wishing that it might have some sort of creative name. Then I came across the Cummings poem, “let’s start a magazine,” with the following lines (intermediate lines omitted after the first line):
let’s start a magazine
something authentic and delirious
you know something genuine like a mark
in a toilet
graced with guts and gutted
And there I found my website’s name, Graceguts, a portmanteau of beauty and grit, a name that I also hope is memorable and distinctive. In accordance with the “guts” half of that equation, I made the website’s theme colour red for blood. Even if no one has noticed, let alone mentioned it to me, this colour (with white and black) is vital to the website’s appearance and branding.
For me, Cummings’ book 1x1 is perhaps the finest book of love poems I’ve ever read, and 95 Poems is my favourite of his collections, aside from the utilitarian Complete Poems. As a fan of Cummings and his poetry, I’m delighted to feature a few of his poems on this website—I could add so many more. Here are some of them:
Over the years I’ve given seminars on E. E. Cummings, such as at Seattle’s Hugo House literary center and as one of my many dozens of “Poets Wanted: Dead or Alive” library lectures, and have read his work at numerous poetry readings I’ve given. Cummings taught me that feeling matters more than intellect (“since feeling is first”) and above all that language can be bent to one’s needs, however one does it—not just in the ways that Cummings did. He was to language what cubist painters were to art (Cummings was a painter, too—he referred to himself as “an author of pictures, a draughtsman of words.”). Susan Cheever wrote in her biography of him that “Cummings’s work was in fact a wildly ambitious attempt at creating a new way of seeing the world through language.” I long ago learned that Cummings is an acquired taste, or that one is seemingly wired to like or connect with his work or one is not. Some people find him difficult to read, but I’ve found his work to be (mostly) intuitive, even if I seldom write like Cummings myself. The poems are prurient and sexual at times, political at others, yet commonly wistful and transcendent. Cummings’ themes of oneliness and individuality, his penchant for spring and hopefulness, and his appreciation for childlikeness (even if he was a poor father) all speak to me deeply. His range has been criticized, and equally defended, but he’s the sort of poet who doesn’t write for “mostpeople” and said so himself in introducing his Collected Poems in 1938—“The poems to come are for you and for me and are not for mostpeople.” Enjoying the poetry of E. E. Cummings feels like being in a select club, like being a fan of a cult rock band that you don’t have to see perform in an overpriced stadium with binoculars just because everyone else likes them too. While I haven’t been writing new papers on Cummings lately, I continue to work on an extensive, complicated, and exhaustive essay on his famous and most haiku-like poem, “l(a,” which I hope to publish in due course. Until then, I’ll continue to read Cummings’ poems and share my enthusiasm for his work.