'When Feeling is First.'
Conversation with Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno About E. E. Cummings's Prose
Masterpiece, The Enormous Room,*
I first met Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno in the summer of 1990 in Paris, where we conducted an interview about his book, The Continual Pilgrimage. Since then, he’s become a cherished friend and literary mentor, guiding my interest into areas I might not otherwise have explored. The lure has always been his unbridled passion and enthusiasm for literature and language: one that a reader finds delightfully infectious. A former creative-writing professor at MIT and a widely published poet, he’s also the author of E. E. Cummings: A Biography, The Continual Pilgrimage: American Writers in Paris, 1944-1960, and An Invisible Spectator, A Biography of Paul Bowles. His translations from the Spanish, French, and ancient Mayan have appeared in numerous publications, including the City Lights editions of The Destruction of the Jaguar: Poems from the Books of Chilam Balam and Concerning the Angels, a translation of the poems of Rafael Alberti.
The year 2022 marks the hundredth anniversary of Cummings’s avant-garde World War One memoir. Besides remaining enduringly modern, The Enormous Room continues to pose essential questions about free speech in a post-9/11 world.
Rob Couteau: Tell us about how you first discovered E. E. Cummings via the grasshopper.
Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno: I was fourteen, and, at that time, I was living in Mexico. There were three books in English in the school library. One was the Palgrave’s anthology, Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. The other I can’t remember: probably Kipling. And the third, for some reason, was the 1938 Collected Poems of E. E. Cummings. I’d never heard of them, but it was in English, and I could read English, so I pulled it off the shelf. The first poem I came to was one of the dirty ones: “may i feel said he.”
RC: Ah, that’s one of my favorite poems by him. It’s so witty, isn’t it?
CSL: [Laughs] Yes, it’s great!
RC: Can you imagine publishing that at that time?
CSL: No! I mean, that was it. Actually, there’s an entire manuscript of Cummings’s erotic poems that were never published. It’s still sitting in Harvard Library. Once, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and I talked about publishing it. And then it kind of dropped off the map, and there were complications with trying to get the permissions, because Norton felt they owned everything of Cummings’s, and they were going to do it themselves. Finally, Lawrence said he didn’t want to bother with it anymore. But it’s still sitting there. And it’s far more explicit than any of the things he did publish.
Anyway, I read a few of those, and suddenly I was taken with the entire Cummings position. I mean, I’m fourteen, and it’s like he was talking to me. Then I get to “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r,” and I’m going, “What the hell is this?” You know, rpophessagr! I kept reading it, and then I got to the end where it says “grasshopper.” And I still remember that great sense of dénouement while I’m looking at this and going: “Ah, this is a grasshopper, hopping across the page! Oh, my God!” It was just a pretty extraordinary find. It was one of those great eureka moments. So, that’s how it all began. And then, of course, I sat down and read Cummings more seriously.
RC: Only he could have come up with a poem like this at that time.
CSL: Exactly, yeah.
RC: One of your favorite works by Cummings is “a leaf falls.” Tell me why; and how would you recite such a piece that relies so heavily on the visual impact of the placement of letters on a page?
CSL: From very early on, Cummings was interested in writing poems for both the eye and the ear. In many ways, that’s a poem for the eye . If you take out the parentheses, I would just read it: “A … leaf … falls … one… l … iness …” That’s what the poem is.
RC: Through pausing.
CSL: Just pausing between the letters, so the leaf can actually cascade down the page. Which is exactly what happens in this poem. And the detachment from the branch, if you will, with the parentheses, of the leaf falling through the air. In my opinion, it’s a little minor masterpiece. I love many of Cummings’s poems. But I think this one indicates a whole way in which Cummings could take the most simple, even trite image, and make it new. He was extraordinarily good at that.
RC: Particularly with revelations spawned by nature.
CSL: Yes. He was really attached to the natural world.
RC: Some have argued that free verse goes back to John Wycliffe’s translation of Psalms, in the 1380s. And besides Walt Whitman, there were other Victorian-era poets who experimented with free verse. There’s also the vers libre tradition in French poetry, and the innovation of Jules Laforgue in his Derniers vers. We also find examples of what was later called “concrete” poetry in Greek Alexandria during the second century B.C. What did Cummings do to take all this a step further?
CSL: Great question. What Cummings basically did was to realize that the line itself was somewhat tyrannical, in the sense that, even with some of the examples you cite, everything begins at the far left margin and moves across the page. The images themselves remain within the poem. And while there’s some sense of trying to break it open, there’s very little attempt to play with the typography itself.
Cummings didn’t know about Apollinaire’s Calligrammes yet. But when he was first starting to write poetry, he did know of Ezra Pound’s, “The Return,” which Pound published in 1912. And when that hit Cummings, it hit him hard. I mean, it’s an incredible poem in and of itself. But there you have, suddenly, the breaking up of the lines. There’s still the remnants of vers libre in there, but, all of a sudden, the way the words are arranged on the page mirror the moments within that particular poem. It’s a very mysterious poem. I think it’s essentially about poetry. But Cummings suddenly gets this idea of: “Wow, look. If I just space in five spaces over from the left, look what happens to the line.” And so, he begins to play with that whole idea. This is about 1915. From them on, he’s a committed poet of both time and space.
One thing that Cummings was exceedingly aware of is the way something sounds. His whole idea of music for the ear: those pauses matter; those spaces matter. You’re supposed to stop for a moment, then go on. That’s the way he read them; that’s the way he thought of them. But also, as a painter, Cummings is incredibly aware of the visual display of something on a page. And so, that’s also part of what he’s after at that particular juncture of his life, when he’s just sprung his first major poem, if you will: “in Just.” It’s got that spacing in order to try to convey a sense of motion and movement, and stopping in the puddle, and all the rest of it.
RC: So much of what we take for granted today in poetry was first explored by Cummings.
CSL: Oh, absolutely, yeah.
RC: And I understand he was also the first to use the ampersand in a poem.
CSL: As far as I can tell. Although Apollinaire does it, too. But in English, yes, Cummings is it.
RC: I wasn’t going to mention Apollinaire but, when I first read your book, I kept scratching my head and saying: “But what about Apollinaire? Wasn’t he doing a lot of this at the same time?” But then I read, in Richard Kennedy’s biography, that Cummings had no contact with Apollinaire, which is why Kennedy didn’t explore this parallel.
CSL: Yes. Of course, later on, by the time he gets to Paris, he does become aware of Apollinaire, because Apollinaire is everywhere in the air at that point in France. Right after the war, he is the avant-garde poet, and everyone is looking toward him. And the people Cummings began to know at that time were also paying attention to Apollinaire. But Cummings had already started off on his own trajectory. Apollinaire simply reinforced what he was thinking and trying to do at that time.
RC: In 1917, while they were serving in the ambulance corps in Noyon, France, Cummings and his pal William Brown ended up in a detention center at La Ferté-Macé for being a bit too indiscreet in their assessment of the war effort in letters that they wrote to their friends and family back home. You convincingly argue that Cummings crafted a still under-appreciated prose masterpiece called The Enormous Room, which chronicles his incarceration there from September 22 to December 19, and which was published in 1922. Why do you so admire this work?
CSL: It’s one of the great books of all time. It’s certainly a World War One novel. And, in the best spirit of World War One novels, it has very little to do with the war itself.
RC: As you say in your biography – and I love this – it’s a war book without a gun going off. That’s just amazing, you know?
CSL: That’s right, yeah. [Laughs] Of course, it’s really an autobiography; it’s not a novel. It’s his first published book. It’s his first foray into major literary prominence. And he essentially manages to tell a story of his own imprisonment but without focusing on himself as the main character. It’s an extraordinary feat to pull off an autobiography where you, in fact, are not the protagonist. There is no protagonist. The protagonist is the room in that book. The protagonist are the people incarcerated there, most of whom were arrested simply because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. They’re foreigners. They’re people who said something or other that the French authorities decided was seditious. You know, undoubtedly, there were also some German sympathizers there, too; perhaps there were even spies there. But you’d never know it from Cummings.
And so, what he manages to do in this book is to create a record of what it means to be human in adverse circumstances. He does it in a prose style that is absolutely extraordinary. He captures the speech of the individuals. He writes in the vernacular. He has no problem with throwing French right alongside English and not translating it. He is lyrical. The images are those of a poet. And yet, the actual book is this remarkable testimony to what is involved with retaining your humanity in the face of very adverse circumstance. The portraits he paints of the people in this particular detention center are real, unflinching, and yet they’re noble. They have a nobility about them.
To some degree, Cummings, being the son of a minister, and having a good Harvard education, was well aware of Christian allegory. While he was not a particularly good Christian at that time – nor ever; he’d already begun to distance himself from the Church – the remnants of Pilgrim’s Progress, and of the allegorical narratives that are so common in Christian literature, are very much a part of that book. And so, what he does is, he creates a modern-day Pilgrim’s Progress. Although, since it’s almost a hundred years old now, it’s hard to say “modern day.” But at the time, a modern-day Pilgrim’s Progress. He has the “Delectable Mountains” being four of the outstanding inmates there. “Monsieur le Directeur” is Cummings’s name for Bunyan’s beast, Apollyon. He talks about himself as a pilgrim. It’s all very fun, very humorous at times, and yet there’s a very deep story. It’s just the total effect of that book, which I first read, I guess, in the late 1960s.
RC: Interesting time to read it.
CSL: Yeah. And it hit me as being one of the great, important books. It’s an antiwar book, for sure; and I was antiwar, so it fit perfectly well with that. But it also knocked me out because this was a style I hadn’t ever read before. You know, I was pretty naive; I was pretty young. Later on, I discovered all sorts of other writers who did fabulous things with language. And the rhythms in that book are amazing. The way in which he presents these portraits, these scenes of life, absolutely stirred me, because I’d never read anyone who talked about the way life went on in quite this way. There was a realism there, but at the same time he’s totally influenced by the Romantics; he’s influenced by the Symbolists. And there’s a whole way of describing the world that’s an Impressionist painting in many, many ways.
RC: The play with language, the stylistic innovation, is unique and far ahead of its time.
CSL: It is. And I think it’s totally unappreciated. It’s one of the great World War One novels, but I think it’s also just one of the great … I just said “novels,” which it’s not! It reads like a novel, but it’s really an autobiography.
RC: Apparently, Ernest Hemingway also called it one of the great books.
RC: A hard man to please.
CSL: A very hard man to please. A very critical man. [Laughs]
RC: Have you a favorite character from The Enormous Room?
CSL: Oh, God, it’s so hard. I think Jean le Nègre was probably my favorite.
RC: “The Mecca of all female eyes”!
CSL: Yes. I love him. I love his quiet beauty, his serenity. You know, for Cummings, he’s kind of a saint. He really does an enormous portrayal of him in that book. He becomes this almost otherworldly character who is somehow here on this earth. And it’s hard to know exactly what he’s in there for; we have no idea. That’s one of the great things about this book. We have no idea why anyone is imprisoned. Except for “C” and “B”: Cummings and Brown. They’re the only ones that we have a back story to.
RC: Jean le Nègre is certainly the warmest character. And I think it’s the most engaging chapter in the book.
CSL: Yeah, me too.
RC: He flies so beautifully in the face of all that hyperrational French Cartesianism that’s practiced by his jailers. He remains at one with his emotions and instinctive self, no matter what. He’s also a personification of Cummings’s notion that we must unlearn everything and attack reality in a pure state of “IS-ness” …
CSL: Definitely, yes.
RC: … unfettered by intellect, and so overflowing with imagination. Cummings says: “He was never perfectly happy unless exercising his inexhaustible imagination.”
CSL: Right, exactly! [Laughs] Yeah, I love Jean le Nègre. There are some wonderful characters in that book. I mean, C and B are pretty wonderful in their own regard; Monsieur Auguste; all these folks are just extraordinary.
RC: It’s rare that Cummings unleashes any kind of bald, roaring, untamed emotion in his work, but about halfway through the book, on page 117, he becomes so enraged at the despicable Monsieur le Directeur that he says: “never in my life before had I wanted to kill to thoroughly extinguish and to entirely murder. Perhaps some day. Unto God I hope so.” A really beautiful outburst, which for me anchors the book with a very necessary bit of spleen.
RC: Because Cummings can often be bit detached and cerebral, no?
CSL: Oh, absolutely. And, you know, when they’re first incarcerated there, Brown says: “This is the greatest place on earth.” And Cummings says: “Oh, yeah, it’s the most wonderful place on earth.”
RC: Cummings says, “The stink was sublime.”
CSL: Yes, exactly. [Laughs] And yet, the conditions there are rough.
RC: Oh, absolutely! Buckets filled with urine and feces, instead of having toilets and so on.
CSL: Yes. And the food is minimal; exercise is minimal. The room is dark, because the windows have been boarded up. I mean, this is no paradise, by any means.
RC: Cummings gets a bit ill, but his friend develops scurvy.
CSL: Exactly, yeah. I mean, it’s a serious condition. And the director is, you know, your typical … Nazi.
RC: Of which there were many in France at that time.
CSL: There were many in France at that time. And they continued on for a good while. [Laughs]
RC: To this day! O la la!
CSL: Absolutely. You know, Cummings is an honest guy. Always.
RC: His honesty got him locked up there, in France, right? For saying that he didn’t hate the Germans, but he loved the French. [Laughs]
CSL: That’s right, exactly. So, there’s the whole conundrum. And this is why I say that it’s an autobiography without being autobiographical. But when Cummings says that? Yes, you know it’s a true emotion. And suddenly, you say: “Ah, ha. Yes. He is human.” You know, he’s not attempting to be the saint of the prison camp.
RC: I bring it up with a sense of admiration, and also just in terms of technically analyzing the book. I felt it gave it an anchor, an emotional anchor.
CSL: Yes. Very perceptive.
RC: How would you compare The Enormous Room to some of the other great war novels that you discuss in your biography?
CSL: It’s unique. It is a war novel without being a war novel, but then, so are a lot of the other ones. Dos Passos’s Three Soldiers, to some degree. There’s very little of the war in Three Soldiers. There’s far more, let’s say, in All Quiet on the Western Front. Or even in A Farewell to Arms. Although, personally, I think A Farewell to Arms is a love story, first and foremost.
RC: It’s true. With these other books, it’s not so much portraits of the battlefield but of the aftereffect of being engaged in war that’s portrayed.
CSL: Yes. And I think Remarque’s book still holds up as one of the true masterpieces of war literature.
RC: I’m glad to hear you say that, because, having recently reread it for the first time since I was sixteen, I was really impressed by the power of this book.
CSL: I think it’s also – and I may not be right about this, because I’ve never done any formal study – one of the first novels to get at Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. When Paul’s on leave, he goes home, and he can’t talk to his father.*
RC: He’s psychically alienated, and really destroyed, and he’s no longer the same human being he was before.
RC: Of course, the really tragic moment in that story is when he looks through the glass case hanging on the wall, and it’s the butterfly collection. Symbolizing the innocence he once had …
RC: And then there’s the description of a butterfly on the battlefield, hovering on a skull. I mean, what a powerful metaphor.
CSL: Yes. And he’s no longer interested in any of the things he was interested in before. It’s an extraordinary chronicle of what war really does to one. I think Robert Graves’s Good-bye to All That is the only other one that completely deals with that notion of what happened to people. Which is also a masterpiece of autobiography about World War One. Yeah, the war did some great things for literature.
RC: Yes. As you say, Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms. Dos Passos, Three Soldiers. Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front. And then there’s The Enormous Room and Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night. The first three of these novels are terribly dark, tragic books, really haunting and despairing. In their desire to achieve a certain goal, the protagonists have largely severed themselves from society, and they’re subsequently destroyed.
CSL: Oh, God, yeah.
RC: On the other hand, with Journey and The Enormous Room, besides portraying horrific events, we also find a great deal of black humor and tragicomedy. And all of which is portrayed with an abundance of literary innovation. Do you feel that Cummings and Céline share these things in common?
CSL: Oh, absolutely. I mean, Voyage au bout de la nuit is, clearly, one of the great books of all time.
RC: And one of the craziest books of all time, too!
CSL: Yes, and he just gets crazier as he goes along. But there are parallels, actually, between them.
RC: What did Céline think of Cummings?
CSL: We don’t know.
RC: Is there any evidence that he was aware of Cummings?
CSL: Céline was aware of Cummings. Whether Cummings was aware of Céline, I don’t know, because I’ve never found any reference anywhere, when I was looking through all that stuff, to Céline. And I would have seized on it, because I would have found that interesting.
They shared a lot in common. They were both stylistic innovators. Voyage is, you know, one of the most profound books that anyone ever wrote, anywhere. There’s a lot of black humor, but there’s also a huge difference between the two. What would have put Cummings off about Céline is that Cummings, for all his Harvard snobbery, loved human beings.
RC: Excellent point.
CSL: And basically, Céline hated human beings.
RC: He verged on sociopathy.
CSL: Oh, yeah, certainly. You know, Céline was complex.
What keeps coming through in Voyage is that sense of war itself being a sickness. He continually uses the terms malaise and couchemar. He’s always talking about war as a kind of illness, or war as a nightmare. He’s continually seizing on that as part of what this book’s about. That’s part of the journey into the night.
I know that Céline was aware of Cummings because he was very aware of North American literature. Cummings was widely translated into French. And Céline knew English, to some degree. And he would have sympathized, because Cummings himself was an anti-Semite.
RC: Well, that’s true, too; that’s another similarity!
CSL: When that big blowup happened with Cummings being sort of outed as an anti-Semite, you could be sure that Céline took notice.
RC: A huge difference in their anti-Semitism, though, wasn’t there?
CSL: Oh, yeah, of course.
RC: I mean, Céline was filled with an authentic, visceral hatred.
CSL: Oh, he was outrageous. I mean, if you read his Bagatelles, they’re just vile. And you can’t imagine how one of the great prose stylists of French literature could hold such abhorrent views. It’s just hard to …
RC: Well, they say that Shakespeare was also an anti-Semite, but that doesn’t mean we have to stop reading Shakespeare.
CSL: No. And of course, we haven’t stopped reading Céline.
RC: Whereas with Cummings, he had a big mouth, and, quite often, he shot it off without thinking. But when confronted with authentic anti-Semitism, even he was taken aback. For example, with Ezra Pound, right?
CSL: Oh, absolutely, yeah.
RC: He called Ezra Pound an anti-Semite!
CSL: Yeah, right. [Laughs] You know, as much as he and Pound shared all sorts of views.
RC: But I think this tells us something about Cummings, no? That he was shocked by that.
CSL: Yes, it tells us a lot. And you have to remember that anti-Semitism was basically …
RC: It was the norm back then.
CSL: It was the norm. And it was particularly the norm among a certain WASP intellect pure group.
RC: As was the norm to be anti-Irish, anti-Italian, and anti everything else.
CSL: That’s right. I mean, Harvard didn’t let in those folks. They didn’t let them in. And that cemented the notion that, somehow, they were inferior and the Harvard boys were superior. That’s very much a part of the story.
RC: Most of the prisoners in La Ferté-Macé were complete innocents who were being punished simply for being, as you say, at the wrong place at the wrong time. And for being étrangers: foreigners who happened to be living or passing through France during a period of extreme xenophobia and spy mania and who were then scooped up and held without proper trial or due process.
When I first read your Cummings biography, America had suspended habeas corpus and we were holding innocent prisoners at the dreadful Guantanamo Bay detention facility, often for years, even after they were declared not guilty. And now, as a result of terrorism in Paris, dozens of French citizens are being arrested for indiscreet remarks they’ve posted online. Does The Enormous Room present us with a fitting contemporary parable about the dangers of losing free speech?
CSL: Absolutely. And, you know, that’s one of Cummings’s major issues with everybody, and everywhere: the desire to suppress people’s emotions, people’s feelings, people’s words. Cummings took the First Amendment seriously. He truly believed that free speech should be free speech. He gets into La Ferté-Macé because, essentially, he has written some letters. Brown’s the one who’s mainly written them, but Cummings has written as well, a couple of things, and he refuses to back down on his right to think what he wants to think. Later on, this is what terrified him about what was going on in the Soviet Union under Stalin. That same exact thing.
But yeah, the parallel is there. If Cummings were around today, he would be signing petitions, leading marches, writing about what’s going on in Guantanamo. Because its exactly the same situation for many of those prisoners there as it was for Cummings and Brown, and Jean le Nègre, and who knows how many others. Who simply happened to be on the ground in Afghanistan when the special forces could go in and pick anybody up, and if they were on the ground they must therefore be “evildoers” out to overthrow the United States. So, yeah, there’s certainly that.
And France itself has never had a tremendous regard for free speech. They’ve locked people up for a very, very long time for speaking their minds. I mean, I love France, and they certainly have no issue with erotic literature, with explicit literature. But politics has always been something you could get into trouble for in France, and very quickly.
The recent roundups of all sorts of folks in France because they had something on their Facebook page or because they said something perhaps pro-Muslim, “and therefore they must be a terrorist,” parallels very much what happened here. It’s the paranoia that overtakes state governments when you have a perceived or – as in this case, with the Charlie Hebdo business* – a real, awful, terrible situation. You know, murdering Jews in a kosher grocery store strikes terror in a whole population. And you understand, yeah, why they’re going house to house picking up people. You understand why we had NSA, or have NSA, listening in on our conversations, including probably this one. But it wouldn’t have sat well with Cummings. And it doesn’t necessarily justify the action itself that’s been taken. The Enormous Room could be read right now by those prisoners at Guantanamo and they’d go, Whoa! But there was no water-boarding at La Ferté-Macé.
RC: Well, that’s a good point, Chris!
RC: That is an excellent point. And may the Bush-Cheney people rot in hell forever for that. You hear that, NSA?
CSL: Yeah, may they ever! [Laughs]
RC: Besides the hell of La Ferté-Macé, Estlin also experienced what he called the “miracle” of Paris. How did the City of Lights help to shape and inspire him?
CSL: Ah, well! He was there at absolutely the moment when modernism broke out.
RC: The lucky boy attended the premiere of Parade!*
CSL: Right! That’s what I mean!
RC: What luck is that?
CSL: Basically, he doesn’t need to go any farther! But obviously, you’ve got to remember where young Estlin came from. He’d grown up Cambridge in a very nice, well-appointed, large house. By today’s standards, it would be regarded as a mansion. In fact, now, it’s divided into four separate condos. He was privileged. He went to Harvard. He had religion on a weekly basis. He had the tightness of that Harvard-Cambridge society that omitted most of reality in favor of a kind of controlled notion of how young men – because it was all men there – should behave and should live. His big experiences were crossing the bridge over to Boston, to go to a couple of seedier places.
Suddenly, he gets to Paris. And not only is there an explosion of art, literature, music – I mean, modernism is in absolute full-swing in terms of art and everything that’s happening there – but Paris itself is glorious. There are abundant places to wander as a young man, to get lost, to get yourself into a bit of trouble. He immediately hooks up with a couple of prostitutes, and: “My God, this is so exciting,” you know? Life is suddenly possible. He knows French, which is a huge advantage. And he’s overwhelmed by everyone he sees. I mean, Cambridge is a nice, neat, drab little community; Paris is this absolutely gorgeous, sprawling, extraordinary, vibrant place. And so, he’s just overwhelmed. He’s studied French; he’s read French writers. He’s gotten a little sense of how, suddenly, you might live. And he never quite gets over it.
RC: That’s a very fitting way to end that statement. Who among us ever does get over Paris?
CSL: Right, you never get over Paris, let’s just face it. You never get over Paris! I’m talking to the converted. [Laughs]
RC: One thing that’s striking in his biography is the amazingly precious artistic education that he received even when he was just a little boy, at home, largely at the hands of his mother, Rebecca. And I understand Estlin’s Uncle George was also a great influence on his creative and literary development.
CSL: Yes. I mean, this boy was a star from the moment he was born, at least in his mother’s eyes. She encouraged him to do anything that he possibly wanted to do. She kept – which was wonderful for biographers – every little scrap of paper he drew a doodle on. She kept his little notebooks; she kept his writings. He was enormously precocious.
RC: And some of those precocious poems are not bad!
CSL: They’re not bad at all! For a seven-year-old kid, they’re pretty darn good! And he could already draw incredibly well. So yeah, there’s an awful lot to that.
RC: He had a golden childhood.
CSL: Absolutely a golden childhood. He was pampered; he was continually told how wonderful he was. He was continually told by his mother, particularly, that he could be anything he wanted to be, and everything he did was precious and wonderful. You know, as a result, he became quite egotistical, and he remained so for the rest of his life, but …
RC: But never lost his creative spirit.
CSL: He never lost his creative spirit.
RC: Something like Alexander being told that he was fathered by Jupiter.
CSL: Absolutely. And essentially, that’s what he was told! [Laughs] And Uncle George was also a tremendous …
RC: George was a poet, apparently.
CSL: He was a poet, yes. He was always giving Cummings books that were above his head for him to read. And of course, Cummings read them. He was always encouraging him to write, to think, to read, to go beyond where he was supposed to be at that particular stage in his life.
RC: The first time I read your wonderful biography, I was struck by how supportive Cummings’s father was. After all, he even paid Estlin to write The Enormous Room. And I was very thrown off by that. I always thought that artists are supposed to have a contentious relationship with their fathers! [Laughs]
CSL: Exactly, right!
RC: But the second time I read it, I was impressed by how controlling he was. How did Mr. Cummings help to mold Estlin for both better and worse, as a man and as a poet?
CSL: Well, you know, it’s a complex business. Both Mom and Dad were enormously supportive of young Estlin. His mother was just a kind of … Every portrait you get of her – particularly from Cummings, but also from Cummings’s sister – she’s just this woman who is “absolute unconditional love, all the time.” You know, just full of it. And no matter what the children want, she would make sure they have.
Cummings’s father is a more severe man, in the sense that he’s certainly a patriarch. He runs a house. He’s a highly respected member of the Cambridge-Boston community. He’s authoritative only in the sense that he’s extremely concerned that young Estlin pay attention to certain codes of conduct. You know: right morality, right living. His father is a minister. He was also a Harvard professor at one point. But he’s consistently attempting to remind Cummings of what he should or should not be doing. And so, in that sense, he is controlling. And yet, he pays for it: he pays for him to write up his “French Notes” into The Enormous Room. He even pays for the typist. He supports his son’s literary endeavors in a way that would, in this day and age, be pretty much unthinkable: where you get very little support from your parents unless you want to go to business school or something. But there was a great belief that Cummings was going to be a great writer, or a great artist.
His father didn’t quite understand what his painting was about. But he understood the literature. He understood the writing. And his father, by the way, was an extremely literate, well read, scholarly man. When he reads his “French Notes,” as The Enormous Room was then called, he’s just overwhelmed.
RC: He says, “Now I know you are a great writer.”
CSL: Yeah! That’s what he tells him.
RC: What a wonderful thing to hear from your father.
CSL: Yes! So there is this “double” kind of thing. For Cummings though, his father also represented an impossible being. You know, he didn’t worry about trying to be like his mother, because (A), she was a woman; and (B), she was his mother. But young men frequently are in the shadow of their father. And here’s this man who is basically known by one and all. You walk down the street in Cambridge, and everyone doffs their hat to Reverend Cummings. And he’s absolutely upright, moral, has the courage of his convictions, strong, tall, all of those kinds of things. And here’s Cummings, who is not particularly tall; he’s about five-seven. He’s not particularly strong. He’s not so interested in being an upright member of society. And there’s the shadow, you know? And yet, he loves his father. And his father certainly loved his son. But he realizes, fairly early on – I would say, by late adolescence – that he’ll never be his father. And yet, he continually wants to please his father, as he does his mother. But he knows that, no matter what he does, he’ll please his mother. She’ll understand, somehow.
RC: His father was a preacher, and of course it’s impossible to live in the shadow of a saint. For Estlin to carve out a sense of identity, perhaps rebelling and assuming the opposing stance, and becoming a “sinner,” was simply a logical conclusion. Also, the son was a product of the Jazz Age, of the Roaring Twenties. How did the latter affect Estlin’s personal transformation?
CSL: I think it begins to some degree in the Harvard classroom. And it’s an odd place …
RC: In other words, even before he moved out of the home, just being in the classroom, around his peers?
CSL: I believe so. Because what happens is, he’s suddenly exposed to a world of ideas that he’d never known about. He’s also exposed to an awful lot of great minds and intellect, but it’s not the teachers that are all that important for Cummings; it’s his peers. By the time he joins the Harvard Monthly, which is the literary magazine at Harvard, and meets up with people like Scofield Thayer, John Dos Passos, Foster Damon – there’s a whole group of them – suddenly, they’re thinking big. They’ve been to Europe; they’ve already been thinking about how art should be made, how literature should be written. They’re aware of the latest currents in everything from the cinema, to music, to poetry, to the novel, to art. So suddenly, Cummings is swept up in this. And there’s a desire on his part to break with the stodginess, with the purely Victorian mentality. It’s not necessarily a bad one, but it’s still very much a Victorian mentality that possesses his father, his father’s peers, and Cambridge society in general.
It’s hard to realize now how extremely stratified Cambridge society was. And particularly where Cummings lived. Basically, it was a place where everyone is upper-crust and white, and “white” being Anglo-Saxon protestant. Not Irish: the Irish lived on the other side. Certainly not Jewish. And certainly not Italian or any other ethnic group. And so, suddenly, here he is at Harvard, with the same kind of kids, incidentally, with the exception of the Portuguese Dos Passos. But most of them are breaking out from where they’d been. So I think the rebellion begins with the classroom. He’s beginning to read beyond …
RC: Beyond what his Uncle George was giving him.
CSL: Way beyond. And his friends are bringing him this and that and having these all-night discussions. And, of course, there’s drinking, which he’d never been able to do at home, because his father was part of the temperance society. So, suddenly, it’s a huge world.
And you have to “kill” your father. You know, no matter what, you’ve got to do that in order to become your own person. Even though you may end up being your father, later on. But, at that moment, it’s very important to overthrow your father. And you don’t have to get too Freudian about it, but, essentially, that’s what he’s really trying to do there: to become his own person.
RC: And he also had the courage to do that.
CSL: Yes. But it’s easier for him to do it than it would’ve been for his father, because, at the time, the currents were moving in that direction. Everything is about to change.
RC: The Twenties was the Sixties.
CSL: The Twenties was the Sixties, that’s right. It wasn’t the Nineties, of either century.
RC: All of which brings us to a story that Susan Cheever tells in her memoir, Home Before Dark:
Isn’t that lovely? What a great little anecdote!
CSL: Yeah, it is! It’s one of my favorite parts of Susan’s memoir. [Laughs]
RC: I love the way she ends her Cummings biography with a description of Patchin Place.
CSL: Yes! And I was really envious, because I never got into the house; she did.
RC: It was a charming way to end the book, where she describes the family that’s living in Cummings’s old flat.
CSL: Yes, it’s really quite wonderful.
RC: Another product of the Flapper Age was Estlin’s cherished partner, Marion Morehouse, who would have been seventeen years old in 1920.* Edward Steichen, who photographed her as early as 1924 and made her famous in Vogue, considered Marion to be one of his favorite models. “The greatest fashion model I ever photographed,” he said. Tell us about Marion’s relationship with Estlin, and how they supported each other emotionally and artistically.
CSL: That story begins with two other relationships before that. You can’t go to Marion without …
RC: Before Marion, he had a golden childhood, but what bad luck he had with the women he selected!
CSL: With the women! Exactly! The first woman he falls in love with is Elaine Thayer, who’s married to his friend Scofield Thayer. And Scofield, as we know now, and as I’m sure Cummings knew at the time, was, if not “bi,” gay.
RC: And very much in the closet for a while.
CSL: Yes, in the closet. An esthete, but not particularly interested in his wife sexually. And Cummings falls head over heels in love with Elaine, with Scofield’s wife. And Elaine herself is upper-crust. She’s not the easiest person in the world to get along with; nor was, I think, Estlin himself. But basically, they have an affair, and she gets pregnant with Cummings’s child. Thayer, being Cummings’s best friend, knows what’s going on, but he adopts the child – or rather, he allows it to be born as if it’s his daughter.
Eventually, Elaine and Thayer are divorced. Elaine marries Cummings, and it does not last very long. There are just too many differences between them. The daughter doesn’t realize at the time that she’s his child: that Cummings is her real father. They part ways; Elaine goes off to Ireland, and Cummings is bereft. I mean, he’s absolutely bereft that Elaine has fallen in love with someone else and left him after he was hoping that this was going to be the love of his life.
For all of Cummings’s “sexual identity” as a poet – because he certainly has one because of all the erotic poems, and being one of the first to write poems that were unabashedly not just about love, but about sex – people think he must have had a million women. Well, he didn’t. He had only three principal women. And they were each enormously important to him. He was a very tender, very sentimental, and, in that way, a very “son of his father,” old-fashioned man. Then he hooks up with Anne Barton, who is a flapper and totally unfaithful from the moment they get together, and this kills Cummings as well.
He loves women as women, and I’ll try to clarify what I mean by this. He enjoyed being in women’s company. Probably among his closest friends was Hildegarde Watson, who was married to his friend James Watson. I don’t believe there was ever a sexual attraction on either’s part, but he absolutely adored being in her company. He adored women. He enjoyed who they were. He enjoyed the way they smelled [Laughs]. He enjoyed the way they looked, the way they walked. And so, in a pretty tough period for Cummings – financially, he’s not doing well; he never did well, and his mother generally supported him most of his life – but here he is, a “two-time loser” if you will, and suddenly here comes this angel out of the fog, Marion Morehouse. She is young. She is, unlike Elaine or Anne, really interested in being with Cummings.
RC: And not a gold digger, like Anne.
CSL: Not a gold digger like Anne was, certainly. And so, she is gorgeous, and she makes it pretty clear, pretty early on, that what she wants to do is take care of this great man. And, wow! [Laughs] He’s finally found the love of his life.
Who knows what takes place in those kinds of circumstances? But clearly, there was a tremendous attraction. I didn’t write this, because I didn’t have enough evidence, but, from the little that I could glean, he was attracted to her initially because she was so gorgeous. It was certainly a major physical attraction. I think it took a while for him to let his guard down so that he could see her in a larger way. He kept her at a distance, initially; he wasn’t quite sure of what to do.
And so, what we have is hundreds of pages of writing about Elaine, maybe a hundred or so pages about Anne, but we have only about twenty pages about Marion. Why? Because he doesn’t have to exorcise the demons. What he’s doing with writing about Elaine and about Anne is trying to exorcise those demons. Because he wrote everything down; he was compulsive about trying to think on paper. You could see the guy pacing about the room, smoking endless cigarettes, then writing something down, to help him try to analyze things. Once he meets Marion, it goes away. He writes about other things, but he’s not obsessing about his relationship any longer. And, in a way, this tells you how perfectly matched they were.
What happened as they spent more time together … I would say she became much more of a ‘gatekeeper’ for Cummings. Allen Ginsberg told me a story: He’d gone to Cummings’s house and knocked on the door, and no one answered. And he’d written him a letter and sent him a copy of “Howl.” He really wanted Cummings’s approval; it was enormously important to him for some reason.
RC: Who’s house did Ginsberg not knock on? What a schmoozer!
CSL: Well, of course, that was it! Especially at that point in time. [Laughs] He finally gets to Patchin Place again, on another occasion, and he knocks on the door, and Marion comes down the stairs, takes one look, and says: “You. Go away. And never come back.” He tries to explain who he is, and she just … She was the gatekeeper. And it was very much a part of her function in later years. And with Cummings’s blessing, because he became more of a curmudgeon as he got older. And by “older,” I mean fifty-five. The man didn’t live all that long. And she became “the one you had to get through.”
I believe her political views really began to affect Cummings’s. She was very much a right-winger. At that time, Lindberg was on the radio, and various other right-wing isolationist, “Keep Out of World War Two” folks. And she would get Cummings to listen to these broadcasts, because these were the ones who were “telling the truth.” She absolutely hated Roosevelt. Hard to know why; she was hardly an aristocrat! She had very little money, and she certainly had no reason to be a Republican, but then … Oh, well!
RC: It’s often like that. Again, the shadow.
RC: In 1996, Richard Kennedy, Cummings’s previous biographer, published an essay titled “The Elusive Marion Morehouse.” Lamenting her evasions and obfuscations, he called her “the principle obstacle” in his attempt to re-create “the story of E. E. Cummings’s life.” Perhaps you can touch upon how some of the rumors that you heard about Marion’s past dovetail with the information I’ve recently unearthed, thanks to Tony Ungaro’s help* and to the rapid expansion of genealogical data on the Internet.
CSL: Well, first of all, your information is staggering! (A), the amount of information that you were able to get; and (B), the depth. And the light it throws on Marion to begin with. You know, we didn’t even know how old she was! I totally sympathize with Kennedy, because I read his biography before I started my book, and I’m thinking, “Oh, well; I’ll dig up this stuff.” But I had no more luck than Kennedy. The advantage I had is, I had access to a lot more papers than he did, so I was able to find more information.
RC: I have a feeling that the genealogical information on the Internet was nowhere as developed then as it is now.
CSL: Not at all. I’m a klutz with the Internet, but I did do a search, and I came up with nothing. I called city halls, and I tried to get documents. But, you know, without the right information to start with, you couldn’t get anything.
I think Marion always played fast and loose with how old she was, and I’m not even sure that Cummings knew how old she was. But at this point, thanks to your research, we know that she was born in 1903; and, as you’ve also uncovered, she was the daughter of a vaudevillian: a working-class guy. So, she’s nineteen, twenty years old, she’s stunningly gorgeous, and then suddenly she gets these bit parts in theatrical productions. And she’s in so many shows. I think you have her down for over four hundred performances.
RC: Right. As far as I can see, she was in five plays that we know the titles of, but they went on for dozens and sometimes even hundreds of shows.
CSL: The Playbills that you sent me were fascinating, showing her there. And her sister, who apparently was also a performer.
So, she’s a model. She’s in Vogue. And she’s an artist’s model: Steichen. At about the time she meets Cummings, it’s likely that she was also trying to achieve more in the theater. But suddenly, she moves from being a sort of career woman – because she was certainly building a career – to being Cummings’s protector and supporter.
RC: Knowing what we now know about her, do any of the rumors that you heard – which you didn’t include in your book because you felt you couldn’t back them up – make more sense?
CSL: Yes. We’re pretty sure that she fabricated her early life, to Cummings as well as to anyone else. There are some letters that went back and forth at the time between Edmund Wilson and various other people. Now, keep in mind, Wilson didn’t like her. He felt she was just after Cummings because he was famous. And he didn’t trust her past; he felt something was shady. He felt Cummings was just head over heels …
RC: Being taken in?
CSL: Yes. He thought she would eventually do something against him; there was that spirit of things. But obviously, she didn’t. She was actually devoted. There’s no evidence that she had affairs during the time she was with Cummings. I mean, she did have one affair, but everyone knew about it. She was hardly running around on him. Nor Cummings on her. I mean, he had little affairs … well, with a graduate that he met at Bennington.
RC: But it wasn’t a typical part of his pattern.
CSL: Right. They were very devoted to each other. But the fact that she wanted to just “spring whole”* as Steichen’s model, and actress, and didn’t want to ever admit anything about her past, even how old she was …
RC: Here’s another interesting thing. As you know, I tracked her parents down to being remarried in the Bronx …
CSL: Right! And I had no idea even who her parents were, so this was amazing! They were married twice, right?
RC: Yes. In the 1910 census report, they’re listed as married, and then, thanks to Tony Ungaro’s help, I learned of another nuptial ceremony performed in 1918, at the Church of St. Francis de Sales, on East 96th Street, in the Bronx. When I contacted the church, lo and behold, there was the marriage certificate. I never would have found that without Mr. Ungaro’s help. Who’s going to be looking for a marriage certificate after all those years, when the children were already teenagers? So, this might be the first clue we have that they’re in New York in 1918. And Marion would have been fifteen then.
This is purely speculative, but this is the hunch that I wanted to share with you. Marion supposedly met Cummings backstage after a play that she’d performed in, in 1932. But the Playbill Archive, which lists five other Broadway plays in which she had minor parts, doesn’t have a record of her acting at this time. In addition, the source for this incident is Marion herself, in an interview with Richard Kennedy. Now, I find it highly suspicious that Marion never mentions the name of this play. I think it’s more likely that Marion and Estlin met at a Ziegfeld Follies-type of venue where, according to Kennedy, she often worked as a “showgirl.” Apparently, she had trouble getting theatrical parts because of her tall, thin, lanky figure, which made her the perfect showgirl and model for Steichen, because his whole thing was portraying the gown as a fine-art image. And of course, Cummings loved the burlesque, and he used it as a theme in his poetry and even impersonated the dialogue of the showgirls in his work. What do you think? Isn’t that a possibility?
CSL: I think that’s much more likely. Although Cummings also loved the theater, and he’d written “Him” for the theater.
RC: The stark antiwar message of The Enormous Room and of those other novels that we discussed provides another link between the Twenties and Sixties, as does Cummings’s unconventional lifestyle. Yet, as he aged, he grew more politically conservative. Isn’t it ironic that two of the most celebrated authors of the Sixties – Cummings and Kerouac – were both right of center, anti-Democratic Party, anti-Semites, and financially supported by their mothers all throughout their lives? I mean, perhaps this is a silly question, but it just struck me …
CSL: No, it’s a great question! And I hadn’t even added it all up until you asked me. There are so many parallels, it’s ridiculous! [Laughs]
RC: Many people today don’t realize this, but they were literary icons in the Sixties, weren’t they?
CSL: Yes, they were. You know, obviously, there are some differences. I mean, Cummings became increasingly right-wing really because he’d observed the Soviet Union up front, close, and personal. And he went to the Soviet Union as a leftie. He went through Aragon and Elsa Triolet in Paris. Louis Aragon, a big-time member of the Communist Party, is a great friend of Cummings. He goes because they help arrange for him to go, as a writer. And what happens is, he almost immediately sees that this is a police state. And he sees what Stalin has perpetrated. He’s totally stunned by it. For him, that’s the crucial moment when he gives up on the left.
And yet, just to caricature Cummings as a right-winger isn’t quite right either. I mean, if anything, he’s a libertarian, in the sense that he believes in freedom of everything. But by this point, he’s also fervently anti-Communist. With Dos Passos, the same thing happens to him. Dos Passos becomes a right-winger by the end of his life. And the same kind of conversion, because of that observance of what Stalin had done. For Dos Passos, it’s really the later Thirties that convinces him. You know, when you’re starting to round up the great writers, artists, and composers, and shooting them, then Dos Passos turns against the left. Initially, against Stalin, and then against Communism in general. Although Dos Passos thinks it through more thoroughly than Cummings does. But for Cummings, it’s definitely that particular moment.
Marion certainly contributed to Cummings’s anti-Semitism and to his notion of the right. Although, you know, you have to remember that Cummings had no use for war. Cummings is one of the great antiwar poets, ever, in American literature, and so, he doesn’t want to go into World War Two. Remember, the war starts in ’38; we don’t get into it until Pearl Harbor gets bombed, in ’41. There was a pretty strong “this isn’t our fight” sort of thing going on in this country, and Cummings was very much a part of it. But I think that, while he didn’t have much to do with the left, he also didn’t have much to do with the right, either. Although he defended McCarthy at one point, and that was stupid; and so did Kerouac.
With Kerouac, Burroughs told me that it was “all Spengler’s fault.” But with Burroughs, often, he …
RC: Imagined things?
CSL: He certainly did that. [Laughs] But he also liked to play jokes on people.
RC: He was mischievous.
CSL: He was mischievous, yes. You know, “You asked a question as complex as why did Kerouac become a right-winger? Well, I’ll give you a silly answer.”
RC: There’s an amusing story about some celebrity who goes to visit Burroughs on his ranch, and Burroughs hands him a pistol and takes him shooting. Right after they shoot, the man dropped it because the barrel became red hot. He says to Burroughs, “Oh, my God, I almost burnt my hand on that thing!” And in that very dry intonation, Burroughs replies, “Well, that’s why I don’t like to use that particular gun.”
CSL: That’s definitely Burroughs! [Laughs]
RC: He was very much a trickster!
CSL: Oh, yeah, absolutely. And so, he claims it was “all because of Spengler” that Kerouac became a right-winger. But I don’t think so.
RC: I also have a quirky theory about Kerouac, although it’s not really a serious one. But when you look back on it now, and you realize that the FBI was opening enormous files on all these people who spoke out against the war, and against the government, and so on, Kerouac might have been a lot smarter than we thought he was for keeping his trap shut and hanging out with Bill Buckley.
RC: I mean, they never bothered him, did they?
CSL: No, that’s right. Whereas they were after Allen; they were after Ferlinghetti; they were after just about everybody else. Gary Snyder, certainly. That whole group was being hounded at that point. Yeah, there may have just been that.
It’s really complex, but I heard a whole lot more about what people thought happened. Ginsberg, who was probably as close to Kerouac as anyone, was somewhat mystified by that turn. But he felt it was because Jack had become disillusioned with just about everything. And yet, Ginsberg continually affirmed that, essentially, Jack had always been a sort of patriotic American. This had never not been part of who he was. It was patriotic to get into an automobile made in Detroit and drive across the country …
RC: That’s a good point.
CSL: And see it. And write about your country.
RC: Kerouac had a sort of patriotism with a capital “P” that was almost like a Platonic ideal. You’d have to go back to Walt Whitman to find something similar. They each regarded America as a sort of transcendental, spiritual potentiality.
CSL: Yes. And I think that Allen, as well, was a patriot in that same way: in the way that Whitman was a patriot. I think, for Allen – and he would have loved being in the same sentence with Whitman – it’s very much the case that he had that same sense of loving this country. It doesn’t mean that you like every thing it does. It means that you fight like hell to put it back on its course. Or what you think, at least, should be its course.
Whereas, I think, from what Burroughs told me, and what Allen told me, and what other people told me, essentially, when Jack grew older, he just became more disillusioned with everything. He became disillusioned with politics; he became disillusioned with writing. He became disillusioned with fame. The only thing he doesn’t become disillusioned with is alcohol. And that continues until it kills him.
RC: He even said, “As a Roman Catholic, I can’t commit suicide, so I’m drinking myself to death.”
CSL: Right. That’s what I’m referring to, yeah.
RC: That’s a great point that you bring up. Ginsberg, God bless him, who constantly put his ass on the line to try to effect change in the country, was really just as patriotic as Kerouac. Yet, they had a completely different definition of what America should be.
CSL: Absolutely, yes.
RC: Although he’d already passed away by 1962, one of the things that endeared Cummings to the Sixties generation was his innovative literary style, his disregard for authority, and his unbridled awe when thrust before the numinous dimension of life and the wonder of nature. What was it like to read Cummings in the Sixties, and how did the Beats take to his poetry?
CSL: For me, reading Cummings in the Sixties was like reading someone who was talking directly to me about what was going on. I had friends who were being hauled away to prison for being antiwar. I had friends who were refusing to enlist, who decided they would go to jail as a protest rather than enlist or leave the country, because they loved their country. And you’re suddenly reading those Cummings poems about war, and he’s talking to you at that very moment. At least, that’s the way I felt at the time.
At one of the first California moratoriums against the war, which I think was probably in ’68, or maybe ’67, I got up to the mike along with everyone else, and I read Cummings. And Cummings hit people in a way that all the rhetoric and everything else that other people were doing … I didn’t do anything, I just read Cummings. I got to “i sing of Olaf,” finished off with that, and people burnt their draft cards. I mean, that was the power of the guy at that time. Everybody’s backpack had a couple of different books in it. It had The Enormous Room or his poems. It had On the Road. It had Coney Island of the Mind. It had “Howl.” Those were the backpacks.
RC: The textbooks of the generation.
CSL: The textbooks of the generation, right! And if we were lucky, a little Rimbaud, just for good measure. [Laughs] And so, of course, Cummings sounded like a contemporary. I don’t think that any of us knew that he’d become a right-winger in his old age. We hadn’t read any biographies. Or actually, we didn’t care. We knew what he was talking about in those books. And we also knew what he was talking about when he was talking about love and sex. I mean, all of the stuff that he stood for was, in a sense, what the Sixties was trying to emulate, trying to break out with. I remember Kenneth Rexroth, who actually liked Cummings quite a lot, describing him as “that old bohemian dinosaur.” He said, “Now, the dinosaur walks again.” [Laughs] You know, that was Rexroth.
He was important for Ginsberg because he was very willing to write about the way it was. For Gary Snyder, he mattered because he was the first environmentalist as a poet, at least in Snyder’s view. I don’t think he was, by any means; I think the Romantics were way ahead of him. But for Snyder, Cummings hit him as an environmentalist. And Bukowski, of course, wrote that wonderful poem about Cummings, “What A Writer.”
RC: Cummings’s style alternates between a cerebral sort of satiric wit and an immediate, deep-felt celebration of the importance of love: another vital Sixties theme. In one poem, he writes:
Maybe you could talk about the duality of his style.
CSL: Cummings is actually a poet of many styles. You’ll see, in his notebooks, that he’ll dash off something. Personally, I think he published a little too much. But, you know, he was sentimental, and he didn’t care. It was already becoming old-fashioned to be sentimental. Certainly, Eliot did his best to wreck that tradition. And Stevens did his best to put cerebral poetry above all else. And it continued on down the line. Whereas Williams was still interested in body and soul, and what was going on in front; and Williams and Cummings, incidentally, were good friends.
But what you get there is this sort of direct lyrical statement. You know: “I carry your heart with me; I carry it in my heart.” Well, what’s more trite than that? And yet, it all kind of works together, because you feel like he’s telling you the truth. And the way it’s laid out on the page: the spacing gets close together, the parentheses, the movement of the lines, the very rhythm of them: “I carry your heart with me; I carry it in my heart.” There’s all that rhythm that you’re playing with all the time. It’s a melding of, truly, a master craftsman with this very simple, almost trite, sentimental statement.
RC: But deeply authentic.
CSL: But deeply authentic, yes.
RC: I thought this particular stanza was reminiscent of Whitman’s opening line from the “Leaves”: “and what I assume you shall assume, for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
CSL: There’s certainly that, yeah.
RC: What did he think of Whitman?
CSL: There’s a page or two in the Harvard archive where Cummings takes a poem from “Leaves of Grass” and rewrites it in his own typography. He was interested in Whitman. He was really interested in what he was doing with breath.
RC: As were the Beats.
CSL: As were the Beats, exactly; there’s another parallel there. But at the same time, he’s trying to read everybody. And he moves on from Whitman pretty quickly. As far as we can tell, those couple of pages are from around 1915, 1914, something like that. By 1916, he’s already embracing the new in the sense that he’s looking at Pound, he’s reading Cocteau, he’s reading Laforgue. Rimbaud, of course, has already come around. Baudelaire. He’s read the Symbolists; he commits Verlaine to memory. So, suddenly, he’s off on a whole other trajectory that is more European, that is France.
Eliot, of course, is huge for Cummings. Even though he and Eliot never particularly liked one another. But Eliot is huge for everybody, just because he was huge! I mean, “Wasteland” is not ignorable. Nor is “Prufrock.” Cummings actually reviewed Eliot’s first book. But Cummings clearly didn’t know how to write a review or to write about poetry very well, and, fortunately, he gave it up. But he clearly has appreciation. He also reviewed Joyce’s Ulysses, although his review was rejected. But that’s what he was reading at that point.
So, Whitman kind of drops out. But I believe Whitman never goes away. Because what happens is, by the time you get to the more mature Cummings, he’s coming back to that kind of celebration of life, of liberty, of standing in your own space on earth. You know, Cummings is always playing around with the way words lie on the page. But if you think about it, so was Whitman. I mean, those lines really matter, the way they’re written. Except for those early experiments – and he was experimenting with everything at that time – I don’t think he was overtly in debt to Whitman. But I think it’s hard to be a poet in America without having Whitman standing over you.RC: And with Whitman spending his entire life reediting and reediting and changing and adding and subtracting to that poem, who could possibly have spent more time and consideration over how the line appears on the page, right?
CSL: Exactly, yeah.
RC: What do you carry in your heart from Cummings? And how did you apply it to your verse, as you came of age as a poet? Because, obviously, you read him at quite an early age.CSL: What’s interesting is that, when I first read Cummings, what appealed to me were the easy poems. The ones like “i carry your heart with me,” or “my father moved through dooms of love,” or “if there are any heavens my mother will all by herself have,” or “may I feel said he.” You know, the more accessible poems: the ones with a direct statement.
There was probably a good twenty years that went by between my reading Cummings and not reading Cummings again. I was off on so many other trajectories. And then, I have to totally credit Richard Kostelanetz for my rediscovery of Cummings. Kostelanetz put out a book called AnOther E. E. Cummings. And I get the book, thinking: first of all, Richard’s always interesting; and secondly, what’s he doing with Cummings? I wouldn’t have put Kostelanetz and Cummings together. But then, all of a sudden, I’m putting Kostelanetz and Cummings together. Richard is suddenly educating me, and showing me this whole other dimension of Cummings that I would otherwise have missed. Cummings as the master craftsman, but also as a poet who’s really attempting to change the way poetry gets read and gets written. And that was a revelation. Actually, I had the great honor of doing a presentation with Richard on Cummings at one point, about his visual-verbal pyrotechnics. It was quite wonderful.
What I carry around now are all those poems. “Plato told him”: it just keeps coming back to me, with all these wars. So, the antiwar poems are still very much alive in my memory. But also, those extraordinary experiments with language. And those leaps. There was a reason that Gertrude Stein liked Cummings so much. She got that he was pushing language out. You know, Stein’s marvelous; Stein’s doing stuff with the English language that nobody knew you could do. But Cummings was also doing it in his own quieter American way.
RC: In his more introverted, New England manner.
CSL: Yes, his introverted New England way, yeah. And it’s fascinating. So I carry that around. Quite a lot. And the whole notion that it matters how words look on a page. It matters where you begin the line on the page. It matters how you jamb the line, because it’s going to change the whole effect if you’re really paying attention. So, I guess that’s where Cummings comes across my radar screen these days.
* This interview was conducted on February 2, 2015 and first appeared online at tygersofwrath.com on May 28, 2015.
* As just one example:
Erich Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front, trans. A. W. Wheen (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1966), pp. 87-88.
* On January 7, 2015, the office of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine, was attacked by Islamic terrorists, resulting in the deaths of twelve people, including several journalists.
* Referring to the pivotal 1917 performance of Parade by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris. “Though pursued by ill luck in later performances, and rarely seen, Parade had done its work. More than any single event at that time, it set the tone for the postwar years – the tone defined by Jarry, promoted by the Rousseau banquet, and now offered to a wider public. It was a serious-humorous exploitation of popular elements in art, a turning to jazz and music hall and to all the paraphernalia of modern life, not in a spirit of realism, but with a sense of exhilaration in the absurd.” Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years: The Arts in France, 1885 to 1918 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1961), pp. 154.
* Although she claimed to have been born in 1903. See my essay, “On the Trail of the ‘Elusive’ Lillian and Marion Morehouse.”
* Tony Ungaro was acquainted with Lillian Morehouse, Marion’s sister. After Lillian bequeathed her papers to Tony, he then discovered her connection to E. E. Cummings’s wife. In July 2014, I came across some genealogical data posted by Mr. Ungaro online, and I subsequently interviewed him. For more on this, see my essay, “On the Trail of the ‘Elusive’ Lillian and Marion Morehouse.”
* This sui generis sense of having “sprung up out of nowhere” is also reflected in Marion’s one book of photographs, Adventures in Value, which contains neither a preface nor an introduction and instead relies on Cummings’s intentionally ambiguous poetic captions. According to Richard Kennedy, Marion learned the photographic craft from Edward Steichen: something that might have made for a fascinating narrative, yet the reader remains completely in the dark about how or where she first apprenticed.
Since: 28 May 2015 | Copyright © 2015 Rob Couteau