Catherine Reef’s ’06 biographyof E.E. Cummings

. . .

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old . . .

(E.E. Cummings; from Collected Poems, 1938)

Catherine Reefs 06 biographyof EE Cummings I just finished reading Catherine Reef’s E.E. Cummings: A Poet’s Life (Clarion Books; December 2006; library copy). I’m a big ‘ol E.E.* fan, but I was surprised at how little I knew of his life. Reef does a fine job of not only bringing this unconventional, provocative poet’s life to the reader (from his birth in Cambridge in 1894 to his death in 1962 at his beloved Joy Farm in New Hampshire at the age of sixty-seven) in an engaging prose, but she weaves into the biography many details about and a respect and appreciation for his poetry. The book is meticulously-documented with Reef’s source notes as well.

Beginning with his early life in Cambridge, Reef provides a detailed description of the city during the late 19th century when Cummings was a wee child (having been the firstborn and christened Edward after his father, but using his middle name, Estlin), and she takes us into his loving childhood home. His father, Edward Cummings, taught sociology at Harvard and in 1900 left the university to become a Unitarian minister in Boston. His mother, Rebecca, was “the most amazing person I’ve ever met,” E.E. once said, and eventually Edward and Rebecca added a girl to the family, E.E.’s sister, Elizabeth. Reef’s determined efforts to make the growing Cummings relate to a contemporary teen are effective (“He was a fair-haired young man with hazel eyes and a thin nose and who was so self-conscious about his acne that he hid his face behind a newspaper when riding on streetcars”), explaining that in high school — at Cambridge Latin School -– he was younger and smaller than most of his classmates and avoided sports. A fellow student, she writes, once joked, “God forgive us for our short Cummings.” In his spare time, he wrote poems inspired by nature and religion and tried to imitate the style of the New England poets on whose verses he had been raised (Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, etc.).

After taking us through his college years at Harvard (and his initial attempts there to find his unique voice as a poet as well as a cubist-style, avant garde painter), we read how Cummings joined the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Service, a Red Cross unit that was aiding the French army in WWI, which very much appealed to pacifists at that time, and his subsequent arrest along with comrade William Slater Brown. They were arrested on suspicion of espionage, having openly expressed pacifist opinions and seen as a possible enemy of France. They were tossed into a French concentration camp (that is, places of internment for prisoners of war or those whom the government suspected of spying -– this was before operational Nazi death camps, of course) in Normandy where they stayed for a little over three months. In a letter home to his mother, Cummings -– who had been eager to see a side of life he had not seen before -– wrote from prison, “I am having the time of my life!”

1707374447 341 Catherine Reefs 06 biographyof EE CummingsReef paints a portrait of the adult Cummings as very carefree and so entirely focused on his work to the point of single-mindedness and an irresponsibility toward the personal relationships in his life. She takes us through his romantic affairs, including the one with Elaine Orr Thayer with whom he had a child, Nancy. Though he tried to connect with Nancy as a child, his relationship with Elaine became strained and she went to great efforts to isolate Cummings from Nancy. We also read about how the adult Nancy made a sincere attempt to forge a tight father-daughter bond with Cummings, but he -– and his companion at the time, Marion Morehouse -– resisted. We are given an account of a man whose one, true love in life was, without any doubt, his writing. Beyond his personal relationships, she tells us about his colleagues and friends, particularly his free-spirited lifestyle while living in Greenwich Village circa 1917; his publication in 1922 of The Enormous Room (his Pilgrim’s Progress-esque fictional account of his prison confinement) and the passionate — for both good and bad — responses from critics; his playwriting, including the 1920 production of Him, which “laid groundwork for theater of the absurd”; his advice to his sister (“NEVER BE AFRAID . . . NEVER take ANYONE’S word for ANYTHING. Find out for yourself!!!! . . . There is no such thing as ‘doing wrong’ or ‘being right about something’ -– these are 4th hand absurdities invented by the aged in order to prevent the young from being alive)”; the publication of four fairy tales he wrote for Nancy as a girl, published by Harcourt, Brace and World as a children’s book in 1965 (which was news to me); his anti-war poems (Reef’s segues from one period of Cummings’ life to another are well-done, but I did cringe at this attempt to transition from his anti-war poetry into a discussion of his diagnosis in later life of arthritis of the spine: “If some of Cummings’s poems sounded cranky, it may be because he was in pain.” Yeesh. I think it diminishes his passionate anti-war sentiments and wish she had chosen a gentler seque); and how the “mutability of life” increasingly became a central theme in Cummings’ work (such as in this poem, one of my all-time favorites).

Reef’s inclusion of commentary on Cummings’ unique, unorthodox style makes this an excellent introduction for students (and adults) who are perhaps a bit baffled by his idiosyncratic typography, line breaks, capitalization, punctuation, etc. Here are some examples of what she touches upon that even I, as a long-time E.E. fan, enjoyed reading:

  • How he “used every aspect of writing, from spacing to capitalization to punctuation (or its absence), to add meaning to his poetry. A lowercase i let readers know that the poet was referring to his private self. A capital letter might give emphasis, or it might suggest more than one way of interpreting the poet’s lines.” (Reef documents Cummings’ many struggles in trying to find a publisher to pay careful attention to his innovations, such as the placement of commas and quirks of capitalization, which Cummings called “my Firstness.” On page 121 of the book, Reef includes Cummings’ worksheet for the poem “maggie and milly and molly and may.” He filled more than twenty sheets of paper with typed and penciled revisions before the final version);
  • How he would sometimes capitalize words in the middle of a sentence and how it would hint that this word also begins a thought, if just a minor one;
  • How “n the personal vocabulary of E. E. Cummings, artist and human being, the word is is very important. It means pure feeling, which is the highest state of awareness. Thought is a step below emotion, because by thinking we feel incompletely. Belief is lower still, a state of incomplete thought”;
  • How Cummings “tore words apart as a way of separating the sounds of syllables and letters from their meaning. He forced readers to proceed slowly, to relish these delicious sounds as they gradually put the words back together and discovered what the poem said . . .”;
  • How “he pried a word open with a phrase wrapped in parentheses to show that two events or thoughts occur at the same time . . .” (Cummings told Charles “Cap” Pearce, an editor at Harcourt Brace, “with few exceptions, my poems are essentially pictures”);
  • How he left some words unwritten, “reminding us of the way speech can trail off into thought, and how words unspoken can still be understood” ;
  • How he used negative prefixes and suffixes to stress what was missing (such as when he visited the Soviet Union and the poetry that came out of those travels). Cummings, Reef tells us, liked to joke that his poetry was “all done with mirrors.”
  • The book closes with a list of Cummings’ major published works as well as a glossary of poetry terms.

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