This short excerpt from the preface to E.E Cummings: A Life by Susan Cheever, ©2014, was a big help to me in understanding his poems. It’s a tremendous relief to know I’m not supposed to “get it” right away:
Modernism as (E.E.) Cummings and his mid-twentieth-century colleagues embraced it had three parts. The first was the exploration of using sounds instead of meanings to connect words to the reader’s feelings. The second was the idea of stripping away all unnecessary things to bring attention to form and structure: the formerly hidden skeleton of a work would now be exuberantly visible. The third facet of modernism was an embrace of adversity. In a world seduced by easy understanding, the modernists believed that difficulty enhanced the pleasures of reading. In a Cummings poem the reader must often pick his way toward comprehension, which comes, when it does, in a burst of delight and recognition.
Excerpted from the preface to E.E Cummings: A Life by Susan Cheever, ©2014
Princeton poet Richard P. Blackmur said (E.E.) Cummings’s poems were “baby talk,” and poetry arbiter Helen Vendler called them repellent and foolish: “What is wrong with a man who writes this?” she asked.
Nothing was wrong with Cummings– or Duchamp or Stravinsky or Joyce, for that matter. All were trying to slow down the seemingly inexorable rush of the world, to force people to notice their own lives. In the twenty-first century, that rush has now reached Force-Five; we are all inundated with information and given no time to wonder what it means or where it came from. Access without understanding and facts without context have become our daily diet.
Excerpted from Toward One World: The Life of Wendell Willkie by Bill Severn, ©1967:
Another difficulty was his lack of any sense of time. When he was interested in something, time meant little to him and he found it hard to become used to the military day with activities regulated to specific hours. In later years he never wore or carried a watch, refusing to be made conscious of the pressure of minutes by any ticking device on his person. He said that if it was ever really vital to know what time it was, he could always ask somebody.
When you’re doing something with other people, scheduling becomes important. If you get up early to go church at eight-o’clock, but the service doesn’t start until ten-o’clock because the pastor is engrossed in playing his banjo, you’ll be understandably (and justifiably) upset.
But there is a certain undeniable charm in not having to look at a clock, so I think it’s important to schedule some unscheduled time just to fart around in.
Excerpted from Misia by Robert Fizdale and Arthur Gold © 1980, Misia Natanson writes of her friendship with the poet Paul Verlaine:
It was there that I struck up a friendship with Paul Verlaine. Usually between benders, and always sad, he would come in the early evening, sit down with me, drink, read me beautiful poems, and weep.
One felt the unconquerable, the tragic youthfulness of his heart. Somewhere behind that immense forehead lived a soul which knew the uttermost bounds of purity. This drunken bum zigzagging across the Latin Quarter, this luminous beggar dragging his feet in the mud was conscious only of the sky. The horror of being ugly, of being ugly every day, without respite, every minute, even when his heart was dazzled by love for another being, had gradually taught him a profound humility. The blows of life? He had brushed them all aside. They did not prevent him from coming back to sit at a sticky marble café table, order an absinthe and a dreadful little pen, scratchy and squeaky, one of those pens born to be dipped into the inkwells of the poor… His were simple words, transformed into treasures…
It was my tender memory of this little café which made me go to see him in the hospital when I heard he was seriously ill. I shall never forget that poor ravaged face, the long shaky hand he could barely lift to take mine and the light in his feverish eyes that tried desperately to express what his lips no longer had the strength to say… Two days later Verlaine died. His funeral procession, and Debussy’s, were the only ones I ever followed on foot.
Paul Verlaine died in Paris in at the age of 51 in 1906. A nice collection of his poems, translated into English, is available online at Poetry In Translation.
Excerpted from A Remarkable Mother by Jimmy Carter, © 2008:
When the reporter arrived at the Pond House, Mama (Lillian Carter) instructed her that she would not answer any questions about my boyhood, because all of it was covered in my book Why Not The Best? Soon, however, an inevitable question came:
“Miss Lillian, your son claims that he will never tell a lie. Do you believe him when he says this?”
Mama: “Well, Jimmy has always been truthful, and I have confidence that he won’t change.”
Reporter: “Do you mean that he has never in his life told a lie?”
After a short pause, Mama replied, “Well, maybe a little white lie every now and then.”
The reporter leaned forward with her microphone and said, “Aha! Aha! And what do you mean by ‘a little white lie?'”
Mama said, “Well, do you remember a few minutes ago when I met you at the door and said that you look very nice and that I was glad to see you?”
Three things I learned about Vincent Van Gogh from reading Van Gogh by Pierre Cabanne, © 1961:
- When Van Gogh took up painting, late in life, he began by taking lessons, visiting museums to study the works of the masters, and inviting established artists to critique his work. In the popular imagination he simply sat down at his canvas and let the genius flow forth– and there was an element of that– but he had carefully laid the foundation.
- He didn’t cut off his whole ear, just the tip of his earlobe. That’s still disturbing and indicative of a troubled mind, but far less ghastly than if he had lopped off the whole thing.
- While it is true he sold only a single painting while alive, his career had a major breakthrough shortly before his suicide. A respected art critic had published a glowing review of his work, and he was being contacted by other successful painters who were intrigued by his work and wanted to meet him and exchange paintings. He had several public exhibitions which were widely attended and brought positive attention. He had every objective reason to be optimistic.
This excerpt from Zelda by Nancy Milford, ©1970, describes an incident that took place when she was in her mid-twenties, before mental illness consumed her life. She must have been quite a force of nature:
When Zelda indulged in high jinks that summer there was a quality about the performance that was striking; she seemed unconcerned about the presence of others and that gave her actions an unforgettable touch. One evening the Murphys and the Fitzgeralds were sitting at a table in the Casino at Juan-les-Pins. It was very late and nearly everyone had gone home. Zelda rose from the table and raising her skirts above her waist began to dance. Motionless, Scott sat watching her. When the orchestra caught on it played to her. At first the Murphys were startled, and then, Gerald said, “I remember it was perfect music for her to dance to and soon the Frenchmen who were left gathered about the archways leading to the small dance area near our table gaped at her– they expected to see a show, something spectacular. Well, it was spectacular, but not at all in the way they had expected it to be. She was dancing for herself; she didn’t look left or right, or catch anyone’s eyes. She looked at no one, not once, not even at Scott. I saw a mass of lace ruffles as she whirled– I’ll never forget it. We were frozen. She had the tremendous natural dignity. She was so self-possessed, so absorbed in her dance. Somehow she was incapable of doing anything unladylike.”