somewhere i have never traveled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near
On the whole Cummings is well-served by Sawyer-Lauçanno, who treats his many eccentricities and self-indulgences kindly and who reads his work with care and understanding. What he says about Cummings's first book of poems, Tulips and Chimneys (1923) applies to all of his work: "Even when Cummings falters, he is still interesting, worth reading, and always has something to say. But perhaps, most important, his voice is always his own: genuine, unique, and resonant." He is not an especially graceful writer, but he gets the job done.
It should be noted that this biography is based, apart from Cummings's work, almost entirely on secondary sources; Sawyer-Lauçanno insists that it is "largely the result of archival research," but there can be no question that he relies heavily on Kennedy's biography. As a case in point, I was stopped cold by Sawyer-Lauçanno's account of an important event in Cummings's life of which I have personal knowledge. In the spring of 1935 he gave his first public reading, at Bennington College in Vermont. My mother, who was then 20 years old and an ardent reader of Cummings's poetry (she remained one all her life), was in the audience, which received him with wild enthusiasm. It was an occasion she never forgot and loved to talk about, so I read Sawyer-Lauçanno's account of it with particular interest. Since his Notes make no reference to anything in his two-paragraph account, I referred to Kennedy to see if he'd gotten it right.
A little too right, it seems. Here the two authors describe Cummings's response to the students' lavish, noisy welcome, in which they recited en masse his famous poem about the death of Buffalo Bill. Kennedy: "He was so overcome by the whole display that he did not know what to say. Flustered, he took the handkerchief from his breast pocket and waved it at them." Sawyer-Lauçanno: "Flummoxed, he simply stood in the wings. . . . Finally, after the third complete recitation of the poem he walked onto the stage, plucked a handkerchief from his breast pocket and waved at the adoring crowd."
There are, of course, only so many ways to tell the same story, and each account supplies details that the other does not. But Sawyer-Lauçanno's failure to identify his sources for this specific incident left me wondering about his sources elsewhere. No doubt a more thorough Notes section would have cleared up the mystery, and his editor and publisher are to be faulted for not insisting on one.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is email@example.com.