REBECCA HASWELL CUMMINGS was an indefatigable diarist and preserver of papers, and as a result it is known with great precision exactly when the labor pains began for the birth of her son, the poet E. E. Cummings (12:30 a.m., October 14, 1894). It is also recorded that the first word he uttered was "Hurrah," an exclamation that recurs, with variations, throughout the life chronicled in Richard S. Kennedy's Dreams in the Mirror .
The first rhyme that he uttered (at age three) is similarly preserved: "Oh my little birdie oh/With his little toe, toe, toe!" This simple jingle, too, was echoed in his later life -- for example, in the 1926 collection, is 5: Jimmie's got a goil goil goil . . .
Such juvenilia are more important in the consideration of Cummings than they are for most poets, because a significant part of him remained (or because again) a child. That child's voice is what most clearly makes Cummings (in his biographer's soberly accurate phrase) "one of America's unforgettable poets."
He was, however, a child whose verbal skill operated at an extraordinarily high level, yet with a patient self-discipline often underlying the air of spontaneity. He was a child who had studied the Greek and Roman classics thoroughly in their original languages. He had a child's sharp eye for pretense and self-inflation, and like a child he spoke openly and directly -- if not always simply -- about what he saw. He was childlike in the uncritical spirit of affirmation which led him to publish poems of little or no value next to masterpieces, childlike in his delight at grasshoppers and stars and funny little tricks with words. The bird who hops through his first poem also hope regularly in and out of the 800-plus (too many, of course) pages of his collected poems, and it takes a central place in one of his most basic statements: I'd rather learn from one bird how to sing than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance
The poet as child (a role Cummings filled more successfully than anyone since William Blake) fell into academic disfavor during the latter years of his life. Poetry had moved from Bohemia into Academia (you can't really blame the poor thing; it might have starved, otherwise). Poems were written like riddles, analyzed like philosophical theorems, and critics were sometimes baffled in their quest for the denotative content of Cumming's variations on "Hurrah."
Allen Tate, who should have known better, inflicted on Cummings one of the most remarkably wrongheaded statements in critical literature: "He has a great many styles, and having these he has none at all." Cummings did have several styles. Besides that of a child saying "Hurray," it is useful to distinguish five others, which may be used alone or blended in various ways. Best known is the style of the word-wizard, who juggles letters on the page, delighting in the way their graphic form interacts with their meaning. The persona style and the satirical are frequently but not necessarily linked as he holds American businessmen, politicians, tough guys and run-of-the-mill cretins up for inspection. Finally, he is a memorable poet of love in both the idealistic mode and the erotic (which can be funny or simply intense).
Yet leaving aside questions of quality, this list indicates a range of voices and modes matched by few poets in our language since William Shakespeare, and Cummings resembles Shakespeare also in another non-qualitative but verifiable quality -- the instant recognizability of his work. To complain that he has no style is, in effect, to wish that Shakespeare had written more like Milton.
Like Milton, Cummings had a private life sometimes too colorful for comfort -- particularly the comfort of those around him. His first wife, Elaine, to cite one example, was still the wife of his patron Scofield Thayer when (with her husband's acquiescence) she became the mother of Cumming's daughter, Nancy. Also like Milton, Cummings had some political ideas that most people now find unacceptable -- he was, for example, a supporter of Senator Joseph McCarthy. For some critics, it is easier to overlok such foibles in a poet of the 17th century than in one of our own time. o
Probably the worst mistake Cummings made, in terms of career-advancement, was to visit Russia in 1931 and later to publish a book, EIMI , that discussed his experience and mortally affronted the artsy-fashionable Marxists of the '30s. This earned him rich stores of critical venom that may not, even yet, be completely discharged.
Part of this animus may have been based on a feeling of betrayal. Years before, when Communist demonstrators were being beaten up by "flics" in the Place de L'Etoile, Cummings had written a poem which may have made them think he was on their side: the communists have fine Eyes some are young some old none look alike . . .
But Cummings had not been charmed by dialectical materialism and he was not dreaming of a workers' paradise. Always essentially an individualist and a conservative, even when his poems were cast in very experimental forms, he had sympathized with the Communists because they were underdogs and did not look alike. But in Russia, the "flics" were Communists and conformity was rigidly enforced. The trip to Russia colored the rest of the poet's life, becoming an occasional motif in his work and more so in his conversation. To make it worse, "progressive" critics could not dismiss him simply as a fascist (he was equally hard on Hitler, Mussolini and assorted American politicians), so they had to question his value as a poet.
This value, in his published work, is uneven but, at its frequent best, unquestionably high. Part of his work is topical and its impact will fade when footnotes become necessary to explain the advertising slogans he parodies or perhaps even the identity of Buffalo Bill, for whom he wrote a splendidly ambivalent elegy. But other poems should retain their power as long as people look up to the stars in wonder or fall in love.
In deciding to write a biography of Cummings, Richard S. Kennedy undertook a specially challenging task. Most of the poet's own work is autobiographical in one way or another, and besides there has been for years a sort of "official" biography: E. E. Cummings: The Magic-Maker , by Charles Norman, written by a friend and rather closely controlled by Cummings. Norman omits or dismisses with a few sentences many personal episodes which Cummings wanted suppressed and which Kennedy handles tastefully but in satisfying detail.
There might have been much more detail; the biography was originally drafted in two volumes, but the hard realities of contemporary publishing forced drastic cuts. Kennedy notes, rather wistfully, that the Cummings papers at Harvard's Houghton Library are "perhaps the largest collection in existence of the papers of an American writer, even larger than the Thomas Wolfe collection."
Cummings had little use for academics, and he might be inclined to criticize this work or to resent its invasion of his cherished privacy. But the right to privacy, for a notable artist, ends or at least changes at death, and Kennedy handles his subject with an understanding and sympathy that could not be automatically expected. Besides providing a wealth of previously unpublished biographical detail, he ventures discreetly and convincingly into psychological analysis, and his examination of some of the poems uncovers details that might have been missed previously even by avid admirers of Cummings.
One weakness that crops up in a few places is that he is not as familiar with Latin and Greek as Cummings was. For instance, in discussing the title of EIMI , he notes that it is the form of "I am," an often-noted fact. But he does not memtion that the same English letters Though they would have a different accent in Greek) are also the verb, "I do" -- a meaning highly relevant to a book about the poet's travels. Thus, the title, besides having phonetically the forms "I" and "me," presenting the first person singular both subjectively and objectively, also summarizes succinctly the book's dual subject: the poet's identity and his travels. A lot of work for one four-letter word.
Despite an occasional slip and academicism, Dreams in the Mirror should be the basic reference on Cummings until some publisher is found who will be adventurous enough to put out the two-volume version of this carefully planned, useful and highly readable study.