I am a little church (no great cathedral)
far from the splendor and squalor of hurrying cities. . .
— “Poem 77” from “95 Poems,” by E.E. Cummings
The imaginative scope and literary ambition of Edward Estlin Cummings, a central figure in modernist poetry, belies the modesty expressed in that poem. He believed his task was an almost messianic refashioning of how the mind is able to inhabit language, reforming our notions of what constitutes a poem.
Fittingly, the major biographical treatments of the poet have been of cathedral-like proportions. Richard S. Kennedy’s “Dreams in the Mirror” (1980) was a 544-page masterpiece of research and reflection. Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno’s “E.E. Cummings” (2004) was even heftier and made use a trove of newly released papers housed in Harvard’s Houghton Library.
But it’s astonishing how far Cummings’s literary star has fallen. When he died in 1962, the only poet more widely read in the United States was Robert Frost. The man whom Ezra Pound called “Whitman’s one living descendant” is rarely read today nor taught much outside the precincts of the high school classroom. We’re overdue for a reexamination of Cummings and his place in the canon — perhaps, this time, something aimed at a general readership, a little chapel of insight and appreciation to encourage a new generation to discover the pleasures of this inventive and bracingly lyrical poet.
So I was excited by the publication of Susan Cheever’s “E.E. Cummings.” I hoped the popular memoirist, biographer and novelist might be able to deliver just such a book. If only.
Cheever begins promisingly enough by tracing the source of her enthusiasm for the poet. She’s the daughter of John Cheever, the master of American short stories. As a 14-year-old, she met the man her father called “a beloved friend and adviser.” Cummings visited her high school for a reading, an electrifying experience. Afterward, father and daughter drove the poet from Westchester County, N.Y., to his home in Manhattan, and the young girl was enthralled by the interchange between two men for whom spirited language was as necessary as oxygen. Cummings invited them in for coffee and conversation, but, due to the late hour, they declined. “Now, in this book,” Cheever writes, “I would like to take him up on that invitation.”
But what follows in her slim volume (190 pages, excluding the notes and generous selection of photographs) is a modest narrative that traces the colorful and emotionally tangled path of Cummings’s life, but which only sporadically penetrates to the core of this mercurial man, part eternal child, part revolutionary artist.
We follow Cummings from his childhood in the shadow of Harvard University (where his father, a distinguished professor, was a magisterial presence) to his years as a rebellious but gifted student. As his poetry begins to garner national attention, we glimpse his friendships with many of the leading intellectuals of his day (Hart Crane, John Dos Passos, William Carlos Williams, Picasso and others) and explore with some depth his three challenging marriages.
Since this volume contributes little original research, its success depends upon offering readers a deeper insight into what made Cummings unique and influential. It must provide the sort of dramatic portrayals that are the novelist’s bread-and-butter.
Unfortunately, there are precious few moments where Cheever conveys much more than a bare-bones portrait of this complex man. Her analysis of what motivated Cummings rarely rises far above the level of pop psychology. Although she heaps praise on many of the poet’s radical experiments, her descriptions rarely contain the sort of passionate unveiling necessary to inspire the uninitiated.
In the matter of style, where Cheever should have excelled, it’s sad to note her approach is surprisingly pedestrian. She has a tendency to resort to certain words and phrases until the repetition chafes. Too often, she skips back and forth in time within a matter of a few pages, muddying the narrative flow. Occasionally, there are curious flourishes that simply left me scratching my head. How do you explain a line like this, referring to Cummings’s only child?: “Was there an evil fairy presiding on the night of Nancy’s conception?”
The occasions when her writing does rise into the realm of strong, poetic prose usually involve not historical detail, but territory she’s experienced firsthand (landscapes especially important to the poet in Cambridge, Mass.; Greenwich Village; and New Hampshire) or the precarious emotional terrain involved with Cummings’s attempt to reclaim a relationship with his estranged daughter (again, a situation with which Cheever has some intimate knowledge). Would that this voice had been more sustained throughout the biography.
“So many selves (so many fiends and gods / each greedier than every) is a man,” Cummings once wrote. He would be the first to warn us of anything that reduces the galactic and contradictory self to something small and neatly comprehensible. It is a shame, as Cheever observes, that the poet is better known today “for abjuring upper case letters than for his poems or books.”
I’m grateful that this biography will stir some new interest in Cummings’s work. I only wish it was the deep personal journey that the opening augured, rather than a brief itinerary we are left to flesh out on our own.
Ratiner’s interview collection, “Giving Their Word: Conversations with Contemporary Poets,” has been reissued in a new paperback edition.
By Susan Cheever
213 pp. $26.95