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the joy and rebellion of e.e. cummings

Susan Cheever on the poet e.e. cummings, all lower-case, and radical.

Poet e.e. cummings, pictured on the cover of Susan Cheever's new biography, "E.E. Cummings: A Life." (Random House)

Poet e.e. cummings, pictured on the cover of Susan Cheever’s new biography, “E.E. Cummings: A Life.” (Random House)

In the mid-20th century, right behind Robert Frost, e. e. cummings was the most widely read poet in the United States.  A generation of school children delighted in his impish, rule-breaking, all lower case poems.  “there are so many tictoc clocks everywhere telling people what toctic time it is,” he wrote, and impish kids got it.  It was a sweet invitation to rebellion.  He was not always sweet.  There was anger too.  And more sex than school kids ever knew.  This hour On Point:  Susan Cheever on America’s lower case rebel poet modernist, e. e. cummings.

– Tom Ashbrook


Susan Cheever, writer and author of “E.E. Cummings: A Life.” Also author of “Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography,” “Desire: Where Sex Meets Addiction,” “American Bloomsbury,” and “Home Before Dark.” (@susancheever)

From Tom’s Reading List

Vanity Fair: The Prince of Patchin Place — “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 21st 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.”

The Wall Street Journal: Book Review: ‘E.E. Cummings’ by Susan Cheever — “”Susan Cheever met Cummings, who was a friend of her father, the writer John Cheever, but her book never quite makes its ambitions clear. She provides a narrative synthesis of the three previous biographies by Charles Norman (1958), Richard S. Kennedy (1980) and Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno (2004), outlining the poet’s life from childhood to death. She plays with the chronology of events, beginning at nearly the end, then circling back as a novelist might to find the poet’s beginnings, yet the book offers virtually no new research and has little to say about Cummings’s working life.”

Cleveland Plain Dealer: Susan Cheever elegantly blends biography, memoir and cultural history in ‘E. E. Cummings: A Life’ – “At Harvard, Peck’s Bad Boy replaced the Little Lord Fauntleroy in Cummings, and Cummings père, a local minister, was not pleased. In college, Cummings fils discovered the allures of alcohol and sex, wrote for student publications and would soon begin the experiments with punctuation, capitalization, grammar and line spacing that still make his work immediately recognizable.”

Read An Excerpt From “E.E. Cummings: A Life” By Susan Cheever

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  • Duras

    Thank you On Point. Keep up the literary programing.

    • geraldfnord

      What, when there are so many ‘important’ stories that will set people’s hair on fire for a few days or months or years, only to be replaced with more such in their turn? Why pay attention to anything that experiencing and analysing might give one a deeper understanding of humanity?

      (As if I didn’t quite inflammable [in the correct sense] hair, and as if I didn’t so often have _my_ hair on fire over something momentarily resembling something important… my only defence is that my life is lived daily, and bills ‘need’ [I could live like Demosthenes, so inverted commas] paying monthly, and so do “On Point”‘s bills…and some deeper understanding of humanity can probably be gained from close reading of any transient hair-inflamer.)

  • Ed75

    For the boys are not refined.

  • J__o__h__n

    Using the lowercase is false humility. Look at how humble i am!

    • Maureen Roy

      That reputation was more of a stylistic remnant of the publishers.

      Name and capitalization[edit]

      Cummings’s publishers and others have sometimes echoed the unconventional orthography in his poetry by writing his name in lowercase and without periods (full stops), but normal orthography (uppercase and full stops) is supported by scholarship, and preferred by publishers today.[33] Cummings himself used both the lowercase and capitalized versions, though he most often signed his name with capitals.[33]

      The use of lowercase for his initials was popularized in part by the title of some books, particularly in the 1960s, printing his name in lower case on the cover and spine. In the preface to E. E. Cummings: the growth of a writer by Norman Friedman, critic Harry T. Moore notes “He [Cummings] had his name put legally into lower case, and in his later books the titles and his name were always in lower case.”[34] According to Cummings’s widow, however, this is incorrect.[33] She wrote to Friedman: “you should not have allowed H. Moore to make such a stupid & childish statement about Cummings & his signature.” On February 27, 1951, Cummings wrote to his French translator D. Jon Grossman that he preferred the use of upper case for the particular edition they were working on.[35] One Cummings scholar believes that on the rare occasions Cummings signed his name in all lowercase, he may have intended it as a gesture of humility, not as an indication that it was the preferred orthography for others to use.[33]

      Critic Edmund Wilson commented “Mr. Cummings’s eccentric punctuation is, also, I believe, a symptom of his immaturity as an artist. It is not merely a question of an unconventional usage: unconventional punctuation may very well gain its effect… the really serious case against Mr. Cummings’s punctuation is that the results which it yields are ugly. His poems on the page are hideous.”[

      • Maureen Roy

        (From his wikipedia entry)

  • Ed75

    Sounds very Christian, was he Christian?

    • Maureen Roy

      Unitarian to be specific.

      • Ed75

        Harvard Unitarians, makes sense. By the end of the interview he sounded less Christian, indeed. Every picture I see of Cummings he seems to have an inner tension, inner agony. I wonder if it’s because one can’t live as a convincing pagan since the advent of Christ.

        • Maureen Roy

          Yes, “Angst” is the word that always comes to mind. He was clearly struggling with his own identity as a Boston Brahmin (and human in general) – he tried to color outside of the lines but in the end didn’t stray that far, returning to Harvard and its useful framework if nothing else…

  • Michael Abrams

    am a very eclectic reader and find the excerpts of this book wonderful. I am not a fan of the known and unknown purveyors of critical remarks on books, movies and other media who have only their self service in mind when they critique.

  • jenuphoto

    tom – a small correction: ‘nude descending a staircase’ was painted by marcel duchamp not picasso

  • Maureen Roy

    It was clear to me even many years ago as an English major in college that this was the voice of an older or “mature” soul… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E._E._Cummings


  • Jamber

    all ignorance toboggans into know
    and trudges up to ignorance again:
    but winter’s not forever,even snow
    melts;and if spring should spoil the game,what then?

  • Maureen Roy

    Just have to add – fabulous point by Susan Cheever about Anger and Writing and the perception thereof…as though there were any better place to channel it than into an art form for safe, paced consumption. Try being a female writer in this day and age!

  • ExcellentNews

    MOV 01001101 EAX
    FORWARD :]

  • Don_B1

    When confronting great art, it would be really arrogant to claim that one fully understands it, the artist almost certainly does not fully understand it.

    But take pleasure in that your father did have a sufficient understanding to be able to give a great reading of the work at your wedding. Clearly the poem made a big impression on him, and through that, on you.

  • Jacob Arnon

    I hate it when writers excuse people’ antisemitism. Ms. Cheever who should know better decides that since Cummings didn’t care “just didn’t care” about conventional rules that it is ok for him to be a bigot. Cummings btw was also a racist who used the N word whenever he felt like it.

    On another note I recently tried to read The enormous Room and found it an Enorous Bore.

  • Guest

    Tom doesn’t believe Picasso painted Explosion in a Shingle Factory (Nude Descending a Staircas), does he?

  • marygrav

    e. e. Cummings is the man for today. Listen to Talk of Iowa, where John Cheever once taught, on Iowa Public Radio (IPR) whose headline today is “How the Iowa Writers Workshop Flattened Literature,” Wednesday February 12, 2014, and how Christopher Merrill defends the indefescible of CIA financing.

    Commings would have taken him on and ate him up.

  • samuelpepys

    I just read the opening page of Ms. Cheever’s biography. Did she really call e. e. cummings “this country’s only true modernist poet” or are my eyes playing tricks on me?! If Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, Marianne Moore and T. S. Eliot–for instance–are not Modernist poets, then I can’t guess what she means by “modernist.” Or maybe by “true.”

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