In ‘E.E. Cummings,’ Susan Cheever offers a modest narrative of the poet

by Rachel Baker on August 2, 2014

When I was but a very young girl – so young I think I was still at an elementary school that only catered up to 3rd grade, I ran across my mother’s copy of an e.e. cummings poetry book. I was just learning about sentence structures and how you were supposed to do certain things like, capitalize the first word in a sentence – and dear old Ms. Ganary had taught us a little bit about poetry, but not much – just little phrases of poetry, nothing as complex Shakespeare, Dickenson or even Frost for that matter.

I will never forget the feeling I had when I poured through this little tiny blue fabric covered book with no punctuation. I was astounded. How could there be rules, and no rules? I didn’t understand, but I suspect this was the moment I decided just because there were rules didn’t mean I had to follow them. More importantly, this was most likely the moment I began to want to be a writer. Of course, then, I didn’t understand there was more to the words on the page than just cool formats and no punctuation. All I saw was that someone had written little phrases of meaning (which was all I really knew of poetry at the time) without using all the rules I was learning.

I hadn’t thought of that little book until today when I ran across this review of Susan Cheever’s E.E. Cummings. The review is well written, the book seems to leave a lot to be desired, and I suspect if someone wants to research and learn who cummings was, this book would be a good start.

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.

Book review: In ‘E.E. Cummings,’ Susan Cheever offers a modest narrative of the poet

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