Friday, April 13, 2007

Book Review: E.E. Cummings: a poet's life


E.E. Cummings

I discovered the poetry of e.e. cummings (as I saw it published then) when I was in high school. His whimsy of thought appealed to me, as did his use of the white space of the page. Many of his poems look the way they sound.

But I hadn't thought of his poems in years until I saw this book, by Catherine Reef, in the library. Ms. Reef writes primarily for young people, so her style is rather simple and straightforward. This is not a bad way to be introduced to a poet I knew little about.

Cummings was born in Cambridge, MA, in 1894. He grew up there and went to Harvard. He received a classical education in liberal arts and he knew how to write poetry in the traditional forms.

This is important. E.E. Cummings chose to break the rules for a specific purpose. (Unlike some of today's poets and writers who I suspect break the rules because they don't know any better.) And he wrote and rewrote his poems until they were exactly what he wanted.

In addition, Cummings was a painter. In fact, early in his career he made more money from his paintings than he did from his poetry.

He volunteered as an ambulance driver in France during WWII and was, in many ways, one of the Lost Generation of the 1920's. (The Lost Generation are the grandparents of us Baby Boomers--and I think we have a lot in common with them. But that's a subject for another post.) He lived in Europe, an allowance from his parents supplementing his meager earnings. He fell in love with his best friend's wife, who didn't seem to mind all that much. She bore Cummings' child. Later she divorced her first husband and married Cummings only to divorce him 9 months later. He was devastated, especially since she took complete custody of their daughter (who grew up believing her mother's first husband was her father). He married a second time; that also ended in divorce. He never officially married his third "wife," and their living arrangements were rather odd, to say the least.

Ms. Reef notes that Cummings preferred his name be capitalized correctly--even if his poetry wasn't.

The poems printed in this biography are used to illustrate what Cummings tried to accomplish with his poetry: either a comment on the state of the world or a way to make the poem visually reflect the action or thought described. Cummings did not receive recognition for his poetry until close to the end of his life (he died in 1962). He believed a poet should embrace Life and so all experiences--pain, sorrow, joy, hope--were important.

I was very happy that Ms. Reef, probably mindful of her audience, did not indulge in psycho-sexual deconstruction of Cummings poetry, his relationship with women or his father or his friends, but just presented the facts of Cummings' life. As much as possible, she quoted Cummings own words.

On the March Hare scale: 3.5 out of 5 Golden Bookmarks