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Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno, E.E. Cummings: A Biography, Methuen

The American poet E. E. Cummings, writing mainly in the inter-war years, is probably first remembered for the rendering of his name in lower case, “e.e. cummings”. If so, this is a mis-remembering: he preferred the conventional style for his own name, and insisted on it for the title page of each of his books. Faced with the striking look of his poetry, though, even as attentive a reader as his fellow poet William Carlos Williams referred to him as “cummings” and the form has stuck.

Cummings declared that English was the most egotistic of languages for capitalising its first person singular, so he used “i” instead. He used all capitals sparingly and when they were deployed, as with the word “Now” in a late poem about snow, “Beautiful”, they carried charge. The reading of the poem parallels the delicate transience of snow, its slowness, its gentleness, and there are complex sound effects which may relate to snow’s anomalous nature, caught between solid and liquid.

Many of his poems are untitled, perhaps in a painterly way, since Cummings was also a considerable artist. Readers approach them without the pre-emptive summary, nod or wink, that titles can sometimes be. Privately, Cummings was dismissive of what he saw as an unintelligent general public but as a poet he made poems which trust the reader to experience his work without guidelines. Influenced by French poetry, he experimented with the look of the poem, unsticking words from the gluey lefthand margin so that they might live and breathe across a little bit more of the paper field. In his wellknown poem about a “grasshopper”, the word’s letters jump about like the creature itself, beginning with the mixed-up “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r”. The letters form their recognisable shape only in the last line, like a pleasurable riddle.

This new biography is rightly a sympathetic guide to his poetry as well as to his life. Poetry was so much of it. And it documents the central paradox within Cummings: his assertion of the absolute rights of the individual, while all the time being dependent on private funds from his wealthy East Coast family and friends. Cummings seldom had to work, and when he was briefly imprisoned in France during the First World War for appearing too sympathetic to ordinary German soldiers he relied on US Government intervention for his release.

At first sight his refined aesthetic sensibilities make him an unlikely father of modern protest poetry, but his attack on America’s cynicism over the Hungarian uprising, “THANKSGIVING (1956)”, in which he suggests the Statue of Liberty should be buried as a stinking corpse, was one point of reference for younger writers of a very different ideological hue, notably Allen Ginsberg. In his poem “Buffalo Bill ‘s / defunct”, an elegy not just for the cowboy but for the gun-toting childhood of the United States, there is even a premonition of the camp, sad, beautiful poems of Frank O’Hara.

Cummings was almost as Anti-Semitic as his friend Ezra Pound. He was homophobic in the last half of his life despite the extraordinary generosity of the gay confidants who sustained him in the first half. He was tragically self-isolating, even towards his long estranged daughter, yet he was the author of poems of great tenderness: Cummings’ complex story is told openly and readably in this fine biography.

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