E.E. Cummings: A Life by Susan Cheever, Pantheon, 240 pages, $26.95. It is one of the minor tragedies of the rock era that rock and rap and their allied musical arts have almost obviated the need for e.e. cummings. In a prerock era, reasonably literate teenagers could count on a time in adolescence when cummings was the perfect poet – so much a rebel that he blasted punctuation right off the page, signed his name in lower case and wrote erotic poems with almost perfect pitch for adolescent sensibilities (“may i feel said he/i’ll squeal said she”).
He was a great 20th century Romantic poet whose works, on the page, seemed as if some ravenous garden pest had eaten through the punctuation, grammar and connective verbal tissue leaving only minor modernist masterpieces where lyricism and sarcasm met. Modern LANGUAGE poets love cummings’ precedent. As a pubescent fan, I had the pleasure of hearing him read at the University of Buffalo (before it became a state school). The last line of “Buffalo Bill” – “how do you like your blueyed boy/ Mister Death”) – was delivered with a nasty snarl. It was virtually designed, it seemed, to prove Camus’ proposition that there is no fate that cannot be overcome by scorn.
Here, unexpectedly, is a terrific biography of cummings profoundly distinguished by a lot of things: 1) intimate proximity (Susan Cheever’s great fiction writing father John was a younger friend and admirer of cummings); 2) brevity (at 240 pages, everything in this book counts; it’s not one of those literary biographies that take you from a writer’s breakfast up through lunch on a random Tuesday just because it can); and 3) willingness to encounter clearly a lot of things about cummings and his life that have soured considerably for posterity. There’s the rank anti-Semitism of Harvard in his youth and his own later years. And there was an admiration for Sen. Joseph McCarthy, for another (his great lower-case writing Harvard roommate John Dos Passos made a late-period right turn too.)
Above all, as anyone might expect, it is well-written about a poet who wrote “I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing/than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.” – Jeff Simon