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In my first college English class, we read a startling poem written by a man I had never heard of. It began, "the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds...:" Along with many who had encountered the work of e.e.cummings, I felt an astonishment at the boldness, the invitation to stretch the mind to view the world differently, to enjoy the play of words and form in the modernist style that was forming itself at the time he began his career. I have continued to read his work ever since--and even though some of it has been controversial and not always pleasing, he has remained a great poet to me.
Thus I was thrilled at finding this book, written by Susan Cheever and narrated by Stefan Rudnicki on Audible. I sat up late into the night listening to it with great pleasure. Cheever and her father apparently knew Edward Estlin Cummings, so she had some first hand experience of who he was.
Cheever says early in the book that e.e. cummings' great skill was, "seeing the world through language." Indeed, he played with form, punctuation, words in ways that invited the reader always to move beyond the bounds of the conventional and view life in very different ways.
I had not known much about Cummings' life before--and it was very interesting to hear how he grew up near Harvard, went to school there--providing the background for his intellectual development--and went on even to become a lecturer there, giving, not surprisingly, what he referred to as his "non-lectures." Even there he found it impossible to be conventional.
Cummings struggled with life--with his rebellious nature--partly against his father, perhaps against the traditional way of viewing society. He hung out with the likes of Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Dos Possos--so they clearly all influenced each other in the development of the movement.
He probably struggled with his own self-esteem as well--being a man of slight build, who (despite being in WWI) was not as rugged as his father. Something that possibly put him into psychoanalysis at a time in the early 20th century when that was just becoming available. He was married twice, had a daughter whom he rarely got to see after the divorce from her mother, and finally happily spent the rest of his life with a woman he probably was not married to--Marion Morehouse. However, after the Great Depression, Cummings never again found it as easy to get his own work published or acknowledged as rapidly as it was earlier in the century.
Some of his later work was very controversial--Cheever does a credible job of laying the background of early influences in his life that possibly led to that. But this does not take away (for me, at least) the importance of his contributions to the entire awakening of our society by people who dared to create in new and unusual ways--to invite us all to see beyond the little boxes of our accepted reality. Susan Cheever has written a compact book that is filled with stories of the life and struggles of a man who had to express his world view through poems, essays, plays, paintings, in a way that broke through all conventions.
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