E. E. Cummings: miner of fine poetic gems; Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E. E. Cummings, By Richard S. Kennedy. New York: Liveright. $19.95.

"i am a little church (no great cathedral," wrote the American poet E. E. Cummings (1894-1962). It was an astute observation. Born beside Harvard and raised (as he later put it) among "the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls," he rebelled against the cathedral-like intellectual structures of that late-Victorian heritage. He slummed around New York, lived cheaply in Paris (by choice: his family would have given more had he asked), and admired the simplicity of street vendors, circus acrobats, and New Hampshire farmers.And he remained, in values at least, something of a little church -- even when, late in his career, fame made him a towering eminence on the poetic landscape.

Few poets have worked harder at their art -- which for Cummings included both writing and painting, in roughly equal parts. Few have left more voluminous notes behind -- literally hundreds of boxes available in the Houghton Library at Harvard, with as many more locked away until the 1990s. And few have made such a breach in what T. S. Eliot called the great Chinese wall of blank verse -- the accepted canons of prosody and structure which in previous centuries separated poetry from common speech. But Cummings, hammering open words and scattering their linguistic chips across the page, managed, as one admirer of his paintings wrote, to "flabbergast the Rotarians," and astonish even the avant-garde of the 1920s. In later years he mined the same vein, bringing up a lot of slag but also some of the century's fine gems.

The biographer's job is to keep the eye fixed on the little church even when hindsight makes it seem a cathedral, and to keep from drowning in all those notes. In this, Richard Kennedy has done admirably.A professor of English at Temple University, he is a first-class scholar. I take petty exception to some interpretations of Cumming's life and work: Having tracked this wily poet part way over the same ground myself, I have inevitably seen him through different foliage. All the greater, then, is my respect for Professor Kennedy's accuracy, skill, and devotion to detail. This book is a labor of love, 16 years in the making, which students can readily trust.

What is more, Professor Kennedy is no pedant, but a refreshingly bright writer who compressed (as his introduction admits) two volumes into one. Few wasted words here. The result is a moving account of a complex, excitable, intelligent, voluble, and not entirely lovable human, grandly generous and sadly pathetic at once -- a man whose early marriages and latter health went sour, and yet who sang some of the happiest lyrics of the century. At last we have a reasonably good picture of these two marriages and of his affectionate 30 years with his third wife, Marion Morehouse.

Some will object that the book fails to chart the uniqueness of Cumming's contribution to American poetry, since it does not explain at length what other poets were doing -- or not doing -- at the time. Some will notice, too, that authors's comments on the poems and prose, although keen, tend to be isolated into sections or chapters rather than interwoven into the fabric of the life.Perhaps that is so: But Professor Kennedy is fighting for clarity, for making manageable sense out of a wilderness of journals and drafts, and 529 pages is barely enough even for that.

Readers who love the arts in this century (and the arts dearly need more of them), and those who simply like a well-told tale of an essentially noble life, will find this book unavoidable -- and will thank the author for his dedication to what, one hopes, will be a prize-winning biography.

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