It should not be surprising that Edward Estlin Cummings has been largely dropped from academic syllabi in the United States. Even during his lifetime (1894-1962), Cummings was aesthetically radical and politically out of step. His linguistic experiments and innovations, though recognized by the literati of his day, were virtually disregarded by the greater population until the late 1950s, and his pacifist stance went against the grain of America's cold war.
As the 1960s approached, Cummings's works garnered wider acceptance, and by the height of the hippie generation, he was considered one of the country's great writers. But the scale has tipped back again, and the writer who railed against America is now rarely examined in the classroom, except perhaps as a kind of stylistic curiosity.
So it is a delight that Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno has written "E.E. Cummings," the first major and comprehensive biography of the poet.
Cummings was born into privilege. His father was a Harvard professor, and his mother came from an old and prominent Massachusetts family. Educated at Harvard, Cummings ran with people who would become the notables of his age: He acted in a play alongside T.S. Eliot, and John Dos Passos was his lifelong friend.
Were it not for his family and his associations at Harvard, we might not ever have heard from e.e. cummings. Nearly all his publications were sponsored by friends. Cummings never in his life had regular employment, and whenever the funds ran low (while touring Europe, living in Paris, or drinking to excess), a friend or his parents would wire him the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars of today's money. Cummings was, in many ways, a spoiled little rich boy.
He was a selfish man, to be sure, and he lost his first two wives because he neglected them. But his selfishness, he claimed, was the result of his single-minded pursuit of the sublime as manifest in art. Both painter and poet (he illustrated his early works), Cummings put his art above all else - above family, friends, wives, lovers, and a child he illegitimately fathered and all but abandoned.
Cummings was nearly a caricature of the self-absorbed starving artist - sans the starving part. Had he not been blessed with numerous patrons, he would indeed have starved.
He once said, "Poets and artists, especially in America, make me sick. What right has such a beggar to take on airs? I have no more interest or respect for a man because he can write a poem or paint a picture that can hang in the Louvre than I have for a man because he can fix the plumbing or design a beautiful motor car.
"I make poems because it is the thing I know how to do best. In fact, it's about the only thing I know how to do. America doesn't want poems badly enough to make it a profitable business to be engaged in."
Cummings's other passion, painting, was as unprofitable as poetry, but his interest in the visual arts explains why he made poems look so (to use Flannery O'Connor's word) "funny" on the page. Cummings believed a poem should be not only a verbal but a visual experience. The visual qualities of the words of a poem should complement, perhaps even dictate, a poem's content.
In 1915, at his Harvard graduation ceremony, Cummings delivered a lecture entitled, "The New Art," in which he said, "Gertrude Stein subordinates the meaning of words to the beauty of the words themselves.... Her art is the logic of literary sound painting carried to its extreme."
He then read from Stein's "Tender Buttons," a splendidly impenetrable attempt to render in words the artistic disruptions and dislocations of the age.
Like his friend John Dos Passos, whose "Newsreel" chapters in "USA" attempt to jolt readers out of the suspension of disbelief and realign their experience of reading, Cummings forces his readers to slow down and see the architecture of his work.
"Buffalo Bill," one of Cummings's early poems, remains one of his best known:
who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
he was a handsome man and what I want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Words jammed together and scattered all over the page, punctuation disregarded, capitalization at Cummings's discretion, the customary left alignment of the lines abandoned, this poem is typical of Cummings' work, and if nothing else, it's difficult to read quickly without feeling as if one has missed something. That's exactly what Cummings wanted readers to feel.
If there is a flaw with Sawyer-Lauçanno's biographical approach, it is a noble one: He attempts to do it all for Cummings - present his life story, critique his poetry, and act as literary champion.
Roughly one-third of the book is literary critique and presentation of Cummings's poetry, and the biographer's stance is blatantly laudatory and sympathetic rather than objective and analytical.
To be sure, Sawyer-Lauçanno is a fan of Cummings. He is, however, an adroit fan and an astute critic. His "E.E. Cummings" is a responsible, adept, and necessary contribution to the body of secondary work about one of America's greatest poets. It's a book more for readers, students, and professors of poetry than for the casual reader, but that's just right: Cummings didn't want any casual readers.
• Eric Miles Williamson edits the American Book Review, Pleiades, and Boulevard and serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.