Tuesday, July 1, 2008

From My Reading Journal - 2004

E.E. Cummings: A Biography by Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno, 543 pp., excluding notes.

Not sure why I bought this. I’ve never read that much Cummings and the poems I like are the ones anybody likes of his. Part of it, I suppose, is a New York connection. Though Cummings died the year after I moved to New York, I walked past Patchin Place, where he lived in Greenwich Village, more times than I can count. There was also a tree in Washington Square Park to which Cummings would speak, and I always wondered which one it was. I can’t say that I have understood Cummings’ poetics, and don't have much more of an understanding after reading this biography, and that’s not the fault of the biographer.

But, even after all these years, I am still fascinated by the lives of creative people, and I am still seeking insights into my own creative life. I did not find Cummings's life to be very satisfying. However, I do envy him the early exposure to languages - Greek, Latin, French - all of which he knew fluently.

Reading the biography I became aware of how much of I have lived and created alone. I have stayed away from having writers as friends, perhaps because I have never ego-identified with writing. Writing is something I do; it is has never been who I am. I have never taken myself seriously as a writer in the way that the writers of Cummings’ generation did. I have never believed that literature and art have an enormous impact on the way things are; I have never seen poets as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” as Shelley proclaimed.

However, reading the biography took me back to my days at Fisk [the small black college in Nashville, Tennessee, from which I graduated in 1960] and the excitement of discovering so much literature and so many writers. What an exciting time that was reading Joyce, Faulkner, Camus, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Andre Gide, and so many others for the first time. And there was also the excitement of talking about existentialism and the Beat Generation with classmates and teachers.

But I think religion has engaged my soul in ways literature never has. It was and is the spiritual journey I identify with, that is, at root, my passion. Maybe this is why photography is so important to me, because through images I can more directly express the fruits of my spiritual journey than I can in writing. There is a dimension of the spiritual that only begins where words end, and it is this which can be expressed in the silence of a photograph.

What I found unsatisfactory about Cummings’ life were the ways in which he never grew up. He never held a job and lived primarily off wealthy friends and his mother. And he did not take responsibility for his relationships. It was rather shocking to read about his daughter, Nancy, and how she grew up thinking someone else was her father. Cummings told her the truth when she was an adult and promptly had little more to do with her. She is 80 now and lives in London and will probably read this biography with great curiosity and interest, or not read it at all. So, there are fundamental ways in which Cummings did not mature. He devoted his life to poetry and art, but I did not get the sense that there wasn’t room in his life for taking responsibility. He simply chose not to.

I don’t condemn him but it is not a life I would want. Some quotes:

“Concerning Mr. Derry [his high school Greek teacher], let me say that he was (and for me will always remain) one of those blessing and blessed spirits who deserve the name of teacher: predicates who are utterly in love with their subject; and who, because they would gladly die for it, are living for it gladly. From him I learned (and am still learning) that gladness is next to goodliness.”

“Eater of all things lovely — Time!”

“Sound emerges from& retreats with silence.
Every sound has its own peculiar silence!”

“...the ponderous ferocity of silence.”

God, I love that line!!

“but from the endless end
of briefer each our bliss —
where seeing eyes go blind
(where lips forget to kiss)
where everything’s nothing
— arise,my soul; and sing.”

© 2008 by Julius Lester

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