75 at 75: A. L. Kennedy on E. E. Cummings
Posted on Jul 18, 2013
So, finally, I get to hear him—the voice that has lived in my head for so many years—as it turns out, the strange and elongated and preaching nobodaddy voice of E. E. Cummings. I hadn’t quite expected him to sound so ecclesiastical. It’s a delivery that might not work today, but then again I feel his force of personality might still carry it across. I can’t quite imagine how he would look while giving this reading, if he might even sway a little as his rhythms are underlined so strongly. In photographs he has the look of a kind of literary Picasso. I have no idea if he’s smiling or grim or transported as he speaks, or how the words might change that vaguely punchy face. When he spent his evening half-crooning at the 92nd Street Y, was he serene or focused . . . who can say after all this time?
And how strange, deeply strange, that I should have been on the same stage as Cummings decades later, feeling all kinds of heritage underfoot. I have read to that broad-armed space, that shallow rise of attentive New Yorkers and others from further afield. This means I know that Cummings was in a kind and clever place. I could tell that anyway from the thoughtful timing of applause, the ease of laughter—his congregation is beyond glad that he’s there and beyond willing to concentrate for more than an hour on uninterrupted voice. These days such a thing would be viewed in many quarters as a terrible risk—what about shortened attention spans, what about lack of variety, what about the potentially dire psychological consequences of all that listening. . . ? In many areas we have been taught to fear the simple and beautiful thing which is hearing each other, paying attention, being slightly or majorly changed by the heart (I keep it in my heart) and mind of another. These days, at many venues, a reading of five minutes or less is earnestly requested in case genuine human contact might break out. But here we have the real thing—a proper reading, with breaths in it as big as a circus tent.
And I know that when Cummings tells me, “My father moved through dooms of love. . .” those words have been with me for more than four decades, almost all my conscious reading life. At this age, I know more about him and his politics (with which I would not entirely have agreed) and the shape of his career, and I’m a writer myself and all these elements intervene as I listen, but mainly I am back being very young again and enchanted by page music, starting a habit that has accompanied me thus far and that I hope will stay with me for the duration.
In a way, this is yet another occasion upon which I remark of my former self, my younger self: “What on earth was I thinking?” And yet, this time, there’s no regret, there’s only a kind of happy incomprehension. What a good choice I made without really knowing why.
Imagine me something around 6 years old. I am living in a still new-feeling house with my parents who do not like each other. My father moves through dooms which are not of love, and my mother offers him tokens of affection which are increasingly thrown across a distance in an effort to placate. This has been clear for a long while, but they are currently distracted from their fights and shouts and so forth by their having bought this crazily big property— three floors, multiple bedrooms still to be apportioned, rackety central heating, a large garden, a high old copper beech tree, apple trees against the wall at the back and a summer house in a corner at the front. The summer house I have claimed. It is small, I am small, it is summer—what else would I need to say? The summer house smells weird and has a faux thatched roof, little pretend leaded windows and clever seats that are also cupboards.
I go there to be peaceful and difficult to find. And when I am there I need something to do, and I am already a reader and so I take two books with me. I don’t recall there being a logic to the two books I take, other than perhaps that they should somehow be the summer-house type of book. I bring a Collected Wordsworth which I do not like and do not much read. Its introduction, in as far as I can remember, described someone who seemed unpleasant and unnecessarily complicated to me. The poems were closed things.
The other book I still have—it’s beside me now.
e. e. cummings
1932 – 1958
Both the extremely simple cover—mainly white with some coloured bands—and that strange, illegal lower case typography attracted me. I am a puritan with a transgressive streak, after all. Inside the cover is a pleasant note which informs the reader: “This selection made by Mr. Cummings himself from eleven books of poems constitutes a comprehensive introduction to his work.” Which speaks of care and generosity on both sides, I feel. There is, on the facing page, my mother’s signature—which makes me immediately think of the particular wide-nibbed pens she used at that time—and the date 1970. 1970 was the year when I first went to school.
And inside are still all the words I ran across and across, trying to unpick meanings, turning over phrases, being struck by the sheer physicality and melody of fragments, even when the meaning was beyond me. My body had never been with anyone else’s body in the sense he intended and yet I could think—as simply as it was put—that a grown-up liking perhaps to hug another grown-up would be a fine thing. I did not realise the implications of the brand- newness of she. I wasn’t even best placed to realise the double meaning involving an automobile—I had no real terms of reference for adult physical intimacy or cars. But still, if you can, be with that poem again and imagine it almost entirely cleaned of sense. It still tells you about glee, about some variety of happy slyness—it is rushing and bouncing and jolting and alive and internalexpanding & externalcontracting would lodge in your brain just as much, if not more, as it might if you got the joke.
And now I can hear, as well as read, the strange prayer which tells me freedom is breakfast food, and I kind of know what it means and kind of don’t in the same way that the lyrics of Bob Dylan or Elvis Costello will shake me to my bones with subtleties of open sense.
And I can reflect that my earliest exposure to questioning of public certainties probably arrived with an old book of Jules Feiffer’s cartoons and
next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh
That rapidly drunk glass of water carefully and completely undermines the scramble of dutiful nonsense.
And I can feel the earliest anger against death—so far away when you are 6—as
How do you like your blueeyed boy
Rings out in that closing snap of rhythm. I thought, at first reading, it might not be allowed to seem so outraged, so angry, so everything all at once on paper with one’s own name attached, albeit in lower case.
And I can see—compacted words, unexpected capitals, playing and flights—so many of the beauties I have borrowed and shrunk and turned into tricks and ticks in my own writing. But at least I was trying to learn, somehow—at least I was copying from a quality original. Until today I didn’t know how much I’d taken from my early friend, repeated friend, reliably absent but present adult.
And it seems right to reflect that the first love poem I ever quoted to my first true love was Cummings’ and spoke—and still speaks—of the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart. I do understand now.
The delivery may be strange, mesmeric, but I’m so glad I have Cummings now, ready to speak at any time on my computer. (When I was a child, my father’s department had a computer as big as a room that probably did less than I can now with my phone.) The little fumbles of pages, too, and the clatter of what I imagine to be, perhaps, his cufflinks—these are evocative traces of the man—a little like the shifting and mumbles under a Glenn Gould recording. Maybe nicest of all is the laughter at the conclusion—the open and delighted laughter of E. E. Cummings being a writer who has just done a good hour’s work and is pleased. That’s a very good sound.
A. L. Kennedy’s latest novel is The Blue Book.