My Favorite Things: Poets Edition

This is the latest installment of Off the Grid’s series, “My Favorite Things,” in which we showcase some of our very favorite spots around the neighborhood, highlighting the incredible architecture, history, people, and businesses of the Village, East Village, and NoHo; read more HERE.

The Village and East Village have spawned so many remarkable and influential literary figures, one would be hard pressed to name them all.  Unsurprisingly, poetry is a medium at which writers in our neighborhood have particularly excelled; the romance, charm, grit, and cast of characters which have long defined these neighborhoods have both attracted and inspired some of the greatest poets and writers of the last century and a half.

One, however, has always particularly inspired me, and in many ways embodied the Village’s pioneering spirit of innovation.

Edward Estlin Cummings, or e.e. cummings, 1894-1962.

Edward Estlin Cummings, or e.e. cummings as he was more often known, was born in Cambridge Massachusetts in 1894, and was influenced by his Unitarian upbringing and the transcendental leanings of his New England environment.  After graduating from Harvard he came to New York in 1917 to work for publishing house P.F Collier in the Meatpacking District (the Collier’s Building on Little West 12th Street was included in the NYC Gansevoort Market Historic District which GVSHP proposed and fought for in 2003, and in the Gansevoort Market State and National Register Historic District in 2007).

While the aspiring poet and writer took the job thinking he would be working on the acclaimed Collier’s Weekly magazine, he ended up being placed in their mail order book department placing shipment orders, work he unsurprisingly found deadening.  Nevertheless, the job left cummings with much time on his hands, and in fact he began work on one of his earliest and most celebrated poems, ‘Buffalo Bill’s defunct,’ while working there (some have speculated that working around the printing presses and various typographic devices may have influenced cumming’s distinctive writing style and unconventional use of grammar, punctuation, and syntax).

Buffalo Bill's
defunct
        who used to
        ride a watersmooth-silver
                                  stallion
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
                                                  Jesus

he was a handsome man
                      and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Mister Death

Collier’s Building on Little West 12th Street

Following his brief stint at Collier’s, cummings was shipped off to Europe to serve in the ambulance corps during World War I (there the pacifist was also imprisoned on suspicion of espionage, held in a single large room for weeks with other foreign suspects, which later become the subject of his first novel, ‘The Enormous Room‘).  After the end of the war and  much time in Paris, a city with which cummings fell in love, he settled down in Greenwich Village.  In the early 1920′s the Village was about as close to Paris in its antiquated charm and artistic scene as any place in America.  Cummings spent much of this time living on tiny Patchin Place, a cul-de-sac of small workingmen’s houses off of West 10th Street between Sixth and Greenwich Avenues, across from the Jefferson Market Courthouse (now library).

Patchin Place

It was during his years on Patchin Place that cummings was his most prolific.  While clearly the Village was a source of  inspiration for cummings as it was for so many in those years of the early and mid-20th century, the Village actually only makes very few explicit appearances in his poetry.

One of the few came in 1944 with the publication of ‘plato told him’:

plato told
him:  he couldn’t

believe it (jesus

told him;he
wouldn’t believe
it) lao

tsze

certainly told
him, and general
(yes

mam)
sherman ;
and even
(believe it
or

not) you
told him: i told
him; we told him
(he didn’t believe it, no

sir) it took
a nipponized bit of
the old sixth

avenue
el; in the top of his head to tell

him

This poem about the brutal price of war (General William T. Sherman, referenced in the poem, is said to have originated the quote “War is hell”) only obliquely references the Village with its mention of the old Sixth Avenue el, the elevated subway which ran past cummings’ home on Patchin Place.  The el was torn down in 1939, just before the start of World War II, and its scrap metal was popularly believed to have been sold to the Japanese and later used it in their war effort against the United States.

The Sixth Avenue El, crossing in front of the Jefferson Market Courthouse (now library), before it was dismantled in 1939. Patchin Place would be roughly behind the clocktower from the angle of this photo.

Interestingly, one of cummings’ few other poems to explicitly reference his Village surroundings was 1963′s ‘One winter afternoon.’  Though much more optimistic in spirit, ‘One winter afternoon‘ was also focused on the brutality of war, and with its references to Eighth Street, also took as inspiration cumming’s immediate surroundings, as Eighth Street began a mere block and half from his home on Patchin Place.

One winter afternoon

( at the magical hour
when is becomes if )

a bespangled clown
standing on eighth street
handed me a flower.

Nobody, it’s safe
to say, observed him but

myself; and why? because

without any doubt he was
whatever (first and last)

most people fear most:
a mystery for which i’ve
no word except alive

— that is, completely alert
and miraculously whole ;

with not merely a mind and a heart

but unquestionably a soul -
by no means funereally hilarious

(or otherwise democratic)
but essentially poetic
or etherally serious :

a fine not a coarse clown
(no mob, but a person)

and while never saying a word

who was anything but dumb;
since the silence of him

self sang like a bird.
Most people have been heard
screaming for international

measures that render hell rational
— i thank heaven somebody’s crazy

enough to give me a daisy

West Eighth Street ca. the early 1960′s, around the time of the publication of ‘One winter afternoon.’



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avatar Andrew Berman has been the Executive Director of GVSHP since 2002.