A Half Century Since the Passing of ee cummings
Off the Grid will be going, well, off the grid for the holiday weekend.
While we’ll be celebrating the last days of summer, we must note that this Monday not only marks Labor Day, but the 50th anniversary of the passing of quintessential Village poet ee cummings.
To do so, we are re-posting our salute to one of favorites:
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 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
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).
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’:
him: he couldn’t
believe it (jesus
him, and general
told him: i told
him; we told him
(he didn’t believe it, no
sir) it took
a nipponized bit of
the old sixth
el; in the top of his head to tell
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