Volume 17, Number 45 | April 1 — 7, 2005

e.e. cummings ‘the painter’

By JERRY TALLMER

Three and a half blocks from #4 Patchin Place is 8 West 8th Street, once the studio of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, where in 1931 she launched the Whitney Museum of American Art, and it is in that memory-laden mazelike building – now the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture – that on a recent evening several dozen inhabitants of

a keen city which nobody’s ever visited,where
always
it’s
Spring) and everyone’s
in love and flowers pick themselves
and the moon’s a balloon

met to contemplate the multiple talents of the most famous longtime resident of #4 Pachin Place.

His name was Edward Estlin Cummings – e.e. cummings to you, although Richard Kostelanetz, the prolific author and anthologist who brought Wednesday’s meeting together, sneers at what he feels is the inappropriate compulsive lower-casing of poet and painter Cummings’s name.

Poet and painter?

Most people who love the poetry do not know that Cummings was also, all his life, a painter. In fact, in a mock Q&A in the catalogue of a 1945 exhibition of his canvases and drawings (read out loud by Kostelanetz to the gathering). Cummings put it this way:

Why do you paint? / For exactly the same reason I breathe … / And how long have your written? / As long as I can remember. / I mean poetry. / So do I. / Tell me, doesn’t your painting interfere with your writing? / Quite the contrary: they love each other dearly … / They’re very different. / Very: one is painting and one is writing. / But your poems are rather hard to understand, whereas your paintings are so easy. / Easy? / Of course — you paint flowers and girls and sunsets; things that everybody understands. / I never met him. / Who? / Everybody.

Kostelanetz, the editor of “Another E.E. Cummings” (Liveright, 1998), a collection of Cummings’s even more outrageously grammar-and-rule-fracturing poems than all the ones we have known and loved all our post-childhood days, had invited MIT writer-in-residence Christopher Sawyer-Lucanno, author of “E.E. Cummings: A Biography” (Source Books, Chicago, 2004), to share the podium with him.

Despite difficulties with the mikes, the lights, and the slide projector – not helped by Kostelanetz’s racing breakneck through his own words and Professor Lucanno’s um-um-um-umming through his, the two authorities shed considerable light on the “polyartistry” (a Kostelanetz term for giftedness in “two or more non-adjacent arts”) of the sweet stinging singer of Patchin Place.

“He painted all day when the light was good,” said Kostelanetz, “and wrote poetry at night.”

“He actually painted more than he actually wrote,” said Sawyer-Lucanno.

Kostelanetz analyzed in some detail just how ingenious, how miraculous, were the hundreds of things Cummings did, typographically and otherwise, to reorder and reinvigorate the American-English poetic language and imagery. He cited (and Sawyer-Lucanno recited) as one prime example a poem that begins

r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r

and turns out to look like, sound like, and be a grasshopper.

The gentleman from MIT also haltingly offered a poem that begins

Paris;this April sunset completely utters
Utters serenely silently a cathedral

before whose upward lean magnificent face
the streets turn young with rain …

and is pure magic from there on in. Cummings “wasn’t sure what he was doing when he was painting a picture or writing a poem,” said Sawyer-Lucanno, “and it really doesn’t matter.”

But Cummings the poet knew. “Every sound has its own peculiar silence,” he said, and to his mother once declared: “i am a small-i poet but not necessarily a small-i person.”

Unfortunately, as the slide projections revealed – self-portraits, portraits of his parents, friends, Parisians, girls, abstractions – that whole half of Cummings’s life was as a small-i painter.

Though there is true rebellious feeling in some of the portraits, and one self-portrait, and one of an angular girl, the bottom line, to this eye, is that he painted in the manner of 50 painters — now this one, now that one, but especially Cezanne – who had gone before him.

It is hard not to agree with Henry McBride, the leading art critic of that era, who found the works of Cummings “thin, uncertain, and separated by some curious wall of silence.” E.E. the painter could not in a million years rival what E.E. the writer masterfully termed “the gripping gigantic muscles of Cezanne’s logic.”

Tom Prideaux, high-school English teacher, went to the blackboard one fine morning and chalked on it the words

Among
these
red pieces of day …

and the rest of a poem that we stared at as Mr. Prideaux asked us what it meant, what we saw. When he finally said: “A train coming out of a tunnel in Italy,” it became blindingly, graphically clear. That image, those words, were burned into my schoolboy’s head, once and forever. The Cummings paintbrush, I very much fear, would never have done it.

I am a camera indeed.

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