MANCHESTER -- It's easy and tempting to describe many great artists and writers as a bundle of contradictions. Sometimes that's fair, and sometimes it's facile.
e.e. cummings -- arguably one of the 20th century's greatest and, for awhile at least, influential literary figures best remembered today for his use of lower case letters and unusual punctuation in his prolific number of poems (although he also wrote two novels, four plays and painted portraits) -- had his share of contradictions.
Take his poetry He's often seen as a writer who most appeals to a younger audience, because of the way he broke up the standard poetry format. But writing poems in this unconventional way requires a mastery of the basics, so that when lower case letters are used, or words mashed together in a way a modern day rap artist might recognize -- "it's / spring / when the world is puddle-wonderful" -- there is a cohesion and a thought behind it. It's not gibberish for its own sake. And cummings was deeply schooled and knowledgable about classic poetic form.
Susan Cheever has made cummings' life and work the subject of a biography, "e.e. cummings: A Life." It's a new assessment of his literary contributions, and an accessible read. Cheever has gone deep into cummings' personal life and his relationships to give us a fully rounded portrait of one of the previous century's most important writers -- an engaging account that will draw in the reader who has any interest at all in cummings' life and times.
He grew up down the block from Harvard University, where he attended college, but he fled Cambridge. as soon as he could to inhale the bohemian freedom of New York's Greenwich Village, where he lived for most of his adult life, until his death in 1962.
He was the son of well-off and financially secure parents, but he opted instead for an often financially marginal lifestyle of a writer and had difficulty paying his bills on time. This lack of financial security bothered him not a bit; he seemed to embrace it. He traveled back and forth between New York and Europe often, and he considered Paris a second home. It helped that his parents were ready to tide him over the rough spots on occasion.
Not until the last decade of his life, when he became a much in demand reader of poems in live performances -- and the first of these was held at Bennington College in the 1930s -- did he achieve some measure of financial security. He was briefly married twice, then wound up living with a third woman, the model and photographer Marion Morehouse, for most of the last three decades of his life.
A charter member of the liberally oriented New York arts and literary scene from the 1920s through the early 1960s, he surprised his friends and colleagues by staking out positions critical of the Soviet Union and later writing a verse widely viewed as anti-Semitic -- certainly it would be considered that today.
Cheever, the daughter of the writer John Cheever, has written many books including "Louisa May Alcott," "American Bloomsbury," and "Home Before Dark." She will speak about her new biography at the Northshire Bookstore at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 29.
Cheever first met cummings in 1958 when he came to the girls academy she was attending to give one of his poetry readings. She was already acquainted with him through her father -- he and Cummings were friends, and she had read some of his material. cummings' reading that evening was an "electrifying" moment, as she describes it in the preface to "A Life."
She describes the drive back to New York afterward with cummings, which includes a stop at a White Castle in the Bronx and an invitation by cummings to linger when they arrived at his apartment in Greenwich Village. The hour was late, and they had to return to Westchester County, Cheever writes. This book is her way of taking him up on that offer.
"I think he's probably this country's only modernist poet, and certainly one of our very best poets," she said in a telephone interview recently. "He wasn't just messing around."
Indeed, the use of lower case letters was a product not only of the influence of Ezra Pound, another writer cummings admired, but from his deep-seated understanding of poetic form, Cheever said.
He didn't want the use of that style to be seen as "tricky," but rather to mean something. That's most clearly seen in his use of the lower case "i" -- "which when you think about it is such a different animal from the upper case ‘I'," she said. "He was using that to create meaning, not to play around, although he liked nothing better than playing around."
She wrote the biography in part to make him less of a kid's poet and more of an adult one, she said.
Rob Hunter, an English teacher at Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester, considers cummings one of the most important of the Modernist writers of the 20th century, whose deviation from the more structured writing that came before them grew from the disjointedness and uncertainty of the post-World War I world they inhabited.
"I teach his poetry because it is remarkable, and fun to teach," Hunter said. "... it's also fun to decode with students. ... It's through lessons about structure that they begin to see how deliberate poets are in the way they create meaning."
Cheever said she was looking forward to returning to the Northshire Bookstore to talk about her new book, recalling an earlier reading she gave several years ago when her book about Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, and a native of nearby Dorset. She also teaches at Bennington College.
Vermont, she said, was something of a "small ‘i' place -- "It's not about a few powerful people; it's a democratic state."