the archivist March 8, 2010

For all the Russian literature I’ve studied, and the amount of time I devote to Blok, my strongest emotional attachments are to American poets (and the occasional Briton). I know I’ve posted plenty of Roethke here in the past, and truth be told, I should have done an English master’s and written about him. Would have been far easier in several respects.

When I was in college, my frenetic accelerated three-year college experience, I took a summer monograph class on e.e. cummings. It was in the basement of… Mason Hall? Or maybe that’s still Angell on that side. I can’t remember. There were 15 students the first day. The professor had a surname which looked like it should only be pronounced in two syllables, but he squeezed a third one in there. In fact, he introduced himself with it alone. “My name is [sur-ra-name],” he announced. Were we supposed to call him that? Hardly seemed respectful. But then this was a course about cummings, and cummings was nothing if not maverick, in all his lowercase coolness. “We’re going to be reading everything Edward Estlin Cummings ever wrote–in 7 weeks,” the professor announced. So much for coolness.

The first class, I remember sitting next to a Latina girl wearing one of those quasi-unflattering gray-and-white horizontal-stripe shirts that the Gap was telling us all to buy that year. She was so petite, though, she both pulled it off and made me look like Godzilla sitting next to her. Sur-ra-name began to lecture and she began to write messages to him, silent protests, in the margins of her notebook as she took regular notes.

“How can you make poetry so DRY???”

“Why do you talk in a MONOTONE?”


I’ve always wondered what happened to her. If she now doodles her unutterable objections on legal pads in corporate America, or sends sarcastic Facebook updates from her Blackberry during meetings.

The next class, there were only 6 students reporting for cummings-reading duty. “Well, I guess I decimated the troops,” said Sur-ra-name, with raised eyebrows.

So we read. We read and read and read. Over 700 poems, though perhaps only 100 of them were worth the trouble. The biography, Dreams in the Mirror. The Enormous Room. Eimi. i:six nonlectures. The sweetest fairy tales I’ve read in many years. The play I didn’t have time to read (oops).

And I learned. I learned how to read a lot in a small amount of time. I learned that art often lies in the space between what we were expecting and what we see in front of us.

But more importantly, I learned that creativity means trying over and over again. Genius is not born, though perhaps a proclivity to it is. And I learned that dilettantes are not invisible to geniuses.


E.E. Cummings |
E.E. Cummings’ family home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls
are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds
(also, with the church’s protestant blessings
daughters, unscented shapeless spirited)
they believe in Christ and Longfellow,both dead,
are invariably interested in so many things-
at the present writing one still finds
delighted fingers knitting for the is it Poles?
perhaps. While permanent faces coyly bandy
scandal of Mrs. N and Professor D
….the Cambridge ladies do not care,above
Cambridge if sometimes in its box of
sky lavender and cornerless, the
moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy


When I took a poetry class last year, in Cambridge, which was also audited by a number of local “lifelong learners” with their gray wash-and-go haircuts, “green” canvas bags and clogs (and Priuses with Obama stickers and resident permits parked conveniently nearby) the professor had the delicacy to give us a handful of cummings’ love poems to look at, and not this one.

I applied for a second job today, a thought not exciting per se, but when I looked at the website I saw a familiar, comforting quote–the last two lines of a poem I love. And suddenly, I really want this job. Because of all the poets to quote, and all the cummings poems to quote from, this one is special…

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)


Oh, and Sur-ra-name never learned our names. Although there were only 6 of us, 4 girls and 2 boys, when he went to hand back the final papers, he paused, smiled, and placed them on the table. “Well, I guess you can find your own in the pile.”