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Commentary on Life and Art by E. E. Cummings


 "i & their son: NONLECTURE TWO"

... poetry and every other art was and is and forever will be strictly

and distinctly a question of individuality....poetry is being, not doing....if poetry is your goal, you've got to forget all about punishments and all about rewards and all about selfstyled obligations and duties and responsibilities.....


[In this passage Cummings presents 3 poetic periods in his career.]

Poetic period number one had been nothing if not individualistic....--but, alas! a moribund mental cloud soon obscured my vital psychic sky. The one...thing which mattered about any poem (so ran my second poetic period's credo) was what the poem said; it's socalled meaning.... Thus it will be seen that, by the year 1900, one growing American boy had reached exactly that stage of "intellectual development" beyond which every ungrowing Marxist adult of today is strictly forbidden...ever to pass. [Here he relates the third period.] The Rhymester diverted my eager energies from what to how: from substance to structure.... With this welcome revelation, the mental cloud aforesaid ignominiously dissolved; and my psychic sky joyfully reappeared....

"i & you & is: NONLECTURE FOUR" an art; and artists...are human beings. As a human being stands, so a human being is....

1922--from my first published book, The Enormous Room

There are certain things in which one is unable to believe for the simple reason that he never ceases to feel them. Things of this sort--things which are always inside of us and in fact are us and which consequently will not be pushed off or away where we can begin thinking about them--are no longer things; they, and the us which they are, equals A Verb; an IS.

1926--from the foreword to a book of poems called Is 5

At least my theory of technique, if I have one, is very far from original; nor is it complicated. I can express it in fifteen words, by quoting The Eternal Question And Immortal Answer of burlesk,viz. "Would you hit a woman with a child?--No,I'd hit her with a brick." Like the burlesk comedian, I am abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement.

 1933--from my Soviet Russian diary, EIMI

Not to completely feel is thinking ... to grow is a fate.

"i & now & him: NONLECTURE FIVE"

...I recognize immediately three mysteries: love, art, and selftranscendence or growing.

...Art is a mystery; all mysteries have their source in a mystery-of-mysteries who is love: and if lovers may reach eternity directly through love herself, their mystery remains essentially that of the loving artist whose way must lie through his art, and of the loving worshipper whose aim is oneness with his god. From another point of view, every human being is in and of himself or herself illimitable; but the essence of his or of her illimitability is precisely its uniqueness--nor could all poetry (past present and future) begin to indicate the varieties of selfhood; and consequently of selftranscendence.

from E. E. Cummings, i: SIX NONLECTURES (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1953), 24, 28-9, 63, 64, 65, 81, 82.

 "Forward to an Exhibit: II" (1945)

[Here Cummings constructs an imaginary interview in which he connects his painting with his poetry.]

Why do you paint?
For exactly the same reason I breathe.
That’s not an answer.
There isn’t any answer.
How long hasn’t there been any answer?
As long as I can remember.
And how long have you 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.
Of course--you paint flowers and girls and sunsets; things that everybody understands.
I never met him.
Did you ever hear of nonrepresentational painting?
I am.
Pardon me?
I am a painter, and painting is nonrepresentational.
Not all painting.
No: housepainting is representational.
And what does a housepainter represent?
Ten dollars an hour.
In other words, you don’t want to be serious--
It takes two to be serious.
Well let me see...oh yes, one more question: where will you live after this war is over?
In China; as usual.
Of course.
Wherabouts in China?
Where a painter is a poet.

from E. E. Cummings, A Miscellany Revised. Edited by George Firmage, New York: October House, 1965. 316-17.

 "Foreword to an Exhibit: I" (1944)

Art is a mystery.

A mystery is something immeasurable.

In so far as every child and woman and man may be immeasurable, art is the mystery of every man and woman and child. In so far as a human being is an artist, skies and mountains and oceans and thunderbolts and butterflies are immeasurable; and art is every mystery of nature. Nothing measurable can be alive; nothing which is not alive can be art; nothing which cannot be art is true: and everything untrue doesn’t matter a very good God damn...

Item: it is my complex hope that the pictures here exhibited are neither "good" nor "bad," neither peacelike nor warful--that (on the contrary) they are living.

from E. E. Cummings, A Miscellany Revised Edited by George Firmage. New York: October House, 1965. 314-15.

 "The Agony of the Artist (with a Capital A)" (1927)

[At this point in his essay, Cummings discusses the artistic value of a painting by "some illiterate peasant" who has never studied art.]

It is Art because it is alive. It proves that, if you and I are to create at all, we must create with today and let all the Art schools and Medicis in the universe go hang themselves with yesterday’s rope. It teaches us that we have made a profound error in trying to learn Art, since whatever Art stands for is whatever cannot be learned. Indeed, the Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself; and the agony of the Artist, far from being the result of the world’s failure to discover and appreciate him, arises from his own personal struggle to discover, to appreciate and finally to express himself. Look into yourself, reader; for you must find Art there, if at all.

from E. E. Cummings, "The Agony of the Artist (with a Capital A)." Vanity Fair. 2 (April 1927): 68 & 98.

"The Adult, the Artist and the Circus" (1925)

So, ungentle reader, (as you and I value what we should ashamed--after witnessing a few minor circus-marvels--to call our "lives,") let us never be fooled into taking seriously that perfectly superficial distinction which is vulgarly drawn between the circus-show and "art" or "the arts." Let us not forget that every authentic "work of art" is in and of itself alive and that, however "the arts" may differ among themselves, their common function is the expression of that supreme alive-ness which is known as "beauty." This being so, our three ring circus is art--for to contend that the spectacle in question is not an authentic manifestation of "beauty" is as childish, as to dismiss the circus on the ground that it is "childish," is idiotic.

from E. E. Cummings, "The Adult, the Artist and the Circus." Vanity Fair 25 (October 1925): 57 & 98.

"You Aren’t Mad, Am I?" (1925)

 ... I must needs point out an important fact. Just as our fair land of dollars and no sense was not always blest with prohibition, even so language was not always blest with "opposites." Quite the contrary. A certain very wise man has pointed out (in connection with the meaning of dreams) that what "weak" means and what "strong" means were once upon a time meant by one word. To understand this, it is quite unnecessary for us to try to imagine ourselves bloodthirsty savages of the forest primeval, or even to become psychoanalysts. All we have to do is to observe closely something which is flourishing under our very noses, today--the art of burlesk.

For in burlesk, we meet with an echo of the original phenomenon: "opposites" occur together. For that reason, burlesk enables us to (so to speak) know around a thing, character, or situation. To put it a little differently: if the art of common-or-garden painting were like the art of burlesk, we should be able to see--impossibly enough--all the way around a solid tree, instead of merely seeing a little more than half of the tree (thanks to binocular parallax or whatever it is) and imagining the rest. This impossible knowing around, or nonimagining, quality, constitutes the essence of burlesk and differentiates it from certain better-understood arts.

With the idea of making my point perfectly clear, I shall try to describe something which impressed me, at the time, as one of the most extraordinary experiences which I had ever had; something which happened, a few years ago, on the stage of that most extraordinary temple of burlesk, the National Winter Garden--then, as now, located at the comer of East Houston Street and Second Avenue, New York City--which institution I regard as superior to any other burlesk stronghold which I have yet inhabited, not excluding the Howard Atheneum, in Boston.

The protagonist of the occasion was a famous burlesk star named Jack Shargel (since retired; at that date, as I believe, one of two very great actors in America, number two being Charlie Chaplin) and the experience was this: a beauteous lady (weighing several hundred pounds) hands the super-Semitic, black-derbied, misfit-clothed, keen-eyed but ever-imposed-on individual called Jack Shargel a red rose--Shargel receives her gift with a gesture worthy of any prince; cautiously escorts the flower to his far from negligible nose; rapturously, deliriously even, inhales its deep, luxurious, seductive, haunting fragrance; then (with a delicacy which Chaplin might envy) tosses the red rose exquisitely, lightly, from him. The flower flutteringly describes a parabola--weightlessly floats downward--and just as it touches the stage there is a terrific, soul-shaking, earthquake-like crash: as if all the glass and masonry on earth, all the most brittle and most ponderous things of this world, were broken to smithereens.

Nothing in "the arts," indeed, not even Paul Cezanne's greatest painting of Mont Sainte-Victoire, has moved me more, or has proved to be a more completely inextinguishable source of "aesthetic emotion," than this knowing around the Shargel rose; this releasing of all the un-roselike and non-flowerish elements which--where "rose" and "flower" are ordinarily concerned --secretly or unconsciously modify and enhance those rose--and flower--qualities to which (in terms of consciousness only) they are "opposed."

But hark--I can hear my readers exclaiming: "the idea of becoming pompous and highbrow on such a topic--when everybody is wise to the fact that burlesque shows are distinctly inartistic and frankly lowbrow affairs!"

One moment: there are "burlesque shows" and this is thanks to the supporters of the National Winter Garden, Burlesk. But, granted that--on the surface--no two things could possibly seem more incompatible than burlesk (the original undiluted article) and "Art," this is important only as proving how little "cultured" people observe for themselves and how consistently they are duped by preconceived notions. Should my readers take the trouble to examine, not conventional or academic "art," but "modern" (also called "primitive") art--art of today, art which is alive--they will discover that, in ridiculing the aesthetic significance of burlesk with a k, they are talking through their hats. For example: that favourite war cry of modern literature, le mot juste, is pre-eminently the war cry of burlesk, where we find in abundance such perfectly unambiguous statements as: "I'll hit yer so hard yer shirt'll roll up yer back like a windowshade!" Again, what is frequently referred to as "abstract," "non-representative," cubistic," and even "futuristic," painting is fundamentally similar to such a use of the American language as this (whereby a wronged husband describes what he did to his wife's seducer --an artist, by the way--whom he found "standing on the brinkus of the Mrs. Sloppy river"): "so I pulled out my pickaxe and I cut his ear from throat to throat." Moreover, those of my readers who are already acquainted with the "neurotic" or "ultramodernistic" music of Arnold Schonberg will need no introduction to the agonizing tonality of those "sets" and "drops" among which the hero-villains of the burlesk stage shimmy, glide, strut and tumble.

from E. E. Cummings, "You Aren’t Mad, Am I?" Vanity Fair 25 (December 1925): 73 & 92.

"Gaston Lachaise" (1920)

...there is unself-conscious expression, that of the child who has not yet inherited the centuries and the savage whose identity with his environment has not yet become a prey to civilization, which--eminent aestheticians to the contrary--is of the utmost significance to aesthetics....these demand for their complete appreciation that, far from being mere spectators, we allow our intelligences to be digested; and not until this occurs do they cease to excite in us amusement or mepris, and reveal their significance. That is to say, they require of us an intelligent process of the highest order, namely the negation on our part, by thinking, of thinking; whereas in an "art" which emulates naivete through intelligent processes the case is entirely different....the inexcusable and spontaneous scribblings which children make on sidewalks, walls, anywhere, preferably with coloured chalk, cannot be grasped until we have accomplished the thorough destruction of the world. By this destruction alone we cease to be spectators of a ludicrous and ineffectual striving and, involving ourselves in a new and fundamental kinesis, become protagonists of the child's vision.

To analyze child art in a sentence is to say that houses, trees, smoke, people, etc., are depicted not as nouns but as verbs. The more genuine child art is, the more it is, contrary to the belief of those incapable persons who are content merely to admire it, purely depictive. In denying that the child "represents" and substituting for "representation" some desperately overworked word like "expression," these people are only showing their hostility to the academies, just as when they tell us (which is true) that the bad artist is the representational artist. But, as has been sometimes pointed out, the artist who represents is bad not because he represents: he is bad because he represents something which a camera can represent better. This means that he is depicting something that is second, or rather nth, hand, which a child most distinctly is not. Consequently to appreciate child art we are compelled to undress one by one the soggy nouns whose agglomeration constitutes the mechanism of Normality, and finally to liberate the actual crisp organic squirm--the IS.


The reason why all official and unofficial "criticism" OF The Elevation [a sculpture by Lachaise] fails, and fails so obviously this: The Elevation is not a noun, not a "modern statue," not a statue OF Something or Some One BY a man named Gaston Lachaise--but a complete tactile self-orchestration, a magnificently conjugation largeness, an IS. The Elevation may not be declined; it should not and cannot be seen; it must be heard: heard as a super-Wagnerian poem of flesh, a gracefully colossal music. In mistaking The Elevation for a noun the "critics" did something superhumanly asinine. In creating The Elevation as a verb Lachaise equalled the dreams of the very great artists of all time.

from E. E. Cummings, "Gaston Lachaise." The Dial 68 (February 1920): 194-204.

 "The New Art" (1915)

[Cummings begins this passage with a quote from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons]

The book from which these selections are drawn is unquestionably a proof of great imagination on the part of the authoress, as anyone who tries to imitate her work will discover for himself. Here we see traces of realism, similar to those which made the "Nude Descending a Staircase" so baffling. As far as these "Tender Buttons" are concerned, the sum and substance of criticism is impossible. The unparalleled familiarity of the medium precludes its use for the purpose of aesthetic effect. And here, in their logical conclusion, impressionistic tendencies are reduced to absurdity.

The question now arises, how much of all this is really Art?

The answer is: we do not know. The great men of the future will most certainly profit by the experimentation of the present period. An insight into the unbroken chain of artistic development during the last half century disproves the theory that modernism is without foundation; rather we are concerned with a natural unfolding of sound tendencies. That the conclusion is, in a particular case, absurdity, does not in any way impair the value of the experiment, so long as we are dealing with sincere effort. The New Art, maligned though it may be by fakirs and fanatics, will appear in its essential spirit to the unprejudiced critic as a courageous and genuine exploration of untrodden ways.

(Published in the Harvard Advocate, June 1915)

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