Friday

Oct. 14, 2011

You shall above all things be glad and young...

by E. E. Cummings

you shall above all things be glad and young
For if you're young, whatever life you wear

It will become you;and if you are glad
whatever's living will yourself become.
Girlboys may nothing more than boygirls need:
i can entirely her only love

whose any mystery makes every man's
flesh put space on;and his mind take off time

that you should ever think,may god forbid
and (in his mercy) your true lover spare:
for that way knowledge lies,the foetal grave
called progress,and negation's dead undoom.

I'd rather learn from one bird how to sing
than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance

"You shall above all things be glad and young..." by E.E. Cummings, from 100 Selected Poems. © Grove Press, 1994. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1926 that Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne was published (books by this author). Milne was a writer for Punch, and many of his first "children's" poems and stories were printed there, not intended for children at all but for whimsical adult readers. The first Pooh story, "In Which We are Introduced to Winnie-the-Pooh and Some Bees and the Stories Begin," was published in The London Evening News on Christmas Eve in 1925 and broadcast on the BBC the next day.

Even though Milne based the Winnie-the-Pooh stories on his son, Christopher Robin, and his son's stuffed bear, he didn't even read the stories aloud to Christopher Robin. Milne preferred to read his young son the novels of P.G. Wodehouse. Christopher Robin later said: "My father did not write the books for children. He didn't write for any specific market; he knew nothing about marketing. He knew about me, he knew about himself, he knew about the Garrick Club — he was ignorant about anything else. Except, perhaps, about life."

Winnie-the-Pooh begins:
"Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it. And then he feels that perhaps there isn't. Anyhow, here he is at the bottom, and ready to be introduced to you. Winnie-the-Pooh.
"When I first heard his name, I said, just as you are going to say, 'But I thought he was a boy?'
"'So did I,' said Christopher Robin.
"'Then you can't call him Winnie?'
"'I don't.'
"'But you said —'
"'He's Winnie-ther-Pooh. Don't you know what "ther" means?'
"'Ah, yes, now I do,' I said quickly; and I hope you do too, because it is all the explanation you are going to get."

It's the birthday of E.E. Cummings (books by this author), born Edward Estlin Cummings in Cambridge, Massachusetts (1894). His father, also named Edward, was a Harvard professor-turned-Unitarian minister, a well-known public figure. Cummings said, "My father is the principal figure of my earliest remembered life. [...] His illimitable love was the axis of my being." He described his father: "He was a New Hampshire man, 6 foot 2, a crack shot and a famous fly-fisherman & a firstrate sailor (his sloop was named The Actress) & a woodsman who could find his way through forests primeval without a compass & a canoeist who'd stillpaddle you up to a deer without ruffling the surface of a pond & an ornithologist & taxidermist & (when he gave up hunting) an expert photographer & an actor who portrayed Julius Caesar in Sanders Theatre & a painter (both in oils & watercolors) [...] & a plumber who just for the fun of it installed his own waterworks & (while still at Harvard) a teacher with small use for professors [...] a preacher who horribly shocked his pewholders by crying 'the kingdom of Heaven is no spiritual roofgarden: it's inside you' & my father had the first telephone in Cambridge & (Long before any Model T Ford) he piloted an Orient Buckboard with Friction Drive [...] & my father was a servant of the people who fought Boston's biggest & crookedest politician fiercely all day & a few evenings later sat down with him cheerfully at the Rotary Club & my father's voice was so magnificent that he was called on to impersonate God from Beacon Hill (he was heard all over the Common)."

Both Cummings' mother and father were supportive of their son's talent — they encouraged him to write a poem every day, which he did for most of his childhood and teenage years. But the elder Edward was also dominating, and the two began to clash as the younger became more and more rebellious. He went to Harvard but continued to live at home; he said, "I led a double life, getting drunk and feeling up girls but lying about this to my Father and taking his money all the time." Finally, in his senior year, he moved into his own apartment and had the freedom to do as he pleased, without his father's knowledge — until the night he parked his father's car in front of a prostitute's house and it was towed away by the police, who called to let the minister know where his car had been. The father and son had a big fight over that one, but never a serious falling out. The younger Cummings continued his escapades. When he was selected to deliver the Harvard commencement address, he chose a controversial topic: "the New Art," the Modernist style that was still radical and threatening to the Harvard community — and sure enough, he offended many listeners during his speech. Cummings' own poetry was becoming increasingly more experimental, and he started using a lowercase letter "i," as he continued to do for the rest of his career. In the first book that included a few of his poems, Eight Harvard Poets (1917), the copyeditor assumed it was a mistake and fixed the "i" to uppercase.

In April of 1917, Cummings and his Harvard friend John Dos Passos enlisted in the ambulance corps and headed to France. There Cummings made friends with a fellow American, William Slater Brown. In September of 1917, Cummings and Brown were arrested on suspicions of espionage and sent to an internment camp. The precise reason for their detainment is unclear. It could be because the censors were alarmed by provocative comments in letters the men sent back home — they made no secret of being pacifists, and Cummings said he felt no hatred for the Germans. Also, they preferred spending time with the French troops more than the American ones, which further confused their superiors, and Brown claimed later that they were probably arrested because the French troops had told them stories of unrest and violent suppression in the French ranks. In any case, they were arrested and spent more than three months imprisoned — Cummings was finally released because of his father's petitions to President Woodrow Wilson. He turned his experience into a novel, The Enormous Room (1922). He followed it up with his first book of poetry, Tulips & Chimneys (1923), which was very well received.

Cummings published three more books of poetry in the next three years, and book by book, he became a popular poet. He was popular in a way that many of his contemporaries, like Wallace Stevens or William Carlos Williams, were not. His poems were experimental and he followed his own grammar rules, but they were about simple subjects — love, nature, children, sex — and people liked that. When he died in 1962, he was the second most read poet in the country, after Robert Frost.

In a lecture at Harvard, Cummings said: "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 etcetera ad infinitum and remember one thing only: that it's you — nobody else — who determine your destiny and decide your fate. Nobody else can be alive for you; nor can you be alive for anybody else. Toms can be Dicks and Dicks can be Harrys, but none of them can ever be you. There's the artist's responsibility; and the most awful responsibility on earth."

It's the birthday of philosopher and writer Hannah Arendt (books by this author), born in Linden, Germany (1906). Her books included The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and The Human Condition (1958). She said, "Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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