Saturday, February 08, 2014

An Artful Biography, Susan Cheever’s e. e. cummings: a life

An Artful Biography, Susan Cheever’s  e. e. cummings: a life

by Michael Todd Steffen

Princeton poet Richard P. Blackmur called the deliberately humbled language and typographical appearance of E. E. Cummings’s poetry “baby talk,” biographer Susan Cheever tells us in her Preface
to e. e. cummings: a life. One critic simply wondered what was wrong with this poet. Cheever defends:

Nothing was wrong with Cummings—or with Duchamp or Stravinski or Joyce,
for that matter. All were trying to slow down the inexorable rush of the world,
to force people to notice their own lives. In the twenty-first century, that rush
has now reached Force Five; we are all inundated with information and given
no time to wonder what it means or where it comes from. Access without
understanding and facts without context have become our daily diet (p. xii).

One of the few excuses Cheever makes for the new biography, other than her convincing admiration, a love that is felt throughout the book, Cheever’s is a powerful argument – “we are all inundated with information and given no time to wonder what it means” – for the timeliness of her book to reconsiderthe life and work of the modernist generation’s “beloved heretic.”

In previous books, Cheever has sketched and traced the lives of such emblematic Americans as Louisa May Alcott, Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, AA founder Bill Wilson, including a memoir of her father the well-known author John Cheever. The new Cummings biography demonstrates not just a little experience and know-how with the genre, so well digested in its scope of Cummings’s life.

While the book is ample with details and inside looks at the highlights (and shadowy interludes) of the poet’s life (his first encounter with Keats, the tragic drowning of Rex the family dog at Silver Lake, his father’s appeals to the White House to obtain his son’s release from incarceration in France during WWI), Cheever’s narrative avoids getting mired down in itemizations. Sidestepping a tedious linear timeline, the author uses touchstone events and moments, special locales, relationships and inspirations as topical starting points from which to build context and dip into particulars. This orchestration of the biography reads at an informative brisk pace and feeds our curiosity, paragraph by paragraph, chapter to chapter, to want to read on.

His idyllic childhood at 104 Irving Street “separating cerebral Cambridge and orchidaceous Somerville,” the family’s rural summer house at Joy Farm in New Hampshire, Cummings’s rebellious days at Harvard when he took to drinking, frequenting night clubs and began to write poetry, all of these set up the polarities of the poet’s young life between its solid foundation in a family of “Harvard royalty” and the individual notions and pain that drove the young man to rebel against that foundation as he began to make his individual way.

Paris and World War I, Cummings’s apartment at Patchin Place in Greenwich Village, his love affairs including two difficult marriages and a daughter the poet did not raise, interspersed with cameo tete-a-tete’s with many famous writers and intellectuals, and the mellow, introspective last years guide Cheever’s narrative through the mature life of the established poet.

Building background and context to bring out the importance of events nuances Cheever’s narratives with insight. A major shift in attitudes was taking place at Harvard when Cummings enrolled in 1911. This shift was indicative of national as well as international trends.

[T]he old Harvard had been run with the aristocratic liberal rigor of Charles William Eliot…a populist democrat in an elitist world who believed that any man [or woman] could be educated by reading a five-foot shelf of classics…
     When Cummings got to Harvard two years after Eliot stepped down, the institution was slowly and painfully giving way to the…the conservative, anti-Semitic, racist aegis of A. Lawrence Lowell, a Brahmin’s Brahmin [pp. 30 – 1].

As Cheever portrays the external changes of the world around the young Cummings, she deftly traces the poet’s internal labor to find an authentic response, his struggle “to reshape the triangle between the reader, the writer, and the subject of the poem” [p. xi]. Adopting a Keatsian credo “of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the Imagination,” the young Cummings developed his odd mixture of individual humility and sarcastic, resentful defiance against the colossal powers (social, financial, military) that dominate and inspire fear.

Cheever draws the illustrative parallels and differences between Ezra Pound and Cummings, kindred spirits in buoyant defiance. Pound’s poetry was to exert profound influences on Cummings’s technical experiments to find his signature, the lower-case i. It is paradoxical that a sensibility so antithetical to the dehumanization of modern technology would come to invent his trademark thanks to the mechanics of type print, then newly available to the individual on the typewriter. One of the legacies Cummings left to poetry has its stamp in typographical idiosyncrasies. Readers cannot help but be reminded of him every time we spot even an ampersand or a phrase or line in the upper case.

It is a stroke of serendipity, in the way of personal observation, that Cheever’s new biography is being released the same month as Joan Houlihan’s Ay, the second book in a narrative sequence that employs a devised English language out of semiotic emphases, creating effects reminiscent of Cummings:

    Us nest a fine weather long
    between the heat of kin
    the least of us in huts built round with stones…    [The Us, p. 3]

40 years ago James Merrill made elaborate use of type on page to mirror his communications via the alphabet on the oui-ja board with the other world in his epic trilogy The Changing Light at Sandover:

    (David’s and mine) ALLOWED ME TO GET THRU
    MAY I SAY WEVE HAD OUR EYES ON U    [Section E, The Book of Ephraim]

Far from being the aim of whaling in a ponderous authoritative biography, the achievement of Susan Cheever in e. e. cummings: a life will be as the best gateway biography, accessible, enlightening and  enjoyable to initiates in Cummings scholarship and lore, fresh with insights and I think appropriate authorial sympathy for her subject, as a witness to the cultivation of humanists and the humanities in our increasingly programmatic culture.
     Vitally, also, Cheever reminds us why it is important for readers of poetry to be familiar with the challenges of a poet’s life and the illumination that life brings to us. Cummings was well aware of the burden and gift of his inspiration, as one of his famous Harvard lectures intimates:

    I am someone who humbly and proudly affirms that love is the mystery-of-mysteries…
    that ‘an artist, a man, a failure’ is no mere whenfully accreting mechanism, but a givingly
    eternal complexity…whose only happiness is to transcend himself, whose every agony
    is to grow.

e. e. cummings: a life
ISBN: 9780307379979
by Susan Cheever
is available through Pantheon Books
February 11, 2014
for $26.95
Contact: Josefine Kals, 212-572-2565,

Thursday, February 06, 2014

reduced to joy by Mark Nepo

reduced to joy
by Mark Nepo
Viva Editions
Berkeley, California
Copyright © 2013  by Mark Nepo
153 pages, softbound, $15.95
ISBN: 978-1-936740-57-4
Vera Pavlova was born in Moscow. She graduated from the Gnessin Academy, specializing in the history of music, and is the author of fourteen collections of poetry, four opera librettos, and lyrics to two cantatas. Her works have been translated into eighteen languages
Review by Zvi A. Sesling

Some of Mark Nepo’s poems begin with what could be a riddle or a philosophical pursuit. In “Coming Out” the first four lines set you thinking, what is he saying?

While there is much to do
we are not here to do.

Under the want to problem-solve
is the need to being-solve.

“Near The Light” has a three line initial stanza:  I’m saved by what is timeless./Can taste it though it fills no cup./Can feel it though it can’t be seen.

Many of the poems, however, are personal. Nepo talks about saving his puppy from drowning, a dead friend who may have died with secrets, about nature and other topics.  The poems are mostly about him, though justifiably as he is a long term survivor of a rare form of lymphoma.  His survival has had an immense impact on his poetry, as has his forty plus year career in poetry, health and spirituality.

Yes the poems are about him, and are written by him in a way that makes you not only like him, but admire him for his survival and his bravery.  But that’s not what he wants from you or me.  I believe what he wants is for us – the readers – to learn from this book of poetry as in the poem “Behind The Thunder”

I keep looking for one more teacher,
only to find that fish learn from water
and birds learn from sky.

If you want to learn about the sea,
it helps to be at sea.
If you want to learn about compassion,
it helps to be in love.
If you want to learn about healing,
it helps to know of suffering.

The strong live in the storm
without worshipping the storm.

Wise words from a poet who has suffered, has lived in the storm and lives to tell us in some 147 pages how to be better to ourselves and others. Oh, the road is not easy, but heading in the right direction is a start.

Zvi A. Sesling
Reviewer for Boston Small Press and Poetry Scene
Author, King of the Jungle (Ibbetson Street Press)
Author,  Across Stones of Bad Dreams (Cervena Barva Press)
Author, Fire Tongue (forthcoming, Cervena Barva Press)
Editor, Muddy River Poetry Review Online Poetry Journal
Editor, Bagel Bards Anthologies 7& 8
Publisher, Muddy River Books

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Broken Lines: The Art & Craft of Poetry, by Judith Skillman


Broken Lines: The Art & Craft of Poetry, by Judith Skillman. San Pedro, CA: Lummox Press, 2013. vi and 182 pp., Glossary, Works Cited, Author Bios, Contributor Bios, About the Author. $19.95 paper.

            All contemporary poets have confronted the taunting statements: free verse is not poetry--it has no rhyme, no meter. It's simply prose cut up with line breaks. And beginning poets may also wonder: Where should I break the line? And how do I achieve a sense of rhythm without rhyme and meter? How do I get started?  How do I organize a manuscript?

            Since 1988 Judith Skillman's successful career writing and publishing poetry gives her valuable and varied experience on the subject to answer those questions.  She has published 15 well-received collections of poems, and her next volume The Phoenix: New & Selected Poems 2007-2013 will be available early in 2014.  So she has "been there," and she understands the problems of an aspiring writer.  Broken Lines is not a textbook, but in the author's words, "my personal take on ways and means that may assist both aspiring and experienced poets to up their game."

            The author's "personal take" is entirely approachable.  Her style is conversational, colloquial, and elegant in the sense that the writing is easily understandable because the ideas and suggestions are stated clearly, logically, concisely with good sense and no clutter.  This book would be equally helpful to an individual working alone or as a supplement to a class of aspiring poets in a workshop.

            Obviously, Judith Skillman does not intend her book to be an all-encompassing guide to writing poetry. She has chosen to focus on the most immediate questions aspiring poets have--a discussion and guidelines for line breaks, how to vary structure in the context of free verse, search for the ars poetica poem, and steps required to facilitate the act of coming out of the closet.  Her work is "rife" with examples that come in the form of successful poems, personal examples, quotations from other writers, and interviews pertinent to the subject under discussion.  She includes strategies to support one's motivation, to fight against the feelings of isolation, and suggestions of ways to broaden ones base of what to write about.

            Broken Lines is divided into 5 sections, each packed with helpful points supported by examples.  Section 1 "Letting Go & Getting On" includes such topics as finding one's subject to write about, breaking the lines, enjambment, caesura, associative writing, form and content, condensing and being concise, revising. Section 2 "Giving Writer's Block the Boot" starts by suggesting that one can overcome angst by putting one's feelings into an ars poetica poem, includes 20 ideas for writing a poem with accompanying example poems,  ends with 7 suggestions for "Putting it All Together: Your Voice, Your Vision," and  a section on writing the occasional poem.  Section 3 "The Spark: Collaboration and Inspiration" presents the idea that subject matter and enrichment of one's writing can come through collaboration with other artists and gives examples of collaboration with a photographer, textile artist, visual artist, memoir writer, and includes an interview that discusses inspiration.  Section 4 "Your Poetry Manuscript" discusses manuscript
evolution--how to discover and develop a theme, how to order the manuscript, epigraphs, and creating front and back matter. And the final Section 5 "Maintaining Motivation" lists resources, ways writers can continue to write in the face of  publisher rejections, marketing strategies, 20 tips for giving a poetry reading, and what to do if one feels the plateau has been reached.

            Judith Skillman offers an astonishingly original take on the "How-to" book
on creative writing.  Her practical ideas, suggestions and valuable examples make Broken Lines: the Art & Craft of Poetry a valuable handbook for any writer of poetry.  The reader will come away encouraged, with a head full of information, ideas to implement, and with the recognition of the true poem by its effect.  Judith Skillman writes: "The best poems are those that go through you like a bullet train.  They are made of words and plain English, but they leave you wondering what went by."  This book will certainly help the aspiring writer compose poems that will leave their readers "wondering what went by."


 ****Bonny Barry Sanders’ reviews, articles, and poems have appeared in Birmingham Review, Blueline, Chattahoochee Review, Connecticut Review, The Christian Science Monitor, Ibbetson Street, Florida Review, The Louisiana Review, The Sow’s Ear, South Dakota Review, South Carolina Review and many other literary journals.  Her first book of poems is entitled Touching Shadows.   She is working on her second collection.  She lives with her husband in Jacksonville, FL.