Grubby Cherub
Time, March 17, 1980

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by Richard S. Kennedy Liveright; 529 pages; $19.95

E. (EDWARD) E. (ESTLIN) CUMMINGS was a romantic poet who never grew up. Most of the good ways he stayed young show in his work. He spent a lifetime strewing lower-case words around the page, attacking conformity and praising women.

Most of the bad ways he stayed young show in his life and philosophy, and they matter very little.

cummings had few ideas. Instead he used a petrified list of "goods" and "bads" about which he felt passionate. Flowers were good, all mechanisms, including radios and vacuum cleaners, bad. Feeling was good, thought bad. Freedom was good, conformity bad. Worst of all was responsibility, something cummings made a career of avoiding. Richard Kennedy's fat, workmanlike and affectionate book, Dreams in the Mirror, is the first full-scale scholarly biography of the poet. Partly because of cummings' character, reading it is a bit like wrestling in a boxcar full of feathers. The cargo is ticklish, and there is precious little weight for the volume.

cummings' father called him "Chub," short for cherub. His mother always wanted a son who would be a poet, and she kept a record. His first verse, at age three:

Oh my little birdie oh

With his little toe, toe, toe!

At the Cambridge Latin School in Cambridge, Mass., Estlin tried to write a poem a day. Sample at age 16:

God, keep me trying to win the prize

Pamper me not, though I be crying

Though snickering worlds wink owlish eyes,

God, keep me trying.

Harvard (A.B. 1915, M.A. 1916) all but undid this model boy. His discovery of the decadent poets of the 1890s led him to write lines like "(Oh God!) the wonder of you—" Courtesy of Ezra Pound, he also fell in with free verse and the imagist movement. Poetry henceforth was to be simple, sensuous and direct, images fresh, startling and spare. cummings proved an apt poetic experimenter, though some of his finest verse, eventually, was traditional:

This is the garden. Time shall surely reap

and on Death's blade lie many a flower curled,

in other lands where other songs be sung;

yet stand They here enraptured, as among

the slow deep trees perpetual of sleep

some silver-fingered fountain steals the world.

One of his father's mottoes was "We can't all of us be honored by titles and degrees but we can all be Knights of the Daily Bath." As a Harvard rebel, cummings more or less gave up washing. Mother sometimes managed to steal his shoes at night to give them a respectable shine.

In 1917 he went to France with the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Service. There he tangled with suspicious French authorities and wound up doing some time at La Ferté-Macé, in a prison for dissidents, misfits and security risks. One result was The Enormous Room, published in 1922, cummings' savage account of prison life and human solidarity. The book is still a classic. After the war cummings settled in Greenwich Village, where he lived on money supplied by his parents and admiring friends. In the 1930s, watching F.D.R. and something cummings liked to call "the nude eel" increase Government power, he began to describe America as the "home of the slave." But when he traveled to Russia he found Stalinism far more repressive and said so:

kumrads die because they're told ...

all good kumrads you can tell

by their altruistic smell.

cummings had three wives, two of them fashion models, all of them beautiful. In 1919 he had a child by Elaine Thayer, the estranged wife of his best friend Scofield Thayer, publisher of Dial magazine. A few years later the poet married Elaine, but the couple stayed together less than a year. He made at best sketchy attempts to have a part in his daughter's life. She was 28 years old, in fact, before she learned cummings was her father. Kennedy does his best with this blend of scandal and soap opera; the revelatory meeting between father and grownup daughter is the closest thing to an excuse for the last half of the book,

along the brittle treacherous bright streets

of memory comes my heart,singing like

an idiot,whispering like a drunken man

who (at a certain corner, suddenly) meets

the tall policeman of my mind

This was the best poetic expression of cummings' lifelong view that a murderous antagonism exists between thought and feeling. The tall policeman of his mind appeared very few times in his verse and hardly at all in his life. A pity; because of that absence, people suffered, not the least of them the poet. Dreams in the Mirror measures the pain; for pleasure, the reader, like cummings, has to go to the poems themselves.