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Review: 'E.E. Cummings: A Life'


Spring 1958, the poet Edward Estlin Cummings - or E.E. Cummings, as most of us know him - was a passenger in writer John Cheever's car. Cummings had just spoken at the school of Cheever's teenage daughter,and she was sitting in the back seat. Well, that day kicked off a fascination that led to Susan Cheever's recent biography "E.E. Cummings: A Life." Alan Cheuse reviews the book, and shares the origins of his own fascination with Cummings.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: It started with a poem. Buffalo Bill's defunct, who used to ride a water smooth silver stallion and break over one, two, three, four, five pigeons just like that. Jesus, he was a handsome man. And what I want to know is how do you like your blue-eyed boy, Mr. Death?

We Rutgers boys who pictured ourselves as budding writers loved to chant that Cummings poem aloud in classes with our writing teacher, poet John Ciardi, and among ourselves. The juxtaposition of images; the mix of brilliant, playfully somber, reinvented syntax overlaid on classical forms - some of the same qualities that had launched Cummings' reputation among fellow modernist poets of his own young manhood thrilled us rambunctious, undergraduate English majors, and drove us to exclaim aloud that news about Buffalo Bill.

We had no idea who Cummings, the man, was, what kind of life he led, this Boston Brahmin and what, after his education in classic English poetry at Harvard had driven him to write these lively modernist lyrics so admired by Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and other fine poets of the American century.

With the help of a few earlier, groundbreaking books about Cummings, Susan Cheever has changed that situation for current and future generations of writers and readers. She's put together a smart and readable portrait of this artist as a seemingly perpetual young man whose adult years were filled with personal despair, jumbled politics, a mix of anti-Communism, polite anti-Semitism and American self-actualization as well as family heartbreak.

After graduating from Harvard, Cummings served as a World War I ambulance driver for a short period and served prison time in France as a result of it, and at his father's urging wrote a powerful personal account titled "The Enormous Room" about that experience. This puritan running wild then fled, Cheever writes, fled to sexy law-breaking Greenwich Village where he could hang out with other modernist poets, have an affair with another man's wife, go to burlesque performances and ask William Carlos Williams for medical advice.

Cummings' career took a serious turn for the worst when some poet critics of a later generation declared his work too juvenile to take seriously. The poetry in these pages will persuade you otherwise. Juvenile, no. Raging, youthful energy, yes. And subtlety and beauty, that, too.

BLOCK: "E.E. Cummings: A Life" is written by Susan Cheever and reviewed for us by Alan Cheuse. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alan Cheuse died on July 31, 2015. He had been in a car accident in California earlier in the month. He was 75. Listen to NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamburg's retrospective on his life and career.