66

love is more thicker than forget
more thinner than recall
more seldom than a wave is wet
more frequent than to fail

it is most mad and moonly
and less it shall unbe
than all the sea which only
is deeper than the sea

love is less always than to win
less never than alive
less bigger than the least begin
less littler than forgive

it is most sane and sunly
and more it cannot die
than all the sky which only
is higher than the sky

It’s the birthday of poet E.E. Cummings (books by this author), born Edward Estlin Cummings in Cambridge, Massachusetts (1894). His father was a Harvard professor, and Cummings grew up in a privileged and happy household — he said, “As it was my miraculous fortune to have a true father and a true mother, and a home which the truth of their love made joyous, so — in reaching outward from this love and this joy — I was marvelously lucky to touch and seize a rising and striving world.” At times he rebelled against the strict Christian morality and academic world of his parents. He wrote in one early poem: “the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls / are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds.” 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.”

He graduated from Harvard, enlisted in the Ambulance Corps, and then moved to Greenwich Village to write poetry. His Harvard friend John Dos Passos used his influence to find a publisher for Cummings’s first book of poems, Tulips and Chimneys (1923). Cummings complained that the editor cut the manuscript down from 152 poems to 66, and took out the ampersand in the title to write out the word “and.” One critic said that his poems were “hideous on the page,” and another corrected all his punctuation when she quoted him. He continued to publish books, but 12 years after his first collection of poems had come out, Cummings was still unable to find a publisher for his newest manuscript. He ended up self-publishing it with financial help from his mother — he titled it No Thanks (1935) and dedicated it to the 14 publishing houses who had rejected the book.

Slowly, his fame grew. His Collected Poems (1938) was a big success, but his six-month royalty checks were small — one for $14.94, another for $9.75. His mother still gave him a monthly check to help pay his living expenses. He started giving poetry readings, and by the last decade of his life, Cummings was a celebrity. His poetry readings were hugely popular, sold-out events — he packed venues from college campuses to theaters. He charmed his audiences — reading energetically, lingering on individual words, striding around the stage as he spoke, and timing his readings to the second. In 1957, he read to a crowd of 7,000 in Boston. During a reading at Bennington College in Vermont, the huge crowd of students greeted him by reciting his poem about Buffalo Bill en masse. The crowds were so enthusiastic that Cummings had to establish what he called “rules of engagement”: he refused to autograph books or attend dinners or other social functions. He sometimes sneaked out after readings by what he called a “secretbackentrance.” Young women came up to him on the streets of New York to give him bouquets of flowers, or left them on the doorstep of his Greenwich Village apartment. By the time of his death in 1962, he was the second most widely read poet in America, after Robert Frost.

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