The Enormous Poem
E.E. Cummings, the Harvard-educated son of a Cambridge Unitarian minister, had a knack for getting stuck in other people’s political nightmares. In 1917, at the age of 23, he left Greenwich Village to enlist (with his college friend John Dos Passos) in a Red Cross ambulance corps. After five months of “being bossed and herded and bullied and insulted”—his description of his ambulance career—Cummings was arrested on suspicion of treason and spent four months in a French prison camp.
In 1921, Boni & Liveright published his prison memoir The Enormous Room. Several years before he was established as a poet, Cummings was known as the author of one of the strangest, most liked and respected records of the First World War. The cell block where he lived with 60 men—the “enormous room” of the title—proved liberating. When he was arrested, he writes, “I was never so excited and proud. I was, to be sure, a criminal! Well, well, thank God that settled one question for good and all.” The single room that housed all the prisoners was small but within it, “I was my own man and master.” What might have seemed at the time like a case of stubborn (if charming) naiveté became for Cummings a lifelong philosophy. He believed in himself, as an artist, and he believed in the individual.
By E.E. Cummings
Edited by George J. Firmage
Preface by Madison Smartt Bell
Afterword by Norman Friedman
Liveright, 459 pp., $15.95
It seems possible that Cummings went to Russia, in the early years of Stalinism, precisely to feel alive again in another, more enormous room. He had spent the decade since his first book becoming a prominent avant-garde poet and acquiring the requisite lifestyle. As the author of a renowned war memoir (and with the help of Dos Passos), Cummings had sold a collection of his idiosyncratic poems to the same publisher. Tulips & Chimneys (1923) was quickly followed by four more collections and one play within the next eight years. During this time Cummings also married twice, shuttled between New York and Paris, and, in 1931, took leave of his wife and daughter and set out for Moscow.
Cummings had been spending time in Paris with artists such as the Surrealist poet Louis Aragon. Unlike most of them, Cummings did not have much sympathy for the Soviet regime, and coyly claimed not to have much interest in politics in general. When he arrived in Moscow in May 1931, after a long train journey, he was interviewed by a puzzled Soviet customs official. The interview is reproduced, in typical Cummings style, in Eimi (1933), the memoir of his Russian travels that he assembled from his journal upon his return. (Eimi was reissued by Liveright this month.)
Why do you wish to go to Russia?
because I’ve never been there.
(He slumps,recovers). You are interested in economic and sociological problems?
Perhaps you are aware that there has been a change of government in recent years?
yes(I say without being able to suppress a smile).
And your sympathies are not with socialism?
may I be perfectly frank?
I know almost nothing about these important matters and care even less.
(His eyes appreciate my answer). For what do you care?
Which is writing?
What kind of writing?
chiefly verse;some prose.
Then you wish to go to Russia as a writer and painter? Is that it?
no; I wish to go as myself.
That Cummings wished to go as himself was not only a personal statement but also a political one, as he knew very well. It’s hard to imagine the political force of a protesting tourist, however, if the tourist does not intend to put his experience on the record. For Cummings, his six weeks in Russia were grist for the mill. During that time he secretly kept a journal, which he then re-created as a 432-page volume written in often impenetrable prose and modeled on Dante’s Inferno.
Cummings’s Eimi alter ego (the book’s title is Greek for “I am”) spends two weeks in Moscow, a few days in Kiev, and about a week in Odessa. During that time, with the alternating bliss and distaste of a sightseer, he abandons one well-meaning guide for others. At first the hero is placed with Intourist, the national travel agency, which insists that he stay at a luxury hotel for foreigners. Cummings is put off by the “flight of marble-or something steps framed by the boundlessly flowering plants” in the lobby, not to mention the expense of the place, and his disillusionment only increases when he runs into Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana.
Dana, an enthusiastic Communist and connoisseur of Russian theater, is an acquaintance from Cambridge. He insists on showing the poet around the expatriate scene in Moscow, trying to convert him. Cummings initially agrees with these arrangements but objects once he has established more connections. After one week in Moscow, Cummings stages a Joycean falling-out with Dana as a result of their political disagreements:
Over and over again,during those hours(motifs whereof I hopelessly have hoped to more or less record)find myself standing before A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man;watching a certain Jesuit father move heaving and earth to persuade a certain Stephen Daedalus that he,Stephen,is fit for the holy task . . . which Stephen(forever,but only after meditation)knows is not true:only knows because of something around(under throughout behind above)him,or which is always the artist:his destiny.
Once called Virgil, in homage to the guide in the Inferno, Dana is afterward referred to by Cummings as his “exmentor.” The poet depicts the reason for their falling-out as ideological disillusionment—Dana was simply too strident and Cummings, as the man who came only as himself, continued to assert his positions—but another factor was that Cummings had found more interesting friends. While accompanying Dana, Cummings meets Joan London, the daughter of apparent Soviet hero Jack London, and Charles Malamuth, the newspaper correspondent whom she has married. The welcoming, engaging Malamuths (she is a “nervous angel”) invite Cummings to stay with them, and he promptly packs his bags without leaving a note for Dana. They become his "Beatrice" and his "Turk" and, with their circle, remain Cummings's companions for the rest of his time in Moscow.
The Malamuths take Cummings to the theater, a Soviet prison, and the Revolutionary Literature Bureau, where he continues to meet more people from Cambridge. They also reveal themselves to have reached the point of condemning the system they once chose to enter. In dialogue with a Midwestern husband and wife who, like Cummings, seem to be some type of tourists, Malamuth explains the facts on the ground. The episode is retold in Eimi, in one of a series of sections that approach standard English. The Turk tells the couple:
[N]ot all of these knowing millions can tell you a single god damned thing,because they’re Russians. Do you understand? Russians. All of them are inside communism;not outside it,as you are. All of them are actually living(or rather dying)an unprecedented experiment,not merely observing it with an analytic eye;far less dreaming about it with a sentimental brain. . . . Russians in Russia must suffer and shut up. . . . But correspondents in Russia have special privileges. They can’t get a really good story past the Russian censor,of course:but they don’t have to swallow their tongues while they’re here and they’re not obliged to be here forever.
The clarity of the prose corresponds to the gravity of the statements. Malamuth, it’s worth noting, at the time was collaborating on Soviet Realist plays. Ten years later, though, he edited and translated Trotsky’s biography of Stalin for U.S. publication. (The translation appeared in 1941, one year after Trotsky’s death.) Malamuth obviously was prescient about the cruelties of Stalinism, while in the early 1930s many of his contemporaries, at least in the West, still imagined the Russian system as the solution to capitalism’s problems. This was also the time when Stalin drastically centralized the Soviet government; pursued his first Five-Year Plan, which involved the slaughter and starvation of as many as five million peasants; and staged the first of his show trials. Malamuth and Cummings, in short, were right.
Being right, however, is not really the purpose of Cummings’s gigantic, poetic transcript of his experience. For the most part, the oppressive Soviet state seems to work as a vehicle for Cummings to express his faith in the individual and to practice that faith as an individual artist. What most aggrieves Cummings’s traveler (“comrade Kem-min-kz”) about Soviet Russia is the perception of the role of the artist. Cummings found it impossible to imagine that a true artist could work as a functionary of any political program. (His narrator at once rejects the idea that his own art is an expression of capitalism.) For Cummings, artistic production was an end in itself and one that made the artist exceptional from the rest of society. His hero exclaims to a dubious Virgil: “Hark:if peculiar were as peculiar as elephants are elephants,the socalled artist still would be precisely the only(the let us say indivisibly)peculiar thing alive.”
From the artist’s perspective, the Eimi narrator executes several descriptions of the Soviet state that, in retrospect, are both apt and tragic. For instance, here he is outside the Lenin Institute, watching the passing crowd awkwardly try to escape the onslaught of a dysfunctional sprinkler:
the actuality of which metaphor gives me pause. I actually feel(at that moment)how perfectly the far famed revolution of revolutions resembles a running amok streetsprinkler,a normally benevolent mechanism which attains—thanks(possibly)to some defect in its construction or(possibly)to the ignorance or(probably)playfulness of its operator—distinct if spurious loss of unimportance;certain transient capacity for clumsily mischievous behavior . . . very naturally whereupon occur trivial and harmless catastrophes
The comparison cleverly illustrates what happens to badly managed political systems. It does not, however, seem to have been written by an author who really wanted his Western readers to understand the hidden plight of the Russians. The language is too willfully eccentric to be an effective vehicle for political content. This perhaps was the intent, but as Cummings seems to have understood, he was writing at a critical time: The avant-garde ambitions of EIMI are what prevented it from becoming a crucial work of testimony. Then again, as the narrator insists from the first pages of the book, he did not come to Russia to be anybody but himself.
As befits a work that was intended to be very difficult, Eimi was subject to skeptical reviews by contemporary critics. By the time the book was published in 1933 (and in fact, even before his trip to Russia), Cummings and his idiosyncratic style had been established in American literary circles. So critics had to accept, with hesitance or enthusiasm, the poet’s “highly personal, ultra-mannered” tone, as William Troy of The Nation put it. Troy did not believe, as Cummings did, that Eimi was a modernist epic that followed in the footsteps of Joyce. To the contrary, he argued that Cummings’s remarkable syntax worked on a passage-to-passage basis but did not amount to a sustained and engaging masterwork. Troy wrote that “the reader’s powers of instantaneous response become exhausted” long before the end of the book. Ezra Pound, among others, seemed to agree. In a letter to Cummings after his first read, Pound wrote that he was not one to accuse him of obscurity. “BUT, the longer a work is the more and longer shd. be the passages that are perfectly clear and simple to read.”
When Eimi was reissued in 1950, during one of the worst years of Stalinism (and when its horrors had become apparent to many on the American left), the critics tended to be more sympathetic. The book’s most generous reader, however, may have been Marianne Moore, writing for Poetry in 1933. In a review titled “A Penguin in Moscow,” that famously cautious poet issued a very understanding and intimate-seeming appreciation. Moore—who as editor of The Dial had been one of the first to publish Cummings’s poetry—opined that the book was simply “a large poem.”
Precisely because she was a poet, Moore seems to have understood Eimi better and enjoyed it more than anyone else. She paid close attention to style (“the typography, one should add, is not something superimposed on the meaning but the author’s mental handwriting”) and concluded her review with a meticulous list of queries. On this point, especially, Moore and Cummings were in perfect agreement. As Cummings put it, and Moore quoted approvingly: “The tragedy of life . . . isn’t that some people are poor and others rich, some hungry and others not hungry, some weak and others strong. The tragedy is and always will be that some people are unable to express themselves.”