Thoughts on ee cummings’ i , six nonlectures

2022 Year of Aesthetics Series №26

I will discuss the non-lectures and then give a stand alone poets poem in each section

non lecture 1

i & my parents

First I am intrigued by the title of i, six non-lectures, they focus on the poet as an egocentric self and I see with cummings focuses on place he came from, his love of what others deem indecent, freedom, taboo of parentage, learning, and self-exploring and a self centered poetic perspective that this is his own version Song of Myself.

Secondly he makes a hidden homage in a paragraph where he calls his lecture repeatedly uses attempts, hinting at the Essais (Essays) by Montaigne again a great self exploration that covers a wide branching and digressive topics but reverts to the author himself. It implies the uncertainty that this will be a successful endeavor but one worth seeing through from his perspective.

He is clear that he wishes to cover his parentage first and see himself as his parents son and a writer second.

He then goes on to discuss how he will present his own poems sporadically but that he will dedicate 15 minute of each lecture to reading poems without criticism while quoting Rilke as an authority and justification for not needing to criticize these poems in the non lecture.

Works of art are of an infinite loneliness and with nothing so little to be reached as with criticism. Only love can grasp and hold and be just toward them. ~Rilke

I think we have the right to criticize art, and be discerning about it, yet I have sympathy for his view and also he sort of sells this softly as a compensation for the nonlecture being not what is typically advertised. I think it is that the poem that stands on its own is a beautiful concept. I maybe do not trust the claim to authority, as much as trust Cummings, to select exceptional poems that leave little to be seen outside the poem. I find cummings poems for all their word play and puzzles and mysteries to be understandable without strange-incomprehensible references or inside jokes that the audience cannot explore. I think his Amateur's Anthology are poems of the same ilk.

Cummings see his parents as heroic and essential. He makes a case of learning from positive example and gaining from the positive, I think his case is strong, and less reductionist that Taleb’s Via Negativa and the negative role model. I have learned from both kinds, and I like the case Cummings makes for himself being first his parents son and a poet second. Also, there is a gratitude and respect extended to his parents, which lacks any form of entitlement. It is refreshing that he knows he is lucky in his parentage and wants to celebrate it.

Cummings had prose and poetry surrounding him. His mother loved and hand copied poems she loved. Neighbors were Harvard Professors, and schools and home life were exceptional.

Cummings starts his amature anthology with one long poem but some of my favorites are quite short, These three are among my favorites poems and non-poems…

…For me neither the honey or the honey maker…

Fragment of Sappho

Odi et Amo

I love and I hate,

I feel it happen,

I know not why

and I am torn.


The person you are most afraid to contradict is yourself.

Nassim Talab First Aphorism in The Bed of Procrustes

François de La Rochefoucauld

I have come to debase the Currency

Diogenes of Sinope

non lecture 2

i & their son

Cummings sees his childhood home as a place of privacy. “ I was born at home.”…“ …I should explain the idea of home is an idea of privacy.” Privacy is linked with an idea of self, of a singular being that is bound only by its own choices and nature. This idea of privacy extends that an artist who cannot live for others or try to incorporate the natures of others, to be a poet or artist the individual must take on his own singular goals and vision.

He also dispels the idea of being of service and had great respect for the household servants that were part of his home. “ From them, a perfect ignoramus could and did learn what any unworld would begin to begin so much as suspect: that slavery and only slavery, is service without love.”

He expounds on his exceptional teachers and relatives that put sounds in his ear and books in his hands. He has professors introduce him to sonnets, and an uncle to outlandish tales of blood, gore and adventure. I had early and later teachers who saved me who saw I was investing time in, I am glad Cummings reminds us of them.

The exposure to woods and nature may have been an equal teacher to him and maybe his first voyage beyond the home, his first step into the world.

I will let Cummings speak for himself on individuality and nature as I take two quotations from the second non-lecture.

From Second Non lecture
From Collected Poems

non lecture 3

i & self discovery

Cumming starts this lecture with the discussion of freedom versus security, firmly on the side of freedom. I think that he may come down hard on the side of freedom over security, it should be noted he came from very established parentage, grew up surrounded by Harvard professors and had a father who could call the army to get him out of a scrape on the other side of the world with friend in two. He was reasonably secure in his early life and this gave him a wide range of freedom. Personally, I had to embrace freedom to gain security and I cherish both. This is where Cummings does things that by today standards are much less scandalous, he went to the wrong side of town, walked down the streets with prostitutes and carefully stepped over drunken sailors.

I would like to be generous to Cummings, our stepping out into the world is an adventure where we start sacrificing some of our security for freedom. I remember moving from a crowed country home to a university dorm sharing a suite for rooms with 4 people instead of a house with 12. No curfew, a library full of books, intellectual life instead of country living. I share Cummings excitement, but I know that I had to pay the bills and often struggled at times to do so. I moved to Chicago, I traveled the world so Cummings stepping out into the world is familiar to me, but it was never purely free and never without some need of security.

I agree we have to step into the world, I remember books, and concerts, and bars and girls and too late nights and discussions. I remember the first time living in Chicago and every moment being a new adventure. I find the two stories a bit dubious about the elevator and the magazine interview. But NYC to Cummings was Chicago to me and Paris is Paris for us both.

I do agree, that sacrificing our personal security is necessary, and hard to do. I gave up having a home for 5 years. I lived out of hotels, I did have a lot of security in other realms but for 5 years where do you live was a hard question to answer.

Cummings list what he got from his education which he values somewhat less than his drive towards freedom but he still cherishes it.

Now Two poems, One by Sappho on that which dominates us, even as it is part of us, and one from Sophocles' Antigone about giving up all security for the sacred, putting ones self beyond the state, she is very Socratic in death, but with fewer friends.

Fragment of Sappho

non lecture 4

i & you & is

To quote from the introduction to Is 5.

from the fourth nonlecture

It would be a mistake to say this is Orwellian in the negative sense, Orwell’s freedom lies in stating uncomfortable truths, even when they are the most evident, thought I think Cummings agrees in a way in saying, we may want to be free to look beyond simple truths as individual artists. Cumming does not claim universal acceptance of the artist, but an independent individuality. Note Cummings was more beloved in his time than Orwell, and that Orwell tread a path in prose that few would rival. Both men hated the corruption of language and art becoming propaganda and the destruction of the individual.

Orwell 2+2 = 4 ideal is against the imposition of the State on a truth that is imposed on an individual. Orwell wanted to face unpleasant truths and wanted the absurd example of state making all truths inconvenient. Cummings approaches truth as an artistic attempt a venture 2 X2 (possibly ) Is 5 , borders on the indecent idea, which Cummings believes is essential to being an individual, and is only indecent to the masses rather than the state, although later we will see that he sees the danger of the states implementing of false truths via force and propaganda on the individuals. The two men's ideas are tangential Is 5 is from 1926. As a poet, Cummings wants to explore beyond facts to challenge the accepted, but he does not force one to travel with him on his path or to his final destination unwillingly. Cummings attempts in poetry is to challenge accepted convenient truths of the ordinary, the crowd, or that are unexplored. His exploration is to challenge the acceptable that remains unchallenged.

I would also think that both men attach the right and left statist, and especially against the attack of the human soul by the soviet. The both respect language and while Orwell is the king of clean perfect prose and Cummings a hyper specialized language both are against the double speak language of propaganda, I find cummings speaks in a manner to make you think in an unconventional manner, to expose paradoxes and propagandist thinking. Both love language and the truth, just masters of different forms.

The review cites work by well-known American writers then emerging, as well as several already established. E.E. Cummings catches Orwell’s most stringent criticism. Orwell had little patience for Cummings’ typographical experiments, although he seems to like a Cummings poem in the anthology. Orwell challenges the letter of Cummings method but not the spirit.

From the fourth nonlecture

St John comes up in reference to Ezra Pound. Both men have a respect for Pound, Cummings more than Orwell who seems to say we should not shove aside without judgement on the value of his poetry. One of Orwell’s last defenses was of Pounds right to a literary prize, to expose what he has done and what he has written. Yet I am not tempted by Pound. I am much more tempted by St. John, even as an atheist.

St. John, who Nietzsche lumped him in with the rest of the writers of bad Greek, mistaking common of the simple Greek, for bad greek , yet John writes in the common Coniae Greek with a limited vocabulary, his writing is clean simple yet poetry in prose , I quote the first words of John, on the power of divinity in the word as a beginning.

As we are on the idea of the states imposition of force against the word, and we are speaking of beginnings, I will quote the pagan Ovid who was exiled for a deed and a verse by Augustus Caesar. The creation from the Metamorphoses. Ovid was my first subversive poet I read.

John 1–10 DR translation
Ralph Humphries Translation of Ovid’s Metamorphose

non lecture 5

i & now & him

Cummings brings up the artist as acrobat, a performer and a man on a wire, but a man understood, his performance is way up their a the verge of what others can comprehend, up there he is AND MUST PROCEED. The verb proceed is what is important to Cummings the attempt of art and its mystery, even if there in the end is no place to sit or stand at the high point.

His picking the acrobat and the Burlesque as models is because they seem indecent in general but we are captivated by them, we want to share their place vicariously. Yet the attempt may fail and the audience may be there only to see him fall, the artist first audience is himself, he must be true to the mystery, he must proceed no matter if he falls or fails. Only the artist cares about the attempt fully, he doesn’t even care where the chairs land of an artist, a man, a failure.

He brings up that art is also a mystery. As a painter, I have found that art comes often from the attempt and inspiration but if you had to put your finger on what is the fount of the idea or the seed of creation, you will struggle. Socrates stated the poets could not answer his questions on what their poems meant, but maybe they are in a way always mystic, maybe Socrates aka Plato hiding behind Socrates, the poem may be the introduction to a mystery, or as to quote Miller Williams

There has never been a poem

to explain anything.

For that reason

Many people who would otherwise

write poems do not

Praise such people.

Miller Williams On Hearing the Death of Mizti Mayfair

I will quote one sonnet from Cummings in this lecture (all six are wonderful) and my favorite scene from Shakespeare (like cummings) between Beatrice and Benedict where comedy is at its sweetest and where love almost leads to the tragic.

From Much Ado About Nothing Act 4 Scene 1 W Shakespeare

non lecture 6

i & am & santa claus

Cummings becomes the last free man in Moscow, but unlike Winston Smith he is going to get out and write about it. He sees an endless line of dirty woman and unshaven men, faces upon faces a line that moves but in a way does not move and lasts forever , who like souls in Dante walk through the gates of a hell. As a foreign correspondent he is give a place at the head of the line sandwiched between two men going into the Crypt, grave, tomb , shrine to see a bad wax work of Lenin a god of a non religion, a wax work that men fear which is lesser than the human fakes of Coney Island.

It reminds me of the false gods Jeramiah laments:

4 Craftsmen decorate them with silver and gold and fasten them [together] with hammers and nails so that they won’t fall over.

5 These trees are like scarecrows in cucumber gardens. They aren’t able to speak. They have to be carried, because they can’t walk. Don’t be afraid of them. They can’t harm you. They can’t do you any good either.

8 They are complete idiots. They learn nonsense from wooden idols.

9 Hammered silver is brought from Tarshish and gold from Uphaz. Craftsmen and goldsmiths shape these metals. The clothing for the idols is blue and purple, all made by skilled workers.

14 Everyone is stupid and ignorant. Metalsmiths are put to shame by their idols. Their statues are false [gods]. They can’t breathe.

Another false guide of man kind is science as a moral guide. His attach on science as unreal and impractical (less lasting or real than Santa) in the end, is used often to sell instead of inform or teach. I disagree with his view on science a bit, but I do see his point on cherry picked facts to support unrealities, I feel we have all been in line to by some stock in wheelmines in the name of science lately, and that science has been used to divide us, and make us not believe in innocence, family, or each other.

Only the child can find Santa in disguise and know the when death wants to defraud us as Santa in disguise. She knows that death is dead but you can’t kill Santa, but know that you can hang death for a while but he will creep back. But plays are as mysterious as poems and we keep finding things there that we walk by without seeing.

The mystery that Cummings keeps running against is nature and love and our struggle to be alive as fully formed individuals. Maybe we just have to live with the mysteries, and live them.

After talking about Cummings I feel I should take my own trip to the rafters and step on the high wire, so love poem and last my favorite poem, by the poet who once stood in judgement over Cummings wining the Guggenheim giving him some added security to be a poet, and the poet that he superseded as the great American Poet. Edna St. Vincent Millay, my favorite poet, again a love poem.

Daquing, Peaches, Wei and Thoughts of Eve

For Wei on our Seventh Wedding Anniversary

Wei arrived on the Harbin-Daquing Train

To streets of dust

we converging on a square of cobbled stone

With gold and red flags,

Old Men and Women

Engaged in a public summer dance like a Matisse

Vendors squawked, among the music of the horns and cymbals

Wei stopped and bought peaches

Fist large, barley contained

In their skin of delicate

thicklessness, soft delicate

fuzz and membrane

She took one herself and offered me one

With our first bites our faces, arms and hands

Were washed sweet and sticky

We ate all the flesh soft in its delight

And sucked the pits clean

Before abandoning the fleshless seeds

We rubbed our chins and licked from our hands

Down to our forearms

Eve was there,

She is ever here

When Wei is present

I thought of Eve with her first bite

The devouring and licking of hands

Wondering why so few sing her praises

Or why so few are conscious,

taking the first and following bites?

Ernest Boehm May 25, 2011



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