I picked up this book about a month ago on a whim. It's the first I've read of cummings' prose (I'd only ever read his poetry) and I absolutely loved it. Below are some of my favourite excerpts from each of the chapters, as well as a few of his other poems.
Let me cordially warn you, at the opening of these socalled lectures, that I haven't the remotest intention of posing as a lecturer. Lecturing is presumably a form of teaching; and presumably a teacher is somebody who knows. I never did, and still don't, know. What has always fascinated me is not teaching, but learning; and I assure you that if the acceptance of a Chalres Eliot Norton professorship hadn't rapidly entangled itself with the expectation of learning a very great deal, I should now be somewhere else. Let me also assure you that I feel extremely glad to be here; and that I heartily hope you won't feel extremely sorry.
Some, if not most, of the distinguished members of this enlightened audience are now (I suspect) internally exclaiming "alas. We come here expecting that a poet will lecture on poetry; and the very first thing the socalled poet does is to tell us he hasn't the slightest intention of doing so. Next, the socalled poet indulges in a lot of pretty corny bactracking; all of which proves exactly nothing, unless it's that as a draughtsman he doesn't know his gluteus maxiums from his olecranon. Finally (adding injury to insult) to socalled poet graciously announces that we may expect him to favor us with a description of his prepoetic career, and then—as if this weren't bad enough—with a bevy of largely prosaic tidbits which have occasionally escaped him the course of the last three decades: because only in this manner can he possibly understand who he is today. Why in the name of common sense doesn't the poet (socalled) read us some poetry—any poetry; even his own—and tell us what he thinks or doesn't think of it? Is the socalled poet a victim of galloping egocentricity or is he just plain simpleminded?"
My immediate response to such a question would be: and why not both?
(in a letter describing his father)—
& later (at Doctor Hale's socalled South Congregational really Unitarian church) a preacher who announced, during the last war, that the Gott Mit Uns boys were in error since the only thing which mattered was for man to be on God's side (& one beautiful Sunday in Spring remarked from the pulpit that he couldn't understand why anyone had come to hear him on such a day) & horribly shocked his pewholders by crying "the Kingdom of Heaven is no spiritual roofgarden: it's inside you."
Fine and dandy: but, so far as I am concerned, poetry and every other art was and is and forever will be strictly and distinctly a question of individuality. If poetry were anything—like dropping an atombomb—which anyone did, anyone could become a poet merely by doing the necessary anything; whatever that anything might or might not entail. But (as it happens) poetry is being, not doing. If you wish to follow, even at a distance, the poet's calling (and here, as always, I speak from my own totally biased and entirely personal point of view) you've got to come out of the measurable doing universe into the immeasurable house of being. I am quite aware that, wherever our socalled civilization has slithered, there's every reward and no punishment for unbeing. But if poetry is your goal, you've got to forget all about punishments and all about rewards and all about selfstyled obligations and duties and responsibilities etcetera ad infinitum and remember one thing only: that it's you—nobody else—who determine your destiny and decide your fate. Nobody else can be alive for you; nor can you be alive for anybody else. Toms can be Dicks and Dicks can be Harrys, but none of them can ever be you. There's the artist's responsibility; and the most awful responsibility on earth. If you can take it, take it—and be. If you can't, cheer up and go about other people's business; and do (or undo) till you drop.
The only slavery, is service without love.
Better worlds (I suggest) are born, not made; and their birthdays are the birthdays of individuals. Let us pray always for individuals; never for worlds. "He who would do good to another" cries the poet and painter William Blake "must do it in Minute Particulars"—and probably many of you are familiar with this greatly pitying line. But I'll wager that not three of you could quote me the line which follows it
General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, &flatterer
for that deeply terrible line spells the doom of all unworlds; whatever their slogans and their strategies, whoever their heroes or their villains.
Rather recently—in New York City—an old college chum, whom I hadn't beheld for decades, appeared out of nowhere to tell me he was through with civilization. It seems that ever since Harvard he'd been making (despite all sorts of panics and panaceas) big money as an advertising writer; and this remarkable feat unutterably depressed him. After profound meditation, he concluded that America, and the word which she increasingly dominated, couldn't really be as bad as she and it looked through an advertising writer's eyes; and he promptly determined to seek another view—a larger veiw; in fact, the largest view obtainable. Bent on obtaining this largest obtainable view of America and America's world, my logical expal wangled an appointment with a subsubeditor of a magazine (if magazine it may be called) possessing the largest circulation on earth: an periodical whose each emanation appears simultaneously in almost every existing human language. Our intrepid explorer then straightened his tie, took six deep breaths, cleared his throat, swam right up, presented his credentials, and was politely requested to sit down. He sat down. "Now listen" the subsubeditor suggested "if you're thinking of working with us, you'd better know The Three Rules." "And what" my friend cheerfully inquired "are The Three Rules?" "The Three Rules" explained his mentor "are: first, eight to eighty; second, anybody can do it; and third, makes you feel better." "I don't quite understand" my friend confessed. "Perfectly simple" is interlocutor assured him. "Our first Rule means that every article we publish must appeal to anybody, man woman or child between the ages of eight and eighty years—is that clear?" My friend said it was indeed clear. "Second" his enlightener continued "every article we publish must convince any reader of the article that he or she could do whatever was done by the person about whom the article was written. Suppose (for instance) you were writing about Lindbergh, who had just flown the Atlantic ocean for the first time in history, with nothing but unlimited nerve and a couple of chicken (or ham was it?) sandwiches—do you follow me? "I'm ahead of you" my friend murmured. "Remembering Rule number two" the subsub went on "you'd impress upon your readers' minds, over and over again, the fact that (after all) there wouldn't have been anything extraordinary about Lindbergh if he hadn't been just a human being like every single one of them. See?" "I see" said my friend grimly. "Third" the subsub intoned "we'll imagine you're describing a record-breaking Chinese flood—millions of poor unfortunate men and women and little children and hopeless babies drowning and drowned; millions more perishing of slow starvation: suffering inconceivable, untold agonies, and so forth—well, any reader of this article must feel definitely and distinctly better, when she or he finishes the article, than when he or she began it." "Sounds a trifle difficult" my friend hazarded. "Don't be silly" the oracle admonished. "All you've got to do, when you're through with your horrors, is to close by saying: but (thanks to an all-merciful Providence) we Americans, with our high standard of living and our Christian ideals, will never be subjected to such inhuman conditions; as long as the Stars and Stripes triumphantly float over one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all—get me?" "I get you" said my disillusioned friend. "Good bye."
1972—An Imaginary Dialogue Between An Author And A Public, printed on the book-jacket of my first play
Public: What is Him about?
Author: Why ask me? Did I or didn't I make the play?
Public: But surely you know what you're making—
Author: Beg pardon,Mr. Public;I surely make what I'm knowing.
Public: So far as I'm concerned,my very dear sir,nonsense isn't everything in life.
Author: And so far as you're concerned "life" is a verb of two voices—active,to do,and passive,to dream. Others believe doing to be only a kind of dreaming. Still others have discovered (in a mirror surrounded with mirrors),something harder than silence but softer than falling;the third voice of "life",which believes itself and which cannot mean because it is.
Public: Bravo,but are such persons good for anything in particular?
Author: They are good for nothing but walking upright in the cordial revelation of the fatal reflexive.
Public: And your play is all about one of these persons,Mr. Author?
Author: Perhaps. But(let me tell you a secret)I rather hope my play is one of these persons.
Simple people,people who don't exist,prefer things which don't exist,simple things.
"Good" and "bad" are simple things. You bomb me = "bad." I bomb you = "good." Simple people(who,incidentally,run this socalled world)know this(they know everything)whereas complex people—people who feel something—are very,very ignorant and really don't know anything.
Nothing,for simple knowing people,is more dangerous than ignorance. Why?
Because to feel something is to be alive.
life is more true than reason will deceive
(more secret or than madness did reveal)
deeper is life than lose:higher than have
—but beauty is more each than living’s all
multiplied by infinity sans if
the mightiest meditations of mankind
cancelled are by one merely opening leaf
(beyond whose nearness there is no beyond)
or does some littler bird than eyes can learn
look up to silence and completely sing?
futures are obsolete;pasts are unborn
(here less than nothing’s more than everything)
death,as men call him,ends what they call men
—but beauty is more now than dying’s when
how much more than enough for both of us
darling. And if I sing your are my voice.
So ends the last lesson of a nondivisible ignoramus: a double lesson—outwardly and inwardly affirming that, whereas a world rises to fall, a spirit descends to ascend. Now our ignoramus faces the nonanswerable question "who, as a writer, am I?" with which his nonlecturing career began; and finds himself deluged by multitudinous answers. What would these multitudinous answers say if they could speak as a single answer? Possibly or impossibly this—
I am someone who proudly and humbly affirms that love is the mystery-of-mysteries, and that nothing measurable matters "a very good God damn": that "an artist, a man, a failure" is no mere whenfully accreting mechanism, but a givingly eternal complexity—neither some soulless and heartless ultapredatory and thinking automation, but a naturally and miraculously whole human being—a feelingly illimitable individual; whose only happiness is to transcend himself, whose every agony is to grow.
Here are some of my favourite cummings poems which you will not find in this book, but are wonderful nonetheless:
i. in the middle of a room
(a moon swims out of a cloud
a clock strikes midnight
a finger pulls a trigger
a bird flies into a mirror)
ii. if up's the word;
it’s brains without hearts have set saint against sinner;
put gain over gladness and joy under care—
let’s do as an earth which can never do wrong does
(minute by second and most by more)
—let’s touch the sky
iii. since feeling is first
for life's not a paragraph
And death i think is no parenthesis
iv. i carry your heart
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart
v. Buffalo Bill's
and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
vi. You are tired
You are tired,
Of the always puzzle of living and doing;
And so am I.
vii. a leaf
(yes, this is the entire poem)
viii. i like my body when it is with your body
i like your body. i like what it does,
i like its hows. i like to feel the spine
of your body and its bones, and the trembling
-firm-smooth ness and which i will
again and again and again