Issue 39, Fall 1966
Here is a representative selection from the letters of E. E. Cummings to Ezra Pound that have so far come to light. By and large they appear here just as Cummings wrote them, with his often eccentric punctuation and his verbal byplay intact. The spacing of headings and most margins has, however, been regularized for the printer’s convenience. A few obviously unintentional spellings have been corrected (Cummings was a good speller when correct spelling was in question.) Deletions are rare and are indicated by three asterisks. Deletions occur where the original is illegible, or where Cummings quotes at length from some book he has been reading, or—in two cases—where intimate material is involved. In one other instance the name of the person concerned is represented by an initial (G—). Footnotes, relegated to the end, have been kept to a minimum. The editors have assumed that most of the persons named will be known to most readers. They have further assumed that it would be an impertinence to explicate Cummings’ verbal coinages, his odd transliterations from French and other foreign languages, the tricks he plays with people’s names. Two examples, both from the letter of October 24, 1952, should suffice as clues: “poor Shawn shay” = pour changer = “for a change”; “O’Possum” = “Old Possum” = Pound’s pet name for T. S. Eliot. (Eliot’s name undergoes other curious deformations elsewhere in the letters.).
Now a few words about Cummings’ relations with Pound. They first met in Paris in 1921. Cummings reports the event in a letter to his parents dated July 23 of that year:
The other night, as we were walking back from the Rip revue ”(Ca Va” Pound disengaged himself from a pillar and bowed. Thayer* had previously threatened to allow me to meet the great one, I had demurred. “Sooner than might have been expected” was P’s remark: leaving the editor at that person’s hotel I began an evening with the poet. Which lasted until the croissement of the Boulevard S German with the rue des Saints Peres, where I tentatively promised to visit the great one and disappeared. If it would amuse you: Mr. Ezra Pound is a man of my own height, reddish goatee and ear whiskers, heavier built, moves nicely, temperament very similar to J. Sibley Watson Jr. (as remarked by Thayer) —same timidity and subtlety... Altogether, for me, a gymnastic personalty. Or in other words somebody, and intricate.
When they first met. Pound was 36 and Cummings 26. Pound had published his first volume in 1908 and had long been the leading poet of the (then) younger generation. Cummings had been introduced to Pound’s poetry by S. Foster Damon while Cummings and Damon were Harvard undergraduates and Cummings was still writing verse inspired by Shelley, Swinburne and Rossetti. Pound’s example contributed greatly to the younger poet’s transformation from a belated Romantic into an extreme Modernist. Many of Cummings’ poems in the new style, as well as reproductions of several of his paintings, had appeared in the new Dial during its first year. They had brought him both admiration and notoriety and were unquestionably known to Pound. Meanwhile, between his Harvard years and the date of his meeting with Pound, Cummings had undergone what was a crucial personal experience. While serving with the Harjes-Norton ambulance corps in France in 1917, Cummings, together with his friend William Slater Brown, had been arrested by the French authorities on vaguely conceived charges of possible treason and confined for several months in a French concentration camp. This experience Cummings described in The Enormous Room, a book written before he met Pound and published the following year.
Pound and Cummings presumably met more than once during the latter’s stay in Europe in the years 1921-23. In the summer or fall of 1922 Cummings wrote jestingly to Slater Brown. from Rapallo, Italy: “Pound’s here with an ugly harem. ” They met rarely thereafter, when Cummings was in Europe or when, in 1939, Pound paid his first visit to the United States in nearly thirty years. (As the letters of 1935 show. Pound planned a visit to America that year but abandoned the plan.) Meanwhile the two poets exchanged copies of their books, together with occasional letters. In 1934, in the New English Weekly, Pound reviewed Eimi, Cummings’ account of a trip to Soviet Russia in 1931. Cummings remained firmly loyal to Pound, privately and publicly, during the widespread hysteria following Pound’s arrest in Italy in 1945 for alleged treason and his long years of incarceration in Washington, D. C. But Cummings did not share either Pound’s fascist beliefs or Pound’s tendency to substitute “hate, ” as Cummings called it, for “love” and “joy. ”
True, his letters are sprinkled with words such as “kike” and “mick. ” For his biographer, Charles Norman, Cummings attempted an explanation. By such words, he said in effect, he meant to designate those persons of any group who allow their individuality to be submerged by their group roles: e. g. “Merricins, ” “limies. ” To Charles Norman, Cummings also said (ca. 1957): “from my standpoint not EEC but EP is the authentic ’innovator’; the trailblazer of an epoch. ” But Ezra Pound wrote to Mr. Norman: “I do not think Mr. Cummings is indebted to me for any of the brilliance of his style, which is intensely personal.” Cummings died September 4, 1963.