Susan Cheever writes of life behind E.E. Cummings’s famous verse

BY Victoria Fleischer  February 21, 2014 at 2:42 PM EDT
Photo by MPI/Getty Images

E.E. Cummings in January 1920. Photo by MPI/Getty Images

When Susan Cheever was a high school sophomore, E.E. Cummings came to her school for a reading. Her father, novelist John Cheever, was friendly with Cummings and a great admirer of the poet, so the younger Cheever went along with him to see the reading.

“He was an inspired reader and lecturer. Just astonishing,” Cheever told chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown. “He used his voice as if it was a musical instrument. He rehearsed until he got it exactly right.”


Listen to Jeffrey Brown’s conversation with Susan Cheever.


Afterwards, Cummings asked for a ride back to New York, so the three piled into the family car for a trip that Cheever will never forget.

E.E. Cummings in 1955. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

E.E. Cummings in 1955. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“It was an extraordinary ride. Cummings was very on, he was very funny, he was very musical and he and I got along like a house of fire … He was on my side and I fell in love mostly with the idea of being a writer and being free.”

Cheever has just published a biography reassessing this modernist’s story: “E. E. Cummings: A Life.”

One of the most popular poets of his time, Cummings’ work is linked to groundbreaking explorations by creatives like Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. The group of modernists from the 1930s and ‘40s covered all artistic mediums.

“You’ve got the whole idea in painting that the painting should not represent the form and you’ve got the whole idea in writing that words should not just mean something, but that the sound of the word was also tremendously important,” said Cheever.

“He really was a formalist who twisted the forms so much that it looks as if it’s formless.”

In traveling for promotion of her new biography, Cheever has come across many people with a favorite poem by Cummings that they remember from their time in college.

“It doesn’t surprise me. I think his poems are extraordinary and wonderful and engaging but I think it would be great if people started reading Cummings more again … I hope (the book) sends people back to read more Cummings.”


Listen to Susan Cheever read a few of her own favorite Cummings poems.

Buffalo Bill’s
defunct
who use to
ride a watersmooth-silver
stallion
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
Jesus
he was a handsome man
and what i know to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Mister Death

Me up at does
out of the floor
quietly Stare
a poisoned mouse

still who alive
is asking What
have I done that
You wouldn’t have.


“E. E. Cummings: A Life” went on Sale February 11. Photo of Susan Cheever by Michael Falco.