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Hello, Larry! If you missed last week's edition â€“ the art of concentration and the effortless effort of creative work, embracing contradiction and how the sacredness of human attention shapes our reality, how astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell revolutionized our understanding of the universe and was robbed of the Nobel Prize, and more â€“ you can catch up right here. If you're enjoying my newsletter, please consider supporting this labor of love with a donation â€“ I spend countless hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously.
When this twentieth century of ours became obsessed with a passion for mere size, what was lost sight of was the ancient wisdom that the emotions have their own standards of judgment and their own sense of scale. In the emotional world a small thing can touch the heart and the imagination every bit as much as something impressively gigantic; a fine phrase is as good as an epic, and a small brook in the quiet of a wood can have its say with a voice more profound than the thunder of any cataract. Who would live happily in the country must be wisely prepared to take great pleasure in little things.
Country living is a pageant of Nature and the year; it can no more stay fixed than a movement in music, and as the seasons pass, they enrich life far more with little things than with great, with remembered moments rather than the slower hours. A gold and scarlet leaf floating solitary on the clear, black water of the morning rain barrel can catch the emotion of a whole season, and chimney smoke blowing across the winter moon can be a symbol of all that is mysterious in human life.
When pioneering scientist Vera Rubin was a little girl in the 1930s, she longed to be an astronomer but had never met a sole person of that vocation in real life. Decades later, after she broke the glass ceiling in astronomy by becoming the first woman permitted to observe at the prestigious Palomar Observatory and went on to discover dark matter, Rubin reflected: â€œIt never occurred to me that I couldnâ€™t be an astronomer.â€ She traced the firmness of that conviction to a childrenâ€™s book about Maria Mitchell â€” Americaâ€™s first woman astronomer and a lifelong champion of women in science â€” which had expanded her horizon of possibility and seeded the idea that she, a little girl amid a culture impoverished of such role models, could one day become an astronomer. Rubin did become one â€” one of the greatest ones who ever lived â€” whilst raising three children of her own, all of whom grew up to earn doctorates in science, including a daughter who became an astronomer herself. That Rubin has not yet been awarded the Nobel Prize is both a travesty and a testament to our cultureâ€™s long history of inequality in science.
Rubin is one of the fifty extraordinary women whom artist and author Rachel Ignotofsky celebrates in Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World(public library) â€” an illustrated homage to some of the most influential and inspiring women in STEM since long before we acronymized the conquest of curiosity through discovery and invention, ranging from the ancient astronomer, mathematician, and philosopher Hypatia in the fourth century to Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani, born in 1977.
True as it may be that being an outsider is an advantage in science and life, modeling furnishes young hearts with the assurance that people who are in some way like them can belong and shine in fields comprised primarily of people drastically unlike them. It is this ethos that Igontofsky embraces by being deliberate in ensuring that the scientists included come from a vast variety of ethnic backgrounds, nationalities, orientations, and cultural traditions.
But there are also lesser-known and no less extraordinary engineers, physicists, physicians, chemists, geneticists, geologists, inventors, biologists, and scientists of all stripes, united by the possession of insatiable curiosity, a singular genius for transmuting it into knowledge, and two X chromosomes.
Woven throughout the micro-biographies are visual factoids like a timeline of notable events in the history of women in science, statistics about the alarming gender gap in STEM fields, and a visual taxonomy of lab tools.
In the introduction, Ignotofsky captures just what women in science have been up against, as recently as mere decades ago, even though science itself is millennia old:
Nothing says trouble like a woman in pants. That was the attitude in the 1930s, anyway; when Barbara McClintock wore slacks at the University of Missouri, it was considered scandalous. Even worse, she was feisty, direct, incredibly smart, and twice as sharp as most of her male colleagues. She did things her way to get the best results, even if it meant working late with her students, who were breaking curfew. If you think these seem like good qualities for scientist, then you are right. But back then, these werenâ€™t necessarily considered good qualities in a woman. Her intelligence, her self-confidence, her willingness to break rules, and of course her pants were all considered shocking!
Barbara had already made her mark on the field of genetics with her groundbreaking work at Cornell University, mapping chromosomes using corn. This work is still important in scientific history. Yet while working at the University of Missouri Barbara was seen as bold and unladylike. The faculty excluded her from meetings and gave her little support with her research. When she found out they would fire her if she got married and there was no possibility of promotion, she decided she had had enough.
Risking her entire career, she packed her bags. With no plan, except an unwillingness to compromise her worth, Barbara went off to find her dream job. This decision would allow her to joyously research all day and eventually make the discovery of jumping genes. This discovery would win her a Nobel Prize and forever change how we view genetics.
Barbara McClintockâ€™s story is not unique. As long as humanity has asked questions about our world, men and women have looked to the stars, under rocks, and through microscopes to find the answers. Although both men and women have the same thirst for knowledge, women have not always been given the same opportunities to explore the answers.
Here, Iâ€™m reminded of how Maria Mitchell â€” the first person to discover a telescopic comet, which earned her unanimous election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as the first woman ever admitted â€” earned three honorary degrees, even though she was never allowed to set foot in a university as a student. Ignotofsky captures the heartbreaking inequalities that only amplify the impressiveness of these womenâ€™s feats:
When women finally began gaining wider access to higher education, there was usually a catch. Often they would be given no space to work, no funding, and no recognition. Not allowed to enter the university building because of her gender, Lise Meitner did her radiochemistry experiments in a dank basement. Without funding for a lab, physicist and chemist Marie Curie handled dangerous radioactive elements in a tiny, dusty shed. After making one of the most important discoveries in the history of astronomy, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin still got little recognition, and for decades her gender limited her to work as a technical assistant. Creativity, persistence, and a love of discovery were the greatest tools these women had.
Albert Einstein, in contemplating the human â€œpassion for comprehension,â€ asserted that every true theoretical physicist is â€œis a kind of tamed metaphysicistâ€ â€” a rather controversial statement amid a culture increasingly bent on disentangling science and philosophy (which used to be called metaphysics), and particularly controversial for modernityâ€™s most significant scientist to make. But a mark of genius is precisely this unwillingness to succumb to cultureâ€™s artificial and limiting polarities â€” a continual commitment to seeking nuance over forced contrast.
Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872â€“February 2, 1970) â€” another thinker of rare genius, a staunch champion of reason and one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived â€” made a magnificent case for that interplay between science and metaphysics a generation earlier in the title piece of his superb 1918 collection Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays (free ebook | public library).
Russell was a founding father of modern atheism, but he was also animated by a resolute commitment to nuance and an unflinching defiance of dogma, be it religious or scientific. He writes:
Metaphysics, or the attempt to conceive the world as a whole by means of thought, has been developed, from the first, by the union and conflict of two very different human impulses, the one urging men towards mysticism, the other urging them towards science. Some men have achieved greatness through one of these impulses alone, others through the other alone: in Hume, for example, the scientific impulse reigns quite unchecked, while in Blake a strong hostility to science co-exists with profound mystic insight. But the greatest men who have been philosophers have felt the need both of science and of mysticism: the attempt to harmonise the two was what made their life, and what always must, for all its arduous uncertainty, make philosophy, to some minds, a greater thing than either science or religion.
Where science is a function of reason, mysticism for Russell is a function of intuition and therefore a form of â€œpoetic imagination, not scienceâ€ â€” it is â€œlittle more than a certain intensity and depth of feeling in regard to what is believed about the universe.â€ And yet it offers a powerful complement to the scientific lens on reality. With an eye to the ethics of Heraclitus, he writes:
The facts of science, as they appeared to [Heraclitus], fed the flame in his soul, and in its light he saw into the depths of the world by the reflection of his own dancing swiftly penetrating fire. In such a nature we see the true union of the mystic and the man of science â€” the highest eminence, as I think, that it is possible to achieve in the world of thought.
Ethical considerations can only legitimately appear when the truth has been ascertained: they can and should appear as determining our feeling towards the truth, and our manner of ordering our lives in view of the truth, but not as themselves dictating what the truth is to be.
It is only in marriage with the world that our ideals can bear fruit: divorced from it, they remain barren. But marriage with the world is not to be achieved by an ideal which shrinks from fact, or demands in advance that the world shall conform to its desires.
Russell considers the nature of mystical experience:
Mystical philosophy, in all ages and in all parts of the world, is characterised by the belief in a way of wisdom, sudden, penetrating, coercive, which is contrasted with the slow and fallible study of outward appearance by a science relying wholly upon the senses.
All who are capable of absorption in an inward passion must have experienced at times the strange feeling of unreality in common objects, the loss of contact with daily things, in which the solidity of the outer world is lost, and the soul seems, in utter loneliness, to bring forth, out of its own depths, the mad dance of fantastic phantoms which have hitherto appeared as independently real and living.
The first and most direct outcome of the moment of illumination is belief in the possibility of a way of knowledge which may be called revelation or insight or intuition, as contrasted with sense, reason, and analysis, which are regarded as blind guides leading to the morass of illusion. Closely connected with this belief is the conception of a Reality behind the world of appearance and utterly different from it. This Reality is regarded with an admiration often amounting to worship; it is felt to be always and everywhere close at hand, thinly veiled by the shows of sense, ready, for the receptive mind, to shine in its glory even through the apparent folly and wickedness of Man. The poet, the artist, and the lover are seekers after that glory: the haunting beauty that they pursue is the faint reflection of its sun. But the mystic lives in the full light of the vision: what others dimly seek he knows, with a knowledge beside which all other knowledge is ignorance.
Indeed, art is in a sense a mystical experience â€” something Saul Bellow captured beautifully in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, in which he observed: â€œOnly art penetrates â€¦ the seeming realities of this world. There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which without art, we canâ€™t receive.â€ But what Russell is concerned with is how mystical experience relates, and whether it should at all, to science.
In addition to this sense of revelation, he argues, three other criteria define mystical philosophy â€” a â€œbelief in unity,â€ which negates all polarities and divisions; a â€œdenial of the reality of Time,â€ which stems from the negation of divisions, for â€œif all is one, the distinction of past and future must be illusoryâ€; and a belief that â€œall evil is mere appearance, an illusion produced by the divisions and oppositions of the analytic intellect.â€ He outlines this quartet of consideratoins:
Four questions thus arise in considering the truth or falsehood of mysticism, namely:
1. Are there two ways of knowing, which may be called respectively reason and intuition? And if so, is either to be preferred to the other?
2. Is all plurality and division illusory?
3. Is time unreal?
4. What kind of reality belongs to good and evil?
Returning to the crux of his inquiry â€” the possible complementarity of science and mystical philosophy â€” Russell argues that while mysticism may be misguided as a test of truth, there is something vital science can learn from its spirit of inquiry:
While fully developed mysticism seems to me mistaken, I yet believe that, by sufficient restraint, there is an element of wisdom to be learned from the mystical way of feeling, which does not seem to be attainable in any other manner. If this is the truth, mysticism is to be commended as an attitude towards life, not as a creed about the worldâ€¦ Even the cautious and patient investigation of truth by science, which seems the very antithesis of the mysticâ€™s swift certainty, may be fostered and nourished by that very spirit of reverence in which mysticism lives and moves.
What I do wish to maintain â€” and it is here that the scientific attitude becomes imperative â€” is that insight, untested and unsupported, is an insufficient guarantee of truth, in spite of the fact that much of the most important truth is first suggested by its meansâ€¦ But in fact the opposition of instinct and reason is mainly illusory. Instinct, intuition, or insight is what first leads to the beliefs which subsequent reason confirms or confutes; but the confirmation, where it is possible, consists, in the last analysis, of agreement with other beliefs no less instinctive. Reason is a harmonising, controlling force rather than a creative one. Even in the most purely logical realm, it is insight that first arrives at what is new.
He is responding in large part to his contemporary and fellow Nobel laureate Henri Bergsonâ€™s polarization of instinct and the intellect. Russell argues that in the most lucid and fertile form of thought, the two are not in opposition but in harmony:
Instinct, like all human faculties, is liable to error. Those in whom reason is weak are often unwilling to admit this as regards themselves, though all admit it in regard to others. Where instinct is least liable to error is in practical matters as to which right judgment is a help to survival: friendship and hostility in others, for instance, are often felt with extraordinary discrimination through very careful disguises. But even in such matters a wrong impression may be given by reserve or flattery; and in matters less directly practical, such as philosophy deals with, very strong instinctive beliefs are sometimes wholly mistaken, as we may come to know through their perceived inconsistency with other equally strong beliefs. It is such considerations that necessitate the harmonising mediation of reason, which tests our beliefs by their mutual compatibility, and examines, in doubtful cases, the possible sources of error on the one side and on the other. In this there is no opposition to instinct as a whole, but only to blind reliance upon some one interesting aspect of instinct to the exclusion of other more commonplace but not less trustworthy aspects. It is such one-sidedness, not instinct itself, that reason aims at correcting.
The key to that harmony, Russell asserts, lies in bridging the expansive confidence of intuition with the balanced restraint of reason so as to produce â€” and isnâ€™t that a most marvelous phrase? â€” a â€œlargeness of contemplation.â€
Its most compelling manifestation comes to life in Russellâ€™s discussion of time and the question of whether or not it is real â€” perhaps the greatest friction point between science and metaphysics, and one that came to a head just four years later in Einstein and Bergsonâ€™s landmark debate, which shaped our modern understanding of time. With an eye to the mysticsâ€™ assertion that linear time is an illusion, Russell writes:
It is difficult to disentangle the truth and the error in this view. The arguments for the contention that time is unreal and that the world of sense is illusory must, I think, be regarded as fallacious. Nevertheless there is some sense â€” easier to feel than to state â€” in which time is an unimportant and superficial characteristic of reality. Past and future must be acknowledged to be as real as the present, and a certain emancipation from slavery to time is essential to philosophic thought.
The importance of time is rather practical than theoretical, rather in relation to our desires than in relation to truth. A truer image of the world, I think, is obtained by picturing things as entering into the stream of time from an eternal world outside, than from a view which regards time as the devouring tyrant of all that is. Both in thought and in feeling, even though time be real, to realise the unimportance of time is the gate of wisdom.
That this is the case may be seen at once by asking ourselves why our feelings towards the past are so different from our feelings towards the future. The reason for this difference is wholly practical: our wishes can affect the future but not the past, the future is to some extent subject to our power, while the past is unalterably fixed. But every future will some day be past: if we see the past truly now, it must, when it was still future, have been just what we now see it to be, and what is now future must be just what we shall see it to be when it has become past. The felt difference of quality between past and future, therefore, is not an intrinsic difference, but only a difference in relation to us: to impartial contemplation, it ceases to exist. And impartiality of contemplation is, in the intellectual sphere, that very same virtue of disinterestedness which, in the sphere of action, appears as justice and unselfishness. Whoever wishes to see the world truly, to rise in thought above the tyranny of practical desires, must learn to overcome the difference of attitude towards past and future, and to survey the whole stream of time in one comprehensive vision.
The beliefs of to-day may count as true to-day, if they carry us along the stream; but to-morrow they will be false, and must be replaced by new beliefs to meet the new situation. All our thinking consists of convenient fictions, imaginary congealings of the stream: reality flows on in spite of all our fictions, and though it can be lived, it cannot be conceived in thought.
â€œThe Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself,â€ young E.E. Cummings (October 14, 1894â€“September 3, 1962) wrote in his beautiful essay on what it really means to be an artist. He lived this tenet every day, on every line, and spent his entire career defending the basic creative freedom to dismantle the accepted order, the way things have always been done, in order to get to the heart of truth and beauty. Even at the height of his success, his spirit of rebellion was met with resistance so tremendous as to bleed into the absurd â€” a timeless and vivid caricature of what innovators and creative mavericks have contended with since the first human impulse to make art.
In the winter of 1950, this tension between the forces of traditionalist dogma and creative bravery crescendoed when the Academy of American Poets awarded 56-year-old Cummings the annual $5,000 fellowship, conferring upon him both renown and a small fortune equaling about $50,000 in todayâ€™s money â€” a non-negligible sum for any artist, but especially for one devoted to poetry, arguably the least lucrative of the arts, which artists enter (as the Talking Heads might say) â€œnever for money, always for love.â€
But among the tragic traits of our individualistic and competitive culture is the impulse to tear down those who rise above the rest by attaining acclaim for their work, especially when there is financial gain. This is precisely what befell Cummings, as evidenced by a series of letters I discovered in the archives of the Academy of American Poets â€” the astonishing and astonishingly underutilized trove of cultural history that also gave us the acutely timely story of how the creative community stood up for Amiri Baraka when he was brutalized by police in 1968.
Portrait of Marie Bullock by Howard Chandler Christy, 1934
Shortly after the fellowship announcement, Marie Bullock â€” the remarkable woman who founded the Academy of American Poets in 1934, when she was only in her twenties â€” received two specimens of what can best be described as hate mail. Hiding behind the pompous language of the letter writers is an overeducated version of todayâ€™s average internet troll, driven by the same psychology that Kierkegaard identified when he contemplated why haters hate in 1847.
Both letters were published in the Winter issue of The Lyricâ€” the oldest American magazine dedicated to formal poetry, founded thirty years earlier in a conservative spirit and known for its antagonism to modernist verse. One, penned on New Yearâ€™s Day 1951, came from an elderly Ohio physician named Earl Byrd. (The choice to begin oneâ€™s year with cynical bile rather than celebration is perhaps not irrelevant.) Carelessly punctuated and rife with typos, only some of which corrected in pen, the letter emanates an impulsive stroke of self-righteous fury. From snide remarks about Cummingsâ€™s visual art to sidewise jabs at James Joyce, this embittered and small-spirited missive is the fraud police personified; the voice of the status quo shrieking that an artist who has dared to innovate and challenge convention must be instantly excommunicated from the pantheon of Art.
Illustration from Enormous Smallness, a picture-book about the life and genius of E.E. Cummings
Dear Mrs. Bullock,
I address this bit of comment to you because you are the titular head of the â€œA.A.P.â€ I am aware that you, personaly [sic], do not confer these Prizes, possibly do not always concur, but I must present my protest to the official chief of the bund.
Recently the Academy awarded, or sponsored, a $5000 poetry prize to ee cummings. This is the third time in the past five years that an important prize for poetry has been given to a non-poet.
1st; â€” The notorious Bellingen award for the pathetic mutterings of the paranoid Ezra Pound, then THE PUBLISHERâ€™S NATâ€™L BOOK AWARD for the amorphous imagery of Carlos Williams, and now the, [sic] â€œA.A.P.â€ prize for the disembodied metaphors of Cummings; I had hoped to miss this last, and I am certain I shall not long survive the next, which will probably immortalize Jose Garcia Villas, since it is becoming increasingly apparent that the maverick element has an organized system for winning these prizes.
The story of these awards is a complete breviary of the decline of schismatics, down through skepticism to utter prosodical nihilism.
e e c. is not a poet. I quote
â€œAnd thereâ€™s a hundred million others, like all of you successfully if delicately gelded (or spaded) gentlemen and (ladies) â€” pretty littleliverpillâ€
The man who could do this even once is not a poet. He was born outside the pale: He is congenitaly [sic] incapable of any excursion into poetry.
I am told that he also paints a little. I am glad to hear this: if any of the seven lively arts must suffer the intrusion of Cummings, let it be painting: I have never been deeply concerned about the destiny of painting.
I am an old man; I take to heart what bits of hope I find, and these public coronations lose half their significance when I remember that while the Pyes and Cibbers were being officially ordained to the Laureateship, the real poets of England were lovingly, though obscurely, building the great temple of English poetry, and there are other consolations, not the least of which is right in your own bailiwick, I mean the enthusiastic response to the â€œLYRICâ€ and â€œTHE LYRIC FOUNDATIONâ€ made possible by the devoted philanthropy of Virginia Kent Cummins, your 5th. ave. Neighbor.
So it seems to me our American poetry may be on the mend, and indeed, now that the stench of the maggoty putresence [sic] of James Joyce has about blown out of the world, I can sometimes think that the whole body of English literature is looking up a bit.
Please give my regards to the six dissenting members of the panel that judged the Cummings book;
God bless you merry gentlemen, May nothing you dismay.
M.E. Byrd, M.D.
P.S. I was not a contestant for the prize
Byrdâ€™s letter (left) and the first page of Coblentzâ€™s letter (right)
The other letter, written sixteen days earlier, came from Stanton A. Coblentz â€” a minor poet, prolific writer of questionable science fiction, and editor at a California publication called Wing, which dubbed itself â€œThe House of Distinguished Poetry.â€
Coblentz â€” who repeatedly misspells the Academyâ€™s founderâ€™s name and, in his spirited mockery, misquotes Cummingsâ€™s verses without so much as bothering to heed the poetâ€™s intended spelling and punctuation â€” writes:
Dear Mrs. Bulloch [sic]:
I was appalled to read today, in the letter of an equally appalled correspondent, that the Academy of American Poets has joined the list of those who are making a butt and a mockery of American poetry, who are rewarding the scoffers at art and beauty and the uprooters of cultural values, and who are doing their best to undermine the basis of literature at the same time as they stultify themselves and hold themselves up to everlasting shame and contempt.
By this I refer, of course, to your award of a $5000 prize for poetry to that arch-poseur and pretender, that disintegrator of language and mumbler of indecent nonsense who commonly signs himself â€œe e cummings.â€ I take it that you believe that utterances such as the following deserve the recognition of an outstanding poetic award:
F is for a foetus (a
punkslapping mobsucking gravypissing poppa but who just couldnâ€™t help it no
matter how hard he never tired) the
(im)c-a-t(mo) FallelA pa: fl Oattumbll
sh? dr IftwhirlF (Ul) (lY) &&&
It is needless to defile this unoffending sheet of good white paper by repeating more; these are typical of cummingsâ€™ latest book, â€œseventy-one poems,â€ and typical of much of his work â€” and not even the most shameless of it.
Such work is not poetry by any conceivable standard. Such work is inchoate, perverse, vicious when it is not merely meaningless. Such work represents the sad effluvia of an addled mind. And I do not hesitate to state unqualifiedly that any mind that in all sincerity accepts such work as poetry is also addled. And the mind that accepts such work as poetry, but does not do so in all sincerity, is worse addled; it is corrupt.
I state this, Mrs. Bulloch [sic], not on a burst of passion, but as the considered result of many years of experience, in which I have seen the frauds and the perverters of values rising more and more to the foreground and gradually usurping the place of those who are honestly working for poetry. If I have spoken severely, it is because I believe that severe speaking is the one thing left to bring back some semblance of fair play and fair thought to persons and organizations supposedly charged with helping poetry. Your Academy of Poetry, if I may dare to say so, represents a magnificent opportunity. And what are the sponsors of that opportunity doing with it. They are doing far, far worse than to throw away your thousands of dollars. They are using thousands of dollars to light the faggots whereby to burn poetry at the stake.
It may be late in the day; but I assure you that, though the smoke even now is making an unholy stench, I shall spare no effort to raise an outcry against this sacrilege. And I believe I know others who will do likewise.
Yours in sorrow,
Stephen A. Coblentz
Coblentz, needless to point out, is entirely forgotten. Cummings is Cummings.
On January 13, a man ten years Cummingsâ€™s junior named Alex Jackinson, founder of the Alex Jackinson literary agency and a great lover of poetry, addressed Coblentz and Byrd jointly in a three-page letter of uncommon rhetorical genius â€” a searing defense not only of Cummings, not only of poetry, but of all art and, above all, of the artistâ€™s right and even the artistâ€™s responsibility to break with tradition and continually conquer new frontiers of creativity.
Alex Jackinsonâ€™s letter
Dear Stanton A. Coblentz and Doctor Earl Byrd;
With the Winter issue of The Lyric, I received copies of letters sent by you to Mrs. Hugh Bullock, raking her over the coals for the Academy of American Poets award to e e cummings. I was not happy about the award, either. Personally, I would have bestowed the laurel upon Joseph Joel Keith, or some other up-and-coming poet. In my opinion awards are infinitely more important at the start of a career, not some twenty years after recognition has been won. But both your communication went beyond merely presenting dissenting opinions; they were calculated attacks on modern poetry as such, and that is quite a different matter.
Mr. Coblentz. As a reader of Wings, I am familiar with your oft-repeated stand. You are an uncompromising traditionalist who believes passionately in rhymed, orderly, classical verse. You invoke the Gods to bring back â€œShelly and Blake and Milton, Poe and Keatsâ€. Well, who could object? But who knows in what vein the Old Masters would interpret our unique, glitteringly appealing and repellent guys-and-dolls age?
Poetry â€” living, not museum-piece poetry, must reflect the period in which it is written. War and chaos have plagued the world for quite a long time, but each epoch creates its own special pulse-beat for the artists to interpret. cummings did not create the past thirty years â€” that frighteningly raucous, speakeasy-nightclub, kiss me daddy eight to the bar, jazz-blues era. If our Freud-fraud, skyscraper-billboard-ad period is to reflect itself in poetry (and why shouldnâ€™t it be?) the jangled idioms of cummings and [Kenneth] Fearing are better suited for it than the more sedate, traditional forms.
Doctor Byrd. You go on to say: â€œI am told that he (cummings) also paints a little. I am glad to hear this; if any of the seven lively arts must suffer the intrusion of cummings, let it be painting: I have never been deeply concerned with the destiny of painting.â€ There is a closer link between the arts than you might care to admit, Doctor. Painting (like poetry) was stagnating in shallow and murky pools when the Impressionists burst upon the scene with vivid, un-chained hues. How the entrenched N.A.â€™s railed â€” but to no avail. Is painting the poorer for it that the museums have been forced to add a colorful Modernist wing?
Mr. Coblentz. In last autumnâ€™s issue of your fine magazine, you ran a piece in which you bemoaned that the tidal wave (of modern poetry) was not stopped when the break in the dike first appeared. How pathetically naive! â€¦ and reactionary! Stopped by whom? Think back. What was the state of poetry â€” native, not library poetry, when the Imagists, in necessary rebellion, poured over the wall? Glory to Harriet Monroe for giving the insurgents a voice which is still heard. Oh, those refreshing sound-colors of Sandburg, Frost, Lindsay â€” and, of course, Eliot, Pound, Williams, Wallace, Stevens, Millay, William Rose Benet, Conrad Aiken, Allen Tate, Genevieve Taggard. The list is endless.
To be sure, much of the â€œnew poetryâ€ was brash and unintelligible. That part will not endure. But most of it was original, intransigent, vital, inevitable and cannot be excluded from any comprehensive anthology of American verse. It is, in fact, about the only poetry worth speaking of.
Today the poetic academicians claim many of the old avant guardists for their own â€” a very familiar process, it would seem. If you, Doctor Byrd and Mr. Coblentz, and the Lyric Foundation, live long enough (and if cummings goes the way of all flesh), you might wind up exchanging bouquets. Meanwhile it might be pointed out that a bad case can be made out against any poet, Shelley and Keats included, by quoting isolated examples of their work. This, too, is cummings. Not the real cummings, but closer than the passages his detractors pick.
this is the garden; colors come and go, frail azures fluttering from nightâ€™s outer wing, strong silent greens serenely lingering, absolute lights like baths of golden snow. This is the garden: pursed lips do blow upon cool flutes within wide glooms, and sing (of harps celestial to the quivering string) invisible faces hauntingly and slow.
This is the garden. Time will surely reap, and on Deathâ€™s blade lie many a flower curled, in the other lands where other songs be sung; yet stand They here enraptured, as among the slow deep trees perpetual of sleep some silver-fingered fountain steals the world.
Doctor Byrd. Of the Bollingen Award winner you say, â€œthe pathetic muttering of the paranoid Ezra Pound.â€ I agree. But is that all there is to say about Pound? I would have shot the bastard as a war-time traitor, and then posthumously awarded him a prize â€” not for his murky Pisan Cantos, but for his brilliant early work, say what Pound wrote between 1915 and â€™40.
No major poet is always easy to understand, and that applies from John Donne to Peter Viereck. But to wind up with cummins [sic]. Some of his most ardent champions (of whom I am not one) wish he had long ago dropped his syntax distortions, his typographical idiosyncrasies, which mars more than enhances his work; nevertheless there can be no easy dismissal of cummings as an authentic native singer, though this writer wishes he wrote more in the tradition of the quoted sonnet than the nose-thumbing vein he seems to prefer.
My own inclinations (as a reader of poetry) runs [sic] to that which is understandable, lyrically expressed. So I prefer Keith to cummings. So I subscribe to Wings and The Lyric. But Poetry and magazines of its kind also have something to contribute. The times are very much with us, and the culture of our day, such as it is, is too complex, too hydra-headed for any one school of thought to dominate. That is the mortal danger, the target at which we should vent our spleen, not at Mrs. Bullock â€¦ or eec.
Jackinson was so worked up about the exchange that he adapted his letter into a defense of Cummings published in the Congress Weekly later that year, in which he wrote:
Cummmings composes poems which scorch dollar-sign patriotsâ€¦ He blasts bureaucracy in its hydra-headed forms. But throughout his work, Cummingsâ€™ sympathies are also discernible. One feels instinctively that he is passionately against youth being blackjacked by poverty, against slums marring the April lilac smell. Cummings is wholeheartedly for more freedom, joy, laughter.
But the best response came from Marie Bullock herself, forty at the time and already the most influential and devoted champion of poetry in America and quite possibly the world. She seems to have been so riled by Coblentzâ€™s gall that she interrupted her holidays to personally respond to him on December 27. Her letter is a masterwork of composure and calm conviction in the face of cynicism, envious embitterment, and misplaced indignation. It stands as a dignified vindication of artâ€™s duty to continually challenge tradition, reminiscent of William Blakeâ€™s immortal defense of creative freedom, with a touch of clever reverse psychology and perfectly calibrated political critique.
Mr. E. E. Cummings was elected 1950 Fellow of the Academy of American Poets by a majority vote of our Board of Chancellors. Their selection of Mr. Cummings was based on achievement and need.
Personally, it seems to me that there are practically no poets living or dead the scrutiny of whose work would not produce a number of poems objectionable to some of their readers, at least.
We may not like novelty in its barest form, but it is sometimes necessary for progress. Life would be dull indeed without experimenters and courageous breakers-with-tradition.
That you truly share these feelings I am persuaded; particularly after reading your quatrain: â€œIndividualistâ€ in the winter 1950â€“1951 issue of the Poetry Chap Book.
In rewarding Edwin Markham, Edgar Lee Masters, Ridgely Torrence and Percy MacKaye with $5,000 Fellowships, I feel that the Board of Chancellors truly fulfilled the purpose of the Academy of American Poets in taking the place of lacking federal and government aid for these worthy poets.
The latest award has proven that they are awake to the more modern trends, and that in honoring a younger man [ed: Cummings was 56] who is a traditionalist at the core and who is still actively creative, they look to the future.
We believe the Academy of American Poets will steadily stand as the growing hope of American poets who, wisely casting aside their petty jealousies, will find in its rewards the recognition and appreciation which a country as large and great as ours knows how to bestow, on talent in all its varieties.
Very sincerely yours,
Mrs. Hugh Bullock
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