And it was never stopped. Three shifts a day, six guys would come into this office on each shift, six guys would leave. The same six all the time. Each one was well over a hundred years old, these men. You could smell the coffee. Everything permeated. It was permeated— the air with coffee and the smell of old salami sandwiches. And old files full of ancient shipping slips. And the smell of ink. And corduroy jackets, and these three guys were just sitting there at their desks. The other three were out checking, which is something they always do in these offices.
You could see the freight cars moving by and then I noticed something. They weren’t saying a word. The minute I opened the door, one of them went “Shush shush shush!”
I said, “What?”
“Are you the new…?”
You could hear the mill booming all around.
“Shush shush shush!”
I noticed that, sitting next to one of the desks was a pail full of water, and these three men were watching this pail with fantastic intensity, looking at the pail. And on the edge of the desk was a one-foot ruler. It was balanced half off the desk and half on the desk and on the end of the ruler, hanging out in space, was a piece of cheese. And the three of them were watching the ruler. Directly under the piece of cheese on the floor was the pail of water.
I said, “What are you guys doing?”
One of them whispered, “We’re catching mice.”
“You’re catching mice?”
“Yeah. Shush. He’ll be out any minute now.”
All that night we stood in the darkness and watched mice creep up out of the file cabinets, sneak along the ruler, and make a fatal grab for that piece of cheese. Suddenly the ruler would tilt—in he goes into the water. It was a good night. They got seven that night. All the while the mill is roaring around us. And right at this very moment, tonight, there are three men checking and three men sitting in the office of the forty inch soaking pit shipping end. And probably catching mice. Out there in the darkness.
END OF SOAKING PIT AND MICE
Cummings was (and still is) a highly regarded American poet best known for using all lower case letters and for sometimes playing with the layouts of words on the page. Sometimes he makes readers work, re-constructing his innovative layouts and word-usages:
In Harper’s Magazine of March, 2014, Ruth Franklin, in a laudatory essay, writes: ”…the perfect age to discover E. E. Cummings. With his refusal to play by grammatical rules, his shameless sentimentality, his sexual frankness, and his easy quotability, he is the ideal poet of youth.”
He wrote not only outright sexual poems, but some of the most conventional and lovely love poems, and his marriage to beautiful fashion model and photographer, Marion Morehouse (the love of his life), lasted 28 years—until his death in 1962.
He complained that publishers’ typesetting for printing in books could not properly produce the layouts he required for some of his typewritten poems, so in recent years, a publisher began publishing typewriter-set books of his poems:
Typewriter poems: standard sonnet form; layout manipulation poem.
(Two of his most admired poems.)
One writer stated that Cummings had copyrighted the lower case writing of his name, and it’s frequently seen in lower case in books and magazine articles about him. But I believe that’s a misunderstanding–I’ve always encountered his actual signature in caps exactly as per the original postcard to the 8th Street Bookshop I have preserved in a clear plastic envelope for use as a book mark for reading books by and about him:
Cummings lived a good part of his productive life in a small apartment on Patchin Place, a short, gated mews in Greenwich Village, on the north side of 10th Street, west of 6th Avenue. He was a dedicated New Yorker from after his ambulance service and unjust incarceration in WW I until he died.
He refused to make money out of anything but his writing, so, until the last few years of his life when he’d gained some notoriety/sales and speaking fees, he lived in basic poverty. After having several of his books published, he dedicated his No Thanks poetry book to the major publishers who had given a “no thanks” to its manuscript:
Cummings also wrote standard-seeming poems like that below.
Clues: “anyone” = the average person protagonist of the poem;
“noone” = anyone’s loving wife:
More than 50 years after his death, Cummings is still highly regarded by many:
Susan Cheever, from her Cummings bio: Modernism as Cummings and his mid-twentieth century colleagues embraced it had three parts. The first was the exploration of using sounds instead of meanings to connect words to the reader’s feelings. The second was the idea of stripping away all unnecessary things to bring attention to form and structure: the formerly hidden skeleton of a work would now be exuberantly visible. The third facet of modernism was an embrace of adversity. In a world seduced by easy understanding, the modernist believed that difficulty enhanced the pleasures of reading. In a Cummings poem the reader must often pick his way toward comprehension, which comes, when it does, in a burst of delight and recognition.
Brad Leithauer, The New Yorker: Whether Cummings was pursuing the ugly or the beautiful, his prime strength lay in his unexpected concisions—Those passage in which his weird locutions enable him to speak with greater briskness and distillation than ordinary discourse allows….For this reader, Cummings will forever remain a poet who energetically explored a number of cul—de-sacs: the limits of intelligibility, of punctuational eccentricity, of fragmentation, of—literally—unreadability.
Billy Collins, U.S. Poet Laureate: By erasing the sacred left margin, breaking down words into syllables and letters, employing eccentric punctuation, and indulging in all kinds of print-based shenanigans, Cummings brought into question some of our basic assumptions about poetry, grammar, sign, and language itself, and he also succeeded in giving many a typesetter a headache. Like Pound, who never wrote an obedient line, Cummings reveled in breaking the rules of grammar, punctuation, orthography, and lineation. Measured by sheer boldness of experiment, no American poet compares to him, for he slipped Houdini-like out of the locked box of the stanza, then leaped from the platform of the poetic line into an unheard-of way of writing poetry…. No list of major 20th-century poets can do without him….
Susan Cheever: He cared about playfulness, he cared about sexuality, he cared about whether you’d have a drink with him, he cared about could you string a line together….I still wonder: he so magnificently rejected everything we care about today: money, status, prestige, Harvard. And I’m just in awe of how he managed to do that. I think it was easier to do that then than it is now. He lived a really 19th-century life in the 20th century—I mean that in a good way.
EDWARD ESTLIN CUMMINGS AND THE DOG HE LOVED
At sixteen, at the family’s New Hampshire summer home, Estlin had an experience I’m sure he never forgot—as I can’t forget having read about it in Suzan Cheever’s biography, E. E. Cummings: A Life. (My wife loves dogs so much that I will never relate this story to her.)
Estlin and his young sister were in the family’s new canoe on a lake. Their dog, Rex, lunged at a hornet flying around their heads, capsizing and sinking the new, supposedly unsinkable, folding canoe. Rex, eventually out of energy, tried to save himself by climbing up on Estlin’s sister. She submerged, came up, submerged and came up again, Rex still on her, refusing to let go. Estlin now feared she would surely drown. To save his sister, he grabbed the panicking dog and held him underwater until he stopped struggling.
Their father happened along in another boat and saved the two children, but Rex was dead. They found Rex’s body and brought it home for burial. As Cheever writes:
“The family put up a marker, and Estlin did what he so often did
when his feelings threatened to overwhelm him
—he wrote a poem.”
How horrific this act of necessary killing must have been and how this must have haunted him the rest of his life. I wish I had never encountered the story. I can understand his impulse to write about all true sad and happy matters in his life.
END PART 1 OF 2