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Verse and Vigor

An insightful E. E. Cummings biography links the words to the life

E. E. Cummings: A Biography

By Christopher Sawyer-Lauanno

Sourcebooks, 606 pp., illustrated, $29.95

At the time of his death E. E. (Edward Estlin) Cummings was second in popularity in America only to Robert Frost, and by then had been able to do what very few poets had ever done: earn a living from writing books and reading his work to an adoring public. The critics were divided, however; while Robert Graves and W. H. Auden considered him first-rate, R. P. Blackmur, Edmund Wilson, and Kenneth Burke were less effusive. But if he wasn't an Eliot or a Pound, Cummings has been judged by posterity as the equal of Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens in the first-class cabin of 20th-century poetry. Christopher Sawyer-Lauanno's new biography of Cummings reveals the restless and nonconformist spirit that launched this demigod of poetic modernism from quiet Cambridge beginnings to international reputation. With access to previously unreleased material, the poet is more than merely studied, but uncorked, left to breathe, and tasted in the fullness of his genius.

Cummings was born in 1894 and raised in genteel Cambridge society, where his father taught at Harvard and was an unordained Unitarian minister. He would later satirize this world with his poem: ''the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls / are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds . . . / they believe in Christ and Longfellow, both dead . . ."

After graduating from Harvard magna cum laude in 1915, serving as an ambulance driver in World War I, and doing a short stint in the Army, Cummings spent the early 1920s in Paris, then settled in Greenwich Village while summering at a beloved family farm in New Hampshire. With the support of patrons and allowance checks from his mother, he was able to survive. He fell in love with Elaine Thayer, the wife of a friend, and fathered her child, but when he finally married her, in 1924, she quickly found him too self-involved and filed for divorce. Cummings then courted a shady flapper, Anne Barton, marrying and divorcing her before finally settling down with the woman he would spend 30 years with, the elegant, beautiful, and nearly 6-foot-tall model Marion Morehouse, whom Edward Steichen had photographed for Vogue.

His 1923 debut collection, ''Tulips and Chimneys," introduced him as one willing deviate from the rules, although he had already mastered the classic forms of versification such as the sonnet, villanelle, and rondeau. Later dubbed ''lower case cummings" for avoiding capitals (but not always), he also bent syntax, spaced lines as he saw fit, glued words together or broke them into pieces by sense and meaning, and in short performed the modernist task of deconstructing and rebuilding the medium to suit its subject.

With his poetry career launched, Cummings took a trip to Stalinist Russia in 1931 that disillusioned him about communism, and he grew more politically conservative. Although he enjoyed friendships with Jews and had a Jewish psychiatrist, he was given to anti-Jewish outbursts, not publicly but in private expressions of irritation, the sort of upper-class, drawing- room anti-Semitism that never seems to go out of fashion. His letters and diaries also reveal him to be dualistic regarding women. Morehouse and Moore were royalty, but other women were quickly classified as whores or bitches, the former if they flirted, the latter if they didn't carry it further. As a student at Harvard he had enjoyed the company of the aristocratic young ladies of his own set but often went out drinking (Jake Wirth's was a favorite) and chasing working-class girls from Central Square and East Cambridge, who were more amenable to his advances. He wrestled most of his life with a carnal disposition that was at odds with the aesthetic detachment of the man of letters.

After World War II, Cummings's reputation was established. He traveled in Europe and was elected Harvard's Norton Professor of Poetry for 1952-53. He suffered ill health but continued a hectic pace of bookings to full houses -- avoiding, however, any wish to explain his work in favor of simply reading it. In the end this connection with an audience was the poet's true reward. Cummings died on Sept. 3, 1962, after suffering a stroke, and is buried in Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston beside his parents, with whom he was often in conflict as a young man, but who supported him in his work, and whom he greatly loved. His name, incidentally, is spelled with capitals on his tombstone, it being only a myth that he had legally changed it to e. e. cummings or desired to be indexed that way.

Sawyer-Lauanno, who has also written a fine biography of Paul Bowles and a study of American writers in Paris, demonstrates a keen grasp of the complexity of his subject and expresses his views with great clarity. The 1980 Cummings biography by Richard Kennedy has been the existing reference work and is an excellent, traditionally structured book, but Sawyer- Lauanno gives valuable added insight into Cummings's motives, sensibilities, and struggles. His summation of Cummings's legacy is eloquent and to the point: ''Along with a few others, he forever altered what a poem could be. He called attention to the sound and shape of verse, demolished the sanctity of the left margin, used every device of grammar to showcase the importance of words -- even at the phonemic level. Never, however, were his poems divorced from feeling, from humanity, from life itself. Intelligent but not intellectual, his verse remains alive, a constant gift that continues to amuse, infuriate, engage, and even occasionally overwhelm his diverse readers."

Thomas Filbin's reviews have appeared in The New York Times and The Hudson Review. He lives in Westwood.

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