How to Neutralize Haters: E.E. Cummings, Creative Courage, and the Importance of Protecting the Artist’s Right to Challenge the Status Quo
By Maria Popova
“The Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself,” young E.E. Cummings (October 14, 1894–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 — 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 today’s money — 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) “never for money, always for love.”
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 — 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.
Shortly after the fellowship announcement, Marie Bullock — the remarkable woman who founded the Academy of American Poets in 1934, when she was only in her twenties — 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 today’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 Lyric — 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 Year’s Day 1951, came from an elderly Ohio physician named Earl Byrd. (The choice to begin one’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 Cummings’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.
Dear Mrs. Bullock,
I address this bit of comment to you because you are the titular head of the “A.A.P.” 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; — The notorious Bellingen award for the pathetic mutterings of the paranoid Ezra Pound, then THE PUBLISHER’S NAT’L BOOK AWARD for the amorphous imagery of Carlos Williams, and now the, [sic] “A.A.P.” 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
“And there’s a hundred million others,
like all of you successfully if
delicately gelded (or spaded)
gentlemen and (ladies) — pretty
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 “LYRIC” and “THE LYRIC FOUNDATION” 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
The other letter, written sixteen days earlier, came from Stanton A. Coblentz — a minor poet, prolific writer of questionable science fiction, and editor at a California publication called Wing, which dubbed itself “The House of Distinguished Poetry.”
Coblentz — who repeatedly misspells the Academy’s founder’s name and, in his spirited mockery, misquotes Cummings’s verses without so much as bothering to heed the poet’s intended spelling and punctuation — 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 “e e cummings.” 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
gravypissing poppa but
who just couldn’t help it no
matter how hard he never tired) the
It is needless to defile this unoffending sheet of good white paper by repeating more; these are typical of cummings’ latest book, “seventy-one poems,” and typical of much of his work — 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.
But the point here isn’t merely that haters will always hate — after all, they didn’t spare F. Scott Fitzgerald, Marie Curie, and even a beloved Zen master. The point — the heartening ending of the story — is what happened next.
On January 13, a man ten years Cummings’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 — a searing defense not only of Cummings, not only of poetry, but of all art and, above all, of the artist’s right and even the artist’s responsibility to break with tradition and continually conquer new frontiers of creativity.
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 “Shelly and Blake and Milton, Poe and Keats”. 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 — 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 — 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 shouldn’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: “I 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.” 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.’s railed — 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 autumn’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! … and reactionary! Stopped by whom? Think back. What was the state of poetry — 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 — 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 “new poetry” 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 — 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 night’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 Death’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, “the pathetic muttering of the paranoid Ezra Pound.” 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 — not for his murky Pisan Cantos, but for his brilliant early work, say what Pound wrote between 1915 and ’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 … 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 patriots… He blasts bureaucracy in its hydra-headed forms. But throughout his work, Cummings’ 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 Coblentz’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 art’s duty to continually challenge tradition, reminiscent of William Blake’s immortal defense of creative freedom, with a touch of clever reverse psychology and perfectly calibrated political critique.
Dear Mr. Coblentz:
Thank you for your letter of December 14th.
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: “Individualist” in the winter 1950–1951 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
In the decades since, the Academy of American Poets has continued to stand as a beacon of integrity and creative courage. Join me in supporting their noble work with a donation, which will go toward their tireless advocacy and toward digitizing their invaluable archive.
Complement this particular find with Cummings on the artist’s struggle, the forgotten fairy tales he wrote for his only daughter, this lovely picture-book about his life and legacy, and Amanda Palmer’s beautiful reading of his poem “Humanity I love you.”
Published July 18, 2016