Sunday 26 July 2015

I came back to ee cummings by a circuitous route. His poems give a kick to a grey and turbulent afternoon. Take them like a tonic, as with Gertrude Stein. Wake up, go back to the day with a different head on you.

ee cummings was at Harvard at the same time as Joe Gould, later, in the nineteen thirties, forties and fifties, the Greenwich Village bum known as Professor Seagull (because he did seagull imitations) who was writing, he said, the oral history of his times. He was immortalized, as they say, by Joseph Mitchell, who maybe impersonated or invented or wanted to be Joseph Gould.

Last night I read an article in The New Yorker about Joe Gould and Joseph Mitchell: did Joe Gould really write the 9 million words of oral history he claimed? Did Joseph Mitchell really want to get to the bottom of it? Jill Lepore investigates, via ee cummings and Ezra Pound, among others.

I read the article inside the insomniac hour between four and five, and by the end I was woven in with the two Josephs, the facts of it and the fiction, the onlookers, the benefactors, malefactors, psychiatrists, poets, artists and reporters.

ee cummings, against the odds, became famous. Joe Gould did not. No one wants to take on the possibility that Joe Gould's 9 or 11 million words in their dusty copybooks exist somewhere, on a chicken farm (where he said many of the books were stored, though it turns out the chicken farm was a psychiatric hospital). If enough people know that an oral history of his times may have existed it will start to exist.

After reading Jill Lepore and today the poems of ee cummings, it exists a little more.

One ee cummings edition I found on my shelves, 50 poems published in 1940, had an obituary tucked inside from the Herald Tribune of September 9, 1962, written by Malcolm Cowley, another Harvard Man. The brown newspaper cutting smells of vanilla. On page 13, where the review has lodged these 75 years, there is a ghostly imprint of the folded paper insert. The brown fades into page 12 and then disappears.

(will you teach a
wretch to live
straighter than a needle)

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