Not all the brownstone basements in Greenwich Village are speakeasies. One that is not leads to the Painters & Sculptors Gallery where hung last week the first Eastern exhibition of the paintings of Edward Estlin Cummings, a curious gentleman who sometimes calls himself e e cummings, and writes poetry puzzling to the laity.
Poet & Painter Cummings was born in Cambridge, Mass. 37 years ago. At Harvard he was class poet in 1915, and took his M.A. degree the following year. He was one of the group of undergraduate esthetes whom the late great, cigar-smoking Amy Lowell used to gather round her, and a leading contributor to a volume entitled "Eight Harvard Poets."†
During the War he served in France as a driver for the Norton Harjes Ambulance, ended his military career as a private at Camp Devens. In 1922 he published The Enormous Room, a novel of his experiences in a French War prison, considered by most critics one of the few important War books. He followed it in 1923 with Tulips & Chimneys, a book of poems which almost anyone could understand. Then began his soul-searching struggles with punctuation and capital letters, resulting in such volumes as XLI Poems, Is 5, & and the recently published W (Viva). He became a regular contributor to the defunct, arty Dial, in 1925 won the $2,000 Dial award for his poetry published in that magazine.
Poet & Painter Cummings is a good looking, unassuming, generally dishevelled young man who hates functions, celebrities and talking about his own work. His interpreters explain that he does not write poems in the ordinary sense but "calligrams," poems which are at the same time cryptograms to be unravelled, and visual designs on the printed page. Thus a poem about a grasshopper will appear:
a)s w(e loo)k
Just to make things more difficult Poet Cummings has a vivid if erratic sense of humor. Many of his more intricate effects are meant as jokes. Plodding enthusiasts cannot always tell which is which.
The same thing is true of his painting. He has a natural talent for drawing, a refined sense of color. He is capable of producing such a solid piece of work as the self portrait with his second wife (the late Cartoonist Ralph Barton's second, Anne Minerly) and stepdaughter in the background. This was exhibited at the Painters & Sculptors gallery last week together with some splendid" line drawings and at least one excellent landscape. There were many other pictures strongly reminiscent of the advanced striving's of a Businessmen's Art Class. In a book of reproductions of his paintings entitled CIOPW (Charcoal, Ink, Oilcolors, Pencil, Watercolors) he solemnly included little figures he had scrawled on the back of publishers' royalty checks.
Poet & Painter Cummings collects miniature elephants, inspired by a wedding present from his good friend Critic Edmund ("Bunny") Wilson. He also has a Persian pressagent named Samuel Jacobs who is an authority on metaphysical verse, prepares the typography of the Cummings opera. Pressagent Jacobs is loth to give his full name in Persian, admits that part of it is Samuel Yakob Airvaz Sheraaobode Azerbajode Muradkhan.