In Michael Schmidt's enthralling survey of the length and breadth of English poetry Lives of the Poets, the writer of such famous poems as "Buffalo Bill's/defunct", "since feeling is first" and "somewhere i have never travelled" is given this amusing introduction: "Edward Estlin Cummings was born with capital letters in 1984, in Cambridge, Masschusetts." But even if he was born with capital letters and had to stay that way all his life, in his own poems Cummings (this was the most prominent of all his rejections of typographic convention) always used the first-person pronoun in the lower case. As he joked in a letter to his mother in his thirties, "I am a small eye poet".
Two of those small i's can be found embedded in the title Eimi, one of two large and rambling prose works Cummings wrote in his youth, now reissued after nearly fifty years. Eimi is an account, in diary form, of a five-week journey made by Cummings to the Soviet Union (in the wake of other American writers such as Dos Passos and Dreiser) in the spring of 1931. There is of course no word like "eimi" in the English language, but Cummings liked to get syllables to ring and resonate, and his title permits all kinds of interpretations: exuberant ("Hey, me!"), quizzical ("Eh - me?") or even an echo of "enemy", which is what the Soviet regime no doubt considered him after he was done with his mordant survey of that country.
At the time of Cummings's journey to Russia his country was still struggling with the aftermath of the Great Depression; conversely, Russia's Communist regime had the best reputation and the best press it ever enjoyed. It had the admiration and support of intellectuals of a socialist or utopian bent the world over, and its vision of an all-powerful state leading society towards a radical classlessness (an echoing word that might have come straight from the Cummingsian lexicon) and a planned economy supplying the needs of every citizen seemed like a powerful rebuke to the reactionary practices of the West.
Cummings, however, was an implacable opponent of collectivism: if anything, his poetry expresses an exuberant individualism that borders on the anarchic. But the political critique of Eimi is made implicitly, through the use of different registers of language. The narrative enacts a linguistic clash between the whimsical, freespirited tone of the "i" or "me" and the joyless theories and formulations of the Soviet state, parroted by its sympathisers and members of the Russian intelligentsia.
In the early chapters of Eimi the narrator arrives in Moscow and checks in at the Hotel Metropole, where he meets a fellow American now settled in Russia who, in a mock-heroic allusion to the Divine Comedy, is given the appellation "Virgil". In reality "Virgil" was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana, grandson of the American poet and an ardent admirer of the Soviet experiment. "Mymymymymy," gushes the starry-eyed Virgil, "How I envy you. Seeing Moscow for the first time…."
Virgil serves as a kind of foil for Cummings/Dante: the narrative is built around these two figures. Virgil takes Cummings around the city: on their wanderings they take in various sights and scenes, watch proletarian plays (Dana was a theatre professor), ingest uniformly bad food in restaurants, and attempt to call on Maxim Gorky, "the world's foremost proletarian of letters". They meet intellectuals who live in various states of ideological servitude, and who call up the "comfortable minds" of Cummings's poem "the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls". These "unmen", as Cummings piquantly calls them, address the poet as "Comrade Kemminkz" and justify "from soup to nuts the ways of Marx to man".
None of this is reported in a conventional manner. In prose as much as in poetry, Cummings's lines are a vehicle for typographical leaps of daring, experiments with and distortions of syntax. Even at its most controlled it is distinctively a poet's prose, looking to forge a new sound from language. Nouns, verbs and adjectives are always forming cliques instead of mixing in the accepted fashion: on a street the narrator notices "listless dinky runningnose children"; switching rooms in the hotel, "I pluck yank jerk and twitch possessions here there and nowhere". Works are broken up by dashes and semi-colons, and neologisms explode on every page, such as a man who, beautifully, "siftdrifts" towards the narrator at a party (that is, both drifting amongst people and sorting through them for interesting ones at the same time), or a group of people who emerge from a tram "tumbfalling".
Cummings's poetic reputation has waned from the high of his last years, when he used to leave his readings, rockstarlike, by a "secretbackentrance". Yet he still has his admirers, and his words turn up in all kinds of unusual places (most recently in Nikita Lalwani's Booker-shortlisted novel Gifted, which quotes the line "nobody,not even the rain, has such small hands"). The republication of Eimi revives a fascinating part of the oeuvre of a poet perhaps more talked about today than read.
And an old post about a far more difficult encounter between a poet and Stalinism: "The sweet voice and harsh words of Osip Mandelstam".