friday feast: happy birthday e.e. cummings!

“It takes courage to grow up and be who you really are.” ~ E.E. Cummings (1894-1962)

It’s his fault I sign my name in lower case. Ever since I first encountered his “little lame balloon man” in high school, Cummings has remained one of my top five favorite poets of all time.

I find it interesting that while he loved to experiment wildly with form, diction and syntax, his subjects were pretty traditional — nature (especially Spring), childhood, and love.  He was such a great champion of individuality, someone who believed poetry was a process rather than a product, and since he was also a painter, it makes perfect sense that he created poems as visual objects on the page. How could I not love such an out and out lyricist who toyed with typography? A playful innovator with a joyous childlike perception, Cummings infused his poetry with his own brand of vitality that never loses its freshness.

To celebrate his 117th birthday, I did a little sleuthing to find out what Cummings liked to eat. Apparently he was a late riser who ate large breakfasts (I’m right with him there), and he also enjoyed Middle Eastern food. A menu from Khoury’s, a fave Syrian restaurant, is among the documents in the collection of  Cummings papers held by the New York Public Library. Here’s an excerpt from Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno’s biography quoting Cummings’s Harvard buddy John Dos Passos:

Cummings and I would occasionally lunch together at a Syrian restaurant [Khoury’s] he frequented down on Washington Street. We would eat a special clabber known as leben and a marvelous dish of raw eggplant mashed to a paste with sesame oil . . . Afterward we’d roam around the vegetable and flower stalls of the Old Washington Market or go to see the fish at the Aquarium down at the Battery. Cummings never tired of drawing sealions. As he walked he would be noting down groups of words or little scribbly sketches on bits of paper. Both of us lived as much for the sights we saw as for the sound of words.

So it would seem a little shish kebab and baba ghanoush are in order today:

Baba Ghanoush by WeHeartFood (click for recipe)
How do you feel about lamb?

Yes, there was wine, good food, painting in the afternoon and writing in the evening. But did Cummings ever write about food? I couldn’t think of any poems offhand, but was happy when I stumbled across this rollicking song he wrote for a musical comedy he was working on in the 1950’s. To my utter delight, it mentions — *wait for it*SOUP! Just another reason to love him ☺.

My first black bean soup (click for recipe).


I’m very  fond  of
black  bean
soup(O i’m
fond  of  black
bean  soup
Yes  i’m very  fond
of black  bean  soup)But
i   don’t disdain
a beef-

Gimme  gin&bitters  to
open  my
eyes(O  gimme
bitters  to  open
my  eyes
Yes  gimme  gin&bitters
to open  my  eyes(But
i’ll take straight  rum as
a night-

Nothing  like  a  blonde  for
ruining  the
blues(O nothing
like  a
blonde  for  ruining
the blues
Yes  nothing  like  a  blonde
for  ruining  the  blues)But
i  use  redheads  for
the tooth-

Parson  says  a sinner will
perish  in  the
flames(O parson
says a
sinner will  perish
in  the  flames
Yes parson  says  a  sinner
will perish  in  the  flames)But
i reckon  that’s better
than  freez-

Everybody’s  dying  to  be
else(O  every
dying  to  be  some
one else
Yes everybody’s  dying
to be  someone  else)But
i’ll  live  my  life if
it kills

~ from Etcetera: The Unpublished Poems of E E Cummings edited by George James Firmage and Richard S. Kennedy (Liverlight, 1983).


Don’t you find yourself automatically assigning a tune to those lyrics? The song was meant to be sung by a group of  baggy-trousered tramps and nude chorus girls. Ooh-la-la. That Estlin!

Thanks to him, I made my first pot of Black Bean Soup, using Dave Lieberman’s recipe. Yum! Can’t go wrong with smoked bacon, tomatoes, onions, chili powder and cilantro! It is your poetic duty to make some this weekend ☺.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Cummings!

and eddieandbill come running from marbles and piracies and it’s spring. . .

♥ Today’s Poetry Friday Roundup is being hosted by the dashing and debonair lower cased david elzey at FOMAGRAMS. He may or may not be wearing baggy trousers. I, for one, am wearing my birthday suit and still hope to someday be in the chorus.

♥ Related Post: “The Poet and the Painter,” a discussion of Cummings’s ability to synthesize poetry and art.

Joy Farm (Cummings’s summer retreat) in Madison, NH.


Copyright © 2011 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.


34 thoughts on “friday feast: happy birthday e.e. cummings!

  1. Love black bean soup (although mushroom soup and a bowl of chili remains to be special favorites). I am also in love with ee cummings. I didn’t know though that it was his birthday. I retweeted this post and will now share on FB as well. What a fabulous way to celebrate his birthday. Soup and Middle Eastern dishes. You have got to visit Singapore soon. You’d enjoy the delectable dishes here. 🙂


    1. Thanks so much for spreading the birthday love, Myra! You’ll be pleased to know that this particular black bean soup recipe is very remniscent of chili, a vegetarian version. I like mushroom soup, too :). Singapore sounds wonderful and exotic. Maybe someday . . .


  2. Mr. Cummings is now officially Eye Candy.

    That is all.

    Oh. I’ll take a nice cuppa instead of the gin and bitters. And some mushroom soup with cheese toast, thanks.

    I WILL live my life if it kills me. I love that.

    (P.S. – it’s Paul Simons’ birthday too!)


    1. LOL. I never thought of him as Eye Candy, but this youngish photo definitely qualifies. I liked the impish gleam in his eye; he must have been contemplating those nude chorines. 😀


  3. hi, jama…heidi here, another longtime fan of edward estlin’s, and I’m with tadmack: where did you find that photo? ee is today’s eye candy for sure!

    never thought of him as a lyricist, but sure, I can sing that song. And I’ll be checking out your black bean soup recipe.


    1. Hi Heidi,

      I call him a lyricist not only for song lyrics, but the overall lyrical quality of his poems. Glad you’re singing along. Enjoy the soup!

      I imagine Mr. Cummings, wherever he is, is quite pleased to have his female fans swooning over his physical attributes :).


    1. Hee, George is so pleased you voted for him. I need to change that picture, but somehow I never tire of looking at him (don’t tell Colin).


  4. i still find it hard to fully commit to the lower case, as people derisively ask “who do you think you are, cummings?”

    black bean soup is a favorite in this house (hold the bacon, as we have vegetarians around) and the preference is to have it pureed into a purple-y chowder consistency. mighty fine eats all around.

    and what i would have given to have hung out with cumming and dos passos. if, through some billy pilgrim-esque chance of getting unstuck in time, i could be there with those two and vonnegut, all the better.


    1. We have the same daydream — hanging out with those guys. I remember the huge impact Vonnegut’s novels had on me back in the day.

      I know what you mean about the whole lower case thing. People no longer ask, though, and it’s such a habit that I find it difficult to include capital letters in my signature on those occasions when I think I should. I usually type personal emails all in lower case; it’s just faster. 🙂


  5. How many of us teenage poets tried to write like cummings and signed our poems in lower case? (Hand raised).

    From that era, one of my favorite poets (who also played with typography) is Don Marquis. Long live Archy and Mehitabel!


    1. Oh yes, Archy and Mehitabel — have a copy on my bookshelf. Also enamoured with it. No surprise — twins may have been separated at birth, but managed to share so many of the same interests.


  6. Here’s another one with a bit of mysticism: if you are young, whatever life you wear will become you. May that be really true… and may we be forever young. ♥

    You shall above all things be glad and young…

    by E. E. Cummings

    you shall above all things be glad and young
    For if you’re young, whatever life you wear

    It will become you;and if you are glad
    whatever’s living will yourself become.
    Girlboys may nothing more than boygirls need:
    i can entirely her only love

    whose any mystery makes every man’s
    flesh put space on;and his mind take off time

    that you should ever think,may god forbid
    and (in his mercy) your true lover spare:
    for that way knowledge lies,the foetal grave
    called progress,and negation’s dead undoom.

    I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing
    than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance

    “You shall above all things be glad and young…” by E.E. Cummings, from 100 Selected Poems. © Grove Press, 1994.


  7. in hononr of cummings i will not capitalize anything in this comment~ happy b-day, e.e!

    if i had a dime for every time i looked at my kids’ hands after they were born and thought of cummings’ line “nobody/not even the rain/has such small hands” i would be a rich woman today! thanks for posting this, jama – and the fact that dos passos (whose books qualified as door stoppers) and cummings (so delicate) were friends – that’s lovely. wow, who knew cummings was so easy on the eyes?? (mr. clooney, however, still gets the grand prize ribbon – every time I scroll down and – surprise – come to his photo – yikes – )


    1. so i will not capitalize anything in this reply either :)!

      i *love* that you thought about that line when looking at your children’s little hands. so sweet!

      cummings was quite dashing as a younger man; this photo surprised me too. i like thinking that he looked this way when composing his early erotic poems *fans self*!

      is it hot in here, or is it just me? george is getting good mileage today as eye candy. i can’t stop looking at him . . .


  8. So, we all bring personal connections to our reading of course, & I am currently reading The Story of Charlotte’s Web, by Michael Sims, and am struck by the passion of EB White because of his farm life and his love of Don Marquis and Archy & Mehitabel (similar time period). Perhaps farm life is an important experience for great writing? Thank you for all your words about ee cummings, and the poem (song?).


    1. I was thinking the same thing about the connection between farm life and writing, especially after visiting Frost Place this past summer. There must be something about the closer connection to nature, the physical labor that cleanses the mind, the general tranquility of a remote location. I hadn’t realized how passionate Cummings was about NH until I wrote this post — apparently his favorite place in all of New England.


    1. No, I wasn’t picturing nude chorus girls either — too bad the musical never got finished. Cummings did like to shock the Puritans.

      Oh, I love that you associated me with soup right off! *rubs hands together* Looks like my work here is done :).


  9. What a great poem. It totally begs to be sung. You are right! It’s raining where I am and getting a little chilly, so black bean soup sounds–and looks–really yummy right about now. Also noticed the “Eye Candy” on your sidebar. That’s nice to look at, too 🙂


    1. Happy you liked the poem! It’s amazing how naturally one falls into singing mode after the first stanza or so.

      Sounds like you definitely need some soup this weekend! It’s going to be windy around here tomorrow.

      Have you tried hovering your cursor over George’s picture? He has something to tell you 🙂 . . .


  10. Oh, Jama … I’m almost ashamed to tell you this but … I always thought e.e. cummings was a woman!

    *slinks off*


  11. 1. I ate black beans for dinner last night!
    2. Who woulda thunk that e.e. loved Middle Eastern food?
    3. Lamb? Not so much. Tastes like musty socks.
    4. Another GREAT food photo!
    5. Just hovered my mouse and got George’s message. Nice.
    6. Joy Farm in NH — I want one just like that!


    1. 1. psychic black beans! do you own any baggy trousers?
      2. i know, right? i’m craving eggplant.
      3. LOL. i agree.
      4. thanks!!
      5. he has all of us at his beck and call . . .
      6. me, too. i also want farm hands 🙂


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