The World of Was

E. E. Cummings was born on this day in 1894, and his poetry collection 1 x 1 was published on this day in 1944, his fiftieth birthday. An individualist in spirit and an original in verse form, Cummings was also a political skeptic. This is sometimes suggested by his poetry—or more than suggested, a two-liner included in 1 x 1 reading, “a politician is an arse upon / which everyone has sat except a man”—and driven home by Eimi: A Journey Through Soviet Russia. Part travelogue and part prose-poem, Eimi is the result of a trip Cummings took in 1931 to verify his conviction that the new communist state was not the paradise many of his friends and contemporaries imagined. When he crossed the Polish-Russian border, says Cummings, he entered “a world of Was—the subhuman communist superstate, where men are shadows & women are nonmen; the preindividual marxist unworld”:

…in a world of Was—everything shoddy; everywhere dirt and cracked fingernails—guarded by 1 helplessly handsome implausibly immaculate soldier. Look! A rickety train, centuries BC. Tiny rednosed genial antique wasman, swallowed by outfit of patches, nods almost merrily as I climb cautiously aboard. My suitcase knapsack typewriter gradually are heaved (each by each) into a lofty alcove; leaving this massive barrenness of compartment much more than merely empty….

Cummings describes his five-week trip over some 500 detailed pages, much of it a linguistic-grammatical challenge akin to Finnegans Wake, but his point is hammer-and-sickled home:

I feel whatever’s been hitherto told or sung in song or story concerning Russia’s revolution equals bunk.… And what has been miscalled the Russian revolution surely is more foolish than the supposable world’s attempt upon natural and upon immanent and upon perfect and upon knighthood: an attempt motivated by baseness and by jealousy and by hate and a slave’s wish to substitute for the royal incognito of humility the ignoble affectation of equality.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.