An online exhibit at the Harry Ransom Center Library in Austin, Texas, catalogues the signatures on a door that used to be in the Greenwich Village Bookshop, circa 1920-1924. The signature page of S. A. Jacobs, Cummings’ personal typesetter, reproduces a July 16, 1931 letter from Jacobs to Cummings about printing the title page of ViVa. Those patient enough to figure out how the slide show on this page works will be rewarded with a photo of the letter from Jacobs to Cummings and with the photo of the title page of W [ViVa] reproduced here (click on either image to view more closely). Jacobs’ letter complains bitterly of the difficulty in getting this title page to look right: “the photo engraver has failed me utterly: for three times in succession he made the reversed plate of VV wrong–not as ordered by you or me or [with] any sign of intelligence in himself. . . . I am rejecting the work as not satisfactory.” (The writing in pencil at the top of the letter is Cummings’ draft of a telegram responding to Jacobs.)
The curious title of this collection of poems, W, represents two overlapping V’s, which refer to “a graffito commonly found on southern European walls, meaning ‘long live,’ as in ‘Viva Napoli’ or ‘Viva Presidente Wilson’ “ (Kennedy, Revisited 76). In critical and in ordinary discourse, the title is pronounced “Viva” and is written as “ViVa”–with two capital V’s. When both titles are used, the pronounceable title is written in brackets: [ViVa]. In her article “The Modernist Sonnet and the Pre-Postmodern Consciousness,” Gillian Huang-Tiller notes that the VV slogan “probably stems from ‘Viva V.E.R.D.I.‘ or Viva Vittorio Emanuele Re D’Italia, [Long live Victor Emanuel, King of Italy], slogan for patriotic Italians of the nineteenth century” (170).
In Dreams in the Mirror, Richard S. Kennedy says that ViVa “contains seventy poems; every seventh poem is a sonnet, except that the last seven poems are all sonnets” (319). This description is in general quite correct, but, as Huang-Tiller points out, Kennedy then makes an interesting and perhaps productive error. He writes: “That makes a total of fourteen sonnets, corresponding to the fourteen-line stanza of the sonnet” (Dreams 319). Actually, as Huang-Tiller astutely notes, “the structure of the collection is not a neat 7 + 7—there are nine embedded sonnets, not seven.” She further comments: “Kennedy apparently follows what his experience of the sonnet tells him should be in the text, rather than what is really in the text” (164). So the order of the poems in the text follows this mathematical pattern: 6 – 1 – 6 – 1 – 6 – 1 – 6 – 1 – 6 -1 – 6 – 1 – 6 – 1 – 6 – 1 – 6 – 1 – 7 = 70 poems. Or: 7 x 9 = 63 + 7 = 70.
What might this not-quite-sonnet pattern of sonnets tell us about Cummings’ intentions? Huang-Tiller speculates that perhaps “Cummings has another design in mind, as the nine embedded sonnets (each the seventh poem) along with the final set of seven sonnets could signal a perfect ten: 9 sonnets + 1 set = 10” (164). In the afterword to his translation of No Thanks, Jacques Demarcq sees ViVa as having a structure of ten weeks, “six poèmes et le dimanche un sonnet” [six poems and the Sunday of a sonnet] (“Un tournant” 112). This would make the final seven sonnets of ViVa a week of Sundays. In EIMI (published two years after ViVa), Cummings tells us that he was born on a Sunday (91/89), and several commentators have noticed that EIMI begins and ends on a Sunday (May 10 and June 14). Each chapter narrates one day, so the chapters follow a pattern similar to the one in ViVa, except that the implied days of the week metaphor is made explicit. EIMI has six Sundays with six days between each of them, making a total of five weeks and 36 days. [See EIMI note 91 / 89.]
Jacobs’ letter to Cummings and the mathematical patterning of poems and chapters in ViVa and EIMI show the immense care Cummings took with his work, both on the macro- (book) and micro- (individual poem and letter) levels. The macro-level patterns of ViVa and EIMI show something else, I think: a concern to give every part of his work significance. For example, the sonnets in ViVa are mostly love poems. Love and Sunday, then, represent birth and rebirth. The connection to rebirth is made clear in EIMI when Cummings mentions the Russian word for Sunday, “voskresaynyeh” (91/89), which means “resurrection.”
For more on Jacobs and Cummings, see Walker Rumble’s short piece “Reclaiming S. A. Jacobs: Polytype, Golden Eagle, and Typographic Modernism” as well as Rumble’s recent article from Spring “The Persian Typesetter: S. A. Jacobs, E. E. Cummings, and the Golden Eagle Press.”
Grand Valley State University
Cummings, E. E. EIMI. New York: Covici, Friede, 1933. Reprinted. New York: William Sloane, 1949. Reprinted with an introduction by EEC, New York: Grove Press, 1958.
—. EIMI: A Journey Through Soviet Russia. 1933. Ed. George James Firmage. New York: Liveright, 2007.
Demarcq, Jacques. “Un tournant” [Afterword]. No Thanks. By E. E. Cummings. Trans. Jacques Demarcq. Caen, France: Nous, 2011. 97-137.
Huang-Tiller, Gillian. “The Modernist Sonnet and the Pre-Postmodern Consciousness: The Question of Meta-Genre in E. E. Cummings’ W [ViVa] (1931).” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 14-15 (2006): 156-177.
Kennedy, Richard S. Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E. E. Cummings. New York: Liveright, 1980.
—. E. E. Cummings Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1994. [Twayne’s United States Authors Series No. 637.]
Webster, Michael. “EIMI Notes.” SPRING: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society. Web.
This post and Rumble’s work provide a fascinating look at how EEC, indeed, was utterly concerned with the process of making with the materiality of language on all levels and all scales of a book . . . a proto-graphic designer at a time when so many readers and writers looked “through” the words rather than “at” them. I have been thinking about how the etymology for “story” points toward stained glass windows (see story n.2 http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=historia&searchmode=none). Of course, illuminated medieval texts, hieroglyphics, and today’s graphic novels all revel in a more image-based form of storytelling where we must look at the page. But I would place Cummings’ attentiveness to the materiality of all aspects of the book in this same lineage.