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E.E. Cummings' Letters Shown for First Time at Poets House

By Julie Shapiro on July 9, 2012 1:04pm 

These letters from E.E. Cummings to Poets House founder Elizabeth Kray have never been shown publicly.
These letters from E.E. Cummings to Poets House founder Elizabeth Kray have never been shown publicly.
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DNAinfo/Julie Shapiro

BATTERY PARK CITY — E.E. Cummings wrote letters the same way he wrote poetry — with a playful style that freely ignored the rules of punctuation and grammar.

Three of Cummings' letters — which have never been shown publicly — just went on display at Poets House in Battery Park City as part of an exhibit about Poets House founder and poetry advocate Elizabeth Kray.

In one letter he wrote in 1958,  Cummings jocularly wrote to Kray, who worked as his agent, "Shame shame & tripleshame on lessthanworthless me for letting you quite so irrevocably triumph over the utterlyAndHowdefeated undersigned!!!"

In an August 1962 letter, Cummings complained about the summer heat and told Kray she ought to be "drawn&atleasthalved" for enjoying urban air-conditioning while Cummings was stuck in un-air-conditioned rural New Hampshire.

"This is amazing stuff from E.E. Cummings," said Lee Briccetti, executive director of Poets House. "He wrote his letters like he wrote his poems — all spaced together. It's so charming."

"Bettissima: Treasures from the Elizabeth Kray Archives," which takes its title from Cummings' nickname for Kray, also includes Kray's correspondence with W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Galway Kinnell and other poetic luminaries, with documents spanning from the 1950s to the 1980s.

In addition to founding Poets House with famed poet Stanley Kunitz, Kray advocated for poetry as a modern spoken art form in an era when verse was rarely read aloud in public.

Kray, who died in 1987, set up readings all across the country for the most well known poets of the day, and they often wrote her letters thanking her for assembling attentive audiences, Briccetti said.

In a 1961 letter, T.S. Eliot not only thanked Kray for her efforts but also revealed that while his wife was prone to seasickness, he felt at home on the ocean.

"I am a very good sailor," Eliot wrote.

Also on display at Poets House this summer is "A Poet's Circle," a collection of works by artists who were regular dinner guests at Kunitz's Greenwich Village apartment in the 1960s and '70s and incorporated elements of poetry into their paintings.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is a diary Kunitz kept showing the seating arrangement at each of his dinner parties — with guests including Mark Rothko, Philip Roth and Lillian Hellman — along with what was served for dinner.

Artists who attended the dinners included Robert Motherwell, Philip Guston, Jack Tworkov, Saul Steinberg and Chaim Gross, all of whom have work on display as part of Poets House's new exhibit. Some, like Guston, literally included lines of poetry in their work, while others may have been inspired by the conversation around Kunitz's table, Briccetti said.  

"You have the feeling the poets and visual artists were there talking about ideas," she said.

"Bettissima: Treasures from the Elizabeth Kray Archives" and "A Poet's Circle" are on display at Poets House, 10 River Terrace, through Oct. 9. Poets House is open Tuesday to Friday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is free.

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