What E.E. Cummings teaches us about love and death

The poet E.E. Cummings, (1894-1962)

The poet E.E. Cummings, (1894-1962)

Earlier this summer, after riding my bike along the Greenbelt in South Portland, I pit stopped at Bug Light Park to take a break and watch the waves and kite flyers.

There, at a nearby bench, a young man serenaded a beautiful redhead from an open book. The girl sat with one hand over her mouth, hiding a smile, while the other wiped away mist from her eyes.

I had to look twice, but I had seen that book before, and heard those words:

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

A much older, and ragged, edition of that same paperback sits in my office, always within reach. Its pages are weathered, and green duct tape holds it in one piece – such as it is.

In the fall of my senior year in college, a girl named Sheila gave me that book, “E.E. Cummings, Complete Poems, 1904-1962.” At the time, we were involved in a fiery, youthful, and fleeting romance.

But it was clear that Sheila was locked in a lifelong affair of the heart with Cummings, and her enthusiasm rubbed off on me.

When we met I had been immersed in an honors thesis on the great poet: an academic exercise of research and analysis. Yet my past admiration of Cummings’ work and Sheila’s unwavering spirit took my sense of his verse to another level. It affected my way of dealing with life’s trials and suffering, particularly with death.

This week, I began working again on writing Sheila’s story. It’s a tale that I’ve been pecking away at for 10 years, but far before that left me holding something priceless, forever.

I get that poetry isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that love and loss is on all our agendas.

When my father died in 1996, I looked to Cummings’ ode my father moved through dooms of love” to help explain my grief. My college roommate Dominic was killed in Iraq in 2003, and I found solace in the war reverie, “my sweet old etcetera.” More recently, a friend’s disabled brother passed away, and my own prayers for him included the short but visceral Cummings offering “i shall imagine life”

And this past year, two family friends – loving, devoted mothers both – lost their sons, one adult and one infant. With each of those deaths, my mind’s ear heard the echo of “i am a little church (no great cathedral)”

There are, of course, many ways to deal with loss in our lives. Even though it took a decade for the lesson to hit home, what E.E. Cummings – through his disciple Sheila – taught me about love and death is that they’re intertwined in ways we can’t always see, but almost always come to feel, and eventually understand.

Death is so painful because it interrupts our love, but love also fuels the power of memory, which keeps death from winning.

That’s why a boy at Bug Light Park will pull out his book of Cummings poetry, and take a chance on life.



Telly Halkias is a national-award winning newspaper columnist.

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Telly Halkias

About Telly Halkias

Award-winning freelance journalist from Portland's West End. Writes columns, features, and drama reviews for newspapers in Vermont, where he also owns a home, Massachusetts, New York and Maine.. Former weekend columnist at the now defunct Portland Sun. Longtime adjunct professor of college English/history/humanities. Has lived overseas for 15 years, and all over the U.S. Veteran. Small business owner. Published poet. ATCA drama critic. Loves all things outdoors, and Siberian huskies.