The e.e. cummings Poem That Turned a Surly Teenager Into a Grown-Up Author

Alexander Maksik recalls how reading about torture and rebellion in "i sing of Olaf glad and big" in high school made him want to turn his apathy into contempt for apathy.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.

Doug McLean

If terrible students often grow up to be writers, it may be because high school rewards qualities literature seeks to upend: unthinking diligence, arbitrary respect for authority, acceptance of petty social structures. It takes a great teacher or mentor to recognize a gifted teenager's disdain for school for what it often is -- a desire to privilege beauty and meaning over banality and silence -- and inspire something more than mere rebellion.

Thankfully, Alexander Maksik, author of A Marker to Measure Drift, was lucky enough to have this very type of teacher. When I asked Maksik to contribute to this series, he chose to celebrate a poem he read in school that tore him from a teenaged stance of willful disaffection.

In his English teacher's memorable presentation of e.e. cummings' "i sing of Olaf glad and big," Maksik encountered a character whose struggle actually stands for something. The poem's epic figure, Olaf, is a conscientious objector who will not go -- as Achilles and many of our modern heroes do -- to war. For this refusal, he's cruelly tortured, stripped, beaten, thorned with bayonets, and even thrown in prison to rot. But Olaf never recants. He sticks to his (lack of) guns and accepts all harm that befalls him as a result.

For Maksik, the poem and its teaching were a revelatory -- and they germinated a lifelong search for adequate literary values.

A Marker to Measure Drift, published today, tells the story of Jacqueline, a Liberian refugee who washes up, penniless, on a small Greek island. As she fights to find basic food and shelter, the reader pieces together the complicated circumstances of her exile. The starving body, as it turns to its own fat and tissue for energy, enters a state called ketosis; Maksik's lean, affecting prose burns this way -- stripped of any excess, entirely attuned to the prospect of survival, beautifying the simple things that sustain life.

Alexander Maksik's first novel was You Deserve Nothing. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Harper's, Narrative, and elsewhere.

i sing of Olaf glad and big
whose warmest heart recoiled at war:
a conscientious object-or

his wellbelov├ęd colonel(trig
westpointer most succinctly bred)
took erring Olaf soon in hand;
but--though an host of overjoyed
noncoms(first knocking on the head
him)do through icy waters roll
that helplessness which others stroke
with brushes recently employed
anent this muddy toiletbowl,
while kindred intellects evoke
allegiance per blunt instruments--
Olaf(being to all intents
a corpse and wanting any rag
upon what God unto him gave)
responds,without getting annoyed
"I will not kiss your fucking flag"

straightway the silver bird looked grave
(departing hurriedly to shave)

but--though all kinds of officers
(a yearning nation's blueeyed pride)
their passive prey did kick and curse
until for wear their clarion
voices and boots were much the worse,
and egged the firstclassprivates on
his rectum wickedly to tease
by means of skilfully applied
bayonets roasted hot with heat--
Olaf(upon what were once knees)
does almost ceaselessly repeat
"there is some shit I will not eat"

our president,being of which
assertions duly notified
threw the yellowsonofabitch
into a dungeon,where he died

Christ(of His mercy infinite)
i pray to see;and Olaf,too

preponderatingly because
unless statistics lie he was
more brave than me:more blond than you.

Alexander Maksik: I was twelve when I first read e.e. cummings' "i sing of Olaf glad and big." I'm certain that what first drew my interest then were the lines "there is some shit I will not eat" and "i will not kiss your fucking flag." I still remember my teacher, Chris Richard -- black hair, muscular, imposing, and impassioned. I can see him dealing mimeographed copies of the poem onto our desks -- each letter soft and round and blue. He was the teacher who dropped a black bible on the floor, stood on it and said, "A book like any other."

At the time, I cared nothing for school, was always ditching campus to smoke pot beneath the Santa Monica pier. I was a wretched student on academic probation, who would one day fail all of his classes and have to repeat the ninth grade. And yet, here is Chris Richard's voice, deep and frightening: "i sing of Olaf glad and big/whose warmest heart recoiled at war/a conscientious object-or." He is reading to us. Or perhaps he is reciting from memory:

Olaf(being to all intents
a corpse and wanting any rag
upon what God unto him gave)
responds,without getting annoyed
"I will not kiss your fucking flag"


Olaf(upon what were once knees)
does almost ceaselessly repeat
"there is some shit I will not eat"

Whatever discussions there may have been about form and history are lost. But what is sharp in my memory are two things powerful enough to have shaken me, however briefly, from my cultivated apathy: cummings' cool descriptions of Olaf's torture and my teacher's evident passion.

He felt deeply and that feeling was inspired by something beyond us and our tidy school. His intensity was an indictment of disengagement, an indictment of people like me, safe in our shrugging scorn, our affected adolescent indifference. The courage was in caring. And it was Chris Richard who began to turn my apathy into contempt for apathy. In that classroom, at twelve years old, I was so angry, so sad on Olaf's behalf, so hypnotized by my pacing teacher. I wanted to do something about it. And if a short poem could make me feel this way, could show me something I'd never seen, well then what I wanted to do was write.

And now, 28 years later, as a writer, I return to these familiar questions: How do I respond to those things, which so often inspire anger and sadness, hopelessness and fear? And do I have some duty to respond? My instinct says that I do, but I struggle to understand how. Or even what it means exactly to write in response to the ugliness I see outside of my own life.

I believe that the only argument fiction should ever make is one in favor of empathy, that fiction must never be polemical. I do not believe that stories should necessarily be set within countries, or circumstances foreign to their readers, or that writers have any obligation whatsoever to write characters beyond their own immediate experience. A writer's only obligation is to write what she feels most compelled to write. Nonetheless, I can't shake the sense that I have a responsibility to respond, no matter how obliquely, to what I find unjust. I'm terrified of becoming inured to suffering and cruelty. I do not want to travel, or walk through a city, or read a newspaper, and ignore what is before me. To do so is to shirk my responsibility as a writer. And yet I fail constantly. My tendency is to go numb to it all. To stop seeing. To stop feeling. To ignore those things on the street I wish didn't exist. Writing has become for me a kind of antidote to that tendency, a way to avoid closing my eyes. But the questions remain: How do I imbue my fiction with anger, and sadness, and outrage? And what does it mean to write with passion and caring, to write the way that Chris Richard taught?

My answers are unsatisfying. The best I have is this: I hope that I will continue to feel. It is not, in the end, a question of subject, but one of emotion. The enemy in my writing, as in my life, is a willful blindness and a deadened heart. It is the kind of riskless disengagement I cultivated as an adolescent. In "i sing of Olaf glad and big" outrage is as palpable and as potent as lust and wonder are in cummings' other poems, and for that matter in so many of the stories and novels that have made such a difference in my life. I want always to write with great love and empathy. But I also hope that in some way, no matter how obliquely, my writing will always mean, "There is some shit I will not eat."