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E.E. Cummings 101

The complicated work of one of our most popular poets

E.E. Cummings may be most remembered for his gleeful love poems with their sensuous use of language and his visual inventiveness and Modernist style. He was a highly innovative writer and painter, who borrowed concepts from the world of Modernist painting and sculpture to influence his poems. Through his unconventional use of syntax, punctuation, capitalization, and typography, he helped the poetry world think of words and poems as a visual objects and the white page as the canvas. The poet-critic Randall Jarrell wrote of Cummings, “no one else has ever made avant-garde, experimental poems so attractive to the general and the special reader.” Indeed, Cummings combines playful difficulty and willful accessibility in ways that few other 20th-century poets have.

Beginnings
Born and raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Edward Estlin Cummings began writing poems at a very young age. He received his formal and traditional education from renowned institutions, and his education in classical languages, as well as his encounters with New England poets, provided him with models to follow and, later, react against. Some of his earliest poems show his strong knowledge of the poetic tradition, in particular the celebrated 19th-century poets Shelley, Keats, and Tennyson.

While attending Harvard University, Cummings affirmed his independence as an artist and as an individual, and his interests turned to such burgeoning art fields as cubism and burlesque theater. He experienced mild early successes—some of his friends published his poems in Eight Harvard Poets, and several paintings gained popularity in Greenwich Village galleries. He volunteered for an ambulance service in France before the US became involved in WWI, where he was imprisoned on suspicion of treason—the result of censors’ misreading his deliberately playful letters home. A few years after being released, Cummings published The Enormous Room (1922), a fictional account of his war experiences in France.

Cummings’s more ambitious poetic debut, Tulips and Chimneys (1923), received positive reviews and exposed readers to the early playful stages of Cummings’s adaptations of language. Some of his most anthologized poems appear in this book, including [in Just-] and [Buffalo Bill’s]. Portions of the book’s “Tulips” section contain free-verse poems and hyphenated, split, or combined words, such as “in-/ fin / tes- / I / -mal- / ly devours,” “puddle-wonderful,” and “pigeonsjustlikethat”; the second half, “Chimneys,” contains less experimental sonnet forms on typical themes, including love, dreams, nature, and death.

Cummings published two additional collections of poetry in the mid-1920s and, in a foreword to is 5 (1926), explains his process, some of his developing transcendental beliefs, and his obsession with creating. Many readers notice in this book that Cummings has fully developed his trademark syntactical and stylistic tamperings. Alongside his formal innovations, he also established his debt to 19th-century poets through his interest in older Romantic subjects, such as sentimental love, the untamed imagination and its supremacy over science, the individual versus the collective, idealistic childhood and innocence, and nature’s sublime. For his entire career, Cummings was able to combine these somewhat passé subjects with an avant-garde style to great effect.

Further Innovations
Several other books of poetry arrived in the 1930s despite the ongoing Great Depression. Cummings pushed further artistic innovations in W (1931), allowing for even more ruptures and parentheticals than before. When war was underway again in Europe in the mid-1940s, Cummings published some of his most political poetry since the satires he had included in W. His book 1 X 1 (1944) possessed a light and a dark side, a critical-yet-hopeful vision. Though poems in the first part of 1 X 1 detail the failures and misguidances of humans in the natural world, the middle and last sections gradually admit forgiveness and love of the like seen in [“might these be thrushes climbing…”] and [“if everything happens that can’t…”]. Just a few years earlier, Cummings had released 50 Poems (1940), and like 1 X 1, it can be considered thematically despite the lack of true sections. Within the 50 untitled poems, topics range from the speaker’s suspicion and judgment of mass culture, as in [“a pretty a day”] and [“anyone lived in a pretty how town”]; declarations of integrity found in seemingly unkempt life—see [“six”]; to lofty, inspired poems, such as [“love is more thicker than forget”] and [these children singing in stone a…”].

Xaipe, pronounced “kay-EYE-ree,” was published in 1950, when Cummings split his time between Greenwich Village in Manhattan and his family’s farm in New Hampshire with his companion, model and photographer Marion Morehouse. This collection contains more description and rural scenery than previous books, yet Cummings still included a share of proactive satirical pieces. He also continued to provide poems of fresh stylistic endeavor; not even William Carlos Williams could get behind this poem about a cat’s stumble, [“(im)c-a-t(mo)…”]. Williams is reported to have said he found too little meaning in it, yet he came to Cummings’s defense when a small controversy erupted over the use of racial epithets in two poems from the book. Cummings said he used the words to acknowledge the existence of prejudice, and Williams supported Cummings’s artistic expression. Other poems, such as [“in/Spring comes(no-…”] and [“now all the fingers of this tree…”] expose the mystery and miracle that Cummings found daily in his home at Joy Farm. Xaipe, which means “rejoice” in Greek, contains many more interior poems that speak to the personal and imaginative world he was creating for himself.

In the 1950s, Cummings’s work became more widely known, and universities and festivals sought him for lectures and readings. He delivered his famous Six Nonlectures at Harvard in 1952, which catalog his autobiographic history and personal thoughts on art, and playfully prefaced his remarks with a warning: “I haven't the remotest intention of posing as a lecturer.” At the age of 64, Cummings received the prestigious Bollingen Prize in Poetry and published 95 Poems (1958), his last published book of poetry before his death in 1962. This final collection contains some of Cummings’s clearest and most comprehensive visions, often showcasing the artist’s awareness of his own mortality. [“crazy jay blue)…”] and [!/ o(rounD)moon,how…] capture both the descriptive qualities and the wordplay that take place in earlier collections; other poems, such as [“dive for dreams…”] and [“all nearness pauses, while a star…”] speak to a maturity and understanding not seen or felt in any prior work.

His Legacy
After his death, Cummings’s unpublished work was compiled by his widow, Marion Morehouse, in 73 Poems (1963). Some of this collection, the poems [“how many moments must(amazing each…”)] and [“your homecoming will be my…”] mimic the contemplation and acceptance found in 95 Poems. Others, [2 Little Whos] and [“O the sun comes up-up-up”] echo the childlike Cummings and his meditations on play. From his birth, he took on the responsibility of defining himself, his work, and the space he carved for his own being and making.

Throughout his work, Cummings wanted to infuse his poetry with a sense of wonder and awe and to incite experiences and emotional reactions in readers without any intention to hide secret meanings. Experiencing a poem was much more important for him than analyzing or “understanding” a poem. This seems especially apparent in advice he offered before the staging of one of his plays, advising the audience to “Relax and give [it] a chance to strut its stuff—relax, stop wondering what it’s all ‘about’—like many strange and familiar things, Life included, this [work] isn’t ‘about,’ it simply is. Don’t try to enjoy it, let it try to enjoy you. don’t try to understand it, let it try to understand you.”

Poem Sampler

E.E. Cummings 101

The complicated work of one of our most popular poets

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