Edward Estlin Cummings

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Edward Estlin Cummings

The American poet Edward Estlin Cummings (1894-1962) presented romantic attitudes in technically experimental verse. His poems are not only ideas but crafted physical objects which, in their nonlogical structure, grant fresh perspectives into reality.

In his publications E. E. Cummings always gave his name in lowercase letters without punctuation (e e cummings); this was part of his concern for the typography, syntax, and visual form of his poetry. He worked in the Emersonian tradition of romantic transcendentalism, which encouraged experimentation, and may have been influenced also by Walt Whitman, the poet that Ralph Waldo Emerson had personally encouraged.

Born in Cambridge, Mass., on Oct. 14, 1894, of a prominent academic and ministerial family, E. E. Cummings grew up in the company of such family friends as the philosophers William James and Josiah Royce. Had he lived in Emerson's time, he too might have been described as a "Boston Brahmin." His father, Edward Cummings, after teaching at Harvard, became the nationally known Congregational minister of the Old South Church in Boston, preaching a Christian-transcendentalist theology. Eventually Cummings came to espouse a positive position similar to that of his father, but not before an early period of rebellion against the stuffiness of Cambridge ladies, the repressiveness of conventional moralism, and the hypocrisy of the churches.

After receiving his bachelor of arts degree (1915) and master's degree (1916) from Harvard, Cummings became an ambulance driver in France just before America entered World War I. He was imprisoned for 3 months on suspicion of holding views critical of the French war effort, and this experience provided the material for his first book, The Enormous Room (1922), an experiment in blending autobiographical prose reporting with poetic techniques of symbolism.

Early Career

Cummings's transcendentalism, which stressed individual feeling over "objective" truth in a period when critical canons of impersonal, rationalistic, and formalistic poetry were being articulated, resulted in early rejection of his work. For several decades he had to pay for the publication of his books, and reviewers revealed very little understanding of his intentions. His first volume of verse, Tulips and Chimneys (1923), was followed by a second book of poems 2 years later. Though Cummings received the Dial Award for poetry in 1925, he continued to have difficulty in finding a publisher.

In the 10 years following 1925 only two volumes of Cummings's poems were published, both at his own expense: is 5 (1926) and W (ViVa; 1931). In that decade Cummings also arranged for the publication of one experimental play, Him (1927), and a diary like account of a trip to the U.S.S.R., Eimi (1933). With characteristic sarcasm Cummings named the 14 publishers who had rejected the manuscript of No Thanks (1935) in the volume itself and said "Thanks" to his mother, who had financed its publication.

Poetic Techniques

Despite his dedication to growth and movement, and in contrast to his reputation as an experimenter in verse forms, Cummings actually tended to lack fresh invention. Especially in the 1930s, when he felt most alienated from his culture and his fellow poets, he repeated himself endlessly, writing many versions of essentially the same poem. He tended to rely too much on simple tricks to force the reader to participate in the poems, and his private typography, although originally expressive and amusing, became somewhat tiresome. Cummings's other stylistic devices—the use of low dialect to create satire and the visual "shaping" of poems—often seem selfindulgent substitutes for original inspiration.

However, Cummings's most characteristic device, the dislocation of syntax and the breaking up and reconstituting of words, was more than just another trick when it operated organically within the context of a poem's meaning. When he wrote, in one of his own favorite poems, "i thank You God for most this amazing," he emphasized the nonlogical quality of the statement by its syntactical ambiguity. "Most" intensifies the entire line in its displaced position and indicates why he thanks God; it moves "this amazing" toward "most amazing" in an authentic recreation of the miraculous process of the natural world. In general, Cummings's best dislocations expressed his belief in that miraculousness of the ordinary which logical syntax could not convey, bringing the reader to a freshness of perception that was Cummings's way toward illumination.

Poetic Achievement

The love poems and religious poems represent Cummings's greatest achievements; usually the two subjects are interrelated in his work. For example, "somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond" is one of the finest love lyrics in the English language, and Cummings's elegy on the death of his beloved father, "my father moved through dooms of love," is a profoundly moving tribute. Often he used a dislocated sonnet form in these poems, but what makes them memorable is not their formal experimentalism but their unique combination of sensuality with a sense of transcendent spirit. Cummings wrote some of the finest celebrations of sexual love and the religious experience of awe and natural piety produced in the 20th century, precisely at a time when it was highly unfashionable to write such poems.

Early in his career Cummings had divided his time between New York and Paris (where he studied painting); later, between New York and the family home in North Conway, N.H. He was always interested in the visual arts, and his paintings and drawings, late impressionist in style, were exhibited in several one-man shows in the 1940s and 1950s.

Ripening into Honor

After World War II a new generation of poets in rebellion against their immediate predecessors began to find in Cummings an echo of their own distinctly Emersonian ideas about poetry, and Cummings began to receive the recognition that had eluded him so long. In 1950 the Academy of American Poets awarded this self-described "failure" a fellowship for "great achievement," and his collected Poems, 1923-1954 (1954) won praise in critical quarters which earlier had tended to downgrade Cummings for his unfashionable lyric romanticism.

Harvard University honored its distinguished alumnus by asking Cummings to deliver the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures in 1952-1953, his only attempt at formal artistic autobiography, later published as i: six nonlectures (1953). In the lectures Cummings said that perhaps 15 poems were faithful expressions of his stance as artist and man. The total number of truly memorable short poems is certainly higher than this modest figure but still only a fraction of the nearly 1,000 poems published in his lifetime.

Although Cummings did not "develop" as a poet either in terms of ideas or of characteristic style between the publication of Tulips and Chimneys and his final volume, 73 Poems (1963), his work does show a deepening awareness and mastery of his special lyrical gift as poet of the mysteries of "death and forever with each breathing," with a corresponding abandonment of earlier defensive-offensive sallies into ideology and criticism. His finest single volume, 95 Poems (1958), illustrates Cummings's increasing ability toward the end of his life to give content to his abstractions through the artifact of the poem-object itself, rather than depending entirely on pure rhetoric. If only a tenth of his poems should be thought worthwhile, Cummings will have been established as one of the lasting poets America has produced.

Late Works and Influence

Cummings's Collected Poems was published in 1960. In addition to the works mentioned, Cummings published several other experimental plays, a ballet, and some 15 volumes of verse. Shortly before his death at North Conway on Sept. 3, 1962, Cummings wrote the texts to accompany photographs taken by his third wife, Marion Morehouse. Titled Adventures in Value (1962), this work exemplifies his lifelong effort to see intensely and deeply enough to confront the miraculousness of the natural. Poets of neoromantic inclinations consider him, along with William Carlos Williams, one of their artistic ancestors, although Cummings produced no significant stylistic followers.

Further Reading

Good discussions of Cummings and his work include Charles Norman, The Magic-Maker: E. E. Cummings (1958); Norman Friedman, E. E. Cummings: The Growth of a Writer (1964); Barry A. Marks, E. E. Cummings (1964); and Robert E. Wegner, The Poetry and Prose of E. E. Cummings (1965). There is a section on Cummings in Hyatt H. Waggoner, American Poets: From the Puritans to the Present (1968). □

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Edward Estlin Cummings

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