E. E. Cummings is a poet who is undeniable unique and the majority of his work highly stylized, modern, and controversial. The bulk of his work is usually recognized and noted for his awkward use of letters, structure, and mislaid punctuation. While Cummings is most known for variation on form, his poetry has great depth and meaning. Cummings is the quintessential 19th century poet who stated “The day of the spoken lyric is past,” and warns that “The poem … it builds itself, three dimensionally, gradually, subtly, in the consciousness of the experiencer” (Kennedy).
Embodying transcendentalism completely, he understood that to live is to constantly be experiencing, changing, and growing. This theme is revisited in his work again and again. Therefore, E. E. Cummings is most strongly influenced, like so many other authors by, by events of his life. Eve Triem, in American Writers, explains that Cummings was born to Edward Estlin Cummings to Edward and Rebbecca Cummings in 1894, both of which were highly intelligent and respected in the community. His father was a professor at Harvard University and his research centered around studying people.
He had also been trained as a minister and preached at a local church. Cummings mother, Rebecca, came from a very prestigious family and play a major role in all the social, political, and cultural ongoings in her community (Triem). Cummings had the luxury of the perfect childhood. They spent their winters in Boston and summered in the beautiful farms of rural New England. Triem explains it was here that Cummings, as a youngster, fell in love with nature. These beautiful childhood images would become so embedded in Cummings memory that they were the central images in many of Cummings’ most memorable poems.
As explained in Contemporary Literary Criticism, Cummings’ parents encouraged him to study and read as often as possible and offered him their “full support”. Kennedy states that Cummings, as a young adult. kept a “journal” of his inner most thoughts at his mother’s request. His mother believed, almost from birth, that Cummings would become a great author and take his place among the ranks of Longfellow. She ensured that his bed stories were from the greatest writers of the time, Dickens and Stevenson. Cummings was highly educated. His home life was focused on literature.
Cummings would memorize and recite pieces of stories, and poetry. In addition, he was also a very capable painter who enjoyed illustrating his own writings (“E. E. C ummings”). As an adolescence he became very involved in his high school newspaper and also the Cambridge Review. “While Cummings was in school he helped to found the Harvard Poetry Society. He and some of his friends in the society put together Eight Harvard Poets (published in 1917)” (Triem). The Cambridge Review would be the very first place to publish Cummings’ early writing. However, his poetry was still passive and not entirely well received.
Though this initial experience of actually being taken seriously inspired Cummings to keep writing and to push the limits of what was considered proper and acceptable. After graduating high school, Cummings followed in his father’s footsteps and entered Harvard. He received a traditional education and earned degrees in Literature and the Classics. Cummings “was educated in public schools and at Harvard University where he received an A. B. , magna cum laude, and an M. A. for English and classical studies. ” (Triem). His analyzing his skills were unparalleled. Much of his interest during this time centered around Shakespeare.
He would closely with literary historians who studied Shakespeare’s use of narration and literary devices. It was during this time that Cummings became to experiment with allegory in his poetry. Kennedy asserts that Cummings utilized his formal education and his father’s religious writings to author many essays, short stories, and poems. His work was regularly published in the Harvard Advocate and Harvard Monthly. However, Cummings questioned his skill and wondered if his position in life had effected how people viewed his poetry. In the early 1900s, Cummings was exposed to Cubism and Impressionism.
Both of which influence his writing style. He believed that his poetry had home within the modern art movement. “But by 1918 Cummings had created his own poetic style. Because he was a painter as well as a poet, he had developed a unique form of literary cubism: he broke up his material on the page to present it in a new, visually directed way” (Kennedy). It was during this time that he practiced and created his ever popular variation on poetic structure that he is famous for. He was inspired by the aggressively unique modern artists, specifically Czanne and Gaudier-Breska.
Similarly, he looked to modern poets and particularly related to the work of Sandburg and Whitman. Cummings loved lyrical poetry and manipulated the standard structures – intentionally using words, punctuation, and syntax in awkward ways. Cummings’ goal was for poetry not to just sound a particular way, but also have a unique and meaningful visual style (Kennedy). His poetry became extremely tight and well built. He carefully constructed each poem with specific word choice and arrangement creating poetry which was both visually stimulating and meaningful. He visited Paris often and was constantly inspired by the European art movements.
Kennedy explains that these “influences that appear in his increasing experiment with language and ventures into irrational modes of expression in his poem. ” Cummings used repetition, extended songs, and words in written in lines to give the allusion of action. An example of his unique style is below: mOOn Over tOwns mOOn whisper less creature huge grO pingness (excerpt from Cummings poem No Thanks, as quested in Triem) Triem explains that Cummings uses this unique structure and style “to focus the reader’s attention a capital letter may be thrust into the middle of a word.
In the opening poem of No Thanks capitals are used to imitate the roundness of the moon and to imply the eternity of the circle. ” Though Cummings’ poetry was popular, he made his living in the publishing field. After graduation he took a desk job at a publishing company. This type of job allowed Cummings to focus almost completely on his poetry and prose. It was during his time here that he had the chance to review and be influenced by the world’s news events and read obscure history. Triem believes that this type of exposure produced his famous poem, Buffalo Bill s defunct.
He was a prolific writer and continud to hone his skills as a painter. Contemporary Literary Criticism reports that as the first great war approach, Cummings, with the urging of his family decided to volunteer instead of being drafted. He served in a medical division in France. This particular assignment worked well for Cummings because he did not agree with war. “Cummings was completely charmed by the bohemian atmosphere of Paris and its abundance of art and artists” (“E. E. Cummings). In addition, France was a place he had never been and full of new adventures and people.
Simply by accident his military paperwork was temporarily lost and he had some extra time to visits the streets of Paris. It was in Paris that Cummings, for the first time was away from the oppressive and prudish nature of American society (“E. E. Cummings”). Contemporary Literary Criticism reports that “during this period, Cummings eschewed upper-class Cambridge values and frequented circuses, bordellos, pubs, and vaudeville and burlesque shows” . Within the burlesque halls and streets lined with prostitutions, Cummings experience a sexual freedom which is well documented in his most controversial poetry.
His time in the military was extremely tense. Cummings was intentionally obtuse and did not make an effort to fit in. Cummings was openly artistic and spoke openly about his political views. He often complained about the other men he worked with and was constantly writing to his family about his uncomfortable conditions (Triem). Cummings was so outspoken that the French government actually read and censored his letters home to his family and friends. He became a target of the authorities who watched everything he did and wrote very carefully.
The authorities believed that Cummings might be some type of spy and he was placed in a French jail for a couple of months (Kennedy). Cummings found a common bond with the people he was imprisoned with this was the inspiration for his novel called The Enormous Room (“E. E. Cummings”). With the help of his prestigious family he was released and sent home in 1918. The Enormous Room is “considered a classic of World War I literature, this work concerns the preservation of dignity in a degrading and dehumanizing situation” (“E. E. Cummings”).
Contemporary Literary Criticism reports “it also examines themes that Cummings would pursue throughout his career–the individual against society, government, and all forms of authority”. Cummings went to live in New York where he surrounded himself with friends and peers within the arts (“E. E. Cummings”). Many of which supported and encouraged Cummings to keep writing and painting. Cummings’ painted his most well known piece called “Traffic”. He continue to write and his uniquely structured poetry was published in local papers and was often debated (Kennedy).
Cummings soon fell in love with Elaine Thayer. It was Elaine which is the basis for the majority of Cummings erotic and sensual poetry. His love and desire for her is undeniable. Elaine soon became pregnant, and was still married. The situation was extremely tense because Cummings could not openly father his baby daughter, Nancy. Years later, Elaine divorced and the couple was married in overseas (“E. E. Cummings”). Kennedy explains that their relationship lasted one year and then they divorced. Cummings separation from his daughter was related in much of his poetry and paintings.
Cummings’ first novel, The Enormous Room, was about his experiences during the war. While the novel was not actually publish until 1922 and it received a great deal of positive feedback from the literary world because Cummings presented such a horrific subject in an unique and first person perspective. During this time his poetry was also gaining popularity. Cummings’ poetry was being published in the Dial,Vanity Fair as well as other literary journals. It was not until later 1923 that Cummings published his first volume of poetry called Tulips and Chimneys (“E. E. Cummings”).
In the next two years he published two more volumes of poetry. With each volume of poetry he became more and more popular. The most intriguing part of Cummings’ works is that he is an author with many talents and tools. He had the ability not just to write poetry but also dramas, prose, satire, and journaling. He was a great painter and sketch artist. Cummings was witty and charming with a quick intellect which is obvious in his poetry. Puns, satire, and slang are often seen in his poetry to create humor while incorporating his comments about political, social, and cultural issues (Kennedy).
Many of the themes Cummings developed and the literary tools he used set him apart of his peers during his time and throughout literature as a whole. Cummings have the ability to confront many parts of American life, especially Puritanism and Philistinism as well as a holistic approach to mankind. Contemporary Literary Criticism reports many of his poems preach independence and reliance which are the basis of transcendentalism. “Cummings effects a softer, more elegiac note, displaying his affinity with New England Transcendentalism and English Romanticism” (“E. E. Cummings”).
Cummings asserts that man must live alone to be free and when man lives among other men, he loses his humanity and soul. However, many of his poems are just about the basics- nature, romance, and the seasons. Cummings is easily separated by his peers by his use of lower case letters. His name alone foreshadows that his poetry is something different. “Cummings made varied use of parentheses: for an interpolated comment or to split or combine words as a guide to his thought. Frequently they occur, in poem-parables, to clarify the relationship between two sentences that run simultaneously through the poem” (Triem).
According to Kennedy, Cummings often used alternative methods to express his what he was thinking and feeling. Cummings concentrated on misuse of syntax, often the verb and nouns are transposed. Kennedy continues to explains Cummings also used broken sentences combined with strong street dialect and popular sayings to create poetry most people had never seen before and his poetry as a whole was a “gathering of work in traditional verse forms as well as in his newest unconventional forms of expressiveness”.
He even used traditional poem structure combined with free verse which has become associated with Cummings. “Cummings is remembered for his innovative, playful style, his celebration of love and nature, his focus on the primacy of the individual and freedom of expression, and his treatment of, in his own words, “ecstasy and anguish, being and becoming; the immortality of the creative imagination and the indomitability of the human spirit. (“E. E. Cummings”). It is the combination of the topics as well as his unique style that has created a reputation for Cummings as a modern poet. His poetry is often copied by young poets who are trying to find a style of their own. American lyric poet, a typographical innovator whose contempt for modern, collectivized society and love individuality is reflected in the novel arrangement and punctuation of his poems.