Email this page As one of the most innovative poets of his time, Edward Estlin E. Cummings experimented with poetic form and language to create a distinct personal style. A typical Cummings poem is spare and precise, employing a few key words eccentrically placed on the page. Some of these words were invented by Cummings, often by combining two common words into a new synthesis.
John Logan in Modern American Poetry: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time: Three are among the great love poems of our time or any time. Between the ages of eight and twenty-two, he wrote a poem a day, exploring many traditional poetic forms. By the time he was in Harvard in , modern poetry had caught his interest.
He began to write avant-garde poems in which conventional punctuation and syntax were ignored in favor of a dynamic use of language. Cummings also experimented with poems as visual objects on the page. These early efforts were included in Eight Harvard Poets, a collection of poems by members of the Harvard Poetry Society. After graduating from Harvard, Cummings spent a month working for a mail order book dealer. He left the job because of the tedium.
Ambulance work was a popular choice with those who, like Cummings, considered themselves to be pacifists.
He was soon stationed on the French-German border with fellow American William Slater Brown, and the two young men became fast friends. To relieve the boredom of their assignment, they inserted veiled and provocative comments into their letters back home, trying to outwit and baffle the French censors.
They also befriended soldiers in nearby units. Such activities led in September of to their being held on suspicion of treason and sent to an internment camp in Normandy for questioning. Cummings and Brown were housed in a large, one-room holding area along with other suspicious foreigners. In July , Cummings was drafted into the U.
Army and spent some six months at a training camp in Massachusetts. Upon leaving the army in January of , Cummings resumed his affair with Elaine Thayer, the wife of his friend Schofield Thayer. Thayer knew and approved of the relationship. Cummings was not to marry Elaine until , after she and Thayer divorced. He adopted Nancy at this time; she was not to know that Cummings was her real father until This first marriage did not last long. She met another man during the Atlantic crossing and fell in love with him.
She divorced Cummings in The early s were an extremely productive time for Cummings. In he published his first book, The Enormous Room, a fictionalized account of his French captivity. He depicted his internment camp stay as a period of inner growth. In this instance, the maimed hero can never again regard the outer world i. But the spiritual lesson he learned from his sojourn with a community of brothers will be repeated in his subsequent writings both as an ironical dismissal of the values of his contemporary world, and as a sensitive, almost mystical celebration of the quality of Christian love.
His eccentric use of grammar and punctuation are evident in the volume, though many of the poems are written in conventional language. Maurer in the Bucknell Review. Another collection quickly followed: XLI Poems, also in The following year a new collection, Is 5, was published, for which Cummings wrote an introduction meant to explain his approach to poetry.
Speaking of these language experiments, M. Rosenthal wrote in The Modern Poets: He succeeded masterfully in splitting the atom of the cute commonplace. Blackmur wrote in The Double Agent: Dumas wrote in her E. That is a complex matter; irregular spacing Further, spacing of key words allows puns which would otherwise be impossible.
Some devices, such as the use of lowercase letters at the beginnings of lines All these devices have the effect of jarring the reader, of forcing him to examine experience with fresh eyes. Cummings—a way of coming smack against things with unaffected delight and wonder. Transform the word, he seems to have felt, and you are on the way to transforming the world. What Cummings did with such subjects, according to Stephen E. His exalted vision of life and love is served well by his linguistic agility.
He was an unabashed lyricist, a modern cavalier love poet. But alongside his lyrical celebrations of nature, love, and the imagination are his satirical denouncements of tawdry, defiling, flat-footed, urban and political life—open terrain for invective and verbal inventiveness.
Much of his literary effort was directed against what he considered the principal enemies of this individuality—mass thought, group conformity, and commercialism. As a preventive to this kind of limitation, Cummings is directly opposed to letting us rest in what we believe we know; and this is the key to the rhetorical function of his famous language.
The Art of His Poetry. Not only the lover and his lady, but love itself—its quality, its value, its feel, its meaning—is a subject of continuing concern to our speaker. Wegner in The Poetry and Prose of E.
Love is the propelling force behind a great body of his poetry. Writing in his E. By [his] last poems, however, it has come to be a purified and radiant idea, unentangled with flesh and worlds, the agent of the highest transcendence. It is not far, as poem after poem has hinted, from the Christian conception of love as God. Him consisted of a sequence of skits drawing from burlesque, the circus, and the avant-garde, and jumping quickly from tragedy to grotesque comedy.
The male character is named Him; the female character is Me. They are the most sensitive and touching in American playwriting. Their intimacy and passion, conveyed in an odd exquisiteness of writing, are implied rather than declared. Like many other writers and artists of the time, he was hopeful that the communist revolution had created a better society. After a short time in the country, however, it became clear to Cummings that the Soviet Union was a dictatorship in which the individual was severely regimented by the state.
The overwhelmingly left-wing publishers of the time refused to accept his work. Cummings had to resort to self-publishing several volumes of his work during the later s. His lectures, later published as i: The first two lectures reminisce about his childhood and parents; the third lecture tells of his schooldays at Harvard, his years in New York, and his stay in Paris during the s.
The last three lectures present his own ideas about writing. In his conclusion to the lecture series Cummings summed up his thoughts with these words, quoting his own poetry where appropriate: Others saw him as merely clever but with little lasting value beyond a few technical innovations. Still others questioned the ideas in his poetry, or seeming lack of them. He was a brilliant year-old, but he remained merely precocious to the end of his life. That may be one source of his appeal. Cummings for an intellectual poet.
In a essay reprinted in his collection Babel to Byzantium, James Dickey proclaimed: It is better to say what must finally be said about Cummings: In his best work he has the swift sureness of ear and idiom of a Catullus, and the same way of bringing together a racy colloquialism and the richer tones of high poetic style.
He established the poem as a visual object Despite a growing abundance of second-rate imitations, his poems continue to amuse, delight, and provoke.