Few poets of the modern era were as innovative as E.E. Cummings, and none were innovative in the same ways that he was. Some of his poems appear to be complete gibberish, which only become decipherable upon very close examination, while others put a modern twist on traditional poetry, such as the sonnet. He is known for breaking words up, interjecting syllables of other words between them, and forgoing most capitalization and punctuation.
Beyond his loose employment of traditional forms, Cummings’ poems also deal with subject matter that some might argue is a bit cliche: “love, childhood, and flowers,” for example. Poems that were once seen as riddled with “lyric excesses and typographical scandals” (Tal-Mason 90) have now become some of the most highly revered works of the American modernist variety, and some of his works are seen as “among the great love poems of our time or any time” (Hyman 120).
On October 14, 1894, Edward Estlin Cummings was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts to Edward Cummings and Rebecca Haswell Clarke. Edward Cummings was a Unitarian minister and a professor of sociology at Harvard. Cummings was a poet from a young age, and indications of his eccentric writing style can be seen even in a letter he wrote at age six, addressed to his father:
FATHER DEAR. BE, YOUR FATHER-GOOD AND GOOD,
HE IS GOOD NOW, IT IS NOT GOOD TO SEE IT RAIN,
FATHER DEAR IS, IT, DEAR, NO FATHER DEAR,
LOVE, YOU DEAR,
Even at this young age, Cummings’ experimental syntax and odd capitalization patterns are evident, and between the age of eight and twenty-two he wrote a poem per day. Cummings grew up to attend Harvard, where he earned his B.A. in 1915 and his M.A. the following year. It was not during his years at Harvard, however, when he blossomed into the artist that he is known as now.
Cummings truly emerged as both a painter and a writer during his years in Paris, after going to France to join the Norton Harjes Ambulance Crops during the First World War. In Paris, he became exposed to numerous artists, poets, and writers such as Pablo Picasso (to whom he dedicated a whole poem), Gleizes, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, and Cézanne. It is through his identity as a painter that Cummings gains much of his uniqueness as a poet, as he is more concerned with how he can present his work on the page than other poets of his time.
Cummings’ poetry was both loved and hated by his contemporaries and the critics. Marianne Moore wrote that Cummings’ work was filled with “a sense of dancing and of the best horticulture,” and she admired the way that he determined pauses “slowly, with glides and tight rope acrobatics, ensuring the ictus by a space instead of a period, or a semi-colon in the middle of a word, seeming to have placed adjectives systematically one word in advance of the words they modify, or one word behind, with most pleasing exactness” (Moore 31).
William Carlos Williams also was a fan of Cummings, stating, “ I didn’t even know there was such an institution as the Academy of American Poets Award. It’s a wonderful thing and it’s nothing short of marvelous that E.E. Cummings has won it” (Williams 181). Clearly, a modern poet like Moore or Williams didn’t find it difficult to see the method in Cummings’ madness, the genius behind his works, but this was not always the case. Some critics state that “a poet like Mr. Cummings must not be taken seriously,” complaining that “The lines do not begin with capital letters. The spacing does not suggest any regular verse-form, though it seems to be systematic. There are no punctuation marks. . . Many words essential to the coherence of the ideas suggested have been deliberately omitted; and the entire effect is so sketchy that the poem might be made to mean almost anything” (Riding, Graves 36). Stanton A. Coblentz can be colorfully quoted, writing that Cummings’ “work has no more relationship to poetry than the barking of my dog has to an aria sung by Caruso” (Coblentz 177).
Cummings also faced accusations of being an anti-Semite. Many of his poems blatantly incorporate racial stereotypes and slurs regarding Jewish people, African Americans, Asian-Americans, and others, and Cummings has come under fire ever since his publishers pleaded for him not to include the “racist” poems in his volumes. Alex Jackinson, in her critique of Cummings, “[The Question Posed],” gives examples of “anti-Semitism” in Cummings’ works:
“why are these pipples taking their hets off?”
“IKEY (GOLDBERG)’S WORTH I’M
TOLD $ SEVERAL MILLLION
FINKLESTEIN (FRITZ) LIVES
AT THE RITZ WEAR
earl & wilson COLLARS.”
“a kike is the most dangerous
machine as yet invented
by even yankee ingenu
ity (out of a jew a few
dead dollars and some twisted laws)
it comes both prigged and canted”
However, Jackson comes to Cummings’ defense, arguing that “if Cummings lampooned Jews only, the brief against him would be truly glaring, but his satiric barbs spare no one, from Uncle Sam to Buffalo Bill…on what grounds should he be expected to pull his punches on the Fritz Finklesteins, who, for good or evil, form a colorful segment of the mural, Americana” (Jackson 175)? Others, such as Coblentz, are not so gentle, writing that “Cummings as a writer is socially as vicious as he is poetically base,” calling him a “vicious anti-Semite,” and going so far as to compare Cummings to Joseph Goebbels, arguing that “perhaps that arch-propagandist of hate believed that, far from being vicious, he was a priest at the holy altars of Nazidom. But that did not make the gas of the asphyxiating chambers less brutally murderous to the multitudes of men, women, and little children who perished amid the fumes” (Coblentz 178), a claim that Cummings’ work has the same underlying viciousness as Nazism. Coblentz’s view is representative of an extreme, and most would find it outlandish to claim that Cummings and Goebbels are on the same tier. More people would agree with William Carlos William’s defense of Cummings than Coblentz’s attack. In his “Artist Must Have Freedom,” Williams writes that an artist must be given the freedom to “say Whatever He Chooses to Say. We do not suppress him when he happens to say something which we dislike or to which we are for various reasons officially or individually opposed…we must respect that duty of the artist” (Williams 182).
Painting His Poetry
Cummings was very concerned with painting—being a naturally gifted poet, he felt inclined to excel in a more difficult medium as well. “He has painted more than he has written, and he has painted—for more than half a century—with an intense, undeviating passion” (Cohen 13). Being a painter and a poet, his poems sometimes can be looked at as paintings comprised of words—creative spacing, odd capitalization, and the blending together of words all make for a visually puzzling presentation. Certain poems seem more like visual art that is meant to be looked at, rather than poems that are meant to be read aloud off a page. Cummings saw letters as more than just consonants and vowels, he looked back to “when drawing was language.” This allowed for “thinking” and “feeling” to join forces in communication. This is no longer the case in modern language, which “instead of visually being something itself, only refers to something else” (Cohen 66). Cummings wanted to make people forget modern language and go back to the ways of old, where feeling and understanding were one. He believed that once people start feeling before they think and analyze, this allows them to become involved in a “homogenous kinesis”—“an involvement in the art—a union of subject and object—and a sense of wholeness in the art itself” (Cohen 68). This artistic philosophy permeated into Cummings the poet. Eclectic scattering of words on the page jar the reader into a confusion that leaves more concern with wrapping oneself around the feeling of the poem rather than trying to understand it. Understanding comes in time, after further reading and observation of the poem, but the fact that the words are often broken up and distorted leaves no option but to just read, or attempt to read, the “words” on the page and gauge one’s reaction.
There is also “fragmentation and composition by angles and planes” at the root of Cummings’ poetry. Certain words and lines can be outlined, connected, or offset by geometric shapes and lines. This allows for the fragmentation of the poem to create underlying statements, miniature poems and motifs that all interconnect, as well as emphasis on certain words. This idea was taken from Cummings’ study of the painter Cézanne, who believed in the restructuring of form as a way to be more visually evocative (Cohen 102). One of the strongest examples of this fragmentation is “windows go orange in the slowly,”where the excessive spacing and breaking up of words into miniature fragments allows for a lot more depth to the poem. While he is a far more prolific poet than he is a painter, Cummings was talented as both, and the artists he studied to help develop his painting ultimately developed his poetry.
Reworking the Sonnet
For such an innovator, it is curious as to why E.E. Cummings was so fond of writing in sonnet form. Part of his greatness is in his versatility, as one second his poems look like a random array of unrelated letters and half-words, and the next, he is writing in the rhyme, meter, and structure of a sonnet. Resultantly, as is stated by Irene Fairley, when one reads Cummings, one must approach the “poem with the willingness to suspend customary attitudes and associations, and with them, linguistic conventions,” as even his sonnets, which follow regular meter, but utilize Cummings’ strange word-choices and vocabulary, capturing the inner workings of the mind of a “man-astride between tradition and innovation.” (Fairley 14).
One of Cummings’ more innovative sonnets is “when god lets my body be,” which is layered with syntactic idiosyncrasies and an underlying ebb and flow reflected through the syntax. The two main images of the poem are that of the sea and the heart, both of which beat constantly, the heart beating with each pulse and the waves beating against the shore. To bring this beating , these waves, into the poem, constructing “an elaborate metaphor” (Fairley 136), the poem is comprised of a couplet and three quatrains, and each quatrain is syntactically designed to oscillate like a wave. Irene Fairley elaborates upon what she calls an “inverted 4-3-2-1 order,” which essentially means that each quatrain, which Cummings condenses into two lines, consists of a “4 phrase,” an adverbial clause which makes up the first line, and then the second line contains a “3,” which precedes a predicate which is the “2,” and then a “1,” which is the subject of the “2” predicate. Looking at the first quatrain as an example we can see that once the syntactic design is explained, it makes pretty clear sense, and one can see the way that a wave-pattern is formed—the 4 is like the wave hitting the shore, and the 3, 2, and 1 mimic the rushing away of the wave back into the ocean. Fairley breaks down the first lines as such:
when god lets my body be
From each brave eye shall sprout a tree
3 2 1
Clearly, while Cummings was indeed a fan of traditional form, he was far from traditional in his employment of it, and was fond of creating innovative ways to rework the sonnet (Fairley 136-37).
[when god lets my body be]
when god lets my body be
From each brave eye shall sprout a tree
fruit that dangles therefrom
the purpled world will dance upon
Between my lips which did sing
a rose shall beget the spring
that maidens whom passion wastes
will lay between their little breasts
My strong fingers beneath the snow
Into strenuous birds shall go
my love walking in the grass
their wings will touch with her face
and all the while shall my heart be
With the bulge and nuzzle of the sea
[the trick of finding what you didn’t lose]
the trick of finding what you didn’t lose
(existing’s tricky: but to live’s a gift)
the teachable imposture of always
arriving at the place you never left
(and i refer to thinking)rests upon
a dismal misconception; namely that
some neither ape nor angel called a man
is measured by his quote eye cue unquote.
Much better than which, every woman who’s
(despite the ultramachinations of
some loveless infraworld)a woman knows;
and certain men quite possibly may have
shall we say guessed?”we shall” quoth gifted she:
and played the hostess to my morethanme
E.E. Cummings has gained fame, and infamy, based around the fact that some of his poetry is blatantly quite eccentric and weird. This can be traced back to Cummings’ aforementioned background as a painter, and his goal of forcing readers to react to his work before they began analyzing it. It is incredible how, on the surface, some of his writings can seem like complete gibberish, but upon further reading and observation, nuanced details begin to unfold, and the reader is granted the privilege of stepping inside Cummings’ mind. The poems “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r,” and “ygUDuh” are both undeniably strange, and there is a lot going on beneath the surface, but what really sticks out about these poems and makes them very representative of Cummings is the way they make the reader feel, the type of reactions that are had when fumbling through the eclectic form, capitalizations, dashes, and individual letters in what seems like a madman’s array all over the page. The reality of these poems is that Cummings had a purpose behind every minute detail—every letter of every line is intended to make the reader feel a certain way. “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r,” for example, conveys the feeling of a child attempting to capture a grasshopper. Cummings is known for dealing with what many thought were “cliche” topics, such as love and childhood, but his innovation here makes it blasphemous to call “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r” a cliche. “yguDUh,” on the other hand, looks like random key strokes on a type-writer at first, but actually deals with a serious topic and does an uncanny job mimicking the accent of a New York man discussing The Second World War. The reader can almost feel the presence of the man, envision him in detail, and Cummings makes it very easy to hear the voice of the man once the reader is able to decipher what “yguDUh” actually means. The whole poem could be loosely translated to “You gotta, you do, and you understand? You don’t know. You understand them? You gotta get—you understand them dirty—you gotta get rid of—you don’t know nothing. Listen, bud. Listen! Them god damn little yellow bastards…we’re going to civilize them.” This satirization of a New York man claiming that the Japanese need to be “civilized,” while he is speaking in an uneducated way—full of incomplete thoughts—is dripping with irony, much like most of Cummings’ poems that deal with race. Looking at the face value of these poems, it seems like they get noticed mainly for their novelty, but Cummings is taking on relevant subject matter—whether its childhood memories or current events. When reading Cummings, it is easy to lose appreciation for what lies beneath the zany appearance of his work, but it is paramount that readers recognize the genius of both this outward zaniness and the topics that Cummings addresses.
Buchanan Tal-Mason, Patricia. “The Whole E. E. Cummings.” Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 14 (Jul. 1968): 90-97
Coblentz, Stanton A. “He Is a Vicious Anti-Semite.” Esti, E.E.C.: E.E. Cummings and the Critics. Ed. S. V. Baum. East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 1962. 177-78.
Cohen, Milton A. Poet and Painter: The Aesthetics of E.E. Cummings’s Early Work. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1987.
Cummings, E. E., F. W. Dupee, and George Stade. Selected Letters of E. E. Cummings. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969. Print.
Cummings, E. E., and George James. Firmage. Complete Poems, 1904-1962. New York: Liveright, 1991. Print.
Dilworth, Thomas. “Cummings’ Buffalo Bill’s.” Explicator 53 (1995): 174-75.
Fairley, Irene R. E.E. Cummings and Ungrammar: A Study of Syntactic Deviance in His Poems. Searingtown, NY: Watermill, 1975.
Hyman, Stanley Edgar. Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time. New York: Horizon Pr, 1966.
Moore, Marianne. “People Stare Carefully.” Esti, E.E.C.: E.E. Cummings and the Critics. Ed. S. V. Baum. East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 1962. 31-33.
Williams, William C. “Artist Must Have Freedom.” Esti, E.E.C.: E.E. Cummings and the Critics. Ed. S. V. Baum. East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 1962. 181-82.