Cummings, E(dward) E(stlin) 1894–1962
An American poet, Cummings wrote innovative poems which could be lyrical or satirical. He also wrote fiction, plays, and essays.
[Cummings's] books are all exactly alike, and one is faced with evaluating Cummings as a poet, using the current text [95 Poems] simply as a hitherto unavailable source of quotations. Let me make my own position clear right away. I think that Cummings is a daringly original poet, with more virility and more sheer, uncompromising talent than any other living American writer. I cannot and would not want to deny, either, that he dilutes even the finest of his work with writing that is hardly more than the defiant playing of a child, though the fact that he does this with the superb arrogance of genius has always seemed to me among the most attractive of his qualities. I love Cummings's verse, even a great deal of it that is not lovable or even respectable, but it is also true that I am frequently and thoroughly bored by its continuous attitudinizing and its dogmatic preaching. I have often felt that there must be something hiddenly wrong with his cult of spontaneity and individuality, that these attributes have to be insisted upon to the extent to which Cummings insists on them. I feel, also, that "love" and the other well-known emotions that Cummings tirelessly espouses are being imposed on me categorically, and that I stand in some danger of being shot if I do not, just at that moment, wish to love someone or pick a rose or lean against a tree watching the snowflakes come down….
Cummings has felt the need, and followed it, of developing absolutely in his own way, of keeping himself and his writing whole, preferring to harbor his most grievous and obvious faults quite as if they were part and parcel of his most original and valuable impulses which perhaps they are…. His excesses are, most certainly, enormous, as one feels they should be in a genuine poet. Cummings is without question one of the most insistent and occasionally one of the most successful users of pathetic fallacy in the history of the written word. He is one of the most blatant sentimentalists, one of the most absurdly and grandly overemotional of poets, one of the flimsiest thinkers, and one of the truly irreplaceable sensibilities that we have known, with the blind, irresistible devotion to his exact perceptions, to his way of knowing and doing, and to his personal and incorruptible relation to the English language that an authentic poet must have. Immediacy and intensity are Cummings's twin gods…. Whether or not successful in every instance, all of Cummings's skill, so special to himself that we cannot imagine anyone else making use of it, has gone to establish and consecrate the moments….
He is so strongly of a piece that the commentator feels ashamed and even a little guilty in picking out flaws, as though he were asked to call attention to the aesthetic defects in a rose. It is better to say what must finally be said about Cummings: that he has helped to give life to the language…. Cummings belongs in the class of poets who have done this, not by virtue of his tinkering with typography, but because of his superior insight into the fleeting and external moments of existence: not because of words broken up into syllables and strewn carefully about the page, but because of right words with other right words….
James Dickey, "E. E. Cummings" (1959), in his Babel to Byzantium (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by James Dickey), Farrar, Straus, 1968, pp. 100-06.
Cummings's great forte is the manipulation of traditional forms and attitudes in an original way. 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….
The truth about Cummings seems to be that he reveals an enormous talent within a quite narrow range of thought and sympathy, much of it adolescent and poseur-ish. He was not put upon this earth to publish enormous Gesammelte Werke but to issue forth little sheaves, each of them containing a few poems of astounding sensuous vitality, some intransigent jeers and shockers against a repressed, wartormented, 'progress'-ridden civilization, various visual aids to verbal explosion, and two or three poems like 'who's most afraid.' His main triumphs have been in these modes, and have included a large proportion of pieces that are pure prestidigitation or in the spirit of the comic strip Krazy Kat (often extolled by Cummings) or of old-time burlesque. His lapses into sentimentality and some of his pettier political and racial satires show how easily a great natural ability and real poetic temperament can be used for self-defeatingly trivial ends. His prose works, especially The Enormous Room and parts of Eimi, are further evidence of the distance the poetic gift can carry a man with no great weight of intellect to burden him (or give him ballast either) as he goes. Yet it may have been just this combination of endowment and ordinariness that has made his achievement what it is. The chief effect of Cummings's jugglery with syntax, grammar, and diction was to blow open otherwise trite and bathetic motifs through a dynamic rediscovery of the energies sealed up in conventional usage. Though in some important way such success depends on the writer's sharing the assumptions he thus reopens, there is little question he succeeded masterfully in splitting the atom of the cute commonplace.
M. L. Rosenthal, in his The Modern Poets: A Critical Introduction (© 1960 by M.L. Rosenthal; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1960, pp. 149-52.
[E. E.] Cummings belongs with Coleridge and the Romantic tradition in seeing the natural order as superior to man-made orders. He, like Coleridge, views nature as process rather than product, as dynamic rather than static, as organic rather than artificial, and as becoming rather than being. And he, like Coleridge, believes that the intuitive or imaginative faculty in man can perceive this natura naturans directly, and so he is a transcendentalist. Specifically, he believes there is a world of awareness—the true world—which is outside of, above, and beyond the ordinary world of everyday perception. The ordinary world is a world of habit, routine, and abstract categories, and hence lies like a distorting film over the true world of spontaneity, surprise, and concrete life. (p. 5)
In being unconventional, Cummings is not being antiliterary. He was an educated man, and spoke with pride of his Latin and Greek. It is equally mistaken to be surprised at the catholicity and traditionalism of his literary tastes as it is to be amazed that a naughty-boy satirist can be a cavalier love lyrist. These are contradictions only to those who have tried to put Cummings in too narrow a category to begin with.
But his technical innovations are many and spectacular. Not anarchistic flauntings of sense, they are best understood as various ways of stripping the film of familiarity from language in order to strip the film of familiarity from the world. Transform the word, he seems to have felt, and you are on the way to transforming the world. (pp. 12-13)
[Any] experimenter by definition takes more chances than the ordinary writer: so long as he wins more often than he loses, his failures are worthwhile. This Cummings has done—and more. When he wins, he wins like no one else: his best poems are of such a miraculous purity, so precise a feeling, so fresh a vision, that he can be forgiven his losses. His growth represents not so much the perfection and abandonment of one device after another as the gradual discovery and mastery of a group of devices. (p. 15)
Norman Friedman, E. E. Cummings: The Growth of a Writer (© 1964 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press; "Crosscurrents/Modern Critiques" Series), Southern Illinois University Press, 1964.
Cummings' lifelong belief was a simple faith in the miracle of man's individuality. Much of his literary effort was directed against what he considered the principal enemies of this individuality—mass thought, group conformity, and commercialism…. Cummings' unorthodox poetic style was in itself an expression of his individuality. Often his poems were recklessly strewn with out-of-order syllables, letters, and punctuation marks. He rarely used capital letters and until the mid-1930's preferred his own name to be written in lower case (e.e. cummings).
His poetry contained a wild variety of poetic rhythms—lines that crept, leaped, staggered, paced proudly, or flowed smoothly….
Because he sought out the reader's interest, Cummings for a long time had the reputation of a superficial writer bent merely on shocking the complacency of his readers. Although this was partly the case, it should not obscure his profounder merits. True, he experimented with new forms, unconventional typographical arrangements, oddities of spelling and punctuation, and both technical and wildly impolite language, but the reader who turns a second or third time to his poems discovers that most of his innovations possess a genuine poetic content.
Cummings' strange typography and punctuation, for example, effectively reinforced or amplified not only his poem's rhythmical structure but also its innermost meaning. His poetic technique was a direct consequence of his point of view—that of an individualist and an enemy of restriction and regimentation.
In one of his "non-lectures" at Harvard he said: "So far as I am concerned, poetry and every other art was, is, and forever will be strictly and distinctly a question of individuality."
Bernard Dekle, "E. E. Cummings: Poet, Individualist," in his Profiles of Modern American Authors, Charles E. Tuttle, 1969, pp. 96-101.