Cummings, E(dward) E(stlin) 1894–1962
Cummings, an American poet, playwright, essayist, and novelist, was one of the most innovative poets of his time. Avoiding highly intellectual concerns, Cummings's poems were often deliberately simplistic. Cummings's poetry is noted for its innovative handling of grammar, punctuation, and typography. Some of Cummings's best known works are The Enormous Room, The Balloon Man, and Fifty Poems. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76.)
In the 1920s Cummings was known as a conspicuous member of the avant-garde, an arch-experimentalist, a modernist, and a bohemian. The New Criticism, which was just beginning to germinate in the writings of T. E. Hulme, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and I. A. Richards, had not yet noticed any serious discrepancy between its own principles and the writings of Cummings. The real hostility he aroused was among the antimodernists … and, in later decades, critics such as John Sparrow and Ivor Winters—men who were attacking Pound and Eliot as well. There is no real problem here, for, while it cannot be said that the critics, favorable or otherwise, really understood what Cummings was about, neither can it be said that he himself had altogether found his way. It was suspected—and it was probably partly the case at the time—that he was a poet of sensations rather than of thoughts, and this notion has continued to haunt his reputation ever since, despite the obvious truth that he did in fact develop a vision of life as he matured. (pp. 1-2)
Although Cummings is no mere "romantic" love poet and has written some of the most effective poems about sex in the language, the fact remains that he does not always depict the worm within the rose, the skull beneath the skin. His characteristic love poems are based on a single wholeness of feeling—praise, reverence, joy, passion, devotion—rather than upon the mixed feelings favored by the New Criticism. He is perfectly aware that his lady is mortal, that she sweats, and that she performs the natural functions, but he prefers to go beyond that awareness toward moments of affirmation. If we compare his "somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond" [in Poems 1923–1954] to Auden's "Lay your sleeping head, my love," we find that Cummings' emotion is not "qualified"—but that does not mean that it is sentimental. His singleness comes not from exclusion, but rather from transcendence, which is a different thing altogether.
When it comes to the means by which such an emotion is embodied—structure, technique, style—Cummings is indeed an innovator and, as such, is in line with the predispositions of contemporary critics. Although he is more traditional than he often seems at first glance, he was never content to rest easily within inherited conventions. Here again, instead of favoring the more usual devices of the modernists—juxtaposition, self-mockery, reflexive meanings, complex symbols, learned allusions—Cummings went on to develop many of his own. Thus he juxtaposes words and parts of words instead of images, anecdotes, and incidents, and his chief structural invention is typographical—or perhaps linguistic—rather than compositional. He distorts grammar and syntax by changing word order and parts of speech instead of exploiting the many levels of meaning in the connotations of words.
He aims at simultaneity and instantaneousness, then, rather than at irony and ambiguity; at reawakening encapsulated meanings rather than at multiplying them. He often writes lyrics that are truly lyrical—poems that are, in the best sense, like songs—for he aims at joyfulness rather than at meditativeness, and the result is more musical and melodious, while at the same time authentic, than any love poetry since the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
On the other side, of course, there is hate. It would be hard to find satires as barbed and brilliant as his after the eighteenth century, for there is exuberance and joy too in Cummings' hate, and with a few exceptions his...
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"For more than half a hundred years," wrote E. E. Cummings in 1954, "the oversigned's twin obsessions have been painting and writing." (p. 342)
[Recent exhibitions of Cummings' art], along with an increasing number of scholarly and journalistic pieces on his art, have made several things clear. First, Cummings was entirely self-taught…. Second, he treated his art as profession rather than avocation: he set himself, especially in his early years, to solve problems of composition and color in his canvases, he regularly sought opportunities to exhibit, and he earned some much-needed funds by selling work to The Dial. Third, he was drawn to theorize extensively, in his private and largely unpublished notes, on the practice and the aesthetics of the visual arts, ranging in his studies from detailed self-instruction in human anatomy to esoteric investigations into color relationships. Fourth, he constantly probed into the parallels among painting, literature, and music, challenging himself to adapt into literature the principles of the other arts.
This fourth point is of central importance for students of his poetry and for those concerned with the relationships between literature and the other arts…. For Cummings, it seems, not only thought and heard his poems but saw them as well. Not surprisingly, his best poems tend to be short, of a length readily contained on a single page and easily "seen" in a single glance. In dealing with publishers, in fact, he sometimes referred to his work in visual terms, on one occasion writing his editor that "what I care infinitely is that each poempicture should remain intact. Why? Possibly because, with a few exceptions, my poems are essentially pictures." (pp. 344, 353)
[There] are distinct stylistic relationships between Cummings' paintings and his poetry, and an understanding of them can help us to a sounder sense of his work. (p. 354)
Perhaps it will be most useful to begin with a poem and a painting between which there is an evident connection in subject matter. The poem is "Paris; this April sunset completely utters."… (pp. 354-55)
The poem appeared in the section of & subtitled "Post Impressions," which may suggest that it was done "after" the manner of Impressionist painting, or perhaps in the style of Post-Impressionism. Like such paintings, it is of a specific place (Paris) and time (April evening). It deals, as Impressionism does, with colors ("rose," "cobalt," "mauve," "silver"); it provides detail about shape and movement ("upward," "lean," "spiral," "descends"); it centers upon objects which, although generalized, are nonetheless recognizable commonplaces ("cathedral," "streets," "people," "houses"); and it calls attention to the atmosphere ("rain," "mauve / of twilight," "gently / arriving gloom") as something affecting visual impressions. Its argument—although that is too strong a word for such an essentially imagistic method—is that night is superseding twilight. In the increasing darkness the forms, losing their clearly perceived outlines, are becoming progressively more personified. This dissolving of shape because of the impact or absence of light was a phenomenon much studied by the Impressionists and their followers. Taking their lead, Cummings suggests this dissolving by a dissolution of rigid metrical structure. The first three lines, although more than decasyllabic, are in pentameter. Thereafter the meter, while touching on trimeter and tetrameter for a few more lines, abandons itself to free verse.
It would, however, be unwise to assume that Cummings' intention here was to write a verbal equivalent of a visual image. In fact, the poem goes beyond visual description, articulating ideas which are outside the reach of the painter…. The poem, then, can hardly be called a simple translation of visual into literary devices. It is much more accurately viewed as a piece of literature which draws something of its subject and imagery, and one of its strategies (dissolution of form), from the visual arts.
The painting which most readily suggests this poem is an oil of Paris rooftops done in 1933 [Paris Roofs with Sunset]…. Is is a general view across the city with a cathedral in the distance. Compositionally the piece is not without merit: the balustrade of a balcony in the foreground, set at an angle to the horizon, leads the eye into the painting and parallels the general line of clouds angling downward to the setting sun. The colors, too, are somewhat balanced, with the mass of red rooftops at the lower left balanced by the reddish-purple clouds in the opposite corner. But the buildings themselves, while sketched with some attention to detail, are really rather uninteresting: the light is undirectional, and no shadows break the humdrum recording of the forms. The sky, by contrast, is commanding, as the yellow sun (seen low on the horizon over the shoulder of the cathedral) lights up the clouds with what does indeed, in the language of the poem, suggest "spiral acres" of "coiled" color. Here, after all, is where Cummings' heart is; like Monet's waterlilies and Cézanne's mountains, Cummings' sunsets were to become a preoccupation in his later paintings as well as in some later poems.
Aside from this similarity of place and time, however, the painting and poem are hardly parallel. The movement of the poem from dusk to evening, the image of moon and stars, the allusions to beggars and lovers and prostitutes, and even the general tenor of Impressionist "atmosphere" all drop away in the painting, which, focusing on the sky, makes of central importance something which in the poem was only a few lines of description. Whether or not Cummings had the poem in mind as he painted the scene is immaterial. What is significant is the difference between these two treatments of a common scene. The painting simply represents a landscape, thereby doing what has long been thought proper to paintings. The poem reaches out to incorporate ideas and attitudes from painting; yet, in compelling the visual stuff to subserve literary ends, it becomes more than a mere description of a painting. The painting presents an image. The poem presents a sequence of images suffused with extra-visual attributes. Cummings, it seems, knew that he had two different media on his hands; rather than using them for the same ends, he respected their differences and employed them, even with common subjects, in different ways.
Common subject matter, then, is no guarantee of stylistic relationship. If an individual subject is engaging enough, however, it may determine in the artist's thought a particular mental set that even in different media produces similar results. Such is the case with the painting of burlesque...
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At the heart of E. E. Cummings' most characteristic work is a keen sense of the mystery and miracle of life. But this American poet has a great deal to say about death as well, not only in the lyrics, but also in a morality play [Santa Claus] in which Death is one of the leading characters…. [Cummings'] concept of death is many-sided, manifesting itself in widely varying contexts and under differing lights. For example, death may be shown to have positive value as an experience that is natural to and inseparable from the ongoing process of life. Considered in this vital sense the concept is, in this paper, designated by the verbal form, "dying." On the other hand, death may be revealed as a negative,...
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It is important to recognize … that the spatial arrangements of [Cummings'] poems are the work neither of a whimsical fancy nor a lust for novelty. Poetry and visual art grew, in Cummings' mind, from one root; and while their outermost branches are distinct enough, there are many places closer to the trunk where it is hard to know which impulse accounts for a piece of work. Throughout his life he labored to articulate, in his essays and especially in his unpublished notes and journals, the relationship between literature and the visual arts. A number of his poems, too, deal verbally with visual ideas—not only with transcriptions of visual patterns (a common enough phenomenon in poetry) but with attempts to...
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