Cummings, E. E.
E. E. Cummings 1894-1962
(Full name Edward Estlin Cummings) American poet, prose writer, essayist, lecturer, and playwright.
The following entry presents criticism on Cummings's works from 1971 through 1995. See also E. E. Cummings Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 8.
Cummings's innovative and controversial verse places him among the most popular and widely anthologized poets of the twentieth century. Cummings's work celebrates the individual, as well as erotic and familial love. Conformity, mass psychology, and snobbery were frequent targets of his humorous and sometimes scathing satires. Additionally, his fictionalized memoir of his service in World War I, The Enormous Room (1922), and his experimental plays, especially Him (1927), have earned him a reputation as a leading writer of the modernist period in American literature.
Cummings grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his father was a sociology professor at Harvard and a noted Unitarian clergyman. Demonstrating a strong interest in poetry and art from an early age, Cummings enjoyed the full support and encouragement of his parents. He attended Harvard from 1911 to 1915, studying literature and writing daily. He eventually joined the editorial board of the Harvard Monthly, a college literary magazine, where he worked with his close friends S. Foster Damon and John Dos Passos. In his senior year he became fascinated with avant-garde art, modernism, and cubism, an interest reflected in his graduation dissertation, “The New Art.” In this paper, Cummings extolled modernism as practiced by Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, and Pablo Picasso. He also began incorporating elements of these styles into his own poetry and paintings. His first published poems appeared in the anthology Eight Harvard Poets in 1917. These pieces feature experimental verse forms and the lowercase personal pronoun “i” (symbolizing both the humbleness and the uniqueness of the individual) that became his trademark. The copyeditor of the book, however, mistook Cummings's intentions as typographical errors and made “corrections.” That same year, Cummings moved to New York and was employed very briefly at a mail-order book company, and soon began working full-time on his poetry and art. With World War I raging in Europe, he volunteered for the French-based Norton-Harjes Ambulance Service. He spent time in Paris upon his arrival and was completely charmed by the city's bohemian atmosphere and abundance of art and artists. He was particularly impressed by the sketches of Pablo Picasso, whose cubist techniques later helped shape much of Cummings’s work. Because of a misunderstanding, Cummings spent four months in an internment camp in Normandy on suspicion of treason, an experience documented in his prose work The Enormous Room. Making use of his contacts in government, Cummings's father was able to secure his son's release. Cummings was drafted shortly after he returned to New York in 1918 and spent about a year at Camp Danvers, Massachusetts. During the 1920s and 1930s he traveled widely in Europe, alternately living in Paris and New York, and developed parallel careers as a poet and painter. Politically liberal and with leftist leanings, Cummings visited the Soviet Union in 1931 in order to find out how the system of government subsidy for art functioned there. Eimi (1933), an expanded version of his travel diary, expresses his profound disappointment in its indictment of the regimentation and lack of personal and artistic freedom he encountered. From that time, Cummings abandoned his liberal political views and social circle and became an embittered, reactionary conservative on social and political issues. He continued to write prolifically and received the Shelley Memorial Award for poetry in 1944, the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship at Harvard for the academic year 1952-53, and the Bollingen Prize for Poetry in 1958. Cummings reached the height of his popularity during the 1940s and 1950s, giving poetry readings to college audiences across the United States until his death in 1962.
Cummings's first book, The Enormous Room, is a novel/memoir based on his experiences in the French internment camp; it concerns the preservation of dignity in a degrading and dehumanizing situation. This work, widely considered a classic of World War I literature, introduced themes that Cummings would pursue throughout his career: the individual against society, against government, and against all forms of authority. Cummings used both French and English to create a witty, satirical voice that lampoons the war itself as well as military bureaucracy. All of Cummings's poetry attests to the author's never-ending search for fresh metaphors and new means of expression through creative placement of words on the page, new word constructions, and unusual punctuation and capitalization. He originally intended to publish his first collection as Tulips & Chimneys, but was forced to publish the poems from the original manuscript as three separate volumes: Tulips and Chimneys (1923), XLI Poems (1925), and & (1925). The “tulips” of the first volume are free-verse lyric poems that present a nostalgic glance at his childhood. The poem “in Just-” celebrates youth in playful, imaginative and creative contractions—“mud- / luscious” and “puddle-wonderful,” for example, while the poem “O sweet spontaneous” revels in nature that can only be appreciated fully through the senses rather than through science, philosophy, or religion. The “chimneys” are a sustained sonnet sequence that identifies the hypocrisy, narrow-mindedness, and stagnation Cummings saw in the society around him. The sequence includes the well-known poem “the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls”—women who, according to Cummings, “are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds.” The poems excised from the original manuscript that were later collected in XLI Poems and & are generally more erotic in content. The thematic concerns of these first three volumes of verse are repeated in Is 5 (1926), in which the author also included satiric and anti-war pieces, notably “my sweet old etcetera” and “i sing of Olaf glad and big,” a poem about the death of a conscientious objector. W: ViVa (1931) contains sonnets and other poems attacking conservative and uncreative thinking. Along with his barbs at society, Cummings also composed such lyrical poems as “somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond,” in which he extolled love, nature, the mystery of faith, individualism, and imaginative freedom. The collection No Thanks (1935), written in response to his trip to the Soviet Union, treats the theme of artistic freedom in an especially powerful manner. 50 Poems (1940) contains such popular pieces as “anyone lived in a pretty how town” and an elegy to his father, “my father moved through dooms of love.” 1 × 1 (1944) solidified Cummings's reputation as one of America's premier poets. It presents a more optimistic, life-affirming viewpoint than do the poems written during Cummings's period of personal and political disaffection in the 1930s. Structured in a pattern of darkness moving toward light, the collection begins with poems that denigrate businessmen and politicians and ends with poems praising nature and love. In his late verse—XAIPE: Seventy-One Poems (1950), 95 Poems (1958), and the posthumously published 73 Poems (1963)—Cummings effected a softer, more elegiac note, recalling his early affinity for New England Transcendentalism and English Romanticism. In addition to his poetry, Cummings is also known for his play Him (1927), which consists of a sequence of skits drawing from burlesque, the circus, and the avant-garde, and jumps quickly from tragedy to grotesque comedy. The male character is named Him; the female character is Me. “The play begins,” Harold Clurman wrote in Nation, “as a series of feverish images of a girl undergoing anaesthesia during an abortion. She is ‘me,’ who thinks of her lover as ‘him.’” In the program to the play, staged at the Provincetown Playhouse, Cummings provided a warning to the audience: “Relax and give the play a chance to strut its stuff—relax, stop wondering what it's all ‘about’— like many strange and familiar things, Life included, this Play isn't ‘about,’ it simply is. Don't try to enjoy it, let it try to enjoy you. DON'T TRY TO UNDERSTAND IT, LET IT TRY TO UNDERSTAND YOU.” In 1952-53 Harvard University honored its distinguished alumnus by asking Cummings to deliver the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures. Published as i: six nonlectures (1953), the work is Cummings’s only attempt at formal artistic autobiography. In the lectures Cummings noted that perhaps fifteen of his poems were faithful expressions of his stance as an artist and man.
Critical opinion of Cummings's poems is markedly divided. Beginning with Tulips and Chimneys, reviewers described Cummings's style as eccentric and self-indulgent, designed to call attention to itself rather than to elucidate themes. Some critics also objected to Cummings's explicit treatment of sexuality, while others labeled his depictions of society's hypocrisy and banality elitist. When his Collected Poems was published in 1938, Cummings's sharp satires caused some reviewers to call him a misanthrope. His later, more conservative poetry came under attack for anti-Semitism, a charge that is still debated. Critics have noted, too, that Cummings's style did not change or develop much throughout his career. Some commentators speculate that Cummings early found a style that suited him and simply continued on with it; others, however, have faulted him for insufficient artistic growth. A group of scholars posited that Cummings's verbal pyrotechnics and idiosyncratic arrangement of text actually draw readers' attention from the poetry itself. More recently, however, literary critics have studied Cummings’s poems from a structural viewpoint, considering his visual forms to be integral to the meaning of the poems.
The Enormous Room (prose) 1922
Tulips and Chimneys (poetry) 1923
& (poetry) 1925
XLI Poems (poetry) 1925
Is 5 (poetry) 1926
Him (play) 1927
W: ViVa (poetry) 1931
Eimi (travel diary) 1933
No Thanks (poetry) 1935
Collected Poems (poetry) 1938
50 Poems (poetry) 1940
1 × 1 (poetry) 1944
Santa Clause—A Morality (play) 1946
XAIPE: Seventy-One Poems (poetry) 1950
i: six nonlectures (lectures) 1953
Poems 1923–1954 (poetry) 1954
95 Poems (poetry) 1958
73 Poems (poetry) 1963
Selected Letters of E. E. Cummings (letters) 1969
The Complete Poems 1910-1912 (poetry) 1981
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SOURCE: Mullen, Patrick B. “E. E. Cummings and Popular Culture.” In Critical Essays on E. E. Cummings, edited by Guy Rotella, pp. 202-14. Boston: G. K. Hall and Company, 1984.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1971, Mullen examines Cummings’s interest in and writings on American popular culture, particularly the art of burlesque.]
It is generally overlooked that E. E. Cummings had an avid interest in various forms of American popular culture, especially burlesque, circuses, amusement parks, comic strips, animated cartoons, and movies. During the 1920's and 1930's, Cummings wrote many essays on mass culture which appeared in popular magazines such as Vanity Fair and journals of the arts such as Stage and Cinema. In these articles and in some of his other prose, Cummings reveals a great deal about his own concepts of art and poetry, and also provides some penetrating insights into American culture as manifested in popular entertainment. To Cummings, burlesque and the other popular arts were alive with a spontaneous, unrehearsed quality. He wanted to capture the same quality of spontaneity in his poetry, both in content and technique. In a limited way, Cummings wrote about popular culture of the 1920's-1930's much the same as Tom Wolfe was writing about it in the 1960's. Cummings was one of the few writers of his day to deal with mass entertainment, and his fondness...
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SOURCE: Thompson, William E. “Intensity: An Essential Element in e. e. cummings’ Aesthetic Theory and Practice.” University of Windsor Review 16, no. 2 (spring-summer 1982): 18-33.
[In the following essay, Thompson discusses Cummings’s attempt to compress images and words as tightly and succinctly as possible to affect the strongest intensity of feeling upon the reader.]
Intensity was a cornerstone in cummings' vision and a primary element in his aesthetic theory throughout his career. In his Dial review of T. S. Eliot's Poems (June 1920), cummings stressed that “every [Eliot] poem impresses us with an overwhelming sense of technique.”1 In a 1925 review, cummings used the circus as a metaphor for his idea of what Art should be. At the circus, the spectator/reader is continually amazed by the “unbelievably skilful and inexorably beautiful and unimaginably dangerous things” which are “continually happening” in the circus poem. There should always be such an intense experience happening in the tent or on the poetic stage that the spectator/reader “feels that there is a little too much going on at any given moment.”
“Intensity” for cummings includes many critical elements, one of which is “compression.” Cummings selected every word in each writing with care, attempting to place exactly the right word in exactly the right place on the...
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SOURCE: Cohen, Milton A. “Cummings and Freud.” American Literature 55, no. 4 (December 1983): 591-610.
[In the following essay, Cohen addresses the influence of Freud on Cummings’s early aesthetic and technique.]
when I see you I shall expect you to be conversant with two books: The Interpretation of Dreams, and WIT and the Unconscious. Both are by FREUD. GET WISE TO YOURSELF!!1
So wrote E. E. Cummings to his younger sister Elizabeth in May 1922. In some ways, Cummings' enthusiasm for Freud was very much a part of its time: a post-war Modernist in the arts could scarcely resist Freudian theory as the concomitant “modernism” of psychology. As Frederick Hoffman has shown in Freudianism and the Literary Mind, Freud's theories were readily available in America by 1915 and were eagerly snapped up by Greenwich Village intellectuals, among whose ranks was E. E. Cummings.
But Freud's meaning to these bohemians was distorted by their desire to repudiate bourgeois morality and to adopt sexual mores free of “Puritanical” repression. As Hoffman observes, “Freud did not bring about this revolution in sex morality. The revolution simply drew upon him … as a means of justifying its opinions and acts.”2 Cummings fits this pattern rather closely. He too felt Freudian theory would remove the sexual...
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SOURCE: Friedman, Norman. “Epiphanies Are Hard to Come By: Cummings’ Uneasy Mask and the Divided Audience.” In (Re)Valuing Cummings: Further Essays on the Poet, 1962-1993, pp. 83-98. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1983, Friedman reviews E. E. Cummings: The Critical Reception, finding the collection of early reviews of Cummings’s work helpful in gaining insight into the opinions of Cummings’s lesser-known contemporaries.]
This book [E. E. Cummings: The Critical Reception] continues the production of scholarly aids to the study of Cummings—which includes Firmage's bibliography and his edition of Cummings' essays, Dupee and Stade's edition of Cummings' letters, Rotella's bibliography of secondary criticism, and Kennedy's biography—and as such is a welcome addition, enabling us, as these other contributions do, to place the published oeuvre in a broader and deeper perspective. The present volume gives a full sampling of the reviews of Cummings' books in the order of publication, shows “what his contemporaries thought of him,” and contributes to that chapter of literary history covered by the poet's life.
Here we have a representative collection of reviews of Cummings' books during his lifetime—from The Enormous Room in 1922 to 95 Poems in 1958....
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SOURCE: Pagnini, Marcello. “The Case of Cummings.” Poetics Today 6, no. 3 (1985): 357-73.
[In the following essay, Pagnini argues that Cummings’s poetry was strongly influenced by Russian futurism.]
References to E. E. Cummings's relationship with the early twentieth-century avant-garde are usually rather hurried, and limited to suggesting that the poet felt the influence of Symbolist techniques (absolute metaphor), of Ezra Pound's Rispostes (1912), and perhaps of the linguistic experimentalism of Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons (1914); or alternatively, that he owed much to the Dada and Surrealist movements; or again that he was influenced by the lesson of the Cubists, with regard both to the fragmentation of form and to the use of ugly realistic elements that were traditionally considered unpoetic. Futurism is never mentioned: there is at most some passing reference to Apollinaire's Calligrammes. And yet the most superficial glance at Cummings's singular poetic production, from his earliest publications onwards, will be sufficient to gain the precise impression of an experience analogous to that of the manifestos of Marinetti, and above all to that of the far more important period of Russian Cubofuturism. The reasons for the lack of interest in this question are, I believe, of a strictly positivistic nature. Not only did Cummings never speak of such influences, but he often...
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SOURCE: Kennedy, Richard S. “Tulips, Chimneys, &.” In E. E. Cummings Revisited, pp. 53-67. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.
[In the following excerpted essay, Kennedy considers the significance to his career of Cummings’s original version of Tulips & Chimneys.]
Sometime in 1919 Cummings had assembled a hefty manuscript of poems entitled “Tulips & Chimneys,” which he gave to his friend Stewart Mitchell, the managing editor of the Dial, asking him to help find a publisher. Mitchell tried six publishing houses without success. Cummings then removed some of the poems that an editor might find either unpoetic or obscene, rearranged their order, and tried again in 1922, through John Dos Passos, to find a home for his wayweary volume. This 1922 collection of 152 poems eventually saw publication, but not all at once. Dos Passos managed to persuade Thomas Seltzer to publish a selection of sixty-six of the poems under the title Tulips and Chimneys in 1923. (Cummings was furious that Seltzer did not use the ampersand in the title.) Lincoln MacVeagh of the Dial Press made another selection from what was left over and published XLI Poems in 1925. What the two editors avoided were the most experimental as well as the most sexually daring of the poems. Cummings was thus reduced to venturing a private publication with the items that remained, to whose company he restored some...
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SOURCE: Kennedy, Richard S. “Jeers, Cheers, and Aspirations.” In E. E. Cummings Revisited, pp. 68-83. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.
[In the following excerpted essay, Kennedy examines Cummings's writing during a particularly difficult period in the 1920s.]
In the midst of his efforts to publish between 1922 and 1925 Cummings faced personal problems of such gravity that they brought about a change in his personality. It all began in 1918 when he fell in love with Elaine Thayer, the wife of his best friend. The Thayer marriage of 1916 had been in trouble for some time, a situation made clear by the fact that the couple now lived in separate apartments on different sides of Washington Square in Greenwich Village. Moreover, Scofield needed to be in Chicago for long periods of time before the Dial headquarters moved to New York, and when he traveled he left his wife behind. Out of genuine affection for her, Cummings, Brown, Dos Passos, and other friends frequently spent time with her when her husband was away. Soon a love affair developed between Cummings and the lonely Elaine. Even so he and Scofield remained good friends after Scofield returned to New York permanently. Further complications arose when Elaine became pregnant with Cummings' child and, unwilling to have an abortion, she gave birth to a baby girl in December 1919 while still married to Thayer, who then took on the role of...
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SOURCE: Docherty, Brian. “e. e. cummings.” In American Poetry: The Modernist Ideal, edited by Clive Bloom and Brian Docherty, pp. 120-30. Houndmills and London: Macmillan, 1995.
[In the following essay, Docherty discusses the paradox of modernism and traditionalism in Cummings’s poetry.]
e. e. cummings is at once the most modern of traditionalists and the most traditional of Modernists. This ironic paradox runs through both his life and his poetry. Born in 1894 to a family of impeccably New England Puritan stock, his life as a writer was to some extent a negation of his background. Like Ezra Pound, cummings never held a ‘normal’ job, but lived true to his principles, devoted to his art even at the expense of so-called material success. His father was both an academic, who became America's first Professor of Sociology, and a Unitarian minister at Boston's fashionable Back Bay Church. Two conspicuous features of cummings's work are a hatred of rationalising intellectual types and a virtual absence of orthodox Christian faith, Puritan or otherwise. This is not to imply that he was in any way estranged from his family. It was his father who secured his release from a French prison in 1917 (this adventure is related in The Enormous Room), and there are some beautiful poems to his parents, obviously written out of a deep love, notably ‘my father moved through dooms of love’. (Most of...
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SOURCE: Webster, Michael. “E. E. Cummings: Romantic Ideology and Technique.” In Reading Visual Poetry after Futurism: Marinetti, Apollinaire, Schwitters, Cummings, pp. 111-40. New York: Peter Lang, 1995.
[In the following essay, Webster examines the effect of Cummings's typographical experimentation on his Romantic themes.]
Like the burlesk comedian, I am abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement.
—E. E. C. (CP [The Complete Poems] 223)
A “simultaneity of the radically disparate” describes the poetry of E. E. Cummings (1894-1962) rather well. Critics have long been puzzled by the simultaneous presence in his poetry of romantic sentiments and experimental typography. Early critics like R. P. Blackmur often deplored the romanticism (calling it “incorrigibly sentimental”) while they ignored or suppressed the typographical “peculiarities.” The following is from Blackmur's 1930 essay, “Notes on E. E. Cummings' Language:”
… extensive consideration of these peculiarities today has very little importance, carries almost no reference to the meaning of the poems. … At present the practice can only be “allowed for,” recognized in the particular instance, felt, and forgotten: as the diacritical marks in the dictionary are forgotten once the...
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Cohen, Milton A. “Perception: Seeing the Whole Surface.” In Poet and Painter: The Aesthetics of E. E. Cummings' s Early Work, pp. 85-115. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987.
Discusses Cummings’s early interest in the science of perception and its influence on his literary and artistic aesthetic.
Cureton, Richard D. “Visual Form in e. e. cummings’ No Thanks.” Word and Image: A Journal of Verbal Visual Enquiry (July-September 1986): 245-77.
Explores the meaning and significance of Cummings’s visual form in his most experimental volume of poetry.
Kennedy, Richard S. “The Emergent Styles.” In Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E. E. Cummings, pp. 115-32. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1980.
Explores the period of time when Cummings developed and refined the styles for which he would later become noted.
Miller, Lewis H., Jr. “Advertising in Poetry: A Reading of E. E. Cummings’ ‘Poem, or Beauty Hurts Mr Vinal’.” Word and Image: A Journal of Verbal Visual Enquiry 2, no. 4 (October-December 1986): 349-62.
Analyzes and explains the allusions to advertisements in “Poem, or Beauty Hurts Mr Vinal.”
Additional coverage of Cummings’s life and career is contained in the...
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