(E)dward (E)stlin Cummings was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, near Harvard University. His father taught sociology at the university before leaving it to become a Unitarian minister. The young Cummings’s playmates included the children of other Harvard professors. Cummings later obtained both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Harvard, and his studies there gave him a solid grounding in English and classical literature as well as an understanding of language, all of which proved invaluable to him as a poet.
Just as he rebelled against the traditions of English literature, Cummings rebelled against Cambridge and Harvard, distancing himself from the academic milieu and, except for a brief period as a visiting professor at his alma mater, never again living in Cambridge after 1918. He found himself more at home in bohemian surroundings, including Paris, France, where he often visited, and Greenwich Village in New York City, where he lived for most of the last forty-five years of his life.
Unlike many poets, Cummings was encouraged to devote himself to poetry by his parents, especially his mother, who recorded his first rhyme when he was three and helped him start a diary at the age of six. Over the next few years, Cummings wrote many stories and verses, and by the age of fifteen he was writing one poem per day. He published poems and stories in his high school magazine and at Harvard contributed to the university’s two literary periodicals. Through his literary acquaintances at Harvard, he was introduced to the latest developments in various arts, from Cubism in painting to the musical innovations of Erik Satie and Igor Stravinsky to the literary experiments of Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. Cummings celebrated these avant- garde developments in “The New Art,” his commencement address to the Harvard class of 1915.
After receiving his master’s degree, Cummings took a job for the Collier publishing company in New York City but quit after less than two months. He never held a regular job again. Supported financially by his parents and his friends, he devoted himself to writing poetry and also to painting. Cummings considered himself a painter as well as a poet; he had many of his paintings exhibited and even published a collection of drawings, cartoons, and other art works (CIOPW, 1931), but he did not have the same success with his art as with his literary works.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Cummings volunteered for the ambulance corps and was sent to France. However, he found life in the corps tedious and developed an antagonistic relationship with his commanding officer. When a friend of his was arrested on suspicion of espionage for writing indiscreet letters about army morale, Cummings refused to dissociate himself from the friend and also refused to say that he hated Germans. The result was that he was sent to a detention center in Normandy, France, where he stayed for two months. Oddly enough, Cummings seemed to enjoy this imprisonment more than his time in the ambulance service. Moreover, the experience led to the publication of his first book.
Throughout his literary career, Cummings devoted himself to attacking convention and conformity while celebrating imagination, intuition, and the individual. Signs of both the attack and the celebration can be seen in his first major work, The Enormous Room (1922), a prose narrative of his time in the French detention center. The book contains mockery of the slogans of war and of regimentation, along with a joyful celebration of the value of individuals who can rise above regimentation and be themselves. What is striking about the book is that despite the injustice and suffering that it describes, the emphasis is on the celebration and not the attack. This emphasis is reflected in the exuberant experimentation with language found in the book; Cummings mixes French in with his English and begins his practice of transforming verbs into nouns: For instance, one of the characters in the book, because he is so alive, is, for Cummings, an “Is.”
Before writing The Enormous Room, Cummings had assembled a large collection of the poetry he had written over the years and had tried to have it published under the title Tulips & Chimneys. Several publishers turned the collection down before one finally agreed to publish an abridged version that left out Cummings’s most experimental work and his poems with sexual themes. The publisher also, to Cummings’s dismay, replaced the ampersand in the title so that the book appeared in 1923 as Tulips and Chimneys. Two years later, another publisher agreed to publish forty-one of the omitted poems as XLI Poems, and the same year Cummings had the rest of the poems from the original collection, along with thirty-six new ones, privately published under the title &, using the ampersand the first publisher had denied him.
These three books contained some early poems that were fairly traditional, including numerous sonnets. Indeed, throughout his career Cummings continued to write in traditional forms such as the sonnet, though at times he disguised the fact by playing with spacing, rhythms, and rhymes. The three early books also included works on traditional poetic topics such as love and nature, but there were also ventures into less traditional areas, “low”...
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