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E(dward) E(stlin) Cummings 1894–1962
American poet, novelist, and playwright. One of the most controversial and innovative poets of the twentieth century, Cummings wrote verse which was revolutionary in typography and style but traditional in theme. His work is characterized by its humor, its unusual configurations on the page, and its...
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E(dward) E(stlin) Cummings 1894–1962
American poet, novelist, and playwright. One of the most controversial and innovative poets of the twentieth century, Cummings wrote verse which was revolutionary in typography and style but traditional in theme. His work is characterized by its humor, its unusual configurations on the page, and its themes of love, loss of innocence, the dignity of the individual, and nature. It also shows the thematic influence of writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, bearing witness to the significance of Cummings's New England upbringing. An Emersonian emphasis on individualism remained an important theme throughout Cummings's career, and in particular figured in his novel, The Enormous Room. Based on his experiences in a French detention camp during World War I, it is an account of the preservation of dignity in a degrading and dehumanizing situation. After the war Cummings went to Paris to study art; there he became acquainted with the poet Louis Aragon and the painter Pablo Picasso. In addition to his writing, Cummings also gained recognition as a painter. His background in the visual arts was a significant influence on the radical typography of his poetry. Although his work was accepted by critics with a variety of reactions from acclaim to derision, he was given several distinctions and awards during his lifetime. Notably, Cummings was selected to present the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard. These were later published as i: six nonlectures. Written in Cummings's characteristically rambling prose style, they reveal a great deal about his life and influences. It has been argued that Cummings never grew artistically and that his poetry never evolved into a mature style. However, his influence on modern poetry is irrefutable and his humor refreshingly atypical of his time. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76.)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 339
[Here's] a book that exists because the author was so moved, excited, amused by a certain slice of his existence that things happened freely and cantankerously on paper. And he had the nerve to let things happen…. The Enormous Room seems to me to be the book that has nearest approached the mood of reckless adventure in which men will reach the white heat of imagination needed to fuse the soggy disjointed complexity of the industrial life about us into seething fluid of creation. There can be no more playing safe. (p. 98)
Along with Sandburg and Sherwood Anderson, E. E. Cummings takes the rhythms of our American speech as the material of his prose as of his verse. It is writing created in the ear and lips and jotted down. For accuracy in noting the halting cadences of talk and making music of it, I don't know anything that comes up to these … passages….
Sunday: green murmurs in coldness. Surplice fiercely fearful, praying on his bony both knees, crossing himself…. The Fake French Soldier, alias Garibaldi, beside him, a little face filled with terror … the Bell cranks the sharp-nosed priest on his knees … titter from bench of whores—
And that reminds me of a Sunday afternoon on our backs spent with the wholeness of a hill in Chevancourt, discovering a great apple pie, B. and Jean Stahl and Maurice le Menusier and myself; and the sun falling roundly before us.
This sort of thing knocks literature into a cocked hat. It has the raucous directness of a song and dance act in cheap vaudeville, the willingness to go the limit in expression and emotion of a negro dancing. And in this mode, nearer the conventions of speech than those of books, in a style infinitely swift and crisply flexible, an individual not ashamed of his loves and hates, great or trivial, has expressed a bit of the underside of History with indelible vividness. (p. 100)
John Dos Passos, in The Dial (copyright, 1922, by The Dial Publishing Company, Inc.), July, 1922.
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["X LI Poems"] continues in almost every phase the tradition which Mr. Cummings established for himself two years ago with "Tulips and Chimneys." No long poems are here, but there are Songs, Portraits, Chansons Innocentes, Sonnets, and, war-pieces; and always the same man is writing, with the same unquestionable power and the same unnecessary tricks. The tricks are unnecessary because without them the power would be quite as apparent as it is now, if not a little more so….
Essentially Mr. Cummings is an educated poet. For all his surface radicalism, for all his insistence that his mind is "a big hunk of irrevocable nothing" which performs "squirms of chrome" and executes "strides of cobalt," for all his warning to the timid reader that he will "utter lilac shrieks and scarlet bellowings," he is saturated with Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare—to name only three of the great poets to whom he obviously has gone to school. Why should he not disregard the timid reader, as they did in their different ways, and fill his pages still fuller of the interesting and beautiful work of which he is capable? He has a richly sensuous mind; his verse is distinguished by fluidity and weight; he is equipped to range lustily and long among the major passions. May not his future lie in the direction of his second sonnet, which is a hymn in the grand style—but his grand style—to love?
Mark Van Doren, "First Glance," in The Nation (copyright 1925 by The Nation Associates. Inc.), July 8, 1925, p. 72.
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Mr. Cummings is a school of writing in himself: so that it is necessary to state the underlying assumptions of his mind, and of the school which he teaches, before dealing with the specific results in poetry of those assumptions.
It is possible to say that Mr. Cummings belongs to the anticulture group; what has been called at various times vorticism, futurism, dadaism, surrealism, and so on. Part of the general dogma of this group is a sentimental denial of the intelligence and the deliberate assertion that the unintelligible is the only object of significant experience…. It is argued that only by denying to the intelligence its function of discerning quality and order, can the failures of the intelligence be overcome; that if we take things as they come without remembering what has gone before or guessing what may come next, and if we accept these things at their face value, we shall know life, at least in the arts, as it really is. Nothing could be more arrogant, and more deceptively persuasive to the childish spirit, than such an attitude when held as fundamental. It appeals to the intellect which wishes to work swiftly and is in love with immediate certainty. (pp. 1-2)
The central attitude of this group has developed, in its sectaries, a logical and thoroughgoing set of principles and habits…. Jazz effects, tough dialects, tough guys, slim hot queens, barkers, fairies, and so on, are made into the media and symbols of poetry. Which is proper enough in Shakespeare where such effects are used ornamentally or for pure play. But in Cummings such effects are employed as substance, as the very mainstay of the poetry. There is a continuous effort to escape the realism of the intelligence in favour of the realism of the obvious. What might be stodgy or dull because not properly worked up into poetry is replaced by the tawdry and by the fiction of the immediate. (pp. 2-3)
By denying the dead intelligence and putting on the heresy of unintelligence, the poet only succeeds in substituting one set of unnourished conventions for another. What survives, with a deceptive air of reality, is a surface. That the deception is often intentional hardly excuses it. The surface is meant to clothe and illuminate a real substance, but in fact is is impenetrable. We are left, after experiencing this sort of art, with the certainty that there was nothing to penetrate. The surface was perfect: the deceit was childish; and the conception was incorrigibly sentimental: all because of the dogma which made them possible.
If Mr. Cummings' tough-guy poems are excellent examples of this sentimentality, it is only natural that his other poems—those clothed in the more familiar language of the lyric—should betray even more obviously, even more perfectly, the same fault. There, in the lyric, there is no pretence at hardness of surface. We are admitted at once to the bare emotion. What is most striking, in every instance, about this emotion is the fact that, in so far as it exists at all, it is Mr. Cummings' emotion, so that our best knowledge of it must be, finally, our best guess. It is not an emotion resulting from the poem; it existed before the poem began and is a result of the poet's private life…. This is the extreme form, in poetry, of romantic egoism: whatever I experience is real and final, and whatever I say represents what I experience. Such a dogma is the natural counterpart of the denial of the intelligence. (pp. 3-4)
Assuming that a poem should in some sense be understood, should have a meaning apart from the poet's private life, either one of two things will be true about any poem written from such an attitude as we have ascribed to Mr. Cummings. Either the poem will appear in terms so conventional that everybody will understand it—when it will be flat and no poem at all; or it will appear in language so far distorted from convention as to be inapprehensible except by lucky guess. In neither instance will the poem be genuinely complete. It will be the notes for a poem, from which might flow an infinite number of possible poems, but from which no particular poem can be certainly deduced. (p. 4)
The question central to [this] discussion will be what kind of meaning does Mr. Cummings' poetry have; what is the kind of equivalence between the language and its object. The pursuit of such a question involves us immediately in the relations between words and feelings, and the relations between the intelligence and its field in experience—all relations which are precise only in terms themselves essentially poetic—in the feeling for an image, the sense of an idiom…. In the examination of Mr. Cummings' writings the grounds will be the facts about the words he uses, and the end will be apprehended in the quality of the meaning his use of these words permits. (pp. 4-5)
If a reader, sufficiently familiar with these poems not to be caught on the snag of novelty, inspects carefully any score of them, no matter how widely scattered, he will especially be struck by a sameness among them. This sameness will be in two sorts—a vagueness of image and a constant recurrence of words…. In Tulips and Chimneys words such as these occur frequently—thrilling, flowers, serious, absolute, sweet, unspeaking, utter, gradual, ultimate, final, serene, frail, grave, tremendous…. [None] of them, taken alone, are very concrete words; and … many of them are the rather abstract, which is to say typical, names for precise qualities, but are not, and cannot be, as originally important words in a poem, very precise or very concrete or very abstract: they are middling words, not in themselves very much one thing or the other, and should be useful only with respect to something concrete in itself. (pp. 6-7)
[One example, the word "flower," is used repeatedly and in a variety of usages, such as flower-terrible, flowers of kiss, and world flower.] The question is, whether or not the reader can possibly have shared the experience which Mr. Cummings has had of the word; whether or not it is possible to discern, after any amount of effort, the precise impact which Mr. Cummings undoubtedly feels upon his whole experience when he uses the word. (p. 8)
[In] his use of the word "flower" as a maid of all work [Mr. Cummings has let his ideas run away with him]. The word has become an idea, and in the process has been deprived of its history, its qualities, and its meaning…. In Mr. Cummings' poetry we find [that] the word "flower," because of the originality with which he conceives it, becomes an idea and is used to represent the most interesting and most important aspect of his poem. Hence the centre of the poem is permanently abstract and unknowable for the reader, and remains altogether without qualifications and concreteness. It is not the mere frequency of use that deadens the word flower into an idea; it is the kind of thought which each use illustrates in common. By seldom saying what flower, by seldom relating immitigably the abstract word to a specific experience, the content of the word vanishes; it has no inner mystery, only an impenetrable surface.
This is the defect, the essential deceit, we were trying to define. Without questioning Mr. Cummings, or any poet, as to sincerity … it is possible to say that when in any poem the important words are forced by their use to remain impenetrable, when they can be made to surrender nothing actually to the senses—then the poem is defective and the poet's words have so far deceived him as to become ideas merely. (pp. 9-10)
Mr. Cummings has a fine talent for using familiar, even almost dead words, in such a context as to make them suddenly impervious to every ordinary sense; they become unable to speak, but with a great air of being bursting with something very important and precise to say. "The bigness of cannon is skilful … enormous rhythm of absurdity … slimness of evenslicing eyes are chisels … electric Distinct face haughtily vital clinched in a swoon of synopsis … my friends's being continually whittles keen careful futile flowers." etc. With the possible exception of the compound evenslicing the italicized words are all ordinary words; all in normal contexts have a variety of meanings both connotative and denotative; the particular context of being such as to indicate a particular meaning, to establish precisely a feeling, a sensation or a relation.
Mr. Cummings' contexts are employed to an opposite purpose in so far as they wipe out altogether the history of the word, its past associations and general character. To seize Mr. Cummings' meaning there is only the free and uninstructed intuition. (p. 16)
The general movement of Mr. Cummings' language is away from communicable precision. If it be argued that the particular use of one of the italicized words above merely makes that word unique, the retort is that such uniqueness is too perfect, is sterile. If by removing the general sense of a word the special sense is apotheosized, it is only so at the expense of the general sense itself. The destruction of the general sense of a word results in the loss of that word's individuality…. (pp. 16-17)
When Mr. Cummings resorts to language for the thrill that words may be made to give, when he allows his thrill to appear as an equivalent for concrete meaning, he is often more successful than when he is engaged more ambitiously…. Thrill, by itself, or in its proper place, is an exceedingly important element in any poem: it is the circulation of its blood, the quickness of life, by which we know it, when there is anything in it to know, most intimately. To use a word for its thrill, is to resurrect it from the dead; it is the incarnation of life in consciousness; it is movement.
But what Mr. Cummings does, when he is using language as thrill, is not to resurrect a word from the dead: he more often produces an apparition, in itself startling and even ominous, but still only a ghost: it is all a thrill, and what it is that thrilled us cannot be determined. (pp. 22-3)
[There] is an exquisite example of the proper use of this strangeness, this thrill, in [a] poem of Mr. Cummings: where he speaks of a cathedral before whose face "the streets turn young with rain." While there might be some question as to whether the use of young presents the only adequate image, there is certainly no question at all that the phrase is entirely successful: that is, the suggestive feeling in young makes the juncture, the emotional conjugation, of streets and rain transparent and perfect…. Just because reference is not commonly made either to young streets or young rain, the combination here effected is the more appropriate. The surprise, the contrast, which lend force to the phrase, do not exist in the poem; but exist, if at all, rather in the mind of the reader who did not forsee the slight stretch of his sensibility that the phrase requires—which the phrase not only requires, but necessitates. This, then, is a strangeness understood by its own viableness. No preliminary agreement of taste, or contract of symbols, was necessary.
The point is that Mr. Cummings did not here attempt the impossible, he merely stretched the probable. The business of the poet who deals largely with tactual and visual images, as Mr. Cummings does, for the meat of his work, is to escape the prison of his private mind; to use in his poem as little as possible of the experience that happened to him personally, and on the other hand to employ as much as possible of that experience as it is data. (pp. 25-6)
The proper process of poetry designs exactly what the reader will perceive; that is what is meant when a word is said to be inevitable or juste. But this exactness of perception can only come about when there is an extreme fidelity on the part of the poet to his words as living things; which he can discover and control—which he must learn, and nourish, and stretch; but which he cannot invent. This unanimity in our possible experience of words implies that the only unanimity which the reader can feel in what the poet represents must be likewise exterior to the poet; must be somehow both anterior and posterior to the poet's own experience. The poet's mind, perhaps, is what he is outside himself with; is what he has learned; is what he knows: it is also what the reader knows. So long as he is content to remain in his private mind, he in unknowable, impenetrable, and sentimental. All his words perhaps must thrill us, because we cannot know them in the very degree that we sympathise with them. But the best thrills are those we have without knowing it. (p. 27)
Richard P. Blackmur, "Notes on E. E. Cummings' Language" (originally published in Hound & Horn, January-March. 1931), in his The Double Agent: Essays in Craft and Elucidation (copyright, 1935, by Richard P. Blackmur). Arrow Editions, 1935 (and reprinted by Peter Smith, 1962), pp. 1-29.
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Style is for Mr. Cummings "translating;" it is a self-demonstrating aptitude for technique, as a seal that has been swimming right-side-up turns over and swims on its back for a time—"killing nears in droves slaying almosts massacring myriads of notquites": "the worm knocks loud", "sit/the bum said"—with numerous finds in the realm of unconscious bourgeois obnoxiousness: "eye buleev money rules thith woyl"—… "wen uh man's gut thad bright gole thing in his fist, he's strong." This pluck-the-duck, scale-the-fish 15th century appetite for aliveness equivalent to a million trillion musical light years, results in some effects [in Eimi] which are as much better than those in The Enormous Room (the germ for these) as Viva is an improved vagueness and judicious anonymity over most of what preceded. And the typography, one should add, is not something superimposed on the meaning but the author's mental handwriting. There courteous innocently penguin-eyed comrade capitalist Cummings gets the best of strong publisher and boorish public. (p. 278)
One does not like to praise, then take away the praise—and will not; but there are a few queries. (a) Not to be confused with Virgil's necessary artificial argot of politeness, the sharkskin papillae pebble-pattern of the Italian garden-walk, undesirably changes now and then to polished white mosaic: "Not only has Turk been up; he's been doing"; (b) a Saint Sebastian—as our Dante probably knows—may be hid by too many arrows of awareness; (c) a tag is perhaps too much a certain kind of tag for a' that it is used by a poet; (d) one is never going to be able to score words as one scores sounds, "condesfusionpair" being not hard on the brain but awkward for it; (e) the book should have an index though it may be like suggesting that the kangaroo pouch accommodate a grown kangaroo; (f) Which freedom wears best? that of a leprechaun a leopard a leper a hyperholiest priest of Benares, or of the mystic for whom leprosy becomes negligible? Mr. Cummings' obscenities are dear to him, somewhat as Esau's hairiness is associated with good hunting, but one thing is certain: if an otherwise divine burlesque is a bouquet that has a stench, a chair that was a garbage-pail—then a grin, a smirk, a smile, are synonymous; B is not for Beatrice but for bunk, and i am not Dante. (pp. 279-80)
"Birdlike and boy," "defunct," "dwarfish," "chipmunk lion," "mr/cricket" and mr crab (the 5-year vermin), Comrade Can't, and "So do I" recall Mr. Civility, Pick-thank, and Cutpurse, and this to some extent children's story, by an author whose kindness to comrade stunned, equals America, has traits in common with Hashimura Togo, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, T. S. Eliot, and the Guls Hornbook; the consanguinity with James Joyce being the nostalgic note, quite as much as a similarity in harmonics…. (p. 280)
Marianne Moore, "A Penguin in Moscow." in Poetry (© 1933 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry; excerpted by permission of The Estate of Marianne C. Moore), August, 1933, pp. 277-81.
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[Cummings] appeared as a young and romantic poet. But he was one unmistakably of his time. That he derived from Keats and had been instructed by the poets of the last century was obvious; but even in the earliest poems, where their trace is most strong, the movement of Cummings' verse is already his own. His charm, at once, is his rapidity. The influence of the romantic tradition was soon left behind; but not the romantic attitude. That was authentic and not taught—at least, not by the English poets. It stood no more in critical favor than it does now, however the cry against it in some quarters has changed. This poetry was aware, as only poetry can be, of what was going on. The sensibility of the poet was singularly uncontaminated. He defied, indeed, every principle which Ezra Pound had taught us was right for poetry; and there was none of us then who had not listened with attention to Pound. Here was no effort for the one precise word; instead adjectives, which were Pound's abhorrence, were piled one on another in a sort of luminous accumulation. If Cummings, in writing, had kept his eye on the object, it was of no avail, for the objects had their outlines distorted, or else they dissolved, leaving behind only an impression of their qualities. Here was a poetry as shining and as elusive as quicksilver. If there was anything precise about it, it was, as Cummings was to note later, that precision which aims at creating movement. Yet none but a poet could have been so preoccupied with words; nor could anyone not a poet have so enlivened them with his presence.
Here was no Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; here was quite another figure, fine, impertinent, full of shocks and capers, in the midst of some absurd mockery suddenly turning surpassingly lyrical. Here was Mercutio. (p. 174)
At the time when Cummings' manner was formed, it seemed not only possible, but imperative, that every element of technique should be recreated. He was aware of Joyce's experiments in prose in Ulysses; some of them he has repeated, concentrating them, as he might well do in the smaller space of a poem; in his own prose he has carried them still further, especially in Eimi, by accelerating their performance. He had before him the example of Picasso, who had already passed through three or four periods, each representing a progress in emotion and a prodigious renewal of technique. What could be more natural than that Cummings, who is painter as well as poet, should attempt to emulate in literature the innovations of his contemporaries in painting? In Picasso, as in some others who were renewing the painter's art, he saw what intensity might follow distortion of line and immensity of form. And Cummings has taught himself to see somewhat as they see, but without losing his personal vision. He juxtaposes words as they do pigments. The effect is not altogether a happy one, for what is gained in intensity may be lost in meaning. When a painter distorts a line, he may increase its functional value; but a sentence can easily be so dislocated that it will no longer work. The impressionist method, so apt to seize the aspect of a momentary world, permits Cummings to rely on the vaguest associations. It has led him as a poet, not to weight, but merely to touch his words with meaning. In fact, the significance of his words is often in their position. Then, too, it is probably the example of the Post-Impressionists and the Picasso of the papier collé period that has persuaded him to admit to his poetry much that was tawdry, trivial, and lewd—material whose advantage to him is certainly in part that it has hitherto been considered inadmissible. (pp. 177-78)
His art is personal. It could not well be anything else; for it reposes upon a conviction that each man's world is his own and that no other can be known…. Other poets have professed some such philosophy, but, so far as I know, Cummings is the first actually to carry it into his writing. He does not write as a common sense dualist. He was born and brought up in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and though he has constantly cried his repudiation of his birthplace and all its academic works, including the late Josiah Royce, it is only as a child of Cambridge that he can be so passionately private and peculiar. (p. 178)
[Cummings] is constantly trying to affect us by other than purely literary means. He attempts to seduce us without departing from his solitude. Cummings' faults are those of the sensitive writer, and the interest of his poetry is that it is a product of his sensibility. No one poem is unintelligible. On the contrary, it is much more likely that if we try to take it as complete, its meaning will be too soon exhausted. For its concern is with the immediate and with the moment. It may charm or amuse; but it is only by Cummings' poetry as a whole that we are profoundly impressed. It is not unattached to his personality; but the interest of that personality is in its singular capacity to report the age.
The problem is not one of escaping personality (for that way impotence lies) but of transcending it. And that a poet may do in one of two ways: he may dramatize his personal desires directly, or he may find in the outer world some drama, into whose actors he can fuse his own desires and in whose catastrophe he can, though only on an imaginative plane, resolve his personal conflict…. Cummings has almost no imagination. He is said to be confined in his own world; but it is a world which has too much in common with ours to make communication impossible. He is subject there to a conflict of contrary desires: he would be like others and yet utterly unlike; he would be like the man who suffers, but not like the man who dies. He has taken the only known way to immortality. Out of this conflict he has made his poems, both lyrical and satirical. But nothing has made him a dramatic poet.
Cummings' prose has never had anything like the attention it deserves. The Enormous Room came out … when a reaction had set in against almost all that had then been written about the War. It did not exploit that reaction and failed, as so many later books did not, to profit from it. Eimi, which is an account of a journey made through the U.S.S.R. in 1931, appeared … in the midst of the depression communism. It was derided or ignored. And yet, The Enormous Room has the effect of making all but a very few comparable books that came out of the War look shoddy and worn. It has been possible to read it, as I have done, at intervals over the seventeen years since its publication, and always to find it undiminished. So it has slowly found readers. But those who were attracted to The Enormous Room, because of the compassion Cummings showed there for the lowly and despised, were repulsed by Eimi, which makes it clear that he will have nothing to do with the communist effort to improve the condition of mankind. The one book is, nevertheless, the complement of the other, and the only change in Cummings to be marked between them is the change from youth to maturity. And in Eimi, he makes every other writer on Russia appear dishonest or credulous.
These books have behind them what must be regarded as the two most important events of our time. And the backgrounds, in so far as they affect his narratives, are set before us with great vividness. The incidental characters are presented with an admirable skill and they remain convincing, even though in the parts they play there is almost always some exaggeration, comic or pathetic. For again and again, as Cummings produces a character, we are reminded of Dickens. But the center of The Enormous Room is not the War, nor that of Eimi the Russian Revolution. At the core of each is a spiritual crisis. (pp. 179-81)
[In The Enormous Room, the] narrator met a problem much older than the War. In his own soul he met it: the significance of human suffering. He met it with the intensity of youth and knowing that upon some solution of it depended his sanity. It is a problem much greater than that of injustice, for it includes it. And it is worth noting that it is not with its injustice that Cummings reproaches the French government, but with its stupidity, in confining to the Enormous Room specimens of humanity as small as these.
The mind provides no answer to the problem of suffering. The answer must come from elsewhere. (p. 181)
Here, at the very start, we have in Cummings what has been called his cult of unintelligence. He was one who could not but seek a wholesome being. He emerged from imprisonment profoundly shaken. Where else was he to look for what he sought in a world dead at the top if not below? And in Cummings there is from now on, in all he writes, an exaltation of the lowly and the lively. He is himself, and he accepts his common lot. With the others, he suffers; he exults alone, and in a world of his own. But something happens to alter this attitude shortly after he crosses the Polish border into the Soviet Union and in the customs house encounters upon one wall, framed in bunting, the colored photograph of Nicolai Lenin.
The style which Cummings began in poetry reaches its most complete development in the prose of Eimi, Indeed, one might almost say that, without knowing it, Cummings had been acquiring a certain skill over years, in order that, when occasion arose, he might set down in words the full horror of Lenin's tomb. It is brought to us through every sense: the solid stench of numberless multitudes endlessly waiting, endlessly treading downward into the darkness to look on the maker of their world, the corpse of the man with the small, not intense, face and the reddish beard, secret, being dead, as when alive, intransigeant even in mortality. For in Russia, Cummings was not only in a new country; he was in a new world. Impressions pressed, one on another, in such confusing rapidity that no one with less than his skill could possibly have caught and recorded them. (pp. 182-83)
Throughout Eimi, Cummings maintains an analogy, never too hard pressed, between his own progress from circle to circle of soviet society and Dante's passage through Hell. The moment at which he emerges to see the stars is when he returns to Europe, where it is once more possible for him to assume the full responsibility of being a man. In prison he had learned a passive acceptance of his lot. It was on his return to freedom … that he experiences that sense of the wholeness of life—that complete vision which includes both divinity and depravity—that allows him, as he approaches the borders of Italy, without presumption, to call upon the name of Dante. For now he knows there is but one freedom, a freedom active and acquiescent in the vision, the freedom of the will, responsive and responsible, and that from it all other freedoms take their course. (p. 186)
John Peale Bishop, "The Poems and Prose of E. E. Cummings," in The Southern Review (copyright, 1938, by John Peale Bishop), Vol. IV, No. 3, Summer, 1938, pp. 173-86.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 948
No modern poet to my knowledge has such a clear, childlike perception as E. E. Cummings—a way of coming smack against things with unaffected delight and wonder. This candor … results in breath-takingly clean vision…. No modern poet, furthermore, is less self-important than Cummings—none so delicately shy about asserting his will upon others. These are not, so far as I am aware, the customary opinions of his work, but if one keeps his attention for a time strictly upon the lyrical verses in the Collected Poems, without permitting himself to be startled or shocked (and therefore sidetracked) by the typographical fireworks or the satire, he will find qualities in Cummings' poetry that are reminiscent of nothing so much as a sensitive and well-mannered child…. Leave him alone, and he will play in a corner for hours, with his fragilities, his colors, and his delight in the bright shapes of all the things he see…. (pp. 284-85)
The important point about E. E. Cummings is, however, that he was not left alone. He was dumped out into the uninnocent and unlyrical world—the world of chippies, broads, and burlesque shows such as are discovered by Harvard undergraduates "seeing life"—and after that into the infinitely more shocking world of the blood, vermin, murder, commercialized idealism, and patriotic hysteria of the Great War. Cummings wrote about these two worlds (which frequently merge into each other) his fiercest satirical verse. His lyricism, shy enough at best, ran completely for cover, and he turned upon the nightmare worlds of reality partly with the assumed callousness and defensive self-mockery of the very sensitive, and partly with the white and terrible anger of the excessively shy.
The self-mockery that served to conceal his innocence and lyricism (principally from himself, one suspects) begins to find expression toward the end of Tulips and Chimneys, and recurs in his poetry throughout the rest of his work. Poems of this kind, dealing principally with prostitutes, yeggs, and perverts, are, like his play Him, powerful, phantasmagoric—as if the poet, having left his fragilities behind him, were exploring with unfeeling but lively curiosity a nether world peopled by hideous automatons. There is in these poems none of the sentimentality in reverse that made the "scarlet woman" and disreputable hang-outs the subjects for delicious shudders among the fin-de-siècle poets. (pp. 285-86)
Now and then, however, the world offers a situation which overcomes his indifference—and when this happens Cummings condenses such pity and terror into a sudden stanza or turn of phrase (all the more terrible because unexpected) that the reader is taken with a quick, sharp thud, right in the pit of his consciousness. These (perhaps involuntary) revelations of his carefully concealed ethical passion—not frequent, but frequent enough so that we know they are not accidental—constitute an unobtrusive claim by which we are compelled to grant that he has written some poetry that we cannot call anything but great. (p. 287)
Anger is the central passion of his war-poetry—the white anger, as I have said, of the excessively shy. Although many have already conceded his Enormous Room to be one of the greatest war-books, only few have as yet realized that Cummings has written what are certainly our greatest war-poems. (pp. 287-88)
E. E. Cummings' descent into Hell is a trip from which he has not come up. He is still there (or here). Perhaps there is no coming up if, as Eliot has said, in prose one may be concerned with ideals, but in poetry one deals with reality. The brilliant mind that early took refuge in sophistication is now profoundly sophisticated…. More frequently in his recent poetry he seems to be returning, although with elaborate precautions lest he be caught acting like a softie, to his naturally tender delicacy of sentiment—his almost sentimentality. (pp. 288-89)
Perhaps this fact explains the eccentricities of his technique. Partly they are a disguise—a man so sick of the "poetry" and rotten idealism of his time, a man so acutely aware of the ludicrous figure presented by people with beautiful souls in a world of brutes and slobberers, is forced if he is most indubitably a poet to present an exterior that will make it impossible for anyone to think of him as a "poet" as commonly understood. (p. 289)
Another reason for his technique is his attempt, perhaps illegitimate, to represent by words and typography experiences just the way they happened, without regard to the formalities or the "laws" of thought. This results in the most daring of his technical innovations…. These are probably "not poetry", but I am not sure that this matters greatly, since they succeed eminently in doing what they set out to do. Mr. Cummings is not interested in the "legitimacy" of his experiments.
Can one say, following current critical fashions, that Cummings is up a blind alley, and so saying dismiss him as a left-over from the futilitarian twenties? This is not to ask whether he has said all he is capable of saying. The question is whether the exercise and discipline of our sensibilities to which his poetry submits us are still useful. If we find that they are, it is merely churlish to complain that he is no "fructifying force". His profound scepticism is regarded now, of course, as "dating" him. I am not at all sure that this is a fault in him—for his scepticism is of a kind that ought not to be lightly abandoned. His is not the easier way. (pp. 290-91)
S. I. Hayakawa, "Is Indeed 5," in Poetry (© 1938 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), August, 1938, pp. 284-92.
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The career of E. E. Cummings, from his first appearance at Harvard to his last, has been the consistent statement of an attitude toward authority. His entire work raises the question whether this attitude can much longer continue to be a creative one, or even a possible one for the artist. The question remains unanswered, but merely to have raised it so sharply as he has done is a peculiar achievement.
It involved first the definition of a world in which poems, Cummings's kind of poems, might be written…. And this meant a rigid, wilful ordering of experience according to a moral standard, a reduction of all things into the two categories of the lyric affirmatives (flowers, kisses, children, birds, love) and the sterile negatives (machines, money, advertisements, respectability, death). In a world thus ordered, it then became the poet's task to find means of asserting with finality the truth and beauty and goodness of the former category and the falseness, ugliness, and evil of the latter. For Cummings there are two ways of doing this. His perceptions are lyrical, almost mystical. If he can restate them in wholly lyrical terms, they become valid truths in so far as they succeed as poetry. But the lyric impulse lags: its strength is fitful and capricious. And the poet's chosen world is an infinite dualism containing the denial of poetry as well as its affirmation. When lyricism fails him, he has the other method left, the assertion of himself, a conscious, willing self, as the supreme authority, and the appeal simply to that.
These, of course, are the methods of romanticism, and no one will deny that Cummings is a romantic poet. He shares much with the romantic poets of the past. (pp. 643-44)
[It] is to American romanticism in particular that he is most closely related, that type which is above all didactic…. His confident and continual preaching is truly Emersonian…. But not all the native attitudes in Cummings are out of Emerson. The exclusiveness of his individualism suggests Thoreau. His metaphysical impertinence recalls, again and again, Emily Dickinson. And in celebrating "my body when it is with your body" or "the poetic carcass of a girl," he becomes remotely Whitmanesque. To suggest any of these names as literary influences is beside the point. Cummings, in a different century, is preaching and practising the way of life for which they stood. His career presents, in peculiarly sharpened terms, a test case for romantic individualism long after romanticism's day.
This underlying attitude, which can best be characterized, perhaps, as a denial of external authority, determines every aspect of his writing. It is there in his technique as a consistent rejection of the authority of form, or rather an assertion of the authority of self over material and convention. By such a process he worked out his highly personal typography, distractive to a perennial crowd of readers and critics. It is surely not of central importance to his poetry. He neither stands nor falls thereby. Yet one can say that, using it, Cummings, at least part of the time, controls his poems to a greater extent than other writers. He has orchestrated them, choreographed them upon the page to such a degree that our reading, when we have recovered from the first shock of visual strangeness, must approximate his. (pp. 644-45)
More pertinent, certainly, is the question of his vocabulary. Over words, the real material of verse, Cummings again asserts the individual authority…. [If] Cummings's poetry at its worst is a destructive violation of language, at its best this same poetry is a new affirmation of the vitality of our speech. And here too he is allied with an American tradition. The history of our poetry, that part of it which has enduring life, could be told almost entirely in terms of its continuous experimentation with the fluid, native vocabulary. And it is with this vocabulary wholly that Cummings works. By virtue of his delicate bullying of words and grammar, punctuation and typography, he achieves a remarkable poetic freshness—catches, at times, the most elusive shadings of sensation. He can impart to language, which in his hands is forever, to be sure, in danger of its life, a rare, pervasive excitement.
But it is in his implacably individualistic approach to experience that Cummings's final predicament is uncovered. The hundred years since Emerson's Self-Reliance have altered the validity, or at least the practicability, of this romantic way of life…. [Cummings] is put on the defensive from the start. His whole career has been a long process of digging in. From Tulips and Chimneys, whose very title suggests the dualism, to No Thanks, labeled with a rejection, the poetry has grown steadily sharper, more dogmatic, more bitter. Affirmations are necessarily less frequent, and belligerence becomes the poet's customary manner. (pp. 646-47)
A platform of moral isolation like this does offer certain advantages to the artist. From it, for one thing, he can speak with a private intensity; he can muster a heady indignation. Also, a quiet room, with all the doors shut and windows barred, is a good place to tell the heart's secrets, to celebrate the lone things which happen only to the man alone. This is the proper business of the lyricist, and surely no contemporary poetry is more thoroughly lyric than Cummings's. But in such a place the danger is that one may forget what is going on outside, how men speak to each other and what happens to men together. When a poet's attitude distorts his perception of the outer world, it begins to deny the possibilities of poetry. Here, one supposes, is the likeliest source for all the obscurity in Cummings's work. (pp. 647-48)
[However] sensitive he may be, obvious values escape him when they are outward values. Affirming only the authority within himself, he has been forced, by the logic of his position, into a rejection of social authority. His two prose works show, no less than his poetry, what has happened. The Enormous Room remains one of the best books of the last war, largely because of its magnificent human sympathy. The author's consciousness is open to embrace his fellow prisoners, Zoo-loo, Surplice, Jean Le Nègre, and all the rest. But between that and Eimi, the closing which Cummings hates has taken place. Lenin's tomb reminds him only of Coney Island, and Russia is viewed entirely from a far cold point of isolation. The attempted affirmation of "I Am" with which the book is labeled sounds like an old-fashioned tune grimly whistled in the dark. There is not enough humanity left. Rejection has become the poet's habit until he has rejected the one food that might nourish him. Here is perhaps the last irony of individualism: that it must in the end be loveless.
Cummings has worked desperately and long to escape a natural heritage. He was born into it, a New England clergyman's son, and it proved at the last inescapable…. To him, as to so many of the young literati of the 1920's, this force was stultifying and restrictive. It was a death force. Taking his cue from a prevailing drift of the '20's, Cummings tried to abuse this threatening conservatism out of his path. He became the enfant terrible of a generation of terrible children. (pp. 650-51)
Since 1933 he has acquired another antipathy. That was the year of the Russian travel diary, Eimi. Whereas in 1926 he had noticed that "the communists have fine Eyes." he now burst out bitterly against the "Kumrads."… As satire or invective the poems of this later political bias are greatly inferior to the scornful sting of the earlier attacks on native conservatism. Their accents are shrill, almost fanatical. And the mere assertion of a romantic abstraction, "life" or "love," is inadequate as a positive platform from which to utter these sweeping denouncements. But the most striking consideration of all is that in these poems Cummings, on slightly different grounds, is fighting the very battle of conservatism. He is joining the New England merchants and politicos in the angry assertion of their free, individual rights against the remotest threat. Like them, he is a champion of moral laissez faire. (pp. 651-52)
I have tried to suggest the remarkable unity of Cummings's work. In spite of a surface versatility, in itself consistent, and in spite of abrupt shifts of direction such as that just noted, the poems, the prose, and for that matter, the pictures of CIOPW, the play him, and the ballet scenario Tom are all strongly of a piece. Their unity derives from the basic romantic premises on which he has worked out his particular creative experiment. If this experiment is a failure, it is largely these premises which are at fault. Cummings brought to it an extraordinary talent and conducted it with uncompromising honesty. A possible conclusion is that, in poetry as elsewhere individualism of the nineteenth-century kind, no matter how we may translate it into twentieth-century words or disguise it with contemporary gestures, remains tragically out of date. The lonely gospel of isolated manhood can no longer nourish man. (pp. 652-53)
Put against the background of contemporary verse in America, his work takes on one other elusive quality. It is a quality so important to the well-being of poetry that merely to mention it seems hardly adequate. It is the thing which is central to such of his poems as those about Buffalo Bill, death's poker game with love, niggers, or Jimmie's goil. It informs most of his conceits and it peoples his volumes with mice and elephants, grasshoppers, tough guys, and busted statues. Cummings's poetry has—what today's poetry sorely needs—the rare quality of fun. (p. 653)
John Finch, "New England Prodigal," in The New England Quarterly (copyright 1939 by The New England Quarterly), December, 1939, 643-53.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1946
E. E. Cummings is one of the few modern poets who write about beautiful things simply. Much contemporary poetry is concerned with the analysis of states of mind for the sake of philosophic or social comment…. There are exceptions, of course, but most modern poets are not concerned very much with declaring that the beauty of their experience is proof of the power of beauty…. Cummings is surely the modern poet who has most consistently aimed at lyric expression in the direct manner…. He has remained a lyric poet because he has not been interested in questioning and doubting; he has been constantly searching but he has always known what he is searching for. (p. 372)
Cummings's career in print began with a novel, The Enormous Room…. After graduating from Harvard he had served with an ambulance corps in France before the United States entered the war, and there through one of the blunders of the French he and a friend were confined to a concentration camp near the Pyrenees for some months, confined with people who by the record might appear to have been the scum of the earth. But Cummings found some of them to be characters of overpowering excellence…. Here Cummings discovered and re-created such virtue and beauty as are hardly to be found in any other contemporary writer. And here he seems to have taken a direction he was never to give up, a strict and rich attention to the particular beauty that belongs to the humble.
But in the strange world of New York and Paris after the war such simple service was very often undertaken as part of the revolt against a society that for many people no longer seemed to deserve much loyalty. As after any great collective effort when individuals are closely confined in their personal aims, there was the reaction to extreme individualism and much disillusionment. Cummings was one of those swept by this anarchic surge…. Still believing in virtue, he seemed to assert it was to be found only among the downtrodden, which is a rather comfortable way of escaping from Brattle Street. Insofar as he was rebelling against complacency and dullness and arrogance he was being true to himself, but in exaggerating the virtues of the underworld he submitted himself to an unnecessary strain and artificiality. (pp. 373-74)
He has spent his feeling, then, with some confusion, and it is useful for any consideration of his poetry to examine how he has done this. It is significant that many of the chapter headings of The Enormous Room are taken from The Pilgrim's Progress. Several of the late poems are explicitly religious, but without these we may see many indications that he has consistently striven to be pious. In spite of himself he has remained a Puritan, though for him despair, his Valley of Despond, has been the hatred of the senses Puritanism approved and fostered…. As fortune would have it, some of his intensity of feeling is guarded by the singleness of mind that provides one of the great strengths of Puritanism, so much so that he is led by the same virtue to become a missionary, to make beauty a cause. He is sometimes obliged, praising whatever is Spring-like, to worship defiantly…. To do justice to the claims of the senses he turned to the world Brattle Street considered most debased, and he did this in a conscientious and Puritan way. (p. 374)
His love poems, which show both his loyal intentness and his unhappy confusion, describe countless affairs, crude as well as fine. Sometimes they are very beautiful, and at other times they are detached and hard. Sometimes they are merely obscene jokes. He told Puritanism off even while shocking himself, and this became a habit. It was right and necessary to tell his Puritan ancestors that the life of the senses is good, but it does the senses no favor to consider their restlessness their essential virtue. Their value consists really in their aptitude for constancy, in service that is rewarding to the whole individual, whereby the attachment of the senses is deeply and lastingly fixed.
His paganism, then, is corrupted with an idea, that the casual experience of the senses provides a sufficient truth for living. Falling in love, he is really serving this idea, and his experience of what is more deeply human is restricted. (p. 375)
In the very earliest poems, "Puella Mea" and "Epithalamion," Cummings began with the praise of love, with sensuous and fragrant language and a kind of delicacy that is like Catullus. Later he was to make epigrams in the manner of the Latin poet, but here the stronger reminiscences are of Spenser and Keats, with here and there, curiously enough, a tone that seems to come from Milton…. [There] is much that is clumsy, and sometimes the language is pitifully insecure. But they are left as a remainder of a genuine striving. The surer grace came in certain sonnets, where there is a kind of fragile charm…. (pp. 376-77)
What is immediately striking here is the language of the images, more perhaps than the images themselves: the threaded moment, the shadowy sheep, eyes frailer than dreams. Something of this same love of language is in Spenser and Milton, where abstract words are treated like material ones, the very skillful strangeness of your smile. The method seems to be to use the abstraction to express the essential quality of a thing, and a sensuous or material epithet is attached in order to clinch the image referred to in such a way that all the associations implied in the abstraction are drawn on. When unsuccessful, such phrasing points to a kind of vagueness of language and perhaps feeling. But the failures only indicate the nature of the successes, which seem to prove that any beautiful particular depends upon something ineffable, something not exclusively comprehended in the image alone—eyes frailer than most dreams are frail. (p. 378)
I think one of Cummings's first inclinations must have been to write in a convention, even while he was intent on forming an individual style. He must have taken forms from the past that were roughly adapted to the things he had to write about. He found these forms of course in the poets he admired, Spenser and Keats, the Spenserian stanza, the sonnet, the iambic rhythm. And in the beginning he found a language there he wanted, and a way of phrasing. However fresh the feelings he had to express seemed to him, he knew that it was impossible merely to take over the language of daily speech with no wider knowledge of its capacity than is to be gained in conversation. He has had an extraordinary gift of his own with which to extend our language, and it is understandable that at times he should have distorted language beyond recognition. (pp. 378-79)
A Protestant rebelling against Protestantism, he has a particular stake in asserting the value of his feeling, and he has the conjunct necessity to establish a language worthy of his rebellion. (p. 379)
His failures come most often when he relies on a strident exaggeration of language to express feelings that are unripe for expression, when he is confusedly intent. I think it can be said that his obscure poems are bad, and they are bad because he is in them affirming the values of his sensibility at the expense of his conviction. This is like the hope of most adolescent writers that personal feelings may be communicated with images whose connotations are not supported by the logic of the syntax…. There is still something else to be said, I think, about the insecurity of Cummings's language, and about his persistent crudeness next door to excellence. (pp. 380-82)
The punctuation Cummings employs often distracts and antagonizes readers, but at times it can be shown to serve a useful purpose. (p. 383)
At times his scheme certainly causes the reader to pay special attention to the sound of the words. But at other times it seems to provide a puzzle of such complexity that interest in the poem is lost for the sake of the puzzle. At times Cummings is merely thumbing his nose at convention and at the reader. Occasionally I think Cummings is making jokes, and I for one am amused, but then, some of these are threadbare jokes.
When this unorthodox punctuation is good, it is excellent. When it is less than that it is of doubtful value, for I think that ambiguity in these matters indicates a lack of interest in the poem by the poet himself. The punctuation is worked out in terms of a word or phrase, or two or three phrases, and almost never is there a logic to it which supports the meaning of the whole poem. (The Buffalo Bill poem, as an exception, is a very short poem.) Very often those poems in which the punctuation is most complicated are poems which fall apart, which are without unity of meaning. And conversely, those poems which are sustained and unified are most simply punctuated. In general, I think, his unorthodox punctuation is most successful when it leaves out signs. It is most often unsuccessful when it elaborates on the conventional scheme by amplification.
However obscure Cummings's language may become at times and however absurd his typography, it is clear that he is an intelligent poet. He is not interested in intellectual subtleties as Eliot and MacLeish are, and on the other hand he does not belong to the cult of unintelligibility. Actually his intellectual position is respectable and rather coherently maintained. He is a Platonist, absorbed in the discipline of contemplation and devoted to the perception of being. Existence means more to him than action. The highest praise he can give to people is to say they are; the Zulu Is. That which is alive in the truth, and is capable of growth and fulfillment, Is. (pp. 387-88)
In [his latest] poems I find a firmness and strength which is new to Cummings. All along he has maintained his knowledge of the invaluable worth of the individual …, and some of his limitations of belief have hindered him from social comment. But now I think he more clearly understands the nature of the rebellion he has been waging; it is clearer to him, and his experience can be put to wiser use…. His imagery and his thought are more frequently informed with Christian doctrine. I do not believe Cummings yet has a fully reasoned philosophy, but it is evident that he is now able to express more serious convictions by virtue of greater sympathy with Christianity. The judgments in the recent poems are not perhaps profound, but they are never foolish. They are responsible judgments. He is now more sure that he belongs to the world of all of us. This, I think, is growth, and provides a means whereby Cummings may now avoid errors he once made, and develop more fully what was originally sound in his perceptions. As from the beginning he has given us things of immeasurable worth, so I think he will continue to increasingly.
He should not be allowed to fall from sight, or to be remembered only as one of the wild experimenters who came along after the last war. For he represents even now, in a more terrible war, something that is valid and sweet in the human spirit, and something profound and strong—in short, beauty. (pp. 389-90)
John Arthos, "The Poetry of E. E. Cummings," in American Literature (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1943 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), Vol. 14, January, 1943, pp. 372-90.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1555
This unessay is also about communication which is like flowers and moons only not really whom flowers and moons are only for feel (ing o isn't that nice), but communication is more like razor-blades and electric eggbeaters; it is made for use It is utilitarianand so at least partially rational and so unfortunately is any po (iloveyou) em….
what you and i and cummings have in common even more than roses is … language but also the Same Language ie english; a frenchman would have a hell of a time reading cummings' poetry unless he happened to speak english which unfortunately most frenchmen do not [and that would not help more than littlemuch even if he did for many of cummings' poems] (and the really go
good ones like
somewhere I have never travelled or my love thy head
or the great advantage of being alive are not really very unsame from any other uninpoems)
because most of them are not very anything but tricks and games saying unthings nearly or things that leave you with a vague feeling of feeling (my red red rose) goodness which is often not nearly poetry but unorganized sound or emotion like if i wrote I love you i Love you i lOve you i loVe you i lovE you i love You six times.)
What eecummings is doing withah-POETRY!? in his own syntactical way is really allthetime the same things which I shall describe to wit … he is recreating his emotional experiences of looking at treesmoonsrainsnowlovemotherskythighetc or maybe even his dreams and he wants you to too and see how undead and thingish they are … what gets in his way is paper and Language which is why: once feeling is described it is not feeling any more but it is anaboutfeeling which is a farfar differentthing and you do not feel it but the telling about it in words which have logical relations hips topreposition eachadjective othersubstantive and that must therefore be intelligent in some way or one might say (or might not) rational (lyordered) and which are as i said not pure feeling which is immediate and emotional and unconventionally ordered.
eecummings is trying to get away from unliveness which destroys his feelings so he if i may quote someone else frEEEs language, that is he destroys ITS order until he thinks it looks (and this is where the problem) the same as HIS feeling and/or (comes in) he uses words which are things with both denotations and connotations purely for their connotative which is usually emotional effect. ! Thus he combines images which are so unrelated to each other as to be almost unimages merely because of their associational quality which gives you the feeling he wants…. He does this very well and it is why many of his poems are extremely unbad….
and similarly is what else he does to us with his syntactics, in two ways: first with normalwordorder and pun, ctu! ation? which is most ordinary when he merely reverses it or leaves it out; he does often much more fiendish, things? Second with the parts of speech which he mixes up like the muchness of summer rain until all, being being, are one with each other. this is not nocuous when he simply forgets capitaL letters and periods and other unbeautiful whatnots that aren't the snow soaking into the belly of the Earth or what have you;? after the first shock which was in the 1920's anyway you don't notice because these things are not either logical or illogical in themselfish's being only conveniences like a woman in a bar
And he is often (SUCCESS)
full, mixing up which's and whom's and all the King's words….
However, in most of his poetry if you use the criterion of merely counting noses like any anaesthetizedimpersonalunbeing mathematician which don't get down and sssss
UCK the good earth, or mud when it rains, it fails. (p. 24)
What eec is doing is to take words ordinarily denotative and make them connotative like fragile which he uses to qualify almost everything under the sun not to mention the sun, or also to invent new connotations for words ordinarily used in a connotative sense. What happens too often is that the burden of meaning he puts on a denotative or convention-
ally connotative and therefore w is too heavy: the word
snapS and we are left with no meaning at all or an incoherent meaning as if he were stroking your back, it feels so nice but can you tell me about it? The weight referred to is that of mr cummings' private experience and perceptions which of necessity mustin their original state be unshared by the reader who has had his own experience and has found the triangular why of a dream is not to quote mr cummings blue and is furthermore not triangular and is indeed not why. Of course i am not saying that eec must only use words which a particular reader understands in context—the, line, we draw for permissibly avoiding unlivemassman convention is a pragmatic one at best but unfortunately eec is prone to overstep it. even at its most tolerant, as in the foregoing quotation which may sound very pleasant but poetry is unhappily not music it is impossible to elucidate the meaning or even the feeling of the phrase. The poet must grant the reader some rapport even if he doesn't like us because we're not undead or else his poetry becomes purely subjectivistic which is fine for writing on your tablecloth but not necessarily so good for printing in a public place unless you happen to be an anarchist, which I am not and you are probably not.
Second, we must refer to the similar but much more destructive problem of cummings' punc (tuation)? and typography which is to say that he ow
his poem of
to sprawl all o e
the printed to use the word loosely page, with little marks that used to be commas and similar unthings stuck in un-Godly places,
Mr cummings is in this regard working on the theory of direct communication i assume that i referred to earlier, which is that he is desir-ous of avoiding the stultification of prescribed form which will hinder the direct expression of
his experiences. So that if he wants … to describe a k e he
makes some kind of arrangement which is supposed to suggest a kite but is not a kite and cannot even really suggest a kite because a kite is a thing is unwords and exists in space not in time which is what words exist in; and because words are not things but are things ABOUT things or symbols and are experienced not directly but at one remove from experience. They are descriptions and a poem too in a description and since comprehension of descriptions occurs through the use of the intelligence the description itself must be intelligent even if this is unwhich and notmost. The trouble with cummings' poems which are really unpoems may be stated also psychologically; cummings breaks up w/o(r)-ds and chops them into pieces and mis: punctuate, s and extraCAPITALIZES and half-parenthesizes and (all to emphasize what he thinks are the feelings inherent in ordinary boring words like anonymous which has an US in it which is i suppose you and i making love. But this unphotographicminded reader reads one word at a time and must therefore rearrange as he goes along because words will be words and demand that they be perceived in the same old-reary way that they have been for the last few hundred years, i. e. one at a time and oneafteranother and in one (1) piece and even spelled bourgeoiscorrectly.
If i scrawl f,
l a tin,
in little pieces from here to eternity you are still going to read it as floating eventually if you die in the attempt and your effort to do this creates a battle between the reader and the poem which has nothing to do with the usual tension of unprose. It is just a damnuisance.
on the whole of course cummings has written a lot of doublemuchunugly poems which are very nice to read because he knows lots of not beautiful words which are unthings but words about beautiful things…. But most of these poems are ones in which the images have at least something to do with anyone or anything and the words are written one after another. As a matter of fact which is a subtle way of saying that my next sentence will probably be incorrect, those unconventional oddities of eec's which are good, such as what if a much of a which of a wind, are good precisely because they combine the best features of innovation with convention being in the most respected ladyyourlipsaredivineandiloveyou tradition: they are in a given context logical (he'd never forgive me for saying this) changes, structured intelligently and (your pardon ee) rationally; in short they make (o world o death) sens
Philip Green, "an unessay on ee cuMming S," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1958 by The New Republic, Inc.), May 19, 1958, pp. 24-6.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2485
[The] relationship between Cummings and his speaker is of the [kind which Friedman defines earlier as an author who "may deliberately create a poetic persona and then transform himself in its image, organizing his personal life and concerns to conform to that pattern"], and it has been made possible by endurance—or better still, integrity—rather than by a private income. His speaker is never involved in the world of work and routine which takes up the largest part of the lives of most men…. He is a detached observer and commentator rather than a participant; he is always either alone or with his lady; he never has a time clock to punch, a train to catch, a bill to pay, or a baby to feed. (p. 9)
[The incredible thing about Cummings' poetry is] how completely the man has been transformed into the artist, for his mode of life has involved absolutely no compromise between the character of the speaker he has created and the demands of everyday existence. It is just possible, indeed, that Cummings himself fully believes and acts exactly as his speaker believes and acts.
The speaker of Cummings' poems, then, is always a poet and a painter, and this has been a matter of endurance almost ritualistic in its disciplined and consistently sustained self-abnegation: the man has in effect died that the artist might live. For if the artist enjoys a certain amount of freedom from drudgery and nagging routine of which we of the "really unreal" world might feel somewhat envious, he also in exchange denies himself the solace of family and physical security which most of us would be reluctant indeed to surrender. And even more "dangerously" (a favorite word of his) he has taken, by a deliberate effort of will, his destiny altogether into his own hands, so that whatever becomes of him, he is entirely responsible. It has been, for him, an exchange of one kind of responsibility for another, and this voluntary assumption of freedom is a conclusive sign, if a sign is needed, of his absolute moral seriousness. (pp. 9-10)
[Cummings'] speaker sees this world as cleanly divided between good and evil, right and wrong, and, in so doing, simply rises above the whole struggle into a transcendent world which is one, and full of love. (p. 13)
Perhaps the key to the thought of Cummings' persona is to be found in the fact that, in his universe, there is evil but no sin. It is as if we were all still living in an Eden in which no command has yet been given, and all, except the speaker and a few others like him, are afraid of eating of its fruits. (pp. 13-14)
His reaction to suffering and evil is, since they are wholly manmade, hate unalloyed with pity; he has no sense at all of man's helplessness due to historical or metaphysical causes. And his reaction to courage and love is, since they are wholly divine, admiration unspoiled by second thoughts; he has no idea whatever of man's fundamental ambivalences due to environmental and psychological causes. (pp. 14-15)
This sense of detachment also partially explains the unusual virulence of his satire, for if we are ourselves wholly responsible for whatever foolishness we are guilty of and whatever betrayals we commit, then it follows that the satirist can bite and snarl, laugh and rage, fume and storm in his effort to get us to change our ways, and be without pity for those who refuse to listen. It helps to explain the rare tenderness of his love poetry as well, for the lover is not affrighted by the skull beneath the skin when he kisses his lady, nor is he dismayed by the tug of guilt as he embraces her. (p. 15)
There are three or four areas of human thought and experience about which Cummings' speaker has any ideas: love, death, and time; the natural and the artificial; society and the individual: and dream and reality. Transcendence means freedom from limitations and has its source in a sinless universe. Each of these topics, therefore, involves an opposition that illustrates this general freedom in a particular way: love transcends death and time; the individual transcends the group; the natural transcends the artificial; and the dream is the true reality. (p. 16)
If the character and thought of this speaker represent select aspects of the character and thought of its creator, so also do the subjects he dwells upon and the circumstances that give rise to his dramatic responses represent select aspects of the poet's actual environment. As the speaker, in other words, is a created persona, so his subjects and situations form a created world of images. And here also, taking them up in the order of their importance, we will learn as much from the omissions as from the inclusions.
Love always was and still is Cummings' chief subject of interest. The traditional lyric situation, representing the lover speaking of love to his lady, has been given in our time a special flavor and emphasis by Cummings. Not only the lover and his lady, but love itself—its quality, its value, its feel, its meaning—is a subject of continuing concern to our speaker.
Cummings is furthermore in the habit of associating love, as a subject, with the landscape, the seasons, the times of day, and with time and death—as poets have always done in the past. Love and lovers, not only traditionally but also as a logical consequence of the speaker's thought, are seen against the background of, and in harmony with, nature and natural process…. (pp. 27-8)
Ideas constitute his next most significant subject. It is frequently said that Cummings, happy primitive and sensuous anti-intellectual that he is, is undistinguished as a thinker. Whatever we may think of such a lack in a lyric poet, it is simply not true that he shares this quality with, say, Campion or Lovelace. The more one reads the complete poems, the more one is impressed by the relatively high proportion of nondramatic and satirical poems, the subjects of which are exclusively values and concepts, to say nothing of the many dramatic poems that express or imply abstract ideas in connection with the thought and character of the speaker as he responds to a variety of circumstances. (p. 29)
We have already discussed the detachment from the normal world of work and routine of Cummings' persona, and we may note here, in relation to his third most important poetic subject matter, the conspicuous absence of interest in marriage, children in relation to parents, working, groceries, bills, illness, diapers, dishes, laundry, worry, mundane responsibility, and social life. (p. 30)
The truth of the matter is that, for Cummings as well as for his speaker, what most of us call the "real" world simply does not exist, not necessarily and just because it is evil but rather because it is external and abstract. No one can feel History, or see a Government; they are made up, they are fake. The artist's country is himself, and treason or loyalty have meaning only in relationship to that citizenship; people who live in the unworld, since they exist in terms of that world, change when that world changes, succeed when that world succeeds, and collapse when that world collapses (witness the mass suicide of businessmen after the Crash). They are dead because they are not true to themselves. (p. 34)
The poet, then, creates the character, thought, and world of his persona out of internal necessity, and the critic need only ask if out of this necessity are created serious and beautiful peoms. A sensual mystic, Cummings is not of this world. If he is immature, it is the immaturity of a visionary; his persona represents no mere aesthetic pose. (p. 35)
We inquire now into the kinds of responses that Cummings portrays his speaker as acting out in consequence of endowing him with a certain character, set of beliefs, and subject matter. And the kinds of responses that a speaker may experience in a lyric are, commonly, to praise, to blame, to persuade, to react emotionally, to describe, to meditate, to reflect, and to set forth or argue a proposition. (p. 36)
Description, praise and eulogy, satire, reflection, and persuasion … are the kinds of responses that Cummings' persona is most frequently portrayed as enacting, and in that order. And these poems account for almost 90 per cent of the total, the rest being a numerically, if not a relatively, substantial scattering of poems of proposition and emotion. (p. 40)
These, then, are the kinds of responses around which Cummings most characteristically organizes his poems. His five major forms are: the description, that locates its speaker in the presence of some sensory stimulus and represents him as perceiving; praise and eulogy, that place him in relation to some person, type, or idea, and represent him as admiring; the satire, that places him in relation to society and that represents him as its critic; reflection, that places him before scenes and people and represents him as interpreting and commenting; and persuasion, that places him in the presence of someone else and represents him as speaking to him or her…. [There] are several additional minor ones which we have not been able to examine in any detail.
A speaker who has over five roles to play simply cannot be characterized as lacking in dramatic and rhetorical range, and thus the usual song-satire distinction will not serve to describe it. Furthermore, a thorough inquiry into Cummings' use of these situations has not supported the contention that he is a static poet, for each of them has an individual history in his work, an origin in time, a rise, and perhaps a fall. There is a decrease in description as he gets older and less absorbed in the immediacy of sensation; a rise, a dip, and a rise in his use of praise and eulogy as he gets a firmer grip on his moral values; a strong current of satire, more and more clearly defining his social values; and a gradual decline in reflection and persuasion as he turns more and more outward toward approbation rather than interpretation, instruction, and consolation. If his growth reveals no crises, it does show a steady development. (pp. 59-60)
If the poet's vision determines in general the kinds of poems he writes, then it is the kinds of poems he writes that determine the styles he uses. (p. 61)
[Nothing is more characteristic of Cummings'] style than its range and variety. He makes fun of what he praises, and mocks what he reveres; he is seriously funny, comically serious, and classically romantic. He can use obscenities in a love poem and archaisms in a topical satire; he can mix concrete adjectives with abstract nouns and see colors in terms of sounds. Thus I shall call his general stylistic quality "mixed." Although the mixed style is characteristic of much modern poetry, what is impressive is the particular nature of Cummings' mixture and the special way he handles it.
The components of this mixture—whether appearing alone or in combination—range, reading from right to left on the linguistic spectrum, from "formal" or "archaic," to "neutral," to "mock" or "burlesque." These three modes and their various mixtures constitute an instrument of great dramatic and rhetorical precision which Cummings has forged to characterize the subtlety and variety of his speaker's attitudes and responses. Since there appears to be almost no limit to what his speaker can say in a given situation—he may talk out of the side of his mouth, or sing, or speak grandiloquently, or combine various voices—this verbal freedom is his chief pitfall. But here, as elsewhere, Cummings' freedom transcends danger—or rather lives on danger—and comes out finally as discipline. (pp. 62-3)
There are at least two reasons why Cummings' growth has been called into question: first, because many of his critics, being of his generation, have apparently never been able to forget the startling impression that his early work made in their younger days, and therefore have been unable to read his middle and later work without being impressed most by the echoes they find there of the early work; and second, because they cherish a special and limited notion of what constitutes poetic development. (pp. 159-60)
A chronological reading of his complete poetry reveals very real developments in thought, form, expression, and technique, and therefore the facts simply will not support the charge that he has remained static. (p. 160)
Their view, secondly, of what constitutes development seems to be limited to the kind that involves a reversal of some sort: from profane to sacred verse, as in Donne; from lushness to restraint, as in Yeats; from despair to faith, as in Eliot; or from Marxism to Freudianism to Protestantism, as in Auden. What they require, apparently, is that the poet grow through a series of discarded hopes and repudiated enthusiasms, and this they value as a sign of maturity. This is related also to their doctrine of the tragic vision, of giving the devil his due, on the assumption, it seems, that one can only know in terms of opposites, that Good can be understood only after one has embraced Evil, that the repentant sinner is more to be valued than the consistently virtuous man. Also involved is the rather faddish doctrine that a poet must mirror his times; if the age is complex, then poetry must be complex; if the age is ambivalent, the poet must be ambivalent.
The fact is, however, that many of our best poets have not developed in this way…. Cummings has grown … by remaining faithful to himself; if he has not changed his vision of life, he has nevertheless deepened it and given it a more serious turn; if he has not evolved from one sort of poetic form to another, he has nevertheless developed a variety of forms and revealed a less purely sensuous emphasis in many of them; if he has shown a consistent preference for certain words, he has nevertheless rejected some and added others in the interest of greater efficiency of style; and if he has not entirely abandoned his more eccentric typographical techniques, he has nevertheless come to use them with less frequency in favor of and in combination with other and stricter disciplines. (pp. 160-61)
For he has grown, as all artists must, by remaining faithful to himself in his own way and by being dedicated as few others are. This is called, all things considered, integrity—which we are prepared by now not to confuse with immaturity—a quality the possession of which by any poet, nay, by any man, qualifies him as a citizen of immortality. (p. 167)
Norman Friedman, in his E. E. Cummings: The Art of His Poetry (© 1960 by The Johns Hopkins Press), The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1960.
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Cummings is one of our society's best haters; functioning as a Juvenalian satirist, he has long attacked our society's worst indulgences in materialism, hypocrisy, "hypercivic zeal," scientific unwisdom and the following of false heroes and tawdry ideals. He most bitterly, in poems like "plato told him …" reproaches us for not taking the words of our philosophers seriously, but rather insisting on mouthing (vulgarizing and debasing) the poetry of their utterances. (p. 287)
["Buffalo Bill's Defunct,"] based on the poet's intense anger, is part of Cummings's broadside assault on several traditions, particularly that of our national sentimentality toward figures like Buffalo Bill. Cummings seems to be saying, with an appearance of flippancy that has often been regarded by critics as rather adolescent, that we as a nation are adolescent in our infatuation for such fraudulent "heroes." Even the subjects of our grief are unworthy. (p. 288)
To understand the poem's irony it is necessary to make the chronological perspective within the poem very clear. The persona is that of a mature man who, as a child, was awed by Bill … and who, hearing of Bill's death, first grieves for him, and then (and these functions are simultaneous) adds additional fuel to his hatred of "Mister Death," the destroyer of everything, by reflecting that he was defrauded and deprived by Bill as well as by "Mister Death." In this sense the poet both laments and curses the fraudulence of his childhood hero-worship. These shifts are clearly signalled by the change of tense from present to past (to the boy's view) and back again to the angry persona of the present tense. There is, of course, a very obvious shift of tone that goes along with the shift of tense; the mellifluous "watersmooth silver stallion" image, almost caressed, is a sharp contrast to such a nasty word as defunct or to such a sneering phrase as "how do you like your blueeyed boy."
It is important to note, in making a case for the redirection of the poet's fury to Bill, that Bill, in the poem, functions as a destroyer, an agent of death. What has been destroyed, of course, is rather all-embracing. Bill has been destroyed; the poet's childhood, and the kind of innocent faith and wonder that went along with it has been destroyed by his subsequent disillusionment with Bill; the clay pigeons have been destroyed. The poet is in many ways blaming Bill for disappointing both his expectations of childhood and of America…. (pp. 288-89)
Cummings's poem is, then, an assault on everything held dear by a sentimentalist or a hero-worshipper. Following his usual practice, his first offense is directed at the grammarians; he then turns to attack the tradition of a respectful stance toward the subject of death …, the heroism of Buffalo Bill, and—most importantly—the entire convention of the elegy. Cummings assaults everything, in short, in this finest of his "hate" poems except what he manages to assert by this anger—a sense of fundamental decency outraged with everything that corrupts life or makes it fraudulent. (pp. 289-90)
David Ray, "The Irony of E. E. Cummings," in College English (copyright © 1962 by the National Council of Teachers of English), January, 1962, pp. 282-90.
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Cummings' depth and poetic vision is intense enough to excite and revivify. He confronts himself with cosmic dichotomies that take him to the core of man's reality. He questions, probes, ridicules. The undercurrent of a Cummings' joy is most often cynicism, betraying to us the lonely man, the man of "helpless pain" beleaguered by a "piercing sense of dislocation."… (p. 3)
Cummings runs away in his cynicism. He flees the hell-bent, tortuous world that offers the evil of man as his own God. He flees the oppressing, lackluster world of scientifically organized man…. He lifts himself above this banality searching for the God of his poetic joy…. He is like Byron following the venturesome Don Juan to a fairy island or Whitman losing himself in the surging rivers and pliant grass. (pp. 3-4)
Cummings breaks the chains that bind him to conventional matters and casts off the "common motives of humanity." Because of this, he deserves the respect, admiration, and envy due all poets by the more unfortunate who must cast their lot with banality. He is above other men because he places himself there and his success depends upon his supraview of nature, of the heaven in his back alley or the public park. He expresses his joy and it remains with him. Most people cannot partake in it for his acts of poetry are naked and obscene exposures of an inner daimonia. They are of "infinite loneliness." In a sense, they communicate only the loneliness, the longing that emptiness brings to a super-sensitive prophet of beauty. The great mass of men, the "mostpeople" of Cummings, cannot fathom this unreal search for reality…. Mostpeople is rather the "Cultured aristocrat yanked out of his hyperexclusively ultravoluptuous superpallazzo, and dumped into an incredibly vulgar detentioncamp swarming with every conceivable species of undesireable organism." But not "You and I," says Cummings. "You and I are human beings; mostpeople are snobs." You and I are the visionaries, the oracles of a hellishly mysterious world….
The fantastic tension created between mostpeople and you and I is the medium of Cummings' poetry. (p. 4)
Cummings, the poet, exemplifies the alienation of the searcher for beauty and truth from the world. Monklike, he follows a discipline which liberates his vision. He turns his head with pride to the heavens and seeks out the stars that shine brilliantly through dirty windows, or over the towering mountain of a steel city, or in the mud of a garden path. He proclaims the star in man, the mystery that will never be solved by the furious machinations of a mind:
when skies are hanged and oceans drowned,
the single secret will still be man.
Reason stifles the gropings of man's real need. Cummings emphasizes this point over and over again. It is at the basis of his flight from what mostpeople call reality. It is at the crux of his alienation. He would rather see a dirt-encrusted garbage can and partake of its beauty than to scientifically evaluate its dimensions….
This transcendency over the mind brings Cummings to damn all abstractions. He wants to accept the world and reality as it is, to become a part of it, to enter into it with all the verve and passion of a lover. We are unable to communicate with such an irregular view of reality for any length of time. We are not "existential" enough. When all is said and done, and our momentary fit of poetic romanticism has passed, we have to return to a world of "reality." Cummings' "real" and our "real" cannot breathe the same air. (p. 5)
In himself and by himself … the artist may travel where he pleases. There are no restrictions on creativity in his private domain. If two plus two equals four in the "real world," the poet can make it five. The "nonmakers" are content with four, Cummings cannot be. This ingredient of freedom may be called license by some, but it is definitely not by Cummings. It is, rather, the meontic freedom of Berdyaev and the willful freedom of Nietzsche. Man is Godlike. He can create and destroy as he wills. The pity of the situation is that there is no absolute quality to creativity. It is extremely difficult to transcend with blazing visions when all things are restricted by man's myopia. On the poetic level, there is the problem of fitting the vastly beautiful three dimensional reality into two dimensional forms. In an effort to escape this, Cummings uses form, words, spacing and punctuation as he wills. He tries to create reality that surpasses limitations. In reading his more unorthodox work, one feels his soul struggling upwards while not understanding totally. (pp. 5-6)
A great amount of pain can arise in a sensitive soul which is constantly at the core of such tension. The battleground is not soaked in blood but in the sweat of loneliness. The poet stands at the pinnacle of a paradox. He can see his stars and feel their heat but he cannot communicate this adequately to others….
No vision in its completeness can pass between Cummings and mostpeople. "Worms are the words," they convey "a dawn of a doom of a dream." The breach is unsurpassable and heightens Cummings' sense of isolation. It forces him to turn in on himself and encounter whatever good or evil he may find there. The isolation also directs him to an Other, but an Other that is worthy of him—a Being that transcends even his visions. This Other is a most fundamental part of his search. It is the end toward which all his dreams are focused. It is the essence of his complete transcendency and pursuit of this "object" becomes the central theme of all Cummings' work.
Is it God? Is it Love? In a sense, it is both of these, but really and basically it is something beyond them. (p. 6)
The truth is that neither God nor Love can fill the void in Cummings. The emptiness remains as a symbol of man's condition—the plight of uncertainty and existence in a befouled world. For Cummings, the feeling is much more acute. By his talent and vision, the infinite gap between heaven and earth takes on gigantic proportions. The pain travels paradoxically through his poetry in the form of joy—a joy which is an enigmatic consolation now. (p. 7)
Words can be deceiving, and they are very apt to be deceiving in the case of Cummings. He is definitely not a children's poet although he does exude a warmth and charm that is childlike in quality. He is not a poet of rebellion and pessimism although he does allow himself cynical, rebellious overtures. More pointedly, it can be said that he embodies both of these things to a certain extent while still pursuing more elusive and profound realities. He is a poet in the tradition of Homer, Shakespeare, and Whitman. Cummings searches for a vision which will satisfy and complete him. He struggles forward in a special way, in a decidedly modern way, in a way that has been conditioned by nuclear turmoil and despair. He expresses a boundless Faith in Man and his courage to overcome these difficulties and keep on searching in the face of opposition and even annihilation. He is a lonely man, a man isolated from most-people, estranged from the herd, alienated from the common trivia of earthly life. In short, he is a poet and a mystic, and because of this, he is doomed to a position of grandeur—grandeur that is so lofty and so immersed in captured destiny that the horizon of humanity becomes a very distant line never again to be seen by human eyes. (p. 8)
George Wesolek, "E. E. Cummings: A Reconsideration," in Renascence (© copyright, 1965, Marquette University Press), Autumn, 1965, pp. 3-8.
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For Cummings, self-discovery was supremely important and the only valid motive for writing a poem; it separated his awareness from stereotyped awarenesses, separated his identity as an artist from his conventional identity as a member of society. If the truth of human existence is to be uncovered and recognized, it will be accomplished through the perspective of the artist. (pp. 12-13)
In the process of writing a poem, the poet discovers his identity, which paradoxically is one of fusion and harmony with the eternal forces of change. The artist discovers his identity in the eternal by resisting the current of temporal affairs; at the same time, it is in the temporal world that the artist discovers the eternal and spiritual. This unfolding of identity is never-ending: it depends upon an honest appraisal of felt experience. (p. 13)
The happiness of Cummings' early life, his sense of being loved, and his devotion to his parents have found expression in many poems. Two of the most obvious and best known are the famous elegies: "my father moved through dooms of love" … and "if there are any heavens my mother will (all by herself) have."… (p. 14)
The concept of love as a positive force to be equated with joy and growth had its source in Cummings' experience as a child; he grew up in an aura of love. From the same source, from his study of Greek literature, and no doubt from other sources, came his conviction of the essential dignity of the individual. Both are central to his writing. Love is the propelling force behind a great body of his poetry. In time he came to see love and the dignity of the human being as inseparable. (pp. 15-16)
Cummings' satiric thrusts at his conventional New England background with its decorum, propriety, and respectability spring from the same source as his poems of eulogy and joy—namely his convictions about love and human dignity. Cummings defends these values against any force or idea that would threaten them. Rules and regulations about what is correct and proper stifle spontaneity, thwart joy, stunt spiritual growth; they may prevent love, may prevent the realization of one's dignity. You cannot know who you are if you are concerned only with what society demands that you should be. Hence Cummings ridicules the stuffy elements of his own New England, Puritan heritage. (p. 17)
Throughout his career Cummings insisted that the artist must maintain fidelity to himself. (p. 25)
The most extended analysis of the problem of maintaining individuality as a man and fidelity to self as an artist occurs in the play Him…. The dramatic tension of the play rises from the struggle of the character Him to determine what is genuine and what is false, what truly exists and what he is deceived into thinking exists. (pp. 26-7)
Two key words in Cummings' mystique are failure and nothing. These two words help clarify each other. Nothing represents the spirit or essence of existence; it is no thing. For Cummings the apparent confusion and chaos of the visible and tangible world dissolves when one becomes aware of the spiritual world inherent in it. The task of the poet is to attempt to come to grips with this world of spirit, to show that behind the tumultuous and disparate impressions lies a world of harmony, order, and unity of spirit. This world is more real than the superficial world of unrelated sense impressions: it is the world of nothing, wherein lies the truth of our existence. (pp. 30-1)
But the poet, by being nothing in society, by cultivating himself, is alone with such basic phenomena as stars, twilight, the moon, and (in this particular poem) flowers, which all serve as symbols of a cycle of growth and love. Moreover, these phenomena renew themselves, and to this extent they are in accord with the universal will of creation. Ironically, they are so taken for granted, so constantly before us, that they are perceived as nothing in the usual sense of the word—devoid of significance. But to the poet they speak completeness, fulfillment, and rebirth—the ultimate of nothing.
For Cummings, then, the word nothing implies the "awful responsibility" the artist assumes, knowing he will fail. Finally, nothing is the ultimate goal of the Artist-Man-Failure, who in order to attain it must of necessity maintain fidelity to himself. (pp. 35-6)
Cummings is concerned with the whole man, and in writing a poem he attempts to make the poem become the man. That is, he attempts to portray for his readers that image of man which is splendid rather than sordid, magnanimous rather than petty. (p. 38)
In reading Cummings' poetry … it is helpful to know that he differs from most of his contemporaries in two basic ways: in his general attitude toward life, and in his method of employing subjects and images. His attitude toward existence largely informs and controls his poetic methods…. Cummings finds illimitable joy in everything truly alive. He turns an oftentimes brilliant and vitriolic satire upon those people who do not respond to life and upon the conventions, institutions, and beliefs with which they surround themselves to avoid or disguise reality.
Because of this basic attitude his poems often take on a radical appearance on the page. Subjects are presented for the simple purpose of calling attention to the properties of their vitality or for the purpose of dispelling set notions or beliefs about them. Hence [his poems] … either intrigue readers with the ingenuity of their technique or cause them to decide that Cummings is writing in a private language to please only himself and perhaps the esoteric few. (pp. 40-1)
Where other poets begin with an idea (or perhaps a general conviction or awareness) which they exemplify with subjects and images—a process which T. S. Eliot has termed the discovery of an "objective correlative"—Cummings often begins with and goes no further than the subject or incident itself, assuming that the subject, seen for itself, will reveal its inherent significance. Here we have two polarities of method which, when effectively employed, converge upon very similar results. With Cummings, however, it is important to recognize how his method differs from conventional practice, as an aid to understanding his poetry.
Cummings does not present a system of thought; instead he presents a response to life. His statements express this response; his subjects and images embody it. They do not stand for something outside the poem (they are not symbols in the true sense of the word), but represent only themselves, as possessing life and vitality or not possessing it. They may be thought of as symbols only in relation to Cummings' statement that life is a mystery, an unknown quantity, and that in order to be alive one must constantly be aware of this fact.
Cummings' major subjects are love, birth, growth, dying, and their antitheses…. Given his convictions about what constitutes value in life, these subjects are most appropriate; for they remain largely unknown (mysterious). It may even be that the poet alone (or a person of poetic temperament) has anything to say about them that is interesting or exciting. (pp. 47-8)
Although he occasionally called himself a "nonhero," the meaning Cummings attaches to two key terms in his lexicon—freedom and individual—is much more apropos to his stance as a member of society and his vision as a poet. (p. 66)
Cummings believed that a man is free when he is allowed to be himself. He believed that a man can be himself only when he is not shackled to creed, beliefs, dogma, ideologies…. A man can be himself by reflecting on his responses and feeling awarenesses. If he accepts the truth he senses, he is free. If, however, he lives by the creeds and slogans he has been taught to believe, he is not free. One of the foremost attributes of the individual is that he resists the tyranny of thinking and practices the freedom of feeling alive.
In his freedom the individual retains the right, always, to decline making a choice between mental alternatives or hypothetical distinctions. (pp. 67-8)
Cummings' concept of the individual did not emerge fully developed at the beginning of his career to be reaffirmed through successive volumes of poetry without any perceptible change or increase in significance, as has too often been stated. Rather, the early volumes primarily celebrate the simply joy of living through the senses, though they also contain some of Cummings' best satiric pieces.
The middle volumes, beginning approximately with is 5 …, reaching a culmination with no thanks …, and showing evidence of a changing emphasis with 50 Poems …, reveal a heightened and defensively sensitive awareness of the individual in relation to his social environment. A noticeably larger number of poems are satiric in tone; they expose specific incidents, occupations, and conventions in thought and behavior that in Cummings' view threaten the individual perception. Poems of objective detail without overt statement now appear on occasion in the form of a pictogram or ideogram. Primarily, however, sensory perception during this middle period is used as a test or a contrast to reveal disparity between what the individual perceives as truth and what the intellect has inculcated. (pp. 80-1)
With the publication of 50 Poems another important dimension becomes evident in Cummings' poetry. Beginning approximately with this volume and extending through 95 Poems … and 73 Poems …, we find Cummings examining the positive impact that the individual exerts upon his fellow men. As we have seen, what the individual has to offer, what the pattern of his life illustrates, is love…. This role of the individual adds a new dimension to Cummings' themes; but nothing of major emphasis in the earlier poetry has been discarded. It is this integrated thematic unity that has misled certain critics into assuming that Cummings' poetry has shown neither growth nor change. The charge is not just. Although Cummings' basic position has never wavered, his poetry does reveal growth in perception and a steady increase in depth and significance. (pp. 81-2)
These are the basic themes of all of Cummings' writing. They are interdependent. Taken in the order Cummings has emphasized them in his poetry, they may be listed as follows:
- The primacy of sensory awareness (of feeling).
- The integrity of the individual.
- The realization of love.
In the order listed these themes point up Cummings' growth as a poet.
The earliest poetry not only affirms that the senses are the means by which life is revealed, but the poetry itself is sensuous, replete with archaic terms suggesting romantic distance and exotic images around which cluster vague emotions suggested through the connotative value of abstract adjectives…. However, Cummings soon came to recognize that the simple presentation of sensual exuberance was not enough, that the value of a phenomenon resided in its inherent essence as revelation about the meaning of life. As a consequence a number of things occurred: the romantic imagery and setting were dropped along with archaic terms and the many allusions to myths and mythological figures. In their stead we find poems dealing with the immediate scene although suitable to any historic time, past, present, or future—the wonder evoked by spring, by the beauty of flowers, by twilight and other natural phenomena, and by the emotion of love. In addition, the poet's language becomes far less extravagant; the rich and vaguely sensuous gives way to the more precise and definite, yet manages to convey impressions that are sensuous and emotionally charged. Word spacing, syntactical distortion, and all the typographical oddities for which Cummings is known are motivated by the same desire to capture, by heightening the impression, the essence of the phenomenon perceived. However, through all this experimentation in the early poetry, his fundamental belief in the importance of sensual perception remained steadfast. (pp. 82-3)
The majority of Cummings' early poems neither state nor indicate by contrast that sensory perception is the only valid test of reality; rather they proceed on this assumption. As poems they deal with experiences or impressions that in themselves may seem slight. Their intention seems to be merely that of reproducing the emotional sensation of physical love, of response to the natural manifestations of life, of response to vivid childhood memories, or of the felt reaction towards sterility. Behind these poems there resides no implicit body of ideology or philosophic idea. Rather the attempt seems to be that of recording an impression or experience in such a way that the reader is compelled to share it with the poet. (pp. 89-90)
From an early poetry of exuberance and sensory detail in which values were seldom pointedly stated, Cummings moved during the mid-twenties to a position from which he more pronouncedly rejects the sham values and superficial by-products of social convention. However, the charge that in his middle and later poetry he became so obsessed with his own integrity as an individual that he could neither accept nor find place for the opinions of others is without warrant in the light of the many poems he has written for the express purpose of giving credit and extending praise to those he admired. Equally unwarranted is the assertion that the characters of his poems are so shallowly depicted as to emerge almost entirely as caricatures, intensely presented in objective detail but lacking in substance of thought or feeling. Numerous poems and prose comments indicate the opposite, among them those lauding Hart Crane, Ezra Pound, Froissart, Ford Madox Ford, Picasso, Sally Rand, Jimmy Savo, Sam (whose "heart was big/as the world aint square)," his father, and Olaf, "a conscientious object-or," to name those that come most readily to mind. (p. 99)
The individual in Cummings' poetry emerges because of the recognition of two basic precepts: that the codes of behavior and accepted belief of society are stultifying, and that the values residing in nature are not perceived or understood by those who subscribe to the dictates of propriety. The result is that the individual is one set apart not because he wants to be, because he prizes a discipline of some kind for the sake of the discipline, but because his integrity warns him that he must constantly beware of doctrine that is false by the test of the unstereotyped response. (p. 101)
With the publication of 50 Poems … it became evident that the individual of the earlier poems was becoming aware of himself as one who not only exults in love but also practices that love which is the only real ingredient of life. In a sense the individual becomes in the later poems both the embodiment of and the spokesman for the love that reveals the basic kinship of men. The earlier poems reflect an exuberance about the physical aspect of love. Poems published during the 1930's indicate an awareness of love as the force that perpetuates life and existence beyond death through a kind of transcendental communion with the forces of the universe. But not until the later poems do we find the individual as a disciple of and commentator on love, one who brings an awareness of the force and beauty of love into the lives of others through the simple procedure of being his uninhibited self in action and words. To be sure, these later poems dealing with love are more didactic than the earlier ones; where the earlier poems deal largely with the physical sensations of love and as a result are to a certain degree dramatic, with a recognized speaker or actor involved, the later poems proceed much of the time from an uninvolved voice commenting upon those mystic qualities of love that induce growth, renewal, and harmony. In short, the development has been from poems dealing with the sensations of love to those in praise of a realization of love.
The best known of these later love poems are those that metaphorically figure the wonder and strength of love in the form of a recognizable person, verging on a type. Examples would be his father, anyone of "anyone lived in a pretty how town," Sam of the poem "rain or hail," and the knife-sharpener of "who sharpens every dull." The characters in each of these poems are superb examples of the Cummings hero, the individual who lives and practices love, who is an ambassador of love without consciously striving to be, without the slightest trace of altruism, living his life according to the only valid principle he knows, fidelity to self. However, the majority of the later love poems are not so strikingly dramatized; rather they exist as disembodied statements about love, identifiable with the human situation only as we can hear and accept the voice of the poet. (pp. 109-10)
What growth or depth has Cummings' poetry revealed over the years? From my observations I would say that the poet has steadily approached an ideal which can be summarily stated as follows: the purpose of life is the realization of love. Love, however, to be realized, depends upon an individual who applies to himself for the truth as it is perceived and felt. (p. 114)
Cummings wrote poetry for the purpose of discovering himself; the purpose of his satire was to preserve himself, his identity as an individual. In contrast to what he celebrated (birth, growth, love, joy), there is what he impugned (hypocrisy of any kind, cruelty, unfeeling disregard for human dignity, and death regarded as complete cessation). At its best, Cummings' satire reveals the joy of knowing and discovering ourselves in an amazing if not fantastic world versus the ever-present danger of losing ourselves in a human mass, of succumbing to concocted stimuli presented on a massive scale. On this level his satire is brilliant revelation: trenchant, penetrating, sometimes explosive in its humorous ribaldry. At times, however, the reason for the poet's scorn seems to be lost in a barrage of abuse and name-calling. When this happens two things are apparent: precision of statement is lacking, and the attack seems to be launched from a position in itself conventional and stereotyped. These two failings are, of course, related; when the poet is not himself, he cannot write like himself. Good satire depends upon more than a personal bias: it is based upon the assumption that human dignity is more to be cherished than all or any forms or manners of living.
The basis of Cummings' satire is the unfulfilled ideal of human dignity he cherished. For Cummings human dignity could not exist without love. (pp. 116-17)
Without an awareness of what Cummings considers the motive of satire, a reader is likely to come to the unjustifiable conclusion that the poet is only bitter, that he is something of a cynic, that he is inhabiting the ghost-town of solipsism, or that he is skating along the brink of nihilism. These charges have been made; and they have probably been made out of shock or amazement at the vituperation Cummings unleashes against the forces of negation which he loathes. But there is always the other side of the coin: Cummings never stops expressing his admiration, respect, and love for the vital. As he pointed out, love expresses itself through both affirmation and denial. (p. 122)
Cummings' name is associated with unconventional punctuation and capitalization, word displacements, and unusual arrangements of stanzas, lines, words, and even individual letters to produce visual typographical forms. His poems range in prosodic shape from the terse, cryptic ideogram (or pictogram), which in appearance may resemble a column of Chinese script, to conventional stanzaic forms with regular line lengths, meter, and rhyme. Most of his poems fall between these two extremes; nevertheless, an unwary reader may mistake a Cummings sonnet for a poem in free verse. (p. 142)
The ideogram is probably Cummings' most difficult form. These most terse of peoms combine visual and auditory elements, and must be viewed in much the same way as an intaglio. Sounds are suggested, but they may be onomatopoeic rather than linguistic—that is, heard, associated with a visual image, but not pronounced. (p. 143)
The ideogram compresses perception, feeling, and realization until they are no longer distinguishable, until, as Keats observed, beauty is truth and truth is beauty. Cummings responded to the beauty of twilight, a first star, the new moon. His purpose in striving for compression in these poems was to realize more fully the truth about love and being alive that he felt resided in something as simple as seeing a flake of snow—or a whole snowstorm. He has written numerous poems on these subjects. But the progress he made in realizing their significance can best be seen by comparing an early poem with a later one—for instance, "in the rain-" from XLI Poems with "a-/float on some" from the volume 1 × 1. They are very much alike in subject matter and in the tone of voice. However, they show a great difference in technical accomplishment, and they illustrate the poet's development, a matter which has concerned many critics. (p. 148)
Cummings wrote poems that even Mrs. Grundy would recognize as such. Established stanzaic patterns, strict metrical lines, and rhyme have always been part of his technical repertoire, and poems with these characteristics can be found in every volume of poetry he published. They show a precision, particularly in his later volumes, as meticulous as that found in the ideogram. In addition, traditional forms seemed to allow him more freedom: he indulged in wit, humor, narrative, satire as well as fleeting impressions and brief incidents. The ideogram is a moment of coalesced awarenesses. The poem written in traditional prosody may be, for Cummings, a philosophical reflection, a complete episode, a character sketch, or a narrative summary of an entire life. He put established forms to more uses than he did the very terse poem of impression. The broader confines allowed him to investigate more than one perspective…. (pp. 157-58).
Cummings is a versatile poet, a skilled craftsman. But regardless of what form he employs, from the highly elliptical ideogram to the flawlessly metrical and rhymed stanza, his purpose remains the same: through technique to achieve that precision which conclusively demonstrates the spiritual harmony of the physical universe. At their best, his techniques are the embodiment of his themes. (p. 162)
Robert E. Wegner, in his The Poetry and Prose of E. E. Cummings (copyright © 1965 by Robert E. Wegner; reprinted by permission of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.), Harcourt, 1965.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1372
E. E. Cummings, particularly in The Enormous Room, assumed the multiple task of demonstrating not only the discrepancy between language and experience but also the corrosive effects of this discrepancy on the human psyche, and, perhaps his most significant achievement, offered a means for overcoming it in the creation of new relationships between language and experience. (p. 646)
[Principles] for restoring value to a benumbed and misleading language were displayed by Cummings throughout his work. His characteristic device was the manipulation of contexts, associating symbols with their functional referents rather than traditional ones. Such a device, however, in the spare and unelaborated idiom of his poetry was actually a source of confusion…. In the poetry … Cummings' assault on the traditional values of words appears to be little more than evocative eccentricity. Within the more flexible bounds of prose, however, Cummings was able to build up new contexts, to provide the precise associations upon which a creative and functional use of language depends.
In The Enormous Room, Cummings' creative use of language is most successful because it is most integral to the form and theme of the novel. His attack on the traditional symbols, his portrayal of the distorted values and behavior arising from the tyranny of these symbols over reality and his ultimate creation of a language which accurately describes and thereby recreates his world serve as a paradigm for the experience of the narrator. For the novel traces the narrator's disenchantment and betrayal by a world that contradicts its own cultural tradition; it follows the slow erosion of his personality, and his gradual awakening as a creative consciousness.
The major technical problem of a narrative which involves such complex objectives is point of view. Primarily, Cummings' point of view is retrospective. The narrator serves as the persona of Cummings-past, so to speak, through whom the author re-enacts his self-development. The ironic detachment of much of the novel is accounted for by Cummings' having used the innovations in perception and language which were the product of his entire experience. (pp. 647-48)
The Introduction, written in 1932, focuses on the opposition around which the book is structured. In a dialogue between an anonymous interviewer and Cummings, the author opposes a member of what he calls the "everyday humdrum world" and the artist…. (pp. 648-49)
Cummings establishes through this dialogue that the artist, by which he means anyone who creates symbols in wood, music, paint or words, achieves identity or selfhood…. It is, if you like, the hypothesis of The Enormous Room, evolved during his writing of the novel ten years earlier. (p. 649)
The central problem of the book … was a subjective one, the solution to which allowed the book to be written. Before Cummings could perceive and create a viable correspondence between language and experience, he had to rescue himself, a perceiver or identity, from the dehumanizing pressures of his environment. During most of his stay in the Enormous Room, the problem of selfhood was latent. He resided in a limbo between the loss of the official or external and the discovery of the essential self. Deprived of the possibility, indeed, the necessity for motivated action, Cummings functioned simply as an intensely aware and receptive but frozen intelligence. Since it was, as Cummings discovered, through his art that he was able to become himself …, his search for an authentic self was a search within for a nucleus of creativity, the artist's Archimedean point.
Basic to this self-discovery was a condition which characterized his entire imprisonment: a suspension of time. The temporal order is another external structure which, by tying the individual to his own past, introduces the confusion between the self and what is merely an accumulation of experience or events. Consequently, after a detailed description of one day's schedule in prison, Cummings discards the temporal as even an organizational device…. Having established his truancy from time, he confines himself to an empirical present…. (pp. 658-59)
Cummings remains in this state of suspended animation until the departure of his companion "B," the last link with his own past and culture. With this event, the dissolution of external bases of identity rapidly increases and intensifies…. In his indifference to a set of Shakespeare which he receives in the mail, Cummings recognizes the failure of intellectual or cultural affinities as possible bases for self-definition, for they, like one's past or friends, are only external points of reference…. Finally, his physical appearance deteriorates, and with it the most superficial but conventional basis for a definition of self in the objective world, the last external symbol of a social being…. Gradually, the "Machine of decomposition" … destroys the surface layers of Cummings' identity until he is reduced to an almost prenatal passiveness: "I felt myself to be, at last, a doll—taken out occasionally and played with and put back into its house and told to go to sleep."… What appears here as a total defeat by the official structure is in fact the most crucial point in Cummings' self-realization. In this total apathy he no longer depends upon his environment or his accumulated experience for either a vision of self or an interpretation of events.
Cummings makes the first positive gesture toward self-realization when he responds to a natural phenomenon directly rather than through a perception cluttered with inherited, non-functional symbols. The instrument of this response is the imagination, and its awakening marks the emergence of the artist, the basis of his authentic self…. (pp. 659-60)
In establishing the imagination as the inviolable point of reference for understanding his world, Cummings defines his identity as an artist. Whenever he articulates his personal vision of the world, whenever, in other words, he assigns symbols to experience, he both re-creates that world and affirms his identity. The whole process has something of the magical self-generation of the phoenix in it. In order to create, one must have a sense of selfhood; selfhood is affirmed through the act of creation. The ultimate significance, however, of the creative act is contained in the final self-surpassing goal: words, symbols, language. (p. 661)
Like the creative writers of the war generation, he was preoccupied with the failure of traditional symbols in representing the critical experience of his time. But Cummings did not seem to respond in either of the two fashions which characterized these writers. He neither denied the world, excluding it from his proper artistic concerns; nor did he defy it, assuming the self-defeating posture of protest. Rather, he incorporated the world within himself, interpreted it in personal terms, and arrived at a separate, private but communicable peace. Like the semanticists, Cummings' approach to language was functional or empirical. But the goal of the semanticists was social: a community of understanding based upon universally verifiable experience. However admirable this goal may have been, it could not be attained. The semanticists were either caught in debate over the universality of their definitions or imposed new orthodoxies to escape from the morass of whether X should equal Y, Z or buttercups. Cummings escaped both these dilemmas by resisting the claims of society on his art and himself. Experience had shown him that the only possible and authentic gesture was in the preservation of self through a creative act, the making of symbols, which could be as minimal and only as social as conversation. (pp. 661-62)
With the imagination as his source of value, Cummings' ultimate allegiance is to an aesthetic norm which is not restricted to art, one with social, political and ethical implications. Like an earlier devotee of the imagination, Cummings found a liberating and enlarging ideal in the Beauty that is Truth, and Truth that is Beauty. While the truth which he pursued may be more mundane than Keats', it is also more concrete and therefore more available. The beauty, however, that is its measure is encompassing, including the entire range of the living sensate world and everything which animates it. The Enormous Room then, on almost every level—language, form, theme, character—may be considered as a metaphor for the Edenic experience of the creating imagination. (p. 662)
Marilyn Gaull, "Language and Identity: A Study of E. E. Cummings' 'The Enormous Room'," in American Quarterly (copyright © 1967 Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania). Winter, 1967, pp. 645-62.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1998
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…. 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 for it shows through in his poetry.
Burlesque had a more direct influence on Cummings' poetry than the other popular forms. (pp. 503-04)
In analyzing the art of burlesque Cummings emphasizes its incongruous and paradoxical qualities: "'opposites' occur together. For that reason, burlesk enables us to (so to speak) know around a thing, character, or situation." In ordinary painting, on the other hand, we can only know one side of a thing. As an example of "knowing around" Cummings cites his favorite burlesque comic Jack Shargel…. Opposites occur together when Shargel delicately and lightly tosses a red rose to the floor. It floats downward and when it lands, a terrific ear-splitting crash is heard.
Nothing in 'the arts' … has moved me more, or has proved to be a more completely inextinguishable source of 'aesthetic emotion,' than this knowing around the Shargel rose; this releasing of all the unroselike and non-flowerish elements which—where 'rose' and 'flower' are ordinarily concerned—secretly or unconsciously modify and enhance those rose—and flower—qualities to which (in terms of consciousness only) they are 'opposed.'
The verbal comedy of the burlesque comic also appealed to Cummings' sense of the ridiculous. In the foreword to Is 5, Cummings uses burlesque in explaining his theory of technique.
I can express it in fifteen words, by quoting The Eternal Question And Immortal Answer of burlesk, viz. 'Would you hit a woman with a child?—No, I'd hit her with a brick.' Like the burlesk comedian, I am abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement.
The joke expresses some of Cummings' favorite poetic techniques: movement, incongruity, and surprise. These same elements are inherent in his juxtaposition of opposites, but surprise can arise from other incongruities. For instance, in one of his poems on the effect of science on mankind, Cummings juxtaposes incongruous elements for humorous and satiric purposes. In "pity this busy monster, manunkind" the line occurs, "Progress is a comfortable disease." A new understanding of progress is gained by modifying "disease" with a word which is associated with an opposite feeling…. The incongruity between man's scientific illusions and the reality of his insignificance leads to Cummings' famous advice in the last two lines, "listen: there's a hell/of a good universe next door; let's go." Part of the surprise humor in the ending arises out of the contrast between the colloquial tone of these words and the pseudo-technical tone of the rest of the poem, "hypermagical ultraomnipotence."
Science and technology represent the dead world of nonfeeling and nonloving, and Cummings satirizes them mercilessly. But burlesque was a part of the alive world which he celebrated in many of his poems and articles…. [When] John Dos Passos took Cummings to Irving Place one day,… Cummings witnessed the strip tease for the first time. The comedian was no longer the center of attention.
Humor, filth, slapstick, and satire were all present, but they functioned primarily to enhance the Eternal Feminine. And when you saw that Feminine you understood why. It was no static concept, that pulchritude. It moved, and in moving it revealed itself, and in revealing itself it performed such prodigies of innuendo as made the best belly dancer of the Folies Bergere entr'acte look like a statue of liberty.
Cummings transfers his love of movement to the printed page in his poetry. Cummings' poems never sit still; they move across the page in unusual typography, and the words themselves often suggest movement…. In one poem Cummings attempts to emulate the bumps and grinds of a stripper performing her act…. [In the poem that begins "sh estiffl," the] letters and words are so arranged as to suggest the mystery and "peek-a-boo," tantalizing, teasing quality of the stripper. We never see it all, but we see enough to keep us interested…. The halting and provocative unbuttoning of her gown is suggested by the repetition of parts of the word until they all fall together, and by the question marks at the end of each line. When the stripper grinds, the words grinds ("gRiNdS"). The vicarious participation of the men in the audience almost becomes an orgasm at the end of the poem. Besides the type swooping all over the page, the words also imply movement, "struts," "slips," "twitching," "steps," "flipchucking," "grinds," "loop," "mime," "hurl," "swoop," "swirl," "whirling," and "climb." The words and typography suggest the spontaneity of the burlesque art which the poem describes.
Another popular form of entertainment which delighted Cummings was the circus, and like burlesque it too was noted for movement…. The circus as an art form has something which even burlesque lacks, a sense of reality. "Within 'the big top,' as nowhere else on earth, is to be found Actuality." There is nothing phoney when the lion tamer faces the lion and when the trapeze artist defies death. Again, there are opposites occurring together as the terror of death is juxtaposed with the antics of the clowns. (pp. 508-10)
"Aliveness" and "beauty" seem to be the qualities which Cummings seeks in art, and if painting, fiction and drama ever lack them, then they are not art in those instances; but if mass forms of entertainment, the burlesque and circus, have them, then they are appreciated as true art. (p. 510)
Cummings also saw beauty and aliveness in amusement parks, especially his favorite, Coney Island…. Besides displaying beauty and aliveness, Coney Island performs a unique function of fusing humanity…. The performance at this "circus-theatre" is joined with the audience, a fact which is significant for art. The audience participates by doing circus tricks themselves, by riding the death-defying roller coasters and loop-the-loops…. Cummings seems to have anticipated the current interest in participatory arts, widely expressed in the "living theatre" and in art which requires the viewer to enter its structure or manipulate it in some way. Having actors embrace members of the audience and using electronic media are not the only ways to involve the audience; the printed page has long been used to make the reader participate in an experience. This is what Cummings attempts to do in his poetry, to fuse the reader with the poem, to make the poem become the reader. He wants the poem to be an emotional experience for the reader. Most of Cummings' poems could be offered as examples of this, especially his love poems and nature poems. (p. 511)
Another form of mass entertainment which Cummings analyzed was the comic strip…. [He has described George Herriman's comic strip character Krazy Kat in an article for the 1946 spring issue of Sewanee Review.]
"Krazy is herself. Krazy is illimitable—she loves. She loves in the only way anyone can love: illimitably."…. Krazy Kat's love reminds us of the "spiritual force" which is missing from our lives. Cummings' poetry was not directly affected by his appreciation of comic strips, but there is a parallel between his interest in Krazy and one of the main themes of his poetry, love. Like George Herriman, Cummings uses the symbolism of a comic situation to awaken our dead sensibilities to a spiritual awareness of love.
Cummings often used the comic exuberance of youth to evoke an awareness of love in his readers…. He was often accused of being an "adolescent songster," and this remark probably gave him great delight because he tried to maintain the aliveness of youth in his adult life. This may partially explain his fondness for entertainments associated with childhood and adolescence: circuses, amusement parks, comic strips, and animated cartoons.
Cummings' love for comic strips was intensified when they took on the motion of animated cartoons…. His fascination with film animation lies in the fact that this is a world where nothing is impossible: animals talk, rabbits save other rabbits from being tied to railroad tracks, trains split in half, people walk on air. Miracles take place when we are in this dream world…. Here again are the opposites occurring together, and a new awareness and understanding arising from it. The awareness comes about through laughter at the contradictions. (pp. 513, 515)
Cummings often created a dream world, a world where the impossible is possible, in his poems, and laughter was often the vehicle for entering this realm. One of these creations is the world of candy figurines [in Cummings' poem which begins "this little bride & groom are."]…. The whimsical humor comes from the building intensity throughout the poem. The reader is swept along by rhythms and sounds, much as a viewer is moved by the rapid action in an animated cartoon, until he is almost breathless and limp by the time the climax occurs in the last line. Cummings builds the reader up tier by tier through the unreality of the cake and then hits him with a startling metaphysical statement. Our world is separated from reality just as the cake is cut off from the outside by cellophane. We are no more real than figurines on top of a cake. The poem is a statement of Cummings' transcendent vision: the physical world is not the ultimate reality, and we can only reach reality through the imagination and emotions. The laughter evoked by the surprise statement at the end is a vehicle for seeing beyond the physical and into the spiritual.
Laughter is also the central element in another of Cummings' movie favorites, Charlie Chaplin. Cummings was a life-long fan of Chaplin's cinematic creations…. Chaplin's creation "The Tramp" is closely akin to many of the personages in Cummings' poetry, the hoboes, balloonmen, organ grinders, and other social misfits who bring joy into the lives of others. Cummings' technique of combining pathos with humor is parallel to the feeling evoked by "The Tramp." He is probably the only modern American poet who can achieve to the same degree this fusion of pity and joy…. [Some] Cummings' poems which reflect Chaplinesque technique and subject matter are "in Just-spring," "my uncle Daniel," and all of the poems about Joe Gould, the Greenwich Village beggar.
Cummings' poetry was only indirectly influenced by popular culture, but he definitely absorbed the rhythms and styles of America from 1920 through 1960 as they were expressed in mass entertainment. He considered burlesque, circuses, amusement parks, comic strips, animated cartoons, and movies as true art forms, because, at their best, they demonstrate qualities of aliveness, spontaneity, and beauty. Cummings' interest in mass culture shows his own anti-intellectualism. He wanted no part of an art that was just for a small elite; functioning art had to appeal to the masses. Several of these popular arts exhibit techniques found in Cummings' poetry: the juxtaposition of opposites, incongruity, movement, and surprise. The themes of many of Cummings' poems have similarities with mass entertainment: love, women, youth, and comedy. Cummings saw the popular arts as a means of transcending reality, and his poetry often functions in the same way…. Laughter is often a means to this end. Humor runs through all the forms of popular culture which appealed to Cummings, and his own work is made up of many humorous poems. No matter how great or how small the actual influence of popular arts was on Cummings' poetry, there is no doubt that he was in harmony with American mass culture. (pp. 516-17, 519)
Patrick B. Mullen, "E. E. Cummings and Popular Culture," in Journal of Popular Culture (copyright © 1971 by Ray B. Browne), Winter, 1971, pp. 503-20.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3658
Cummings is not significantly a "free verse" poet in the popular sense of that term. From first to last, he was a poet thoroughly in the tradition of English prosody; he experimented freely with given forms, but it will be seen that he molded traditional forms to new uses more often than he simply invented new ones. In this he resembles Swinburne as much as any other predecessor, and it is possible that he was heavily influenced by Swinburne's metrics. Second, though there are no important "periods" in Cummings' life, as there are in the lives of poets like Eliot and Yeats, it is not true that there is no development in his poetry. He has been accused of such a lack of development, partly because he did not move from one clearly-defined "position" to another—politically or otherwise—during his lifetime. This has been somewhat unusual in twentieth-century America, though there are also the examples of Stevens and Frost. However, Cummings certainly matured and developed: the fact that his development cannot be charted in terms of "periods" does not belie that fact.
Further, Cummings was writing squarely in a tradition that began in America in the first half of the nineteenth century. Like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and later Walt Whitman, Cummings identified himself as an individual and poet similar to the model transcendentalist described in Emerson's essay, "The Transcendentalist." Like him, Cummings believed in the ultimate value of the egocentric individual and of love. He valued childhood. He scorned materialism and found society and institutions dangerous. Emerson's "spiritual principle" can be equated with Cummings' "love." Cummings was different from the early transcendentalists in one important way, though. He denied the flesh no more than did Whitman. Indeed, he sometimes appeared to have a naïve faith that if "spring omnipotent goddess" returns often enough and if people learn to "live suddenly without thinking," all will be well. That is, of course, a gross oversimplification of Cummings' philosophy, particularly as set forth in his mature poems, though it is true that when there is a choice to make, he is more likely than not to opt for the heart, not the head. It is important to keep in mind that Cummings was not often a victim of the "either/or" fallacy, that notion which says that things are good or bad, right or wrong, black or white. In many ways, in fact, his whole life was a protest against that fallacy.
In Tulips and Chimneys he set forth his basic concerns as a young poet. In later volumes, he was to refine his techniques of expression, modify his metaphysics, and move away from an early romanticism that threatened to dominate his poems, but he did not alter his basic concerns, which remained love and the individual. (pp. 58-9)
Since the unconventional aspects of Cummings' poetry are sometimes concentrated on to the exclusion of other features, it might be well to begin with a brief examination of some misunderstandings of these elements. Observations about them are often inaccurate and lead to serious mis-readings of the poems. Though it should, for instance, go without saying that the poems of Cummings, like those of all true poets, are written primarily for the ear, not the eye, the fact of the matter is that many are disposed to take Cummings at his most atypical and single out the exceptions for the rule. His "eye-poems" constitute a negligible percentage of his total body of poems…. (p. 70)
Just as Cummings' poems are directed primarily to the ear, so are the various devices by means of which he gets his poems arranged on the page largely directed to the oral readings of the poems. It is important to look at these devices closely, both because they have annoyed and puzzled some readers, and because they are important and interesting in their own right. The easiest way to approach them is to hear them in action; that can be done by listening to recordings of Cummings reading his poems. It is highly instructive to follow the text of a given poem while listening to the poet's reading of it. Parentheses, commas, spaced-outwords, bunched-up words—all these devices emerge as stage directions of a sort. The simplest devices are those of disjunction and displacement. These devices are sometimes combined; an element of a word may appear parenthetically within another word. This is one way of suggesting a simultaneity of action or experience which cannot be expressed by ordinary syntax. Inherent in the English language is a false chronology which announces that one thing always follows another thing. A language built on a subject-verb-object rendering of experience must be wrenched a bit if one is to portray experience more nearly as it is. (p. 73)
Cummings' use of words is such that he gets greater mileage from even such simple words as "a" and "and" and "the" than the writer of an ordinary English sentence is likely to. Word coinages are another trademark of Cummings…. Cummings most often created new words by the use of inflectional or derivational affixes. In this respect, he was typical of his period, for other writers—Dos Passos and Faulkner certainly come to mind—used affixes to create new words. What is unusual is that Cummings did this in poetry, while others used the technique mostly in prose writings.
More important than the specific devices used by Cummings is the use to which he puts the devices. That is a complex matter; irregular spacing, either of whole words or parts of words, for instance, allows both amplification and retardation. Further, spacing of key words allows puns which would otherwise be impossible. Some devices, such as the use of lowercase letters at the beginnings of lines and for the first person personal pronoun, allow a kind of distortion that often re-enforces that of the syntax. Friedman has suggested that both seem to spring from a conviction that it is necessary to transform the word in order to transform the world. All these devices have the effect of jarring the reader, of forcing him to examine experience with fresh eyes.
Not all the devices are used with the same frequency throughout Cummings' career as a poet. The earliest poetry is characterized by a great deal of synaesthesia, personification, metaphor, and simile. It is much more conventional than the later poetry, which relies increasingly on symbol, allegory, paradox, word-coinage, typographical spacing, and oxymoron. (p. 74)
The subject matter of Cummings' poems may be approached in terms of the stylistic breakdown [previously set forth]. Some initial generalizations will be useful. The romantic poems, predictably, have for their subjects such things as love, nature, Spring, birds, flowers, kisses, sunsets, youth, rain, stars—mostly the little and potentially intimate natural occurrences. The satiric poems deal with quite different kinds of subjects; love may appear, but it will do so only in terms of its physical manifestation, and most often on city streets where the actors will be whores and pimps and their customers or potential customers. This is not to suggest that Cummings was opposed to sex—quite the contrary!—but rather to suggest that once sex becomes exclusively a commercial venture, it is subject to the same ridicule and contempt as any form of commercial exploitation…. (pp. 74-5)
The subjects of the portrait poems are, of course, individuals…. For many of them Cummings the poet has appreciation, his tone implying neither approval nor indignation. The portrait poems … include conventionally acceptable subjects [as well as unsavory characters]; in fact, characters from the demimonde diminish in later volumes. Finally, the subjects of the typographs, the "tricky" poems, sometimes with epigrammatic and sometimes with haiku effect, tend to be similar to those of the romantic poems. They often involve the celebration of sensation; since they are organic structures which often show process, Becoming as opposed to Being, they tend to depict, rather than delimit. Thus, they are seldom characterized by attitudinal strictures….
The "devices" discussed above are elements of Cummings' order in his poems, and, as such, they play an important role in the shaping of the poems. Of greater importance, though, is poetic meter strictly defined: a more or less regular linguistic rhythm, resulting from the heightened, organized, and regulated natural rhythmical movements of colloquial speech—so that pattern emerges from the relative phonetic haphazardness of ordinary utterance—which is the most fundamental technique of order available to the poet. Some other poetic techniques of order—rhyme, line division, stanzaic form, and over-all structure—are in a sense projections and magnifications of the kind of formal repetition which is meter. (p. 77)
Those who think of Cummings as the poet of lowercase letters, scrambled words, and largely unpronounceable poems are always surprised to learn how many and what excellent poems he wrote using traditional metrical features. Really, the most interesting—and often the most successful—of his poems are those which are nonce forms using traditional metrical patterns. They become most important after is 5, which begins a turning point in Cummings' poetic development. As Norman Friedman has pointed out, it is by that volume becoming apparent that in general Cummings reserves metrical stanzas for his more "serious" poems, while he uses experiments for various kinds of free verse embodiments of satire, comedy, and description. The "serious" poems are not all solemn. They are serious in that they embody a more complex view of the universe—and man's place in it—than is possible in the other poems. It is in these that Cummings' transcendent vision is more thoroughly revealed and in which love is described in terms of a transcendental metaphor. Satire is also included…. (p. 84)
The more serious of the satiric poems always contain a sense of moral indignation, sometimes moral outrage. Like other satirists, Cummings sometimes makes use of scatalogy and the so-called four-letter Anglo-Saxon words to communicate his outrage. (p. 85)
Cummings felt very strongly that "noone who hopes to write poetry should attempt what used to be called free verse until he or she has mastered the conventional forms" …; he himself mastered the traditional forms early, though the only ones he continued to write with any degree of regularity after the Tulips and Chimneys manuscript were sonnets, various kinds of satirical poems, and rhymed and metrical quatrains. The sonnets are an extremely important category of Cummings' poems, both because of the number he wrote and because of their quality. Further, they are of interest because they show the extent to which Cummings was able to experiment with and vary a traditional form. His accomplishment in the sonnet ranges from fairly regular and highly metrical Shakesperian sonnets to such typographically eccentric sonnets that they are often identified as irregular free verse poems. (p. 91)
The truth is that it is impossible to classify Cummings' poems on the basis of any single classification scheme. He was a lyric poet whose range was extraordinary. He greatly enlarged the boundaries of the possible where the lyric was concerned. His accomplishments in the lyric ranged from the highly melodic—a number of his poems have been set to music, some of them more than once—to the literally unpronounceable. Many of his individual volumes of poems give, in miniature, a picture of the range of his interests and visions and talents. Frequently, the poems are set within a kind of framework in which the first poem is a typograph of some sort, while the final poem of the volume is a love poem in some traditional form, often a sonnet. Since Cummings was painstaking in his attention to the arrangement of his poems, it is surely noteworthy that this framework is used, and that it is within such a framework that the various poems occur. There is a move from a celebration of the moment, with its accompanying metaphysical implications, to an ordered and orderly picture of the universe. Form implies meaning, and the progression is significant: "love is the whole and more than all."… (pp. 105-06)
Readers who have found in Cummings' work an apparent preponderance of romantic love or indignation should remember that the turn of a page may bring with it the reverse of the coin. Great love for individuals often goes hand in hand with a large capacity for moral outrage at their ill-treatment. Cummings was not a man for all seasons, nor are his poems a storehouse of "something for everyone." He was, however, a man who genuinely loved men and the craft of poetry and hated those things which make men less than men and poetry mere words. That is sufficient to recommend him to the ages. (p. 106)
E. E. Cummings' prose works are as original and as exciting as the best of his poems. In fact, Cummings felt that his identity as a writer lay in prose as much as in poetry. (p. 107)
The style of The Enormous Room is on the whole fairly conventional;… it is a great deal more conventional than one realizes until it is compared with later prose works, notably Eimi. There do occur here and there in the book bits and pieces of prose which more nearly resemble poems than ordinary prose. They are characterized by a wrenching of syntax that renders them in effect asyntactical. The wrenching is deliberate; Cummings was striving to develop not only the notion that conventional use of language is a habit that has to be broken if one is to deal honestly with experience, but also a style—or set of styles—by which that notion could be demonstrated. He does not develop that style—or set of styles—in this book, but he begins the development. (p. 119)
[Eimi], his second full-length work of prose, bears similarities to The Enormous Room; both are records of personal experience, recorded in more-or-less chronological order; both result from a strong conviction, based on personal experience, that there are things desperately wrong in the world; and both are modelled loosely on other literary works, this time The Divine Comedy. They are, however, rather different sorts of books. Cummings valued the later book more; his stated conviction that Eimi helped explain his stance as a writer is re-enforced by the fact that he devoted a significant part of his sixth lecture at Harvard to comments about and a reading from the book. It is, as he says, "written in a style of its own," and it is admittedly difficult reading.
The very title of the book (Greek for "I am") makes it sound more typically Cummings; increasingly important in his developing awareness of the transcendent nature of reality was his insistence on what he sometimes calls "isness," the notion that only in the verb could one express the kinetic quality of life. In his lecture about Eimi. Cummings' announced topic for the evening was "i & am & santa claus." And if, as Cummings thought, The Enormous Room was not the "war book" he felt people expected it to be, it is certainly true that Eimi was even less what people expected it to be: another Enormous Room. However, he suggests that there were in both instances close relationships between what was expected and what was actually presented. The Enormous Room used war, to explore the nature of the individual; Eimi explores the individual again, "a more complex individual in a more enormous room." (pp. 124-25)
Some of the specific techniques used by Cummings to share his vision of the universe have been discussed. What has not been discussed is the broad implication of his use of specific poetic techniques. While his techniques of typography, capitalization, punctuation, etc., are all very interesting in and of themselves, they are even more interesting when considered together as a pattern of linguistic signalling. Their major significance seems to be as what we might call code-labels; they signal a level of usage and therefore have a function other than that of carrying a message—though they also do that, of course, and on several levels. Of great significance where Cummings' writings are concerned is the fact that he makes greater use of intimate and casual styles than other poets writing at the same time … so much so that he may be said to have deliberately used the characteristic features of intimate and casual styles, where other poets might have used casual and consultative styles. He did so, I think, because he felt that conventional language usage—consultative style for consultation, casual style for casual discourse, etc.—was bankrupt. He made an attempt to break down certain barriers between himself and his reader. He did this by treating his reader with a greater degree of intimacy than his reader was always prepared for. Many of his poems have the external features of highly intimate letters. Some readers have been put off by some of the poems, I think, because they have felt unable to respond to such intimacy. These people are in the position of having opened letters that appear not to be directed to them. They are, I think, somewhat embarrassed and perhaps a little resentful. Theirs is an unfortunate, if natural reaction.
In addition to using the intimate style so often, Cummings also deviated from general usage by mixing styles, using more than two in alternation, occasionally jumping steps. In ordinary discourse, a speaker—or writer—confines himself to two neighboring styles alternately, it being considered anti-social for a speaker to shift two or more steps in a single jump, for instance from casual to formal. Cummings' disregard for this convention is, I think, partly responsible for the critical reception of some of his early poetry, where he most blatantly mixed styles. The early poems in which style-mixing is most obvious are those in which there is a mixture of archaisms and colloquialisms. (pp. 144-45)
Cummings' deviation from convention is certainly not the result of carelessness or ignorance. It amounts to a deliberate and highly informed departure from the rules of conventional discourse. The rules are those of his early life, and they are important as much when they are being challenged as when they are being followed blindly. We must not forget that Cummings was as thoroughly a product of his milieu as any American poet, and even his radical poetry is a constant reminder that he was formed by the area bounded by Boston's State House, Harvard University, the Charles River, the Field of Lexington, and Concord's bridge. It is not possible to deviate from rules which are not thoroughly established; there is, therefore, a certain amount of implied respect for the conventions of his early environment in all of Cummings' writings.
I have used the word "radical" in connection with Cummings' poetry; he was radical in his metaphysics and in his anti-societal stance, certainly. He was linguistically radical in the sense that his wit is concerned with the roots of syntax and grammar. He shows throughout his poetry great consciousness of the close relationship between life and grammar. (p. 146)
There is, thus, no reason to think of Cummings as a simpleminded idealist. Nor is he a romantic in the nineteenth-century sense of that term. He has been called a "neo-romantic" and perhaps he is…. Clearly of the twentieth-century, Cummings does not fit neatly into twentieth-century categories. If he is a "neo-romantic," it is important to distinguish between his quest and those of such people as Novalis, looking for his little blue flower, and Dostoevsky's Underground Man, determined that two plus two shall be five, out of spite. Cummings certainly reveals himself to be a transcendentalist, but he is as far from being a romantic, in any "pure" sense of that word, as his volume title is 5 is from that illogical statement that two plus two is five.
Cummings' major accomplishments were two: first of all, he revived the lyric as a viable poetic form and transformed it greatly, enlarging its horizons and multiplying its poetic possibilities; second, he created a poetic language by means of which he forced his reader to consider action, motivation, and character from viewpoints new to him. At his best, he forced the reader into the kind of re-reading that results in the finest kind of education available to most of us, that in which we continue to educate ourselves.
I do not think that poets can be ranked or graded. I would not know where to put Cummings on a numerical scale, nor would I know whether he should be judged an A+ or B− poet. He clearly has a place among the leading poets writing in English in the twentieth century. He was in some interesting ways a poet ahead of his time, particularly with respect to his achievement in bending language to his will. In that respect, he was different from some other important poets of the century. While others are now behind us, he is, I think, often still ahead of us. For that reason, it is still too early to define his place in twentieth-century literature, though we can say that in some respects it will be found to be to one side of the poets who constitute the various "main-streams" of twentieth-century English and American poetry. Twin streams merge in Cummings, those of traditionalism and innovation, and they do so in ways that they do not in other poets of the century. Ideologically, Cummings was an American transcendentalist; he sought to express his vision of the transcendent universe by stretching the shape of the lyric poem. His description of himself as "an author of pictures, less a draughtsman of words" re-enforces our own conviction that as a poet he was the most traditional of innovators and the most innovative of traditionalists. (pp. 147-48)
Bethany K. Dumas, in her E. E. Cummings: A Remembrance of Miracles (© 1974 Vision Press; by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.; Barnes & Noble Books; in Canada by Vision Press), Vision Press, 1974, Barnes & Noble, 1974.