E. E. Cummings Cummings, E(dward) E(stlin) (Vol. 12) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

John Dos Passos

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.

                                            (p. 99)

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.

Mark Van Doren

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["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.

Richard P. Blackmur

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Marianne Moore

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Peale Bishop

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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S. I. Hayakawa

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Finch

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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John Arthos

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Philip Green

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Norman Friedman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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)


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David Ray

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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George Wesolek

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert E. Wegner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Marilyn Gaull

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Patrick B. Mullen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Bethany K. Dumas

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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