E. E. Cummings

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Patrick B. Mullen (essay date 1971)

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SOURCE: Mullen, Patrick B. “E. E. Cummings and Popular Culture.” In Critical Essays on E. E. Cummings, edited by Guy Rotella, pp. 202-14. Boston: G. K. Hall and Company, 1984.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1971, Mullen examines Cummings’s interest in and writings on American popular culture, particularly the art of burlesque.]

It is generally overlooked that E. E. Cummings had an avid interest in various forms of American popular culture, especially burlesque, circuses, amusement parks, comic strips, animated cartoons, and movies. During the 1920's and 1930's, Cummings wrote many essays on mass culture which appeared in popular magazines such as Vanity Fair and journals of the arts such as Stage and Cinema. In these articles and in some of his other prose, Cummings reveals a great deal about his own concepts of art and poetry, and also provides some penetrating insights into American culture as manifested in popular entertainment. To Cummings, burlesque and the other popular arts were alive with a spontaneous, unrehearsed quality. He wanted to capture the same quality of spontaneity in his poetry, both in content and technique. In a limited way, Cummings wrote about popular culture of the 1920's-1930's much the same as Tom Wolfe was writing about it in the 1960's. Cummings was one of the few writers of his day to deal with mass entertainment, and his fondness for it shows through in his poetry.

Burlesque had a more direct influence on Cummings' poetry than the other popular forms. He was a devoted fan of burlesque and went many times to the Old Howard in Boston, and the National Winter Garden and Irving Place Theatre in New York. An article by Cummings about burlesque entitled “You Aren't Mad, Am I?” appeared in the December, 1925, issue of Vanity Fair. In it he discussed burlesque as a true art form because it was “intensely alive; whereas the productions of the conventional theatre, like academic sculpture and painting and music, are thoroughly dead.”1 This antagonistic attitude toward high art is typical of Cummings and can be considered a part of his general anti-intellectualism. He claims that since burlesque is modern and abstract and loved by the masses, the critics who say that modern art is not for the masses are completely wrong.

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.”2 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, whom he called one of the “two very great actors in America.”3 Cummings was almost reverential when he wrote that around Shargel “there hung very loosely some authentic commedia dell'arte.4 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.’5

Another example of opposites occurring together in slapstick comedy is the trick pistol which instead of giving a loud smoky discharge drops an innocuous sign with “bang” written...

(This entire section contains 4860 words.)

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on it.

Cummings has transferred the juxtaposition of opposites in burlesque into one of his favorite poetic techniques. One of the poems which employs this uses a description of a burlesque strip-teaser to contrast the picture of a famous university professor.

curtains part)
the peacockappareled
prodigy of Flo's midnight
Frolic dolores
small in the head keen chassised like a Rolls
swoops smoothly
while softly along Kirkland Street
the infantile ghost of Professor
Royce rolls
remembering that it
has for
-gotten some-
thing ah

The intellectual professor Josiah Royce of Harvard is contrasted to the physical image of the stripper Dolores. The non-intellectual qualities of Dolores are illuminated by the spiritual Professor Royce and vice versa. For the absentminded professor to forget his necktie is humorous, but there is a state of pathos here which arises from his absentmindedness. Dolores is “keen chassised like a Rolls Royce,” but Cummings uses the inversion of this to create a pun and point up the opposite nature of Royce. The pun itself illustrates opposites occurring together in word play which enables the reader to “know around” both the stripper and the professor. This poem also captures the spontaneity and eye appeal of burlesque with the sound image of “tinkling-cheering-hammering tables.”

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.7

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”8 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. Cummings views scientific progress as a morally destructive process. Later in the same poem he says, “electrons deify one razorblade / into a mountainrange.” Again there is the juxtaposition of incongruous elements—electrons, razorblades, and mountainranges—to point up the absurdity of man's self image as the tamer of the universe. 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. In one article, “Burlesque, I Love It,” which appeared in Stage in March of 1936, Cummings analyzed the history of burlesque and how the advent of strippers such as Dolores was brought about. In the early days of burlesque, which Cummings observed at the Old Howard in Boston, there were no strippers, and the women were just trimmings. In the next phase, after the First World War, the comedian became king, and burlesque achieved the status of a true art form. This period was observed by Cummings at the National Winter Garden in New York. After the Winter Garden folded and the Irving Place Theatre took its place, the focus of burlesque changed from the comedian's humor to feminine pulchritude. John Dos Passos took Cummings to Irving Place one day, and 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 statute of liberty.9

Here again is Cummings' fascination with movement; the stripper who best exemplified movement was June St. Clare.

To see June St. Clare walk the length of the Irving Place stage, or the Apollo stage, or any other stage, is to rejoice that a lost art has been revived. There have been epidemics of women who swam when they walked and of women who floated when they walked. When Miss St. Clare walks, she walks.10

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. Marshall McLuhan noticed this element in Cummings' poetry. “The poet at the typewriter can do Njinsky leaps or Chaplin-like shuffles and wiggles.”11 In one poem Cummings attempts to emulate the bumps and grinds of a stripper performing her act. He demonstrated his belief that woman could be the most beautiful expression of movement and aliveness.

sh estiffl
ystrut sal
lif san
dbut sth
s li psh ergo
wnd ow n,
aling 2 a
-sprout eyelands)sin
d is app ea r in gly
eyes grip live loop croon mime
nakedly hurl asquirm the
dip&giveswoop&swoon& ingly
seethe firm swirl hips whirling climb to
(yoursmine mineyours yoursmine

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. When she slips her gown down she reveals two sprouting islands (“eyelands”), a very sensual image for breasts. 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,” “mine,” “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. In an article in Vanity Fair of October, 1925, he noticed the movement which made it come alive. “Movement is the very stuff out of which this dream is made. Or we may say that movement is the content, the subject matter, of the circus-show, while bigness is its form.”13 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.”14 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. “At positively every performance Death Himself lurks, glides, struts, breathes, is. Lest any agony be missing, a mob of clowns tumbles loudly in and out of that inconceivably sheer fabric of doom, whose beauty seems endangered by the spectator's least heartbeat or whisper.”15 The circus appealed to Cummings because it captured the spontaneity of life just as burlesque did. In comparison, the theatre was stilted, confined, and formal.

In discussing the circus, Cummings defines what art means to him:

… let us never be fooled into taking seriously that perfectly superficial distinction which is vulgarly drawn between the circus-show and ‘art’ or ‘the arts.’ Let us not forget that every authentic ‘work of art’ is in and of itself alive and that, however ‘the arts’ may differ among themselves, their common function is the expression of that supreme alive-ness which is known as ‘beauty.’16

“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. One of Cummings' poems celebrates the appreciation of live beauty as opposed to intellectual pseudo-artistic concepts of beauty.

mr youse needn't be so spry
concernin questions arty
each has his tastes but as for i
i likes a certain party
gimme the he-man's solid bliss
for youse ideas i'll match youse
a pretty girl who naked is
is worth a million statues(17)

Cummings is saying that beauty should appeal to the emotion, not the intellect. His belief in living beauty is couched in the vulgar language of the common man for the purpose of humor in this poem, but this does not lessen the strength of his conviction. He puts these words in the mouth of an uneducated man to make them more convincing; they would not ring true if an intellectual said them. The reader laughs at the last two lines, yet he cannot help but realize that there is some truth here. The living breathing beauty of a woman is what many artists have tried to capture in paintings and sculpture, but the original model is still the most inspiring of all.

Cummings also saw beauty and aliveness in amusement parks, especially his favorite, Coney Island. “The incredible temple of pity and terror, mirth and amazement, which is popularly known as Coney Island, really constitutes a perfectly unprecedented fusion of the circus and the theatre.”18 Besides displaying beauty and aliveness, Coney Island performs a unique function of fusing humanity; “… nowhere else in all of the round world is humanity quite so much itself.”19 The swimmer at Coney Island swims in the populace, not the water, adding to the “spontaneous itselfness.” 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. To Cummings, “… the essence of Coney Island's ‘circus-theatre’ consists in homogeneity. THE AUDIENCE IS THE PERFORMANCE, and vice versa.”20 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.

One example of a nature poem will suffice for illustration. Cummings attempts to draw the reader into a scene in nature by making it a transcendental emotional experience.

& sun &
is exc

Part of the involvement of the reader is achieved by waiting until the last line to reveal that the poem is about a chipmunk. This surprise is intensified by spreading the words down the page so that the reader has to put them together before he can understand them. The intellectual process involves the reader on one level and leads him to emotional involvement on another level. The reader must put together the key phrase of the poem, “everywhere no one is except on this boulder.” At this moment nothing else exists except the chipmunk. The simple observation of the sleeping chipmunk becomes a transcendental experience for Cummings and the reader. Cummings has transcended the corporeal world of reality and reached a truer world of the imagination through the chipmunk. The reader is supposed to feel the same emotional transference by reading and comprehending the poem.

Another form of mass entertainment which Cummings analyzed was the comic strip. He wrote an article entitled “A Foreword to Krazy” which appeared in the 1946 spring number of Sewanee Review. Before him, Gilbert Seldes had written of George Herriman's comic strip character Krazy Kat in The Seven Lively Arts. The situation between Krazy Kat, Offissa Pupp, and Ignatz Mouse is summed up by Cummings: “Dog hates mouse and worships ‘cat,’ mouse despises ‘cat’ and hates dog, ‘cat’ hates no one and loves mouse.”22 But each of the characters is symbolic, with Krazy as the central symbol. “Krazy is herself. Krazy is illimitable—she loves. She loves in the only way anyone can love: illimitably.”23 Her love is combined with wisdom; she recognizes their situation and loves anyway. Krazy transcends reality because of her love and wisdom. “Always (no matter what's real) Krazy is no mere reality. She is a living ideal. She is a spiritual force, inhabiting a merely real world—”24 Marshall McLuhan has said of the comic strip as art, “Popular art is the clown reminding us of all the life and faculty that we have omitted from our daily routines.”25 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.

Jimmie's got a goil
's got a goil and
she coitnly can shimmie
when you see her shake
you see her shake a
shimmie how you wish that you was Jimmie.
Of for such a gurl
for such a gurl to
be a fellow's twistandtwirl
talk about your Sal-
about your Salo
-mes but gimmie Jimmie's gal(26)

The earthly love described here can be a spiritual force to transcend the merely real world, just as a comic strip character can symbolize transcendent love. Some of the fast-paced, visual humor of the comic strip is captured by Cummings' use of rhythm, language, and typography. The rhythm of the poem and the repetition of “goil goil goil” suggests a child's chant of derision. Phonetic spelling, “goil,” “coitnly,” and “gurl,” enables Cummings to approximate actual chants of the streets of New York. The visual effect of spreading the repetitious words across the page is to make the reader say them as a chant. The word fusion of “twistandtwirl” creates the illusion of quickness and agility with which Jimmie's “goil” dances. The comic comparison between the Biblical, mythical Salome and the sexy teenager of the streets not only creates bathetic humor but also stresses Cummings' preference for real earthly sexuality over abstract concepts of beauty. Cummings celebrates the sparkling aliveness, the earthy desires, and the electric energy of youth. These qualities of youth are a part of Cummings' ideal, and he tried to retain some of them all his life. 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. In an article entitled “Miracles and Dreams” in the June, 1930, issue of Cinema, Cummings discussed the benefits of movie 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.

Given this purely miraculous condition, such trifles as impossibility don't trouble us at all; everything (even a banana) being “really” something else. Let contradictions contradict—to the pure all things are impure, but we, by heaven, understand our dream symbols. …27

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. At the end of the article Cummings, in addressing the reader, emphasizes the importance of laughter. “And if you—this means you—are an abnormal individual so healthy, so fearless, so rhythmic, so human, as to be capable of the miracle called ‘laughter,’ patronize your neighborhood wake-up-and-dreamery!”28

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 atop a wedding cake.

this little bride & groom are
standing) in a kind
of crown he dressed
in black candy she
veiled with candy white
carrying a bouquet of
pretend flowers this
candy crown with this candy
little bride & little
groom in it kind of stands on
a thin ring which stands on a much
less thin very much more
big & kinder of ring & which
kinder of stands on a
much more than very much
biggest & thickest & kindest
of ring & all one two three rings
are cake & everything is protected by
cellophane against anything(because
nothing really exists(29)

Lloyd Frankenberg says of the poem, “This is a little world to itself. The poem is of a size with the cake; constructed, like it, in tiers of progressive excitement; and all frosting.”30 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 and Jack Shargel were the two comedians whom Cummings called the “two very great actors in America.” Cummings captures the “Chaplin-like shuffles and wiggles” in the way he places the type on the page. 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. Cummings' Uncle Sol is a victim of circumstances in the tradition of Chaplin's “Tramp.”

nobody loses all the time
i had an uncle named
Sol who was a born failure and
nearly everybody said he should have gone
into vaudeville perhaps because my Uncle Sol could
sing McCann He Was A Diver on Xmas Eve like Hell Itself which
may or may not account for the fact that my Uncle
Sol indulged in that possibly most inexcusable
of all to use a highfalootin phrase
luxuries that is or to
wit farming and be
it needlessly
my Uncle Sol's farm
failed because the chickens
ate the vegetables so
my Uncle Sol had a
chicken farm till the
skunks ate the chickens when
my Uncle Sol
had a skunk farm but
the skunks caught cold and
died and so
my Uncle Sol imitated the
skunks in a subtle manner
or by drowning himself in the watertank
but somebody who'd given my Uncle Sol a Victor
Victrola and records while he lived presented to
him upon the auspicious occasion of his decease a
scrumptious not to mention splendiferous funeral with
tall boys in black gloves and flowers and everything and
i remember we all cried like the Missouri
when my Uncle Sol's coffin lurched because
somebody pressed a button
(and down went
my Uncle
and started a worm farm)(31)

Uncle Sol's pathetic ventures become a comic series of pratfalls in a Chaplinesque vein. The reader laughs at Sol's misadventures, but he also sympathizes with him as an underdog. The quick, unpunctuated flow of colloquial words in the poem suggests the intensity and spontaneity of “The Tramp's” comic movements. The ironic humor of the first line which is not revealed until the last line parallels the surprise effect of Chaplin's satiric situations. Sol is even the type of man who should have been in vaudeville, probably as a comic. The juxtaposition of opposites for humorous effect is also seen in this poem: Sol's “splendiferous funeral” is juxtaposed to his worm farm. The incongruity, futility, and absurdity of every man's life is mirrored and exaggerated in the story of Uncle Sol. There is a deeper meaning, then, just as there is always something serious beneath the antics of Charlie Chaplin in his best films. Other 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 buresque, 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. Thus, Jack Shargel's rose, June St. Clare's walk, circus clowns, Krazy Kat, and Charlie Chaplin in the realm of entertainment and the stripper Dolores, the chipmunk, Jimmie's “goil,” the candy figurines, and Uncle Sol in the realm of poetry are symbolic forces of the imagination which permit the mind to escape the mundane world. 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. Thus, Cummings' prose essays on entertainment can be studied by literary critics to better understand his poetry, but they can also be investigated by scholars of American culture in order to gain new perspectives on the artist and his relationship to popular art forms of the 20th century.


  1. E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised, ed. George J. Firmage (New York: October House, 1965), p. 129.

  2. E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised, p. 127.

  3. E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised, p. 127.

  4. E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised, p. 293.

  5. E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised, p. 128.

  6. Poems, 1923-1954 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1954), p. 169.

  7. Poems, p. 163.

  8. Poems, p. 397.

  9. E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised, pp. 294-295.

  10. E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised, p. 295.

  11. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), p. 230.

  12. Poems, p. 320.

  13. E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised, p. 113.

  14. E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised, p. 113.

  15. E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised, p. 113.

  16. E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised, p. 114.

  17. Poems, p. 177.

  18. E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised, p. 150.

  19. E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised, p. 150.

  20. E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised, p. 151.

  21. 73 Poems (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1963), No. 58.

  22. E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised, p. 323.

  23. E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised, pp. 324-25.

  24. E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised, p. 327.

  25. Understanding Media, p. 153.

  26. Poems, pp. 170-71.

  27. E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised, p. 213.

  28. E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised, p. 214.

  29. Poems, p. 337.

  30. Pleasure Dome: On Reading Modern Poetry (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949), p. 175.

  31. Poems, pp. 173-74.


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E. E. Cummings 1894-1962

(Full name Edward Estlin Cummings) American poet, prose writer, essayist, lecturer, and playwright.

The following entry presents criticism on Cummings's works from 1971 through 1995. See also E. E. Cummings Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 8.

Cummings's innovative and controversial verse places him among the most popular and widely anthologized poets of the twentieth century. Cummings's work celebrates the individual, as well as erotic and familial love. Conformity, mass psychology, and snobbery were frequent targets of his humorous and sometimes scathing satires. Additionally, his fictionalized memoir of his service in World War I, The Enormous Room (1922), and his experimental plays, especially Him (1927), have earned him a reputation as a leading writer of the modernist period in American literature.

Biographical Information

Cummings grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his father was a sociology professor at Harvard and a noted Unitarian clergyman. Demonstrating a strong interest in poetry and art from an early age, Cummings enjoyed the full support and encouragement of his parents. He attended Harvard from 1911 to 1915, studying literature and writing daily. He eventually joined the editorial board of the Harvard Monthly, a college literary magazine, where he worked with his close friends S. Foster Damon and John Dos Passos. In his senior year he became fascinated with avant-garde art, modernism, and cubism, an interest reflected in his graduation dissertation, “The New Art.” In this paper, Cummings extolled modernism as practiced by Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, and Pablo Picasso. He also began incorporating elements of these styles into his own poetry and paintings. His first published poems appeared in the anthology Eight Harvard Poets in 1917. These pieces feature experimental verse forms and the lowercase personal pronoun “i” (symbolizing both the humbleness and the uniqueness of the individual) that became his trademark. The copyeditor of the book, however, mistook Cummings's intentions as typographical errors and made “corrections.” That same year, Cummings moved to New York and was employed very briefly at a mail-order book company, and soon began working full-time on his poetry and art. With World War I raging in Europe, he volunteered for the French-based Norton-Harjes Ambulance Service. He spent time in Paris upon his arrival and was completely charmed by the city's bohemian atmosphere and abundance of art and artists. He was particularly impressed by the sketches of Pablo Picasso, whose cubist techniques later helped shape much of Cummings’s work. Because of a misunderstanding, Cummings spent four months in an internment camp in Normandy on suspicion of treason, an experience documented in his prose work The Enormous Room. Making use of his contacts in government, Cummings's father was able to secure his son's release. Cummings was drafted shortly after he returned to New York in 1918 and spent about a year at Camp Danvers, Massachusetts. During the 1920s and 1930s he traveled widely in Europe, alternately living in Paris and New York, and developed parallel careers as a poet and painter. Politically liberal and with leftist leanings, Cummings visited the Soviet Union in 1931 in order to find out how the system of government subsidy for art functioned there. Eimi (1933), an expanded version of his travel diary, expresses his profound disappointment in its indictment of the regimentation and lack of personal and artistic freedom he encountered. From that time, Cummings abandoned his liberal political views and social circle and became an embittered, reactionary conservative on social and political issues. He continued to write prolifically and received the Shelley Memorial Award for poetry in 1944, the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship at Harvard for the academic year 1952-53, and the Bollingen Prize for Poetry in 1958. Cummings reached the height of his popularity during the 1940s and 1950s, giving poetry readings to college audiences across the United States until his death in 1962.

Major Works

Cummings's first book, The Enormous Room, is a novel/memoir based on his experiences in the French internment camp; it concerns the preservation of dignity in a degrading and dehumanizing situation. This work, widely considered a classic of World War I literature, introduced themes that Cummings would pursue throughout his career: the individual against society, against government, and against all forms of authority. Cummings used both French and English to create a witty, satirical voice that lampoons the war itself as well as military bureaucracy. All of Cummings's poetry attests to the author's never-ending search for fresh metaphors and new means of expression through creative placement of words on the page, new word constructions, and unusual punctuation and capitalization. He originally intended to publish his first collection as Tulips & Chimneys, but was forced to publish the poems from the original manuscript as three separate volumes: Tulips and Chimneys (1923), XLI Poems (1925), and & (1925). The “tulips” of the first volume are free-verse lyric poems that present a nostalgic glance at his childhood. The poem “in Just-” celebrates youth in playful, imaginative and creative contractions—“mud- / luscious” and “puddle-wonderful,” for example, while the poem “O sweet spontaneous” revels in nature that can only be appreciated fully through the senses rather than through science, philosophy, or religion. The “chimneys” are a sustained sonnet sequence that identifies the hypocrisy, narrow-mindedness, and stagnation Cummings saw in the society around him. The sequence includes the well-known poem “the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls”—women who, according to Cummings, “are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds.” The poems excised from the original manuscript that were later collected in XLI Poems and & are generally more erotic in content. The thematic concerns of these first three volumes of verse are repeated in Is 5 (1926), in which the author also included satiric and anti-war pieces, notably “my sweet old etcetera” and “i sing of Olaf glad and big,” a poem about the death of a conscientious objector. W: ViVa (1931) contains sonnets and other poems attacking conservative and uncreative thinking. Along with his barbs at society, Cummings also composed such lyrical poems as “somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond,” in which he extolled love, nature, the mystery of faith, individualism, and imaginative freedom. The collection No Thanks (1935), written in response to his trip to the Soviet Union, treats the theme of artistic freedom in an especially powerful manner. 50 Poems (1940) contains such popular pieces as “anyone lived in a pretty how town” and an elegy to his father, “my father moved through dooms of love.” 1 × 1 (1944) solidified Cummings's reputation as one of America's premier poets. It presents a more optimistic, life-affirming viewpoint than do the poems written during Cummings's period of personal and political disaffection in the 1930s. Structured in a pattern of darkness moving toward light, the collection begins with poems that denigrate businessmen and politicians and ends with poems praising nature and love. In his late verse—XAIPE: Seventy-One Poems (1950), 95 Poems (1958), and the posthumously published 73 Poems (1963)—Cummings effected a softer, more elegiac note, recalling his early affinity for New England Transcendentalism and English Romanticism. In addition to his poetry, Cummings is also known for his play Him (1927), which consists of a sequence of skits drawing from burlesque, the circus, and the avant-garde, and jumps quickly from tragedy to grotesque comedy. The male character is named Him; the female character is Me. “The play begins,” Harold Clurman wrote in Nation, “as a series of feverish images of a girl undergoing anaesthesia during an abortion. She is ‘me,’ who thinks of her lover as ‘him.’” In the program to the play, staged at the Provincetown Playhouse, Cummings provided a warning to the audience: “Relax and give the play a chance to strut its stuff—relax, stop wondering what it's all ‘about’— like many strange and familiar things, Life included, this Play isn't ‘about,’ it simply is. Don't try to enjoy it, let it try to enjoy you. DON'T TRY TO UNDERSTAND IT, LET IT TRY TO UNDERSTAND YOU.” In 1952-53 Harvard University honored its distinguished alumnus by asking Cummings to deliver the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures. Published as i: six nonlectures (1953), the work is Cummings’s only attempt at formal artistic autobiography. In the lectures Cummings noted that perhaps fifteen of his poems were faithful expressions of his stance as an artist and man.

Critical Reception

Critical opinion of Cummings's poems is markedly divided. Beginning with Tulips and Chimneys, reviewers described Cummings's style as eccentric and self-indulgent, designed to call attention to itself rather than to elucidate themes. Some critics also objected to Cummings's explicit treatment of sexuality, while others labeled his depictions of society's hypocrisy and banality elitist. When his Collected Poems was published in 1938, Cummings's sharp satires caused some reviewers to call him a misanthrope. His later, more conservative poetry came under attack for anti-Semitism, a charge that is still debated. Critics have noted, too, that Cummings's style did not change or develop much throughout his career. Some commentators speculate that Cummings early found a style that suited him and simply continued on with it; others, however, have faulted him for insufficient artistic growth. A group of scholars posited that Cummings's verbal pyrotechnics and idiosyncratic arrangement of text actually draw readers' attention from the poetry itself. More recently, however, literary critics have studied Cummings’s poems from a structural viewpoint, considering his visual forms to be integral to the meaning of the poems.

William E. Thompson (essay date spring-summer 1982)

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SOURCE: Thompson, William E. “Intensity: An Essential Element in e. e. cummings’ Aesthetic Theory and Practice.” University of Windsor Review 16, no. 2 (spring-summer 1982): 18-33.

[In the following essay, Thompson discusses Cummings’s attempt to compress images and words as tightly and succinctly as possible to affect the strongest intensity of feeling upon the reader.]

Intensity was a cornerstone in cummings' vision and a primary element in his aesthetic theory throughout his career. In his Dial review of T. S. Eliot's Poems (June 1920), cummings stressed that “every [Eliot] poem impresses us with an overwhelming sense of technique.”1 In a 1925 review, cummings used the circus as a metaphor for his idea of what Art should be. At the circus, the spectator/reader is continually amazed by the “unbelievably skilful and inexorably beautiful and unimaginably dangerous things” which are “continually happening” in the circus poem. There should always be such an intense experience happening in the tent or on the poetic stage that the spectator/reader “feels that there is a little too much going on at any given moment.”

“Intensity” for cummings includes many critical elements, one of which is “compression.” Cummings selected every word in each writing with care, attempting to place exactly the right word in exactly the right place on the page. Cummings' object was to capture the essence of each experience he recorded with the fewest possible words.2 His period of greatest compression came in the 1915-25 period of his writing.

The Enormous Room was rewritten from notebooks and journals he kept while in the World War I French prison camp which is the setting of the novel. A comparison of materials from his notebooks with corresponding sections from the novel reveals the rigorous selection of detail which is so much a part of cummings' methodology. The notebook version is extremely compressed:

In one of my numerous notebooks I have this perfectly direct paragraph:

Card table: 4 stares play banque with 2 cigarettes (1dead) & A pipe the clashing faces yanked by a leanness of one candle bottle-struck (Birth of X) where sits the Clever Man who pyramids, sings (mornings) “Meet Me …”

(ER [The Enormous Room], 110)

The notebook version is a form of shorthand. Key images have been recorded so that the scene may be recalled in detail. The passage is an example of Ezra Pound's Imagist principle of “direct presentation of the thing, whether subjective or objective,” using the fewest possible number of words. To the general reader, however, the notebook entry may seem cryptic, for extreme compression treads the fine line between communication and incomprehensibility. Cummings' exclusion of transitions and apparently unnecessary connectives interferes with the reader's ability to “translate” the compressed statement into a logical, conscious understanding of the author's intended meaning. But the passage communicates more than scribbles in a secretary's notebook communicate to one unversed in the symbols of shorthand.3 The notebook version uses images to carry the impression of the scene just as a pencil sketch carries the essential outline of a scene which may appear later in a finished oil canvas.

In the published novel, cummings adds colour and shadow to his sketch, but still uses only the words absolutely necessary to his presentation. He interprets this particular notebook passage for us in the novel:

… which specimen of telegraphic technique, being interpreted, means: Judas, Garibaldi, and The Holland Skipper (whom the reader will meet de suite)—Garibaldi's cigarette having gone out, so greatly is he absorbed—play banque with four intent and highly focussed individuals who may or may not be The Schoolmaster, Monsieur Auguste, The Barber, and Même (myself); The Clever Man (as nearly always) acting as banker, The candle by whose somewhat uncorpulent illumination the various physiognomies are yanked into a ferocious unity is stuck into the mouth of a bottle. The whole, the rhythmic disposition of the figures, construct a sensuous integration suggestive of The Birth of Christ by one of the Old Masters. The Clever Man, having had his usual morning warble, is extremely quiet. He will win, he pyramids—(speculative technique in which one continually bets all he has previously won on the next bet, hoping to win ever-increasing quantities of $)—and he pyramids because he has the cash and can afford to make every play a big one. All he needs is the rake of a croupier to complete his disinterested and wholly nerveless poise. He is a born gambler, is the clever man. …

(ER, 110)

Even his interpretation, however, is an example of extraordinary compression. For example, he uses the single word “pyramids” to represent a whole gambling philosophy. After explaining parenthetically the process of “pyramiding,” he uses only the single word to convey the idea. Visually, cummings also used typewriter symbols such as “$” to represent words and concepts.

Cummings considered his inmate-companions as persecuted by elements of wartime French society in much the same way as the early Christians were persecuted by the Romans. An analogy between this card game and the biblical manger scene is suggested by this brief comment: “suggestive of the Birth of Christ by one of the Old Masters.” The sketch captures the essence of the scene in economical language suggesting a situation, participants, a mood, and the poet's perceptions of and reactions to them.

The scene is so distilled that it borders on caricature. Each participant is referred to by a name which denotes his or her primary characteristic. Auguste was the barber of the prison community, and is referred to as “The Barber.” “Judas” was one of the inmates who was constantly spying on and betraying his comrades. The book includes an immense number of characters: cummings' vivid sketches capture the essential or most memorable characteristics of each person, and help the reader to keep track of the many characters as they move about The Enormous Room.

Cummings compared his use of caricature in fiction to the selection of details and elimination of all unnecessary words in poetry-writing. In his 1920 review of T. S. Eliot's Poems, cummings wrote that the style of the “extremely great” artist “secures its emphasis by always hesitating on the edge of caricature at the right moment.” Eliot's poetry was praised in terms which explain cummings' own use of near-caricature: “this intense and serious and indubitably great poetry …, like some great painting and sculpture, attains its effects by something not unlike caricature.”4 Cummings is here referring to a selection of details so economical that the scene is painted as Ezra Pound's Imagist credo asserts poetry should portray a scene: concretely, with only the most important details present, with every word contributing directly to the presentation and with all excess words cut away. One development in cummings' poetic technique was from an early compression so severe as to make the poem nearly unintelligible, to a later compromise between intensity of compression and reader-accessibility.

By comparing early and late versions of a single poem, we can see the development toward greater reader accessibility vividly demonstrated. “Listen” was first published in The Little Review in 1923. It was carefully revised by cummings forty years later for inclusion in his last complete manuscript, 73 poems. In its final 1963 version, the poem represents the mature craftsman's style, vision, and aesthetic theory. By comparing the two versions of “Listen” we can see some of the most significant developments in cummings' artistic expertise and in his attitudes toward his reader-audience.5

As printed in 1923 the poem reads as follows [line numbering is mine]:

1 listen
this a dog barks and
this crowd of people and are these steeples
glitter O why eyes houses the smiles
5 cried gestures buttered with sunlight
O, listen
leaves in are move push leaves green are crisply writhe
a new spikes of the by river chuckles see clean why
mirrors cries people bark gestures
10 come O you if come who with listen run
me with I quick
13 irrevocably
14 (something arrives)
15 noiselessly in things lives trees
at its own pace, certainly silently
17 comes
19 yes
20 you cannot hurry it with a thousand poems
22 you cannot stop it with all the policement in the world

Cummings is telling us that he can sense something—a positive life-affirming yes attitude or response—arriving in himself and insists that the reader join him in running through the streets appreciating the beauty accessible to an open mind and heart: “come O you if come who with listen run / me with I quick / Listen.” Translated into more normal syntax, this statement might read: if you (reader) will only come with me and listen, if you will run beside me quickly down the street, then you, too, will be able to perceive the excitement of simply being alive. But you must Listen. Only if you seek out this experience of delight in living will you be able to “hear” or otherwise sense the arrival of”something”:

                    (something arrives
noiselessly in things lives trees
at its own pace, certainly silently)

Cummings often tried to recreate perceptual experiences in his poems. As he matured he became more effective in presenting his experience faithfully, yet allowing the reader to follow his line of presentation. In this 1923 poem the syntax is so fragmented, the juxtaposition of words so unusual, the deletion of transitions is so complete, that only careful study and dissection supply us with a comprehensible reading of the poem.

He has carried the theory of compression—using only the most significant words—to an extreme. The result is nearly unreadable. Part of his message is that such vivid perceptions as the one pictured here are not available to the logical, classifying, mental faculties which are tied to linear reasoning processes. Instead, cummings wants us to break down our tendency to classify and categorize; he wants us to let the images and sounds flood into us in intuitive sequence. Cummings is trying to expand our awareness of the elements available to the open senses of an aware person on a sunny day. But the method he has used is akin to presenting a boring scene through boring, monotonous language—the reader may be alienated from the poem in the process of trying to read it. Careful analysis can help us appreciate the poem's accurate depiction of an emotional state.

Cummings places this at the beginning of the second line to call attention to the vibrant immediacy of the sound of this particular dog barking right now. Repetition of this as the opening word in line three further emphasizes the specific and unique quality of the experience being considered.

In lines 3-5 and 7-9 the poet attempts to demonstrate the complexity of sensual impressions which strike him in this moment of time during which he listens:

3 this crowd of people and are these steeples
glitter O why eyes houses the smiles
5 cries gestures buttered with sunlight


7 leaves in are move push green are crisply writhe
a new spikes of the by river chuckles see clean why
9 mirrors cries people bark gestures

The poet, totally alive and open to every facet of experience, describes in a shotgun blast of words the impressions he is receiving as he “listens.” Smiles, cries, gestures of people are juxtaposed in the speaker's mind with houses, church steeples, and growing things.

All aspects of life crowd in at the poet's senses in chaotic profusion: objects (river, mirrors, houses, steeples); animals (dogs); people; other growing things (leaves, spikes of new grass, green); actions and motions (move, push, writhe, smiles, gestures, mirrors, buttered, see); visual phenomena (glitters, gestures, sunlight, green, see, mirror); and sounds (cries, chuckles, bark). All of these images are mixed with the poet's spontaneous reactions (listen, O, Listen, see, why, come, O, listen, run) in an ecstatic moment of total involvement with experience. The juxtaposition of images with all transitions eliminated in these six lines recreates on paper the spontaneous, disorganized nature of the impressions which cummings receives when he opens himself completely and unthinkingly to every sensation he can perceive.

The syntax takes on a normal speaking pattern in the last nine lines of the poem as cummings explains how he derived a sense of unity out of all the preceding sensual chaos:

13 irrevocably
(something arrives
noiselessly in things lives trees
at its own pace, certainly silently)
19 yes
you cannot hurry it with a thousand poems
22 you cannot stop it with all the policemen in the world

Unity comes from the attitude called yes, which remains a constant, unifying element throughout cummings' poetry. In the external world, the equivalent of yes is the season of spring; in cummings' internal world of feeling, yes is an attitude of sensitive attentiveness to all stimuli. The poet insists that we uninitiated readers listen while the poem's speaker describes what may be perceived if we adopt a positive life-affirming response to the potentially exciting world around and inside ourselves. The early poem is only partially narrative, more an act being staged visually for the reader. When read aloud, the extreme compression of language creates unintelligibility. Only when the early poem is read slowly, carefully, and treated as an exercise in meditation, do the juxtaposed images become meaningful. The connotations and denotations of each word must be digested slowly before the meaning becomes clear.

In the later poem, however, the reader is able to plunge through the verbal experience with cummings. The later version of “(listen)” reveals its increasingly deeper significance with each reading, but there is no longer the sensation of disorientation which must be encountered before we can see even the most literal meaning. The persona of the later poem is less hostile, less arrogant, less stubborn. He is asking for the reader's participation rather than demanding the reader's total commitment a priori:

this a dog barks and
how crazily houses
eyes people smiles
faces streets
steeples and eagerly
ing through wonder
ful sunlight
selves, stir:writhe
are (leaves;flowers) dreams
,come quickly come
run run
with me now
jump shout (laugh
dance cry
sing) for it's Spring
and in
earth sky trees
where a miracle arrives
you and i may not
hurry it with
a thousand poems
my darling
but nobody will stop it
With All The Policemen In The World

The syntax is relatively conventional, with the only inversions arranged for emphasis and sound pattern: (listen) emphasizes the “now”ness and “here” ness of the dog's bark; the abrupt insertion of crazily lends a wild, happily crazy quality to the houses / eyes people smiles / faces streets as well as to their eagerly / tumbling. The punctuation serves as vocal choreography.

The experience of Spring is much more complete in this poem than it is in the early “in Just- / Spring,” due primarily to the strong use of parentheses in cummings' later work. Here the parenthetical insertions serve a triple purpose. First, they work as stage directions to the reader/actor/participant in the poem's experience (listen), (laugh / dance cry / sing), (yes). Second, parentheses reveal the “aliveness” of natural things: listen … leaves;flowers … laugh / dance cry sing … yes—if we listen we can hear natural things singing “yes,” an affirmation of life. Third, the felt experience of nature's aliveness as something outside (or rather inside) the realm of the five senses is symbolized by placing the concrete sensually-experienced description of Spring outside the parenthesis while sowing the felt sense of deep affirmation of life's “yes”ness throughout the poem inside the parentheses.

The first parenthetical insertion is the opening line of the poem, stressing the importance of this normally “modifying” insertion. Parenthetical insertions are normally phrases; the importance of this thought is stressed by its clause construction (“flowers … sing”). Beginning as a separate thought, set off from the main series of stanzas as a refrain, the parenthetical part of the poem suddenly inserts itself into the midst of the description in the thirteenth line: o-p-e-n-i-n-g / are (leaves;flowers) dreams. The opening of dreams is the conceptual, descriptive level of action; in the midst of this is juxtaposed the “happening” of leaves and flowers opening, laughing, dancing, crying and singing yes. Two different kinds of experience are being juxtaposed: we participate fully in the immediate happening of the parenthetical flowers and leaves dancing; and we are simultaneously shown by the narrator at our elbow how the dog is barking, how our perceptions seem to be tumbl / ing, how selves are stirring and writhing and opening to the presence, reality, beauty, arrival of Being (Spring), and how the experience may not be hurried or stopped by anything outside ourselves. Thus, while the narrator is reading us his poem about the arrival of spring, Spring or openness or Being is arriving inside himself (in parentheses) and hopefully in us as well.

Parentheses often function in this way in 73 poems and throughout cummings' later work: they attempt to juxtapose a demonstration of the actual experience or feeling, a description of the external stimulus which provoked it and the physical manifestations of the experience which are available to the five senses. In the best of these poems, the two aspects of the experience fully complement and supplement one another, as in “(listen)”. The words in parentheses function equally well as part of the visual experience of the poem as it stands on paper as part of the parenthetical expression in isolation. By contrast, the 1923 version of “listen” uses parenthetical statement only to further define or limit the word yes:irrevocably … comes a thing called yes, where yes equals something which arrives noiselessly in things, in people's lives, and in trees, coming at its own pace, and certainly arriving silently. Both statements are from the same point of view, both are explaining a phenomenon which the poet alone is experiencing. The later version of “(listen)” is remarkably superior in its use of parenthetical technique.

Punctuation in the early version of “listen” is almost non-existent. The only period appears in line 12, which would seem to indicate that the poet wishes us to consider the first twelve lines and the final ten (including line-spaces) as two separate meaning-units. Capitalization and spacing are alternate forms of punctuation utilized in this poem, but the first line-space stanzaic break does not come until the eighteenth line, leaving only line-breaks and four capital letters to guide us. Of the four capitalized words in the poem, three of them are repetitions of “O”. “O” is cummings letter-symbol for a state of wonder and pleasant surprise. The letter is visually representative of an open-mouthed state of awe, as well as the shape of the sun (“buttered in sunlight”), or the shape of the moon. “Listen” is the only other capitalized word in the poem, leading immediately to the logical conclusion that the state of awe (“O”) and the state of intense awareness (“Listen”) are synonymous states of being; both states of awareness are included in the positive “yes” attitude whose arrival is announced in line 19.

Because cummings chooses each word with care, a repeated word adds import with each recurrence. The key words Listen, O, you and are each occur three times in the poem.

A major developmental change in cummings' style is his attitude toward the reader, as illustrated by these two versions of “Listen.” His early work implies an adversary relationship between poet and audience. In his first four books of poems cummings deliberately ignored (or violated) the traditional reader expectations about the way poems should be written, choosing instead to invent individualistic modes of poetic expression. In his 1952 “nonlecture two” he was still asserting that “so far as i am concerned, poetry and every other art is and forever will be strictly and distinctly a question of individuality” (i6n, [i: six nonlectures] 24). The object of his earliest poems was to express the ideas and feelings of nobody-but-himself in a style specifically designed to express his insights. He seems to have cared little about reader response to his unusual techniques.

In The Magic-Maker, Charles Norman reports a conversation in which cummings discussed his early attitude toward his readers: “The relation of an artist to his audience is neither positive or negative. It's at right angles. I'm not writing ‘difficult’ so that simple people won't understand me. I'm not writing ‘difficult’ for difficult people to understand. Insofar as I have any conception of my audience, it inhibits me. An audience directs things its own way” (MM, 134).

The 1923 version of “Listen” demonstrates the young poet's commitment to sincere self-expression in his poetry. It is a poem which attempts to record in visual form the very essence of his experiences—with little regard for any reader's ability to enter easily into that experience through conventional reading techniques. The poem chastises its reader to “listen” to the perceptual processes of the poet who demonstrates the way it feels to be truly open to experience. The poet is telling us that he can sense something, or a positive, life-affirming yes attitude or response, in the everyday world of things buttered in sunlight. He insists that we listen as he describes his personal experience of something which arrives silently, in the things, the lives, the trees around him. The fact that “something” arrives / noiselessly tells us that, paradoxically, to simply listen (repeated four times throughout the first section of the poem) with our ears will not be a sufficient level of awareness to perceive the arrival of the something. We must “listen” in some deeper sense if we are to hear.

The reader receives the impression that this special listening process is something unique to the poet—that only cummings can really hear or feel the excitement and wonder—signified by O, listen in line 6. For you, dear reader, cannot hurry it with a thousand poems, nor can you, the reader, stop it with all the policemen in the world. The reader is assumed to be antagonistic to the state of wonder and excitement related by the poet in the early lines of the poem. This is one of the most important differences between the two versions.6

In the final version, as it appears in 73 poems, the reader is assumed to be a willing sharer in the perception of wonder: The poet excitedly asks the reader to (Listen), look, come quickly come / run run / with me now. It is no longer the poet alone against the world (and against the reader). Now it is the poet and reader together: you and i may not / hurry it with a thousand poems, and we share the secret that nobody will stop it / With All The Policemen In The World. Cummings' perception of the something in the early “listen” has changed to a feeling of Spring arriving irrevocably. A miracle arrives in the external objects: earth sky trees / every / where. In the early “listen” the something also arrives in men's lives only at its own pace. There is no way to hurry it if you, the reader, don't already possess this sense of wonder even if you want to have it happen to you: YOU CANNOT hurry it with a thousand poems (emphasis mine). But in the 1963 version we find that the miracle MIGHT (may) take place in us if we “run run / come with me now / jump shout (laugh / dance cry / sing) for it's Spring,” and “you and i may not / hurry it with / a thousand poems / my darling / but nobody will stop it / With All The Policemen In The World.” There is a possibility that participating in the poetic experience may bring you and i to participation in the miracle a little sooner than it might otherwise occur in us.

This positive attitude toward his reader first appeared explicitly in the introduction to his 1938 edition of Collected Poems: “The poems to come are for you and for me and are not for mostpeople—it's no use trying to pretend that mostpeople and ourselves are alike. Mostpeople have less in common with ourselves that the squarerootofminusone. you and i are human beings; Mostpeople are snobs.”7 Here the poet includes the reader, a solitary person who is sharing cummings' poetry as one of the human beings. Every one who is not true to himself, but lives by the ethics and platitudes voiced by others may be considered to be mostpeople. Then follows a page and a half of satirical prose blasting the deadly philosophy of mostpeople as contrasted with the alive, growing, yes outlook of e. e. cummings.

By 1952, when cummings included a revised version of his introduction in his fourth nonlecture, he was even less overtly hostile toward mostpeople. In the nonlecture he eliminated the first paragraph (quoted above) along with almost all of the other satirical, antagonistic passages. He used only sixteen lines of the introduction, and these were only the positive parts which described his own outlook. However, cummings did not change his negative opinion of people who were insincere or who failed to examine their world critically and assert their right (duty) to be unique, feeling individuals. But he did change the way the poet-speaker addressed the reader in many of his poems and in his introduction to books of poems.

In the 1963 version of “(listen),” the effect of the speaker's changed attitude toward his listeners is to encourage our participation in cummings' sense of wonder; whereas in the 1923 version we feel as though we are being castigated for not participating—before we are given a chance to join in the poet's outlook. We are assumed to be guilty in the early poem; not until the later poetry does he more often assume we are innocent until proven guilty.8

Cummings also changed a few of the images in the later version of “(listen).” “This crowd of people” in the early version becomes simply people in the 1963 poem, “and are these steeples” becomes simply steeples; “glitter / O why … buttered in sunlight,” is simplified into “are eagerly / tumbl / ing through wonder / ful sunlight,” the syntax and diction of a simple childlike singing voice. The four occurrences of listen are reduced to the single opening “(listen)” in the later poem. Verbal requests are added to involve all the reader's senses in the miracle: look, selves, stir:writhe / opening, dreams, come, run, jump, shout, laugh, dance, cry, sing. The scene we are witnessing also involves more sensations, more aspects of growth than the older poem gave us: crazily, eagerly tumbl / ing, wonder, wonderful, and full sunlight, selves,stir:writhe, opening, dreams and Spring are either absent from the earlier poem or are buried in the fragmented syntax (which is more pervasive in his earlier poems).

The early poem characterizes the something as silent, noiseless; the only sound images in the poem are those of the dog barking, the cries, and the river chuckling. The later version of the poem is alive with sound images. The dog still barks, but now poet and reader are loudly rejoicing the arrival of the miracle: both shout, laugh, cry, and sing.

Both poems celebrate an intense commitment to the appreciation of all external and internal life-experiences. Thus “intensity” is for cummings not only a way of writing, but also a way of perceiving. His poems recreate in compressed language the experience of living intensely, of living each moment to the fullest.

Several letters have been published in which cummings explains a particular poem for a puzzled reader. A survey of these letters indicates that he apparently began explaining poems to readers around 1949. However, in that first known explication cummings' tone is the somewhat haughty tone of a master craftsman to a bumbling apprentice. He is discussing one of the “poempictures” in his 1950 book XAIPE:

chas sing does(who,ins
smiles alw
ays a trifl
hile ironin
nob odyknowswhos esh

Cummings tells his unknown correspondent that “chas sing” is the name of a “Chinese laundryman on Minetta Lane (maybe Street).” This poem tells you that, in spite of his name, he doesn't sing (instead, he smiles always a trifle while ironing nobody knows whose shirt). So far his explication is very straightforward and helpful, written in a discursive tone of voice. Here the tone changes, however: “I can't believe you've never done any ironing; but, if you have, how on earth can you possibly fail to enjoy the very distinct pictures of that remarkable process given you by the poet's manipulating of those words which occur in the poem's parenthesis?!” His concluding line sounds as though the master was having a difficult time trying to communicate with another one of those “mostpeople”: “ah well; as Gilbert remarked to Sullivan, when anybody's somebody everybody will be nobody.” Still, he did explain the poem to a reader who was not included among those he thought of as his friends, so he was indeed moving toward more of a dialogue with his audience than was the case in 1923.

By 1959 the tone of these explanatory letters was much more friendly and their frequency of occurrence had increased significantly. In a letter written 03 February [1959?] he discussed poem 19 from 95 poems:


Cummings tells his correspondent that “all” the poem “wants to do is to create a picture of a bee, unmoving, in the last blossom of a rosebush. Taken alone, the parentheses read ‘bee in the only rose’. Without parentheses, the poem asks ‘unmoving are you asleep.’ Put these elements together & they make ‘bee in the only rose (unmoving) are you asleep?’” Again he has given an explanation of a poem in a discursive tone of voice. However, his explanation is more complex in this case, perhaps demonstrating that his use of parentheses has become more complex in his later poetry, and perhaps also demonstrating that he is now willing to explain his poems in more depth.

The last paragraph of cummings' letter demonstrates the change in attitude toward his audience which had taken place by 1959. Cummings exhibits an attitude toward his reader which is friendly and open: “if you'll let me know which of the other poems seem least comprehensible, I'll gladly furnish explanations; which are certainly harmless, as long as a person doesn't mistake the explanation for the poem.”

This statement assumes his reader to be a friendly participant in the poetic process and parallels the attitude revealed in his 1962 version of “(listen).” The number of explanatory letters increases sharply after 1950 and they grow increasingly more friendly and helpful through these later years. These data would tend to support my observation that cummings' attitude toward his audience changed significantly in his later years.

Many of the later poems are more accessible to “mostpeople,” but the basic aim of writing poems never changes throughout his long career: to make “a dozen persons react to his personality genuinely or vividly” and to substitute in his readers a fully aware, vital experience for their normally un-intense impressions of reality.


  1. e. e. cummings, “T. S. Eliot,” The Dial (June 1920), rpt. in George J. Firmage, ed., A Miscellany Revised (New York: October House, 1965), pp. 25-29. All articles quoted hereafter which may be found in A Miscellany Revised will be noted in the text as indicated, viz. (Misc.,—) with page reference in the parentheses.

  2. Norman Friedman has demonstrated cummings' craftmanship in Chapter Five of his second critical book on cummings, eec: The Art of His Poetry. In that chapter Friedman concludes from his analysis of cummings' revision process that: “cummings is … a poetic maker. This claim is based on an assumption that a man, to write great poems, needs, in addition to a great moral vision and a flair for language, certain constructive and critical powers pertaining to the organization of a poem—to the adjustment of its various parts and devices to the whole for the sake of achieving a unified effect” (126). Friedman shows that “the whole poem was rewritten dozens and dozens of times in its entirety so as to incorporate at each step in the process the new with the old, the altered with the unchanged; it moved forward as a growing and developing unity from stage to stage, adding, changing, rearranging, dropping, and adding bit by bit the elements of the finished design, and without breaking anything” (158).

  3. Robert E. Maurer has also found this to be true. In his article “Latter-Day Notes on E. E. Cummings' Language,” Bucknell Review, 5 (May 1955), 1-23, rpt. in Norman Friedman, ed., Twentieth Century Views Series e. e. cummings (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972), p. 81, he said: “At its most highly developed state, in his later books, Cummings' language becomes almost a foreign one, usually possible to figure out for a reader who knows English … ; but he will get its full meaning only if he has read a great deal of cummings and if he ‘knows the language’.”

  4. “T. S. Eliot,” Misc., 26.

  5. e. e. cummings, “Three Poems,” The Little Review, 9, No. 3 (Spring 1923), 22-24. This poem has not been discussed in cummings criticism to date.

  6. Cummings at the beginning of his career was generally more antagonistic to critics and readers than he was later in his career. One possible reason for the change in attitude may be simply that his audience grew larger later in his career; therefore he felt less and less that he was speaking into a vacuum as the years passed; later in his career he felt that there were quite a few readers who took his poetry seriously.

  7. e. e. cummings, “Introduction” to the 1938 edition of Collected Poems, rpt. in Poems 1923-1954 (New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1954), p. 331.

  8. Even the satire in 73 poems is directed at them. We no longer seen an angry poet attacking all beside himself with Swiftian vehemence; now the reader is assumed to be with him, sharing the poet's confidence:

    the greedy the people
    (as if as can yes)
    they sell and they buy
    and they die for because
    though the bell in the steeple
    says Why

    (73 poems, # 29)

Principal Works

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The Enormous Room (prose) 1922

Tulips and Chimneys (poetry) 1923

& (poetry) 1925

XLI Poems (poetry) 1925

Is 5 (poetry) 1926

Him (play) 1927

W: ViVa (poetry) 1931

Eimi (travel diary) 1933

No Thanks (poetry) 1935

Collected Poems (poetry) 1938

50 Poems (poetry) 1940

1 × 1 (poetry) 1944

Santa Clause—A Morality (play) 1946

XAIPE: Seventy-One Poems (poetry) 1950

i: six nonlectures (lectures) 1953

Poems 1923–1954 (poetry) 1954

95 Poems (poetry) 1958

73 Poems (poetry) 1963

Selected Letters of E. E. Cummings (letters) 1969

The Complete Poems 1910-1912 (poetry) 1981

Milton A. Cohen (essay date December 1983)

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SOURCE: Cohen, Milton A. “Cummings and Freud.” American Literature 55, no. 4 (December 1983): 591-610.

[In the following essay, Cohen addresses the influence of Freud on Cummings’s early aesthetic and technique.]

when I see you I shall expect you to be conversant with two books: The Interpretation of Dreams, and WIT and the Unconscious. Both are by FREUD. GET WISE TO YOURSELF!!1

So wrote E. E. Cummings to his younger sister Elizabeth in May 1922. In some ways, Cummings' enthusiasm for Freud was very much a part of its time: a post-war Modernist in the arts could scarcely resist Freudian theory as the concomitant “modernism” of psychology. As Frederick Hoffman has shown in Freudianism and the Literary Mind, Freud's theories were readily available in America by 1915 and were eagerly snapped up by Greenwich Village intellectuals, among whose ranks was E. E. Cummings.

But Freud's meaning to these bohemians was distorted by their desire to repudiate bourgeois morality and to adopt sexual mores free of “Puritanical” repression. As Hoffman observes, “Freud did not bring about this revolution in sex morality. The revolution simply drew upon him … as a means of justifying its opinions and acts.”2 Cummings fits this pattern rather closely. He too felt Freudian theory would remove the sexual inhibitions of his upbringing and sanction his rebellion. He was equally prone, therefore, to misconstrue Freud for his own ends.

But Cummings' interest in Freud differed from that of his contemporaries in ways that justify a careful study of Freudian influence on his life and writing. First, unlike many Village and Left Bank intellectuals who merely bandied Freudian ideas, Cummings read Freud extensively and carefully. The Interpretation of Dreams, Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, and Totem and Taboo are among those books he mentions reading in his letters, and some of his heavily annotated copies still exist.3 Second, Cummings attempted to apply Freudian theory both to his life (by analyzing himself and by undergoing formal psychoanalysis) and, more important, to the aesthetics and techniques of his early poems and plays. While Freudian influence on Cummings' life and on his play Him has recently been noted in Richard Kennedy's biography, Dreams in the Mirror, Freud's influence on Cummings' other writings has received almost no critical attention, although much evidence suggests that this influence, in the late teens and twenties, was profound.4


Freudian references are not hard to come by in Cummings' writings. They pepper his private letters and recur increasingly in his published essays of the 1920s, suggesting his growing fascination with Freudian theory—a fascination that culminated in his psychoanalysis by Dr. Fritz Wittels in 1928-29. The written references begin in 1920, when Cummings urged his mother to continue reading Freud.5 Such a recommendation implies that he was already familiar with at least some works by Freud in the late teens, perhaps as early as his last years at Harvard in 1915-16. There he had learned of the latest intellectual and artistic movements, almost as soon as they emerged, from such well-posted friends as Scofield Thayer. Since Thayer underwent psychoanalysis by Freud himself in 1922-23, it seems likely that Thayer's interest in psychoanalysis—an interest he likely passed along to Cummings—began at Harvard.6 The dating is important, for since Cummings formulated both his aesthetics and his innovative poetic techniques in these years (ca. 1916-20), his early awareness of Freudian theory establishes the possibility of its influence on his art.

Freud's ideas profoundly impressed the young Cummings and marked a turning point in his life. Recalling this awakening, he mused in notes dated 1940: “I wonder if, from my Keats period, I wasn't opened into reality via Freud (per Thayer) and Wittels. …”7 “Keats Period” refers to the poems modeled after Keats and Rossetti that Cummings wrote in his early years at Harvard; the phrase may, however, also refer to his generally romantic, naive, and sheltered attitudes towards his family and towards sex in these years. But what did he mean by “reality”? Most likely, it was (as he construed it) the importance Freud ascribed to sex in explaining both psychological maturation and the conflicts between unconscious wishes and conscious repression. For Cummings, such repression was a triple inheritance: from Puritanism, from the stifling propriety of bourgeois Cambridge, and more immediately, from the prudery of his upbringing under the aegis of Reverend Edward Cummings.8 Cummings spoke in his Nonlectures [i: six nonlectures] of trying to break free of Cambridgian respectability by immersing himself in the honky-tonk night-life of Boston and, later, of Paris. Thus, if Scollay Square and the Left Bank became his college of the senses, Freud became his professor, providing the intellectual rationale for this self-education.9

Precisely this distorted view of Freud as sexual liberator informs part of Cummings' advice to his sister (quoted in the epigraph) on how to “get wise” to herself: “SEX IS EVERYTHING (as Freud says): You either know this or you don't. If you don't you don't. It's not what can be taught! J'espere, in your connection!” Practicing what he preached, Cummings sought to “get wise” to himself, by reading A. A. Brill's Psychoanalysis10 and by attempting his own psychoanalysis in late 1923.11 Here again, he was following fashion as well as personal necessity. Two of his closest friends, Scofield Thayer and Edward Nagle (a fellow-painter), had undergone psychoanalysis at about this time; Thayer's had not yet proven a failure, and Nagle's, as Cummings wrote his mother, left him “entirely changed … he paints very finely now.”12 Freud's apparent contribution to freeing an artist's creative potential was not lost on Cummings.

Like any good disciple of a new religion, Cummings sought to spread the word, chiefly in articles he wrote for Vanity Fair in the mid-twenties. In “I Take Great Pleasure in Presenting,” he discusses the differences between “consciousness” and the unconscious, using the penguin as “a living symbol” of these dual “selves.” His claims for the unconscious are extravagant: it is “the function which determines or fulfills each human being's destiny and which contains the essence or meaning of all destiny. … Not only does the Unconscious exist—it is existence: and moreover the best part of existence—an illimitable realm in which the human mind flies, as contrasted with a microscopic domain in which the mind's wings are next to useless [i.e., consciousness].”13 A more humorous tone informs “The Secret of the Zoo Exposed.” The decidedly psychoanalytical “secret” is that the animals “are in reality living mirrors, reflecting otherwise unsuspected aspects of our own human character … of our true or invisible selves.” Similarly, the animal-monsters of our dreams, “if properly analyzed, lose their terror and become deceptive appearances, harmless symbols of our own hates and loves. For further enlightenment on this subject I can only refer you to the works of Dr. Freud and other psychoanalysts.”14 Cummings continued to refer his family to Freud as well, urging them to read A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis and Totem and Taboo in 1926.15

Behind the glib didacticism of his essays and advice, however, Cummings suffered a series of emotional crises in these years. In 1919 he fathered an illegitimate child by Thayer's wife, Elaine Orr, and then refused either to acknowledge his paternity (though the fact was known to Thayer and others) or to assume any responsibility for raising his daughter. When he finally did marry Elaine in March 1924, she left him three months later to marry another man. The subsequent divorce proceedings of 1924-25 left Cummings depressed and dispirited. In late 1926, his father was killed in an automobile accident. In between these shocks, he began a turbulent relationship with Anne Barton. His instability, as well as his unhappy relationship with Anne, led him to undergo a complete psychoanalysis in 1928-29 by Dr. Fritz Wittels. The results were good. As Richard Kennedy observes: “Dr. Wittels bolstered Cummings enormously in dealing with his problems. He is referred to [by Cummings] as another father, as someone who saved his life, as someone who set him free. It is apparent that Wittels' method both reinforced Cummings' own philosophy of individualism and helped him to stand firm and live out his philosophy.”16

Several changes in Cummings' life and art of this time reflect his increasing self-confidence and stability. His painting had already abandoned Modernist, geometric abstraction for a more personal, semi-figurative style.17 Now his poetry increasingly championed the cause of the feeling and loving individual against all mechanistic collectivities. His politics grew iconoclastically conservative, and following his divorce from Anne in 1932, his marital life stabilized into a happy, if placid, pattern of domesticity with Marion Morehouse.

In the decades that followed, Cummings continued to value the insights he gained through self-analysis and through Freudian theory. His later notes contain numerous snippets of self-analysis, and he remained close friends with Dr. Wittels. Even his letter belittling Freud as a “religion”18—an echo of his earlier reverence of “Saint Freud”—attests more to the strength of his individualism and hatred of ideologies than to a repudiation of psychoanalytical principles. He remained, as he put it in the same letter, “one who fought for Freud against many.”


Freudian theory left Cummings far more than a successful psychoanalysis, however. For in Freud's descriptions of the workings of the unconscious, he found models that confirmed, and perhaps even inspired, the artistic techniques he was then devising to realize his aesthetics.

One aesthetic goal that Cummings pondered in his notes and that was especially receptive to Freudian theory was to convey a sense of three-dimensional form in painting and poetry by non-traditional methods. Cummings termed this three-dimensional aesthetic “seeing around.” His basic method of achieving it was to juxtapose contrasting words, themes, and verbal structures in his poems, and colors, shapes and visual structures in his paintings. This technique of juxtaposition had several sources. As Roger Shattuck observes, it was a signal feature of Modernism in nearly all of the arts of the early twentieth century.19 And certainly, Cummings' study of the color theory and practice of Cézanne and of the Neo-Impressionists directly influenced his technique of juxtaposing complementary colors to create what he called “bumps and hollows,” or advancing and receding planes. What Freud provided was a description of how juxtaposition worked as an unconscious mental process applying both to words and to dream-thoughts. He thus gave Cummings a way of conceiving of language and personality as having “three-dimensional” form achieved through the juxtaposition of opposites. One immediate result of Freud's model was Cummings' technique of pairing contradictory words or “oxymorons.”

In his excellent analysis of Cummings' poetic art, Norman Friedman found himself stumped when trying to explain Cummings' early use of oxymoron:

He used it with much greater frequency in his first volume [Tulips and Chimneys] than ever again, and it seems there a sign of youthful exuberance resulting in a kind of ambiguity which is puzzling to evaluate. What are we to say about “the noise of petals falling silently,” “peaceful terrors,” “evident invisibles,” “large minute hips,” “Precise clumsy,” “grim ecstasy,” “the dusty newness of her obsolete gaze,” “obscure and obvious hands,” or “obscene shy breasts”? … One gets a sense of verbal excess, of a sometimes arbitrary creative flamboyance.20

Most critics politely ignore the technique altogether; and one who has perceptively identified its aesthetic origins and parallels, Rushworth Kidder, does not analyze how the oxymorons themselves work.21 Yet the technique simply cannot be put aside, for, as Friedman shows, it occurs often in Cummings' early poems. Here are some more examples, followed by their pagination in Poems 1923-1954:

a skilful uncouth/prison (55)
the seren nervous light (66)
the whirlingPeaceful furious street (81)
an impenetrable transparency (109)
whose careless movements carefully scatter (114)
taste the accurate demure/ferocious rhythm
          of precise laziness (122)
with twists spontaneously methodical (127)
a personal radiance sits hideously (126)
fiercely shy and gently brutal (157)
frail firm asinine life (160)
the sharp days slobber (211)
a wise/and puerile moving of your arm (217)
whispering fists of hail (215)

To examine one jarring example in detail, consider the closing two lines of the following poem:

the bed is not very big
a sufficient pillow shoveling
her small manure-shaped head
one sheet on which distinctly wags
at times the weary twig
of a neckless nudity
(very occasionally budding
a flabby algebraic odour
          et tout en face
always wiggles the perfectly dead
finger of thitherhithering gas.
clothed with a luminous fur
                    a Jesus sags
in frolicsome wooden agony).

&, “Sonnets-Realities,” V; in Poems 1923-1954, p. 106.

“Frolicsome”? What could be further from “agony,” less appropriate to the spiritual gravity of the Crucifixion? True, this verbal contradiction expresses the incongruous image preceding it (“clothed with a luminous fur / poilu / a Jesus sags”): the crucifix above the prostitute's bed is apparently “clothed” with a sensuous, nappy fur (“poilu”). But the shock of the verbal contradictions between “frolicsome” and “agony” surpasses this visual incongruity, and Cummings heightens the verbal shock by isolating the final lines containing it. Yet, for all its startling incongruity, the phrase somehow works. “Frolicsome”'s anomalous presence intensifies the agony that “sags” begins and “wooden” continues; grossly inappropriate, it points ironically back to the suffering

But how do we know that the oxymoron should work this way? To answer this, we must consider Cummings' sources. Certainly, as a literary device, the oxymoron has a long tradition of which Cummings was doubtless aware. He would not have failed to note its use by the English Metaphysical poets, by his beloved Keats, or (particularly apt here) by Petrarchan sonnets to express “love's contradictions,” a theme we shall return to below.22 But in his 1925 essay “You Aren't Mad, Am I?”23 Cummings reveals two far less likely sources: burlesque and Freud.

Burlesque, writes Cummings, has the ability to convey three-dimensional form by making “‘opposites’ occur together.” To illustrate this he carefully narrates an example that, because it illuminates his own technique, is worth quoting. A burlesk comedian, Jack Shargel, is handed a rose. He receives it with elaborate seriousness and “rapturously” inhales its fragrance:

then (with a delicacy which Chaplin might envy) tosses the red rose exquisitely, lightly, from him. The flower describes a parabola—weightlessly floats downward—and just as it touches the stage there is a terrific, soul-shaking, earthquake-like crash: as if all the glass and masonry on earth, all the most brittle and most ponderous things of this world, were broken to smithereens. Nothing in “the arts,” indeed, not even Paul Cézanne's greatest painting of Mont Sainte-Victoire, 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 un-roselike 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.” (Cummings' emphasis)

There are several important points here. First, “knowing around” (a conceptual equivalent to “seeing around”) the rose involves a clash, a juxtaposition of opposites: the rose's qualities and their antitheses. By defining what the rose is not, is furthest from, these “un-roselike and non-flowerish elements” secretly “modify and enhance” what the rose is, just as “frolicsome” enhances “agony.” But most important, these unroselike qualities are opposite only “in terms of consciousness.” On another level—the unconscious—they can coexist with the rose's qualities naturally, without what the conscious mind calls “opposition.” The language here is Freudian, and Cummings leaves no doubt of his source when he discusses the same aesthetic of opposition in words themselves: “language was not always blest with ‘opposites.’ Quite the contrary. A certain very wise man has pointed out (in connection with the meaning of dreams) that what ‘weak’ means and what ‘strong’ means were once upon a time meant by one word” (p. 127). By tracing the origins of these ideas in Freud's writings—The Interpretation of Dreams, the review of Karl Abel's The Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words, and Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious—we may determine the nature and perhaps even the extent of Freudian influence on Cummings' technique.24

In the quotation above, Cummings alludes to a footnote in Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams:

I was astonished to learn from a pamphlet by K. Abel, The Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words (1884) (cf. my review of it …)—and the fact has been confirmed by other philologists—that the most ancient languages behave exactly like dreams in this respect [i.e., combining opposites]. In the first instance they have only a single word to describe the two contraries at the extreme ends of a series of qualities or activities (e.g., “strong-weak,” “old-young,” “far-near,” “bind-sever”); they only form distinct terms for the two contraries by a secondary process of making small modifications in the common word. …25

Freud appended this footnote to a passage that describes one aspect of the “dream work”:

The way in which dreams treat the category of contraries or contradictories is highly remarkable. It is simply disregarded. “NO” seems not to exist so far as dreams are concerned. They show a particular preference for combining contraries into a unity or for representing them as one and the same thing. Dreams feel themselves at liberty, moreover, to represent any element by its wishful contrary; so that there is no way of deciding at a first glance whether any element that admits of a contrary is present in dream-thoughts as a positive or as a negative.

(p. 318, my emphasis)

Cummings appears to paraphrase this passage when he states that the “opposition” between the rose's qualities and their antitheses exists “in terms of consciousness only,” and that “secretly or unconsciously” these antithetical qualities “modify and enhance” the rose's qualities. Although Freud does not specify the content of these oppositions except as “elements,” he does say that “words are treated in dreams as though they were concrete things and for that reason they are apt to be combined in just the same way as presentations of concrete objects” (Standard Ed., IV, 295-96).

Freud's review of Abel's pamphlet not only surveys the various ways in which ancient languages combined opposite meanings into a single word (and sometimes reversed the sounds and letters of the original in its antonym), but also attributes the same word-play to children and to the unconscious. All three of these sources of word-play—ancient languages, children, and dreams—were integral to Cummings' aesthetics.26 Moreover, his poetry employs all manner of word-play including acrostics, palindromes, and juxtaposed anagrams (e.g. “gas / sags” in the poem “the bed” above, and “god / dog” in the poem “Who / threw the silver dollar …” [&, “N,” IV]).

Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious probably had the greatest influence on Cummings' technique of juxtaposing antonyms. The “Relation” involves many of the same unconscious processes of the dreamwork applied to words, when a thought from the “foreconscious” descends briefly into the unconscious, in transformed, and then emerges from the unconscious as a witticism.27 Of the many techniques of wit Freud cites, one is “representation through the opposite” or “outdoing wit.” It occurs when the opposite of the appropriate response “owing to its context, is equivalent to a still stronger” version of the appropriate response. Freud continues: “The contradiction takes the place of an exaggerated confirmation” (p. 674, my emphasis). Here, in a sentence, is the psychoanalytic rationale of “frolicsome wooden agony.” As in wit-technique, one side of the opposition can be made, by context, to “secretly enhance” (Cummings) or act as “an exaggerated confirmation” (Freud) of the other side. The contexts of our associations regarding the rose (delicacy) or the Crucifixion (suffering) are so firmly established that the antitheses of these contexts (the crashing rose, “frolicsome” agony) stand out glaringly enough to point back to—and “secretly enhance”—the original contextual qualities.

Of course, there are significant differences between Freud's model and Cummings' application. In Freudian theory, the juxtaposition between context and contradiction originates in the unconscious and manifests itself in the witticism or dream. Cummings reverses the process: the juxtaposition originates as a conscious artistic technique, but it appeals to the reader's memory of and unconscious associations with a particular context. Then too, not all of Cummings' verbal oppositions are as imbalanced as “frolicsome wooden agony.” Some, for example “obscene shy breasts,” seem more evenly balanced—either adjective could control the image—and thus fail to resolve the tension of their opposition. Here, we must consider the thematic context of these poised tensions to discover both their origin and function. Often, the themes are sexual and divided—torn between the speaker's attraction and repulsion to his lover. Once again, Freudian theory will help explain Cummings' puzzling dichotomies.


A sizable number of poems from Cummings' first three volumes, particularly the “Sonnets-Realities,” describe sex explicitly and imaginatively. But it is sex that is “enjoyed no sooner, but despisëd straight.” For these poems reveal, in varying degrees of balance, a disturbing tension between the speaker's lust for his partner (often a prostitute) and his aversion to her. Significantly, both the speaker's delight in her body and in the sensations of intercourse and his attendant or subsequent disgust are conveyed in incisive—and often shockingly repugnant—metaphors.

The balance between attraction and repulsion varies with each poem. If we reexamine “the bed is not very big,” we find almost no balance at all: the portrait of this prostitute is unrelentingly sordid. Her manure-shaped head, neckless nudity, odorous body, and bad breath lack even the integration of belonging to a complete person: they “jig,” “wag,” and “wiggle” in spasmodic isolation. Conversely, “i like my body when it is with your / body” is all delight:

i like my body when it is with your
body. It is so quite new a thing.
Muscles better and nerves more.
i like your body. I like what it does,
i like its hows. i like to feel the spine
of your body and its bones, and the trembling
-firm-smooth ness and which i will
again and again and again
kiss, i like kissing this and that of you,
i like, slowly stroking the, shocking fuzz
of your electric fur, and what-is-it comes
over parting flesh. … And eyes big love-crumbs,
and possibly i like the thrill
of under me you so quite new

&, “Sonnets-Actualities,” XXIV; in Poems 1923-1954, p. 129.

Most often, however, the sex poems bring both attraction and repulsion into head-on conflict:

the dirty colours of her kiss have just
                                        my seeing blood, her heart's chatter
riveted a weeping skyscraper
in me
                    i bite on the eyes' brittle crust
(only feeling the belly's merry thrust
Boost my huge passion like a business
and the Y her legs panting as they press
proffers its omelet of fluffy lust)
at six exactly
                                                            the alarm tore
two slits in her cheeks. A brain peered at the dawn.
she got up
                                        with a gashing yellow yawn
and tottered to a glass bumping things.
she picked wearily something from the floor
Her hair was mussed, and she coughed while tying strings

&, “Sonnets-Realities,” III; in Poems 1923-1954, p. 105.

The octet is all lust. The speaker delights in describing the sensations that his lover—or rather, the parts of his lover—arouse in him. But at the same time, he degrades her humanness: the colors of her kiss are “dirty”; her heart can only “chatter”; her eyes have a “brittle crust”; her thrusting, if merry, is also “a business.”

The sestet presents “the morning after” and transfers the night's sexual energy into violent, slashing images of morning. His lust only a memory, the speaker watches his lover with the aesthetic detachment and acuity of a painter. While he conveys a trace of sympathy for her fatigue, she remains, as during the night before, only an agglomeration of parts: a “yellow yawn,” a “brain,” “mussed” hair, undone strings.

How are we to explain these sexual polarities? They derive, I think, from three quite different sources: from the purely literary tradition of the Petrarchan sonnet, from Modernist aesthetics of juxtaposition and (in Cézanne and Cubism, at least) of emotional detachment between painter and subject, and most important, from sexual conflicts within Cummings himself—conflicts that Cummings, aided by Freudian theory, attempted to objectify and thus resolve.

That most of these sexual polarities (and verbal oppositions) occur in sonnets is no accident. As a lover of the sonnet form, Cummings had mastered Petrarch's and Shakespeare's models idealizing the qualities of the beloved. By turning love into sex and an idealized lady into a squalid whore, Cummings pays homage to the Petrarchan tradition by inverting it, much as Shakespeare did in “My Mistress' Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun.” Petrarch's idealized lady hovers as a kind of ghostly after-image—a photographic negative—of Cummings' repulsive prostitute in “the bed is not very big.” She is the unmentioned standard against which the whore is measured. By simply being everything the prostitute is not, she mockingly reinforces the tawdriness of the real experience. Thus, the literary context functions here precisely as it does in Cummings' imbalanced verbal oppositions, such as “frolicsome wooden agony” of this same poem: “the contradiction takes the place of an exaggerated confirmation.”

As we have seen, Cummings valued juxtapositon as a form-creating technique in his Modernist painting and poetry. If complementary colors and oxymoronic words could be juxtaposed, then why not opposing sexual attitudes? In treating his subject as a thing, moreover, Cummings achieves an icy detachment that permits him to render her features with an imaginative clarity purged of sentimentality—to paint her as still life, much as Cézanne painted his wife.

Both these explanations assume a purely aesthetic intent, removed from any sexual conflicts within the poet himself. But given what we know already of Cummings' fascination with Freud as sexual liberator and of his rebellion against his prudish upbringing, we should look more closely at his life vis-à-vis Freudian theory—just as Cummings himself did—to explain these sexual tensions more fully. In his Introduction to the 1922 Manuscript Edition of Tulips & Chimneys, Richard Kennedy writes: “Some of these poems reveal the tensions and uncertainties about sex which were common among the middle-class young men of the early 1920's, who, like Estlin Cummings, the minister's son, were just breaking free of the puritanical attitudes of earlier decades. A combination of fascination and repulsion wobbles through most of [the sex poems] …” (p. xiii). Kennedy groups these poems in a style he calls the “Satyric,” which “frequently treats [sex] as a dirty but necessary function” (p. xii).

Sex as “dirty but necessary” does not account for the unvarnished lust in these poems—the “attraction” side of Cummings' ambivalence. And it overlooks other expressions of this sexual interest, such as the scores of erotic drawings he made in these years. Yet Kennedy's thesis that the sexual polarities reflect Cummings' own “tensions and uncertainties” makes good sense. In fact, the thesis finds independent support in Freud's 1912 essay, “On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love” (Standard Ed., XI, 179-90). Freud describes how a neurotic male becomes fully potent only with a “debased” woman, never with a “virtuous” one. The latter is uncomfortably close to the male's home life: she recalls a mother or sister to whom he has formed an “incestuous fixation” in his youth. Conversely, the debased woman is sexually attractive because she appears aesthetically and “ethically” inferior to the male and can thus function solely as a “sexual object.”

Several details of Cummings' early life fit this neurotic pattern. As Kennedy observes in Dreams in the Mirror (p. 103), Cummings was closely attached to his mother and sister and underwent an “Oedipal crisis” with his father. In one “primal scene,” Cummings overheard his mother crying out his father's name during intercourse; he thereupon resolved never “to take any more of my F[ather]'s hypocrisy.” Another time, overhearing his father berating his mother, he recalls his response: “I REVOLT ag[ainst] my F[ather]: would like to KILL HIM.” Taking his mother' side in parental quarrels was only one expression of his Oedipal aggression. Another was his investigation of the low life that his father, a pillar of Unitarian propriety, must have abhorred. And paralleling Freud's profile of the neurotic male, Cummings' sexual initiation occurred relatively late: at twenty-three, according to Kennedy (p. 157).

Cummings' unresolved Oedipal conflicts, then, would seem to have disposed him to be both sexually attracted to and aesthetically repelled by the prostitutes in his sex poems. This aesthetic-erotic dichotomy perhaps explains why the adjectives and metaphors describing the lover's ugliness are as intensely vivid as those describing the speaker's pleasurable sensations of intercourse. Certainly, Cummings was not oblivious to these conflicts. His enthusiasm for Freud and for psychoanalysis derived, as we noted above, from a desire to discover and thereby free himself of them. Thus, the ambivalence in his sex poems does not seem merely an unconscious expression of sexual conflict. Rather, the balanced tensions of lust and disgust, the clinical dissections of the repellent lovers show aesthetic distance, as if Cummings is presenting the competing sides of his sexual ambivalence, shaping and ordering their tangled relation, and thereby gaining aesthetic control of them.


Freudian theory exerted probably its greatest influence on Cummings in his 1927 play Him—a play often called “Expressionistic” and even “Cubist,” but rarely “Freudian.” Yet, as Richard Kennedy notes, in the play's first draft, Cummings “was trying to present Freudian ideas in symbolic action” by having the characters represent “consciousness or the ego,” “the subconscious,” etc.28 Although Him's final version is not so schematic, it abounds with heavy-handed, Freudian references: an Englishman struggles with a heavy trunk on his back labeled “the unconscious” (II, vi); the protagonist meets his alter-ego, or libido, in the park (III, v); the protagonist's lover makes an obviously “Freudian” slip of saying “hump” when she means “pocket” (I, ii); “Will” and “Bill” play musical chairs with their identities (II, iv); one of the chorus of the “Three Weirds” refers to “the gospel according to Saint Freud”; and so forth.

Gratuitous as these allusions seem, they offer repeated clues to the psychological action of the play: the conflicts between and within the central characters, “Him” and “Me.” “Him,” as playwright and lover of “Me,” must somehow reconcile his iconoclastic, artistic persona (dubbed “Mr. O. Him, the Man in the Mirror”) with his social need of Me's love and companionship. “Me,” as Him's mistress, must reconcile her desire to have Him's child with her newly-emergent sense of herself and of her growing incompatibility with Him. Having the child, in fact, becomes the very hub of the play around which these conflicting identities revolve; but this hub is buried in fears as repressed wish and, until the denouement, is visible only in symbolic images.

While the entire second act is given over to the burlesque skits of Him's play,29 the important scenes between Him and Me progressively reveal deeper layers of their relationship and of their psyches—a kind of psychoanalytic strip tease. This uncovering occurs simultaneously on three levels. Physically, the stage setting revolves with each successive scene to reveal a new side of the room in which Him and Me live. Since they remain oriented to the original room arrangement, each shift presents a new facet of their physical presence. This Cubist device (an expression of Cummings' “seeing around” aesthetic) serves as a perceptual metaphor for the social and psychological “seeing around” of personality. Socially, each scene between Him and Me discloses a new fragment of their progressively disintegrating relationship. Psychologically, the Him-Me scenes descend ever deeper into Him's psyche, chiefly through his monologues. For our purposes, however, I shall consider only the last of these disclosures.

Perhaps because Him, as playwright, suffers from writer's block—he cannot give birth to his play—he begins literally to “psychoanalyze” himself: to break down his psyche into Freudian components, using mirrors as both the means and symbol of his analysis. In the mirror, he confronts his artistic persona, “Mr. O. Him” (I, iv). Later, he meets his libidinous alter-ego (III, v). In both confrontations, he wants to kill his other self (or, rather, see it kill itself) but cannot. Finally, in “a still deeper mirror,” beneath “the windows of sleep,” Him glimpses an image from the nether-most region of his psyche, his unconscious, in the form of the child he “wishes—and fears—to have.”

In Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious. Freud defines the nucleus of a dream as a repressed wish “that should appear foreign to conscious thinking or … supply consciousness with reinforcement from unknown sources” (Modern Library Ed., pp. 746-47, 761). Cummings goes to considerable lengths of make Him's wish “foreign” to conscious thinking and yet still present in veiled allusions, dream-like gestures, and images. Not until Him actually recounts the dream-image itself (III, v), and again at the denouement in the midway scene (III, vi), does the child emerge into full view. But even when visible, its significance is shrouded. Some critics take it literally as the baby Me actually has. But there is as much reason to suppose that it is no more than the unrealized dream-wish of Him and Me.30

First, as noted above, it never appears directly but always in allusions, symbols, images, and dream references, until the two climactic scenes of Act III. In the first of these scenes Him recounts to Me in loving detail a dream in which he beholds their child. But when he sees Me's response is “a different nothing”—and she tells him outright that the dream “was made of nothing”31—Him's response is to “throw it away … into the mirror.” And in the mirror, that is, in Him's unconscious, is exactly where the dream resides in the next scene, where it emerges as his nightmare. The setting is a carnival freak-show whose last attraction (introduced by a barker, alias the doctor, named “nascitur”) is Me disguised as a princess of necessity (“anankay”). Him, as dreamer, watches “from the outskirts”; when he sees Me holding up a baby and “proudly” revealing her identity, he “utters a cry of terror,” while the scene plunges into “total darkness” and “confused ejaculations of rage dwindle swirlingly to entire silence.”

Both scenes suggest that each character wants—and at the same time fears—to have the child. Perhaps their failure to realize the dream results from their inability to reconcile the divergent sides of themselves. Certainly, Him cannot reconcile the demands of his artistic persona, which creates beauty, with this still-deeper longing for love, union, and wholeness that can create new life:

Now you want—truth?
With all my life: yes!
You wanted beauty once.
(Brokenly) I believed that they were the same.
You don't think so any longer?
I shall never believe that again.
What will you believe?
(Bitterly) That beauty has shut me from truth;

(III, v)

Little wonder, then, that Him recoils in horror when confronted with the fact of his failure: the baby itself.

One point seems clear: the baby represents the possibility of unification, or in Jungian terms, of the “transcendent function” that integrates the opposing sides of personality. It can reunite Him and Me, as it can reintegrate the fragmented selves of Him's personality by putting Him in touch with his deepest longings and most submerged wishes. Moreover, the baby stands for a self-transcendence, an extension of the union between Him and Me, a new oneness growing out of their oneness. But the possibility ends in the still-born images of “total darkness” and “entire silence.” Consequently, the psychological action, like the social, moves toward fragmentation rather than reintegration: the “seeing around” reveals selves rather than self.

In sum, the staging of the scenes between Him and Me works in tandem with the play's psychoanalytic imagery to create three-dimensional “seeing around”: perceptual, social, and psychological. As the revolving room parses the personalities of Him and Me horizontally to reveal evolving sides of their relationship, the imagery and symbols parse Him's personality vertically to disclose progressively deeper levels of his psyche. Both movements compose a cube that one can see only part way around at any one time.32 Here, in short, is psychoanalytical cubism. And ultimately, the psychoanalysis is Cummings' own; for Him's ambivalence toward the child mirrors Cummings' tangled feelings toward his daughter; fear of responsibility, desire for paternity, guilt over neglecting her, and finally, bitterness in blaming her for his failed marriage to Elaine.


Given the breadth of Cummings' early aesthetic interests, it would be foolish to claim Freudian theory as the sole or even the chief influence on the techniques discussed in this study. As a Modernist painter, Cummings knew of and used techniques of juxtaposition for complementary colors and planar structures. As a Modernist poet, he had studied—and advocated—the poetic precedents for juxtaposing contradictory words, images, themes, and syntactic structures.33 The structural techniques of his own abstract painting, moreover, directly influenced his poetry, as witness the planar structures and dynamic lines in so many early poems.

Thus, what Freudian theory signified for Cummings was, first, an exact confirmation, from a quite different perspective, of the aesthetics and techniques he had gleaned from Modernist painting and poetry. Freud's ideas inspired Cummings to apply Modernist aesthetics of three-dimensionalism to personality: to adapt juxtaposition to psychological states of mind, to construct dynamic tensions of opposites for words and themes as he had done for colors, planes, and syntactic motifs. Finally, in addressing not just an object in space but the human mind, Freudian theory enabled Cummings to bring the events and concerns of his personal life into closer conjunction with his art. It provided a model by which he could express—and aesthetically order—his own unresolved sexual conflicts and structure the psychological conflicts in Him. And in emphasizing the anti-rational nature of the unconscious, Freudian theory bridged an important gap between the objectivity of Cummings' Modernist aesthetics and the subjectivity of his personal philosophy that always asserted “feeling is first.”

Cummings thus joins the ranks of Sherwood Anderson and Eugene O'Neill in exploring the intersections between Freudian theory and Modernist aesthetics, and in making of Freud's writings something more substantive and lasting for literature than could be found in the parlor talk of Greenwich Village.


  1. Selected Letters of E. E. Cummings, ed. F. W. Dupee and George Stade (New York: Harcourt, 1969), p. 86.

  2. Freudianism and the Literary Mind (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1957), pp. 52, 63.

  3. The first and third books listed here, as well as Group Psychology and The Analysis of the Ego, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, The Problem of Lay Analysis, The Future of an Illusion, and Moses and Monotheism, are in the Cummings papers at the Houghton Library, Harvard University (hereafter: Houghton).

  4. To date, the only study relating Freud to Cummings is J. Haule, “E. E. Cummings as Comic Poet: The Economy of the Expenditure of Freud,” Literature and Psychology, 25 (1975), 175-80. Haule tests the efficacy of Freud's conditions for the operation of the comic by applying them to a poem by Cummings. His article focuses on Freud rather than on Cummings.

  5. Letter to Rebecca Cummings, 13 Dec. 1920 (Houghton). Reprinted by permission of the Houghton Library and the E. E. Cummings Trust. All unpublished letters and notes of Cummings are copyright © The E. E. Cummings Trust 1982.

  6. Thayer's interest may have been aroused by Professor James J. Putnam, an early Freudian at Harvard—Hoffman, p. 47.

  7. Houghton.

  8. Richard Kennedy describes Edward Cummings' paternal attitude towards sex as “repressive” and “remonstrative,” impelling the son “to seek … release from the inhibitions of New England Puritanism”—Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E. E. Cummings (New York: Liveright, 1980), pp. 49, 88, 90.

  9. i: Six Nonlectures (New York: Atheneum, 1962), pp. 31, 48.

  10. Cummings' notes on Brill's Psychoanalysis (Houghton) use pagination different from the 1922 edition, suggesting that he read an earlier edition.

  11. Kennedy, pp. 246-47.

  12. Letter of 13 Jan. 1922 (Houghton).

  13. Vanity Fair, Feb. 1926; rpt. in E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised, ed. George J. Firmage, (New York: October House, 1965), p. 140—hereafter: A Miscellany Revised.

  14. Vanity Fair, March 1927; rpt. in A Miscellany Revised, p. 177.

  15. Letter to Rebecca Cummings, 13 Sept. 1926, in Selected Letters, p. 111.

  16. Kennedy, pp. 301-02.

  17. Freud's “liberating” influence also appears here in Cummings' penchant for unusual colors. In notes dating from the early 1940s, he wonders: “a release for me (in painting) via The Dream? this would free me from representative colors—which, in turn, I feel, would free me from literal forms” (Houghton).

  18. In 1949, Cummings wrote to A. J. Ayer that “viewed (et pourquoi pas?) as the founder of a religion of the entocosm, Freud strikes me as pitifully sans—about as s[ans] as Marx(mesocosm) & Einstein(ectocosm)”—Selected Letters, p. 194.

  19. The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885-World War One (London: Jonathan Cape, 1969), pp. 332-33.

  20. E. E. Cummings: The Art of His Poetry (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1960), pp. 96-97.

  21. “‘Author of Pictures’: A Study of E. E. Cummings' Line Drawings in The Dial,Contemporary Literature, 17 (1976), 478.

  22. Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1974), p. 596.

  23. Vanity Fair, Dec. 1925; rpt. in A Miscellany Revised, pp. 127-28.

  24. As shown above, Cummings read and recommended both Dreams and Wit (which had been available in English since 1913 and 1916, respectively). The first English translation of Freud's review of Abel appeared in 1925 in the Collected Papers. Cummings, however, was fully capable of reading the original version of 1910, having studied German at Harvard and having translated into rough English Julius Meier-Graefe's Cézanne und sein Kreis (4th ed, 1920)—Houghton.

  25. Strachey trans., Vol. IV of Standard Ed. (London: Hogarth Press, 1958), p. 318, n. 3. Although Cummings owned the Brill translation, Strachey's version is substantially the same as Brill's (Modern Library Ed., p. 346, n. 1).

  26. See, for example, his comments on primitivistic naiveté and children's art in his essay, “Gaston Lachaise,” (Dial, Feb. 1920; rpt. in A Miscellany Revised, pp. 18-19).

  27. Brill trans., Modern Library Ed. (New York: Random House, 1938), pp. 758-59.

  28. Dreams in the Mirror, p. 290.

  29. Even here, Freud's influence may be present. Kennedy asserts that in the burlesk skits of Him's first version, “Cummings was attempting to present the realm of the unconscious—the unconscious thoughts of both characters “—Dreams in the Mirror, pp. 290-91.

  30. Norman Friedman writes in E. E. Cummings: The Growth of a Writer (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1964): “And, of course, her baby is born at the end.” He cites as support a letter Cummings wrote him in 1961 stating: “Me's underlying ambition is to be entirely loved by someone through whom she may safely have a child” (pp. 55, 58). But Cummings' exegesis refers to Me's “ambition” to have a child, not to the fact of her having it.

  31. Friedman is forced to interpret this response as Me's misunderstanding of Him's meaning (p. 71)—an unconvincing explanation in view of the carefully detailed narration of the dream itself.

  32. In notes contemporaneous with Him, Cummings diagrammed as cubes the spatial relationships between consciousness and the unconscious and among the “seen and unseen faces” of a character (Houghton).

  33. Cummings' Harvard essays confirm his early familiarity with Imagism, Symbolism, and Stein's Tender Buttons. See, for example, “The New Art” (Houghton) and “The Poetry of a New Era” (Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin).

Further Reading

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Cohen, Milton A. “Perception: Seeing the Whole Surface.” In Poet and Painter: The Aesthetics of E. E. Cummings' s Early Work, pp. 85-115. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987.

Discusses Cummings’s early interest in the science of perception and its influence on his literary and artistic aesthetic.

Cureton, Richard D. “Visual Form in e. e. cummings’ No Thanks.Word and Image: A Journal of Verbal Visual Enquiry (July-September 1986): 245-77.

Explores the meaning and significance of Cummings’s visual form in his most experimental volume of poetry.

Kennedy, Richard S. “The Emergent Styles.” In Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E. E. Cummings, pp. 115-32. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1980.

Explores the period of time when Cummings developed and refined the styles for which he would later become noted.

Miller, Lewis H., Jr. “Advertising in Poetry: A Reading of E. E. Cummings’ ‘Poem, or Beauty Hurts Mr Vinal’.” Word and Image: A Journal of Verbal Visual Enquiry 2, no. 4 (October-December 1986): 349-62.

Analyzes and explains the allusions to advertisements in “Poem, or Beauty Hurts Mr Vinal.”

Additional coverage of Cummings’s life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 41; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1929-1941; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 31; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 3, 8, 12, 15, 68; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 4, 48; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural Authors, and Poets; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Poetry; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 5; Poetry for Students, Vols. 1, 3, 12, 13; Poets: American and British; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Twayne's United States Authors; and World Literature Criticism World Poets.

Norman Friedman (essay date 1983)

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SOURCE: Friedman, Norman. “Epiphanies Are Hard to Come By: Cummings’ Uneasy Mask and the Divided Audience.” In (Re)Valuing Cummings: Further Essays on the Poet, 1962-1993, pp. 83-98. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1983, Friedman reviews E. E. Cummings: The Critical Reception, finding the collection of early reviews of Cummings’s work helpful in gaining insight into the opinions of Cummings’s lesser-known contemporaries.]


This book [E. E. Cummings: The Critical Reception] continues the production of scholarly aids to the study of Cummings—which includes Firmage's bibliography and his edition of Cummings' essays, Dupee and Stade's edition of Cummings' letters, Rotella's bibliography of secondary criticism, and Kennedy's biography—and as such is a welcome addition, enabling us, as these other contributions do, to place the published oeuvre in a broader and deeper perspective. The present volume gives a full sampling of the reviews of Cummings' books in the order of publication, shows “what his contemporaries thought of him,” and contributes to that chapter of literary history covered by the poet's life.

Here we have a representative collection of reviews of Cummings' books during his lifetime—from The Enormous Room in 1922 to 95 Poems in 1958. As Dendinger explains, “Most of the newspaper reviews are to be found in the Cummings collection at Harvard University's Houghton Memorial Library. These reviews are in eight scrapbooks kept principally by Cummings' mother, dating from as early as 1912.” I remember these scrapbooks well, for the Cummingses were kind enough to lend them to me many years ago when I began to prepare my first book-length study of the poet. I made and have kept a card file of their contents, and I have made use of this file in various ways. But time, alas, has not been kind to the original scrapbooks. “They are in terrible condition,” Dendinger continues. “The scrapbooks themselves, to say nothing of the clippings, are disintegrating with age. Each time I returned one from the Houghton reading room, it left its outline on the reading table in the powdered dust of its own substance.”

At the very least, then, he has rescued them yet awhile from oblivion. Certainly, many of them—by anonymous and unknown reviewers, and in out-of-the-way papers—could have been allowed to slip silently to their fate, except for the fact that they do help us to understand the poet by allowing us to know “what his contemporaries,” and not just his expert and knowledgeable contemporaries, “thought of him,” and especially by allowing us to understand the very crucial role of modernism in our literary history between the two wars.


Dendinger's own introduction provides some useful guidelines. The most frequent and pressing problems raised by these reviews, he indicates, are Cummings' unique way with language, his experimental typography, and the puzzling relationship between his modernism of form and traditionalism of subject. Dendinger makes the telling point that Pound and Eliot also present traditional subjects in experimental forms, and that it was Williams and Stevens who sought “to make the subject as well as the form of poetry new.” They nevertheless all share a common concern “to revitalize poetry and, through poetry, language.” Then, in line with Laura Riding and Robert Graves' much earlier demonstration in their 1927 Survey of Modernist Poetry, he argues that, if you take away Cummings' “tricks,” you take away the poetry. “Form has become subject,” as with the other modernists.

The issue of modernism is crucial in trying to come to terms both with this almost forty-year collection of reviews and, as I have shown, with Cummings himself. These reviews can be usefully treated in terms of two major chronological groups, each culminating and shifting, naturally enough, around the publication of his “collected poems,” the first in 1938, and the second in 1954. Although Dendinger notes some shifts occurring around these dates, he still concludes that “the principal themes of the commentary were established fairly early and the reviewers of the latter two decades largely concerned themselves with topics defined in the first two.” This may be true, as far as “themes” and “topics” are concerned, but there is somewhat more to be said about the difference between earlier and later reviewers in how they handle them.

By and large, the reviewers of the first nine volumes, 1922-1935, are fairly evenly split—although both groups see him as modernist—between those who favor him for his modernism and those who don't. What is on trial is not so much Cummings as modernism itself, a nascent and revolutionary modernism which is just beginning to make its way into the American popular press. Thus Cummings is frequently compared to Stein, Joyce, Pound, Eliot, and the like. (The year 1922, the date of The Enormous Room, of course, also saw the appearance of Ulysses and The Waste Land). It is difficult for us today, after Cummings' modernism has come to be seriously questioned, as we have seen, to appreciate how much clearer the issue seemed then: Cummings was deemed to be, for better or worse, among the foremost of the avant-garde and experimental writers and artists. Of course, to a degree, he was more experimental (and less developed in vision) in those days than he subsequently became, so it is only natural for him to have been lumped together with the other modernists.

Nevertheless, what we witness here is the consternation of many anonymous and unknown reviewers, in out-of-the-way papers, confronted by what they don't understand and can't come to terms with. The literary historian might be reminded of the similar baffled reception that certain romantics and pre-Raphaelites received in the previous century. And even at the hands of—as also with Cummings—some then-distinguished literary persons. As one anonymous—but expert and knowledgeable—reviewer in Variety in 1933 put it, “Guys like E. E. Cummings are unfair. They write important books in such a manner as to give unimportant ‘critics’ a chance to puff up and parade their ignorance.” Their reaction to the unfamiliar is not simply defensive; it is, rather, rejecting. As is still the case today—it can happen to any of us—when we are faced with strange and peculiar art forms.

So we read the first words in this book, a review of The Enormous Room by Robert Littell in New Republic: “I feel as if I had been rooting long, desperate hours in a junk heap.” Yet he still manages to emerge admiring the book, a testimony to his underlying critical toughness. Less hardy is William Russell Clark on XLI Poems in the Galveston News, who calls Cummings “the young Lochinvar of unintelligibility.” Or, even more proud of his provincial attitude is J. G. N., reviewing is 5 with heavy sarcasm in the Kansas City Journal-Post: “Highly sophisticated critics, actually living in New York, have advised us [that Cummings is a great poet]—and there are some 10,000,000 people in New York! It is possibly true, as some irreverent person may object, that the 10,000,000 are largely kikes; but size is much, and New York is very big. Etc.”

But an undertone of admiration manages to lurk beneath the surface of even some of these negative reviews, and Cummings is seen as a poet with “genuine lyric gifts,” though he perversely insists upon burying them beneath these annoying modernist gimmicks—a theme to which we will return in due course. In the meantime, “highly sophisticated critics” such as John Dos Passos, John Peale Bishop, Marianne Moore, Malcolm Cowley, S. Foster Damon, Paul Rosenfeld, and so on, are aware that something crucial has been going on in Western culture since the nineteenth century, and especially since the First World War, that this has affected the forms of art, and that Cummings is among the chief representatives of this movement.


Says Dos Passos admiringly of The Enormous Room, in the Dial, “This sort of thing knocks literature into a cocked hat,” echoing Verlaine's “take eloquence and wring its neck.” Bishop writes of the same book in Vanity Fair, “I doubt if any other could have informed physical squalor, beastliness and degradation with so splendid a spiritual irradiance.” Cowley explains, in analyzing the poet's techniques (in ViVa) in New Republic, that the issue is “how, after three thousand years of written literature, to say anything new, or anything old in a new way.”

The problem for readers, then as now, with the modernist movement—which I take to have begun around the end of the nineteenth century and which I believe continues in various forms today—is basically this: to be able to deal with the fragmented, the disagreeable, the difficult, the painful, and the threatening, and to be able to feel that there is somehow something to be gained by so dealing. This is not simply an aesthetic or cultural problem—it is also a psychological, if not a spiritual, one. In speaking of the “untranslatability” of modern poetry, Dendinger rightly says, “This is, of course, true of all poetry, but it is a matter of degree and much more important in those periods where formal considerations take precedence over everything else. And the definitive formal characteristic of the modern period is fragmentation.”

What we are facing—and have been facing since the late eighteenth century—is the challenge, on the one hand, that we can become more human than ever before in history, and the threat, on the other, that we are becoming more dehumanized. As a result, our very relationship to reality—the reality of ourselves, of society, and of the earth—is in danger. If we are to heal this split, we must be able to confront, to begin with, the fragmented, the disagreeable, the difficult, the painful, and the threatening in ourselves. This is the underlying spirit of modernist art, and those who believe we can live comfortably and sanely without such questioning, and who can merely see a negative end to the negative way, rather than spiritual irradiance, can only reject it. Those who see, on the contrary, along with Cummings, that “to create is first of all to destroy” (quoted from The Enormous Room by Gilbert Seldes in his Double Dealer review), who feel that the way down is the way up, can only welcome it.

The issue, then, for the first dozen years or so—although a few modernist critics themselves, such as Edmund Wilson, R. P. Blackmur, Conrad Aiken, William Carlos Williams, William Troy, and Kenneth Burke are not always wholly favorable—is not so much Cummings as it is modernism itself. With the appearance of Collected Poems in 1938, however, the time for serious assessment of the poet had arrived, and the lines among the modernist critics themselves were beginning to be drawn. In other words, since modernism had by then had a chance to establish itself, not only among writers and artists but also in the minds of critics and reviewers, the question became one of whether and how much Cummings was, in fact, a representative figure of that movement. And naturally this leads to questions of what the exact meaning of that movement is in the first place.


Dudley Fitts, writing in the Saturday Review of Literature, says, “It was time for this book. Cummings has had more than his share of irrelevant criticism, whether adulatory or scornful. Everyone will talk about him, classify him, define him; few seem to have read him with critical attention.” Doing precisely that, Paul Rosenfeld points out in the Nation the two characteristics of Cummings' poetry which “solidly set it in the category of the modern.” The first is his “similarity to the fauve and cubist painters and sculptors” in his dislocations of language and typography; the second is his blending of the metaphysical and romantic traditions in his unique combination of wit and musicality. S. I. Hayakawa writes in Poetry of Cummings' descent from the paradise of childhood into the hell of the modern city and modern warfare, and suggests that this fact may explain the eccentricities of his technique—as partly a disguise and partly an attempt to achieve accuracy and immediacy of presentation. Morton Dauwen Zabel claims similarly in the Southern Review that they “are integral to the whole intensity and anguish of his senses in the face of ‘the essential horror’ he has confronted.”

Rolfe Humphries, on the other hand, in the New Masses, while granting him “tenderness, a fair ear (about as subtle, for example, as Swinburne's), imagination, invention, and wit,” at the same time asserts that “what he lacked was control, balance.” Furthermore, Humphries says, his anarchistic vision is self-defeating: “Where the idea is that nothing triumphant can be good, it surely follows that nothing good can be triumphant.” W. T. S. (whom I take to be Winfield Townley Scott) in the Providence Journal has it that “the sad thing about him is that his work has become progressively more hysterical and less vital.” And Horace Gregory in the New Republic brings up a charge which is destined to echo down the halls of Cummings' reputation for many a year to come: Cummings has “become the Jazz Age Peter Pan,” “fixed in rigid attitudes of youth,” because of his continuing defiance of the ruling powers and values of the modern world. Gregory continues: “In this defiance, there is less snobbery than evidence of fear: fear of being misunderstood, fear of being less than unique, fear of the many rising against the few and, over all, a complex and contradictory fear of loneliness.” “Part of Mr. Cummings' difficulty in finding an immediate audience,” he adds, “may be traced to the uneasy mask he wears.”

Such contrast between praise and blame among respectable and informed critics may seem to argue for absolute relativism in criticism and make committed deconstructionists of us all. I would suggest, however, that if we acknowledge valid reason on both sides, we might come a bit closer to the whole truth about Cummings. For one thing, while some cogency may be granted to such views as Gregory's, for example, the negative critics tend to miss the artistic complexity of Cummings which the positive ones see, the context and the rationale of the poet's vision and techniques. If we take the anarchism, the youthfulness, and the hysteria and place them in relation to fauvism and cubism, the metaphysical and romantic traditions, the descent into hell, and the need for immediacy of effect, we will be able to see these supposed deficiencies in a somewhat more intelligible framework. That is to say, in response to a certain kind of experience, in terms of certain artistic traditions, and by means of a certain kind of sensibility, Cummings is trying to achieve a certain kind of new combination of elements: “unable to go further with either the sheerly witty or the lyrical, romantic type of poet,” as Rosenfeld explains, Cummings is “making a third, possibly twentieth-century sort by joining the elements of the other two.”

Why, then, do some supposedly modernist critics fail to see this? The other thing is that the answer must be found partly in something about Cummings himself, some weakness not specified by them but which is nevertheless implied by Gregory: Cummings fails of reasonable success in convincing potentially sympathetic and knowledgeable readers of the true context and rationale of his art. Somewhere deep within, he is at odds with himself—and with his audience. What I think this inner conflict means, as I have already suggested and will show in greater detail below in chapters 10 and 12, is reflected in his characteristic attempt to appear joyous and confident, thereby depriving his art and his readers of the true context of inner struggle which gives significance to his vision and techniques.

As for the problem with his audience, the symptoms are clear, as Gregory indicates, in the introduction to these Collected Poems. If the problem with “mostpeople,” as we have seen, is that they cannot accept the way down as the way up, the trouble with Cummings is that he cannot accept them. And yet the other clear message in this introduction, which I take to be his “real” message, is one of openness, acceptance, abolition of categories, and devotion to the living processes of organismic being. The result is an “uneasy mask”: a split in vision leads to a failure of rhetoric, for he does not allow for the possibility that his poems could change the unconvinced—who, of course, have no choice, really, but to reciprocate by remaining outside the charmed circle drawn for them. His deepest fear must have been not simply of being misunderstood but rather of his own difficulty, illustrated precisely in the opening words of this introduction, in being open and accepting, which he therefore projected onto “mostpeople.” This is a projection which polarizes unduly some of his lyrics of joy and many of his satires, as shown above in chapter 5, and thereby deprives them of much of their power to engage the unconvinced. Otherwise, he would not have had always to appear joyous and confident and consequently to surround himself with so many boundaries. The “contradictions” of Emerson and Whitman are in the spirit of inclusiveness; those of Cummings run counter to that spirit.

The issue may be brought into clearer focus if we look closely at the two key reviews in this section. The Partisan Review published a negative piece by Philip Horton, balanced it with a positive one by Sherry Mangan, and entitled the pair, in a nonpartisan spirit, “Two Views of Cummings.” Horton begins by claiming that nothing has changed in Cummings over a period of fifteen years and that “the notorious typography” is a “historical curiosity.” Nor does he approve of the “sexires” or the satires and says that the mingling of the trivial and the serious, the confusion of values, result from “his deliberate rejection of knowledge.” He notes that the introduction, while it appears to embrace and affirm, in fact “reduces to negation and rejection.” The rejection of knowledge can only lead to “the scattered impulses of an immature personality.” Horton's polarization itself commits the either/or fallacy in denying the role of emotions and the body in regulating the personality, and it sounds perilously close to the merely conventional dispraise of Cummings, until we recall that Horton is the biographer of Hart Crane—and also that it is one of the less tenable doctrines of the New Critical version of modernism that the artist must “develop” and “mature” in certain stated ways, a doctrine already reflected in Gregory's review. Yet we cannot easily dismiss what Horton says about the introduction.

Mangan, to her credit, puts her finger right on the sore spot: “The indignation of our literary theologians is comprehensible enough: Cummings's faults stand right out—indeed, what Eliotellus [sic] in eight years has not, for his graduation piece, permanently annihilated him?” Part of the trouble, she says, is that his faults are the faults of his virtues, and also that Anglophile critics have difficulty in accepting the influence of French poetry. Then she raises and answers four specific objections to Cummings. The first is that he fails in exact communication, and her reply is that poetry aims, not at “communication,” but rather at “the perfect recreation of [the] experience in the reader.” Second is that he is pretentious, to which she replies that boasting is a “classic poetic quality”—“iactantia”—and that Cummings' virtues are “gusto, abundance, magniloquence,” and that in these “he is nearly unique.” The question of bad taste is the third charge, which she resolves by distinguishing between good versus bad taste and taste versus no taste: Cummings has a lot of taste; “it is merely regrettable that some of it is bad.” The last issue, excessive limitation of subject, is more serious, and she concedes that if Cummings does not develop beyond “spring, love and death,” “he will remain, regrettably, a magnificent but minor singer.” She opines, however, that his chances look good.

What Horton sees as the ossification of triviality and immaturity, Mangan sees as an inherent potential for growth, and the reason is that she can conceive of other poetic qualities than “knowledge, the chiefest instrument of evaluation and the essential means to maturity” (Horton)—qualities of liveliness, vividness, and immediacy—and therein lies a tale of utmost concern to students of the significance of modernism. Also, her “literary theologians” is a felicitous description, and we shall have occasion to return to it before we are done. Let us see what develops in the next fifteen years or so, before the publication of a second edition of collected poems.


What we find during 1940-1953 is first, that the reviews seem to become generally more favorable; second, that his experimentalism is beginning to be more accepted and understood; and third, that his relation to traditionalism is becoming more and more evident. As Dendinger puts it, “While the debates about form are to continue, there is generally from 1938 on a quieter tone to the discussions.” The period that encompassed the publication of 50 Poems (1940), 1 × 1 (1944), Xaipe (1950), and i: SIX NONLECTURES (1953) was to emerge as Cummings' major phase, in which, as Dendinger says, the “enfant terrible is being transformed into one of the foremost poets of the period, into a poet of the establishment. The prevailing tone of nostalgic acceptance of the prodigal in the 1953 reviews of the autobiographical i: six nonlectures [sic] would seem to indicate that the transformation was complete.” His inclusion of Poems: 1923-1954 under that rubric, however, I question.

Although the reviews of 50 Poems contain some conventional carping, we also find some brilliant writing, such as these anonymous comments from the Santa Barbara News: after linking Cummings to Braque, Klee, and Kandinsky, and commenting on the modernist sense of the failure of common values, the reviewer says, “Each adventure to each art is innocent as sensibility is to phenomena and each onlooker must make his own pilgrimage.” R. P. Blackmur, whose earlier strictures were being quoted favorably by many subsequent negative critics, amazingly says in the Southern Review, “I have been one of his admirers for twenty-one years since I first saw his poetry in the Dial,” and adds, “There is … a sense of synergy in all the successful poems of Mr. Cummings.” Then he concludes, “special attention should be called to the development of fresh conventions in the use of prepositions, pronouns, and the auxiliary verbs in the guise of substances, and in general the rich use of words ordinarily rhetorical … for the things of actual experience.” And Theodore Spencer, writing in Furioso, says “the order of the poem [is] a reflection of the shape of the experience.”

In reviewing 1 × 1 in the Nation, Marianne Moore writes that Cummings' book “is a thing of furious nuclear integrities.” An anonymous reviewer in the Providence Journal calls Cummings “one of the liveliest, and one of the few, poets of our times.” Spencer says, in the New Republic, “he has achieved a special depth of insight which few of his contemporaries can equal.” Peter De Vries writes a very thoughtfully favorable review in Poetry. And so on.

The notices of Xaipe, beginning with Lloyd Frankenberg's in the New York Times, are similarly enthusiastic. Anonymous reviewers in the Dallas News and the Providence Journal are saying things like, “Cummings has been notably unsuccessful in hiding from his loyal if occasionally bewildered public that he is at heart a romantic and gifted, sensitive writer,” and “within his range he has written some of the loveliest poetry in the language.” Henry W. Wells says in Voices, “Both his manners and his technique are more disciplined.” An anonymous writer in Tomorrow notices an increasing complexity of experience in this volume, and the miraculous way Cummings has of giving “seeming trivia their due life.” David Daiches calls it in the Yale Review, “a rich and fascinating volume.”

Of course, there are still a few cavils: Louise Bogan in the New Yorker notes “his deletion of the tragic” as a flaw; Rolfe Humphries in the Nation complains of a certain monotony; M. L. Rosenthal in the New Republic questions his apparent antisemitism; and Frederick Morgan in the Hudson Review wonders about the drastic simplification of vision. Morgan adds, “The extent to which one will be satisfied by Cummings' poetry … will in the long run depend on how wholeheartedly one is willing to subscribe to this attitude.” I think it may also be partly whether one is willing to supply the missing portion of the context of his vision and art so as more adequately to understand it.

Not surprisingly, i:SIX NONLECTURES, in which, as the anonymous reviewer of the Poet says, “The bad bald poet tells all,” seems to have gone a good deal of the way in that direction, for as we read from Kirkus Reviews and on through the unknown and known reviewers (the latter including Samuel F. Morse, Alfred Kazin, Charles Norman, William Saroyan, and Warner Berthoff), we find a practically unanimous chorus of praise. In writing for an actual audience in Sanders Theatre, Cummings seems to have found a more winning stance, reassuring his listeners that, although he still takes his individualism and artistic integrity very seriously, he is nevertheless devoted to wholesome, recognizable, and good-hearted human and poetic values.

Kazin, in fact, looks quizzically in the New Yorker at Cummings' “traditionalism”: “He has always made a point of defying the Philistines, but at Harvard he stood up against our terrible century armed only with his memories and the Golden Treasury.” Warner Berthoff, on the other hand and more tellingly, writing in the New England Quarterly, claims that Cummings has avoided the too-easy relapse into complacency characteristic of so many New England talents: “we meet [in Cummings] face to face the spectre of inverted gentility which since Thoreau has haunted the overbred New England writer. We meet him—and E. E. Cummings kills him again before our eyes.” His weapon, Berthoff goes on to show, is his readings from “his own work and the Golden Treasury of lyric poetry to which he devoted the last third of each nonlecture.” Here Cummings gives living proof of what he could only have “opinions” about in the prose of the nonlectures—his transcendent faith in art itself, and in the freshness and durability of his own art.


The romance is over, however, when Poems: 1923-1954 comes out, and the whole battle fought in 1938 has to be fought all over again. Putting the poet's entire oeuvre together at that time into a single volume may have been a serious mistake, for instead of highlighting his growth in the eyes of modernist critics, it seems to have focused them back on his earlier limitations. Randall Jarrell's piece in the New York Times Book Review set an unfortunate tone: “He is a magical but shallow rhetorician,” and “What I like least about Cummings' poems is their pride in Cummings and their contempt for most other people.” Michael Harrington writes in Commonweal that “there is a serious lack of depth in Cummings' romanticism.” John Ciardi says in the Nation that Cummings cannot see relationships between “good” and “bad,” only their differences. G. S. Fraser in the Partisan Review emphasizes Cummings' lack of a tragic sense. Carl Bode in Poetry claims, “He is still a poet who is considerably more talked about than he deserves to be.” Assuredly, a number of favorable reviews are to be found, chief among which are those by Samuel F. Morse, Paul Engle, and David Burns. But here, as before, we can best clarify the problem by studying in a bit more detail a pair of serious and extended opposing reviews.

Heading the case for the prosecution is Edwin Honig in the Kenyon Review. As have several other reviewers, he realizes this is a time for summing up, not only of Cummings but also of modernism itself. It is a time for comparative judgments. “Cummings' poetry contends less intrinsically with human values” than does that of Pound and Eliot, he says. “He doesn't thrive on paradox, like Eliot or Yeats.” His techniques “often cloak attitudes that are cantankerous and juvenile.” He believes that “only what acts is, and only what feels is; what merely thinks is not.” In rebelling against the machine, his techniques make machines out of his poems, “a public confession of opposing selves.” Cummings is an expressionist, and “Unlike his contemporaries he derives little from symbolism or imagism.”

I would say, however, not only that Cummings is divided against himself, but also that modernism itself is. Such critics were having a problem with that part of modernism deriving from romanticism and analogous to certain forms of mysticism and orientalism—and, I might add, symbolism—the transcendental part which holds that there are higher forms of truth than those grasped by knowledge and intellect. I think the New Critics adopted a version of this notion, and then adapted it, under the influence of T. E. Hulme, Richards, and Eliot, to a version of the metaphysical tradition and emerged with a doctrine involving sinewy intellectuality, irony, “maturity,” paradox, the tragic vision, et al. And it is precisely this latter doctrine which Cummings fails to exemplify.

As we have seen however, there are other and more inclusive ways to define modernism. John Logan in Poetry, arguing for the defense, begins by noting Cummings' compassion and his concern with self-transcendence, quoting from i:SIX NONLECTURES: “we should go hugely astray in assuming that art was the only self-transcendence. Art is a mystery: all mysteries have their source in a mystery-of-mysteries who is love.” Logan comments: “we may note the connection between the notion of transcending (‘climbing over’) oneself and the notion of ecstasy (‘standing outside’); the one follows the other: and without both there is neither love nor art.” As far as “anti-intellectualism” is concerned, it “is basically an affirmation of the mystery of things,” and a resistance against those “who insist on limiting the real and true to what they think they know or can respond to. … Cummings is directly opposed to letting us rest in what we believe we know; and this is the key to the rhetorical function of his famous language.”

Logan then examines the charge that Cummings has failed to develop and refutes it point by point. Similarly, he reopens and reexamines the whole problem of the typographical experiments: dadaism, surrealism, and cubism share with the baroque “an interest in dissolving surfaces. Applied to poems, this means that they must not look as we expect poems to look.” Nevertheless, the appearance of the poem is not an end in itself; it is, rather, a way of directing “the evocation of the poem in the mind of the reader,” of expanding the connotative powers of language, and of bringing the reading under the control of the poet. All of which serves “to prevent the reader from resting in what he thinks he knows and what he expects.”

It is surely one of the central doctrines of modernism in general, and not just the New Critical variety, that the work of art must be grappled with in and of itself and not by means of explanation and paraphrase. And it is surely one of the main justifications for such a doctrine that the nature of reality—especially our twentieth-century reality—is too complex to be grasped solely by intellection. In these terms, any modernist critic would have to admit Cummings into the fold. The split occurs when one branch of modernism, primarily the New Criticism, as I've been suggesting, wants to transcend the limits of intellection by complicating it with opposites set in tension, while the other branch wants to transcend intellection altogether in order to achieve a truly whole, pure, and nondualistic vision—an achievement more profound and more noble than the tragic vision itself.

Humanity's schools of thought and religion seem to fall characteristically into three divisions: there are those who try to arrive at the ultimate truth by means of churches, sacred texts, priests, and rituals; those who end up following these forms without any sense of their original purpose; and those who seek the truth apart from such forms, relying instead on their own direct contact with it. It might seem that this model explains Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism; Catholicism, Protestantism, and Puritanism; Hinduism, Buddhism, and Zen; and so on; but it often happens that within each branch itself there develop more formal and less formal tendencies. We seem to be dealing with basic conflicts which exist potentially in all of us, and splitting into factions rarely solves the problem. It is difficult to rely on our own direct contact with truth without feeling the need for forms; it is just as difficult to follow forms without losing a sense of direct contact with truth.

In terms of modernism, for example, I see the New Critical branch, because of its emphasis on knowledge, thought, and maturity, as containing our literary theologians, in Sherry Mangan's words; the antimodernists, because of their distrust of the unfamiliar, as containing our literary ritualists for the sake of ritual; and the antiritualists, because of their reliance on personal experience of the transcendent, as containing Cummings and the mystical tradition he embodies. But the problem is that these categories identify tendencies rather than separate schools. Thus the non-dualistic vision can be found in parts of Cummings, as it can be found in parts of Blake, Whitman, Yeats, Stevens—not to mention Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats, Browning, Meredith, D. H. Lawrence, Woolf, and so on. And surely the strong strain of orientalism in much of modernism has significantly affected Yeats, Pound, and Eliot, for example, as well.

To call this vision “intuitive,” “emotional,” “childlike,” “sentimental,” “impulsive,” “sensationalistic,” “untragic,” and so on, is to struggle vainly to define a unitary experience in the language of our dualistic tradition. And of course it is even more difficult to achieve than it is to find language for. That is the challenge and the burden of this branch of modernism. It is no wonder that many of Cummings' modernist critics resist it, and they have not been helped by his own resistance to it—in either case, a resistance no less strong than that of the conservative critics to modernism in general. In this sense, we can understand and accept all three, for there is a truth and a cogency to what each is trying to cope with and accomplish.


A coda is in order for the reviews of 95 Poems (1958), the last book published before the poet's death, and hence the last one to be covered by Dendinger. Certain familiar key concerns recur throughout, almost as if there had not been an extended debate going on for over thirty-five years on these same points. John Logan in Commonweal notes, however, “In recent years Cummings has begun to be studied seriously and at length as an inventor, and there is a growing literature of research.” Which reminds us pretty much of the limitations of book reviews, for their writers feel little obligation thoroughly to know what they are talking about or what others have said, relying primarily on their own deadlined reactions to the book before them. The well-worn sentence from Santayana, that to ignore the past is to be condemned to repeat it, comes handily to mind here.

Thus there is fresh puzzlement over Cummings' typographical and linguistic devices, and some head-scratching over whether he has developed or not. Three poems in particular tend to divide the critics: the oriental-looking typography of the opening poem describing the fall of a leaf, the invective of the poem satirizing Uncle Sam's indifference to the Hungarian fight for freedom, and the sentimentality of the “i am a little church” poem. As Sara H. Hays says in the Pittsburgh Press, “His audiences usually fall into two camps: those whose sensibilities are outraged and antagonized by his eccentricities, his verbal and typographical antics; and those who find these same characteristics fresh, exciting, significant, and the stuff of genius.” Or, as W. G. Rogers points out in the Charleston News and Courier, “Cummings … is one of those contemporary creative figures who have managed to collect a small body of followers of utterly unshakable loyalty along with a wide public aware of their work but puzzled, disdainful or aloof.”

Nevertheless, interestingly enough, the reviews included here favor Cummings by three to one. Let us look first at the naysayers, chief among whom are Paul Lauter, John Hollander, and W. D. Snodgrass. Lauter claims in the New Leader that Cummings' universe is so private that “we do not finally know what he is singing about.” Hollander in the Partisan Review agrees “that Mr. Cummings' view of the world will no longer do.” And Snodgrass in the Hudson Review sees him as a case “of arrested development.” On the other hand, Philip Booth in the Christian Science Monitor asks, “And as for growing up, who wants to if we grow up beyond poems?” And Robert Graves claims in the New York Times, “Most poets slowly decay; Cummings slowly matures.” Samuel F. Morse in the Hartford Courant praises the “staggering typography” as “a greater pleasure than ever.” William Carlos Williams in the Evergreen Review likes Cummings' ear for American speech. Winfield Townley Scott—who has apparently gone through some changes—writing in the Saturday Review, proclaims that “Cummings has restored joy to poetry incomparably beyond any poet of our time.” And Logan sums up: “Stevens is more genteel and gorgeous, Eliot more reflective and more religious, W. C. Williams more perfect in ear and cadence, Marianne Moore more academic and more precious, Pound more versatile and more outrageous, Frost more violent and more pastoral. But Cummings is the most provocative, the most sentimental, the funniest, the least understood.”

That “understanding” is on its way, however, is shown most clearly by Anthony Wolff, writing in the Daily Tar Heel of the University of North Carolina. Cummings is difficult, he says, because he writes about the simplest things: “They are, essentially, Love and Being, themselves and inseparable, celebrated as epiphanies in each possible moment, and bitterly, sarcastically, angrily noted in their absence.” This seems to me somewhat more than Dayton Kohler's praise in the Louisville Courier-Journal of Cummings' ability to “sense life with a child's senses,” to sing of it “with a child's strong, clear voice.” Wolff goes on: “And yet, though Love and Being are indeed the simplest things in life—are life itself—‘mostpeople’ find them difficult to apprehend. We are weaned from them, and it is often a difficult process to approach them again, especially as the moments of truth which they are for Cummings. Epiphanies are hard to come by.”

Quite so. There is a lesson in here for all of us. It is not simply conservative reviewers who resist such awareness; it is also many modernist critics as well. And it is not merely these modernist critics; it is also Cummings himself. For he not only aimed at the highest vision, thereby provoking their ambivalence, but he also found it difficult to integrate his own ambivalence, thereby supplying them with ammunition against himself. But we are all in the same boat, and it behooves us to attempt a truer understanding of his faults by seeing them in the context of what he was truly aiming to do, thereby achieving for ourselves a fuller sense of life's possibilities in the context of which we can more fully understand our own faults. And that, in my proud and humble opinion—to borrow a phrase from Cummings—is what art and the criticism of art are all about.

Marcello Pagnini (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: Pagnini, Marcello. “The Case of Cummings.” Poetics Today 6, no. 3 (1985): 357-73.

[In the following essay, Pagnini argues that Cummings’s poetry was strongly influenced by Russian futurism.]

References to E. E. Cummings's relationship with the early twentieth-century avant-garde are usually rather hurried, and limited to suggesting that the poet felt the influence of Symbolist techniques (absolute metaphor), of Ezra Pound's Rispostes (1912), and perhaps of the linguistic experimentalism of Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons (1914); or alternatively, that he owed much to the Dada and Surrealist movements; or again that he was influenced by the lesson of the Cubists, with regard both to the fragmentation of form and to the use of ugly realistic elements that were traditionally considered unpoetic. Futurism is never mentioned: there is at most some passing reference to Apollinaire's Calligrammes. And yet the most superficial glance at Cummings's singular poetic production, from his earliest publications onwards, will be sufficient to gain the precise impression of an experience analogous to that of the manifestos of Marinetti, and above all to that of the far more important period of Russian Cubofuturism. The reasons for the lack of interest in this question are, I believe, of a strictly positivistic nature. Not only did Cummings never speak of such influences, but he often insisted that he had invented everything for himself. We have no documents testifying to readings, to meetings, to sympathies.

It is not enough, however, to trust in the declarations of poets and in an exclusively causal philology. Documentary evidence does not exhaust the complex problems of culture; the view of facts as a chain of proven relationships, of causes and effects, of sources and borrowings, is on the whole, if elected as an end in itself, somewhat ingenuous. There may arise among artists, thinkers and scientists relationships that one might define as synchronically parallel, but which do not lend themselves to objective documentation. This is due to the fact that the diachronic history of a culture is a dialectic of cultural systems, which are at times normatively adhered to, at times attacked and replaced in revolutionary fashion, at times further developed.

In this latter case established systems may be exploited for their inherent, implicit potentialities; and, given certain presuppositions, the possibilities of exploitation and of variation are not infinite: indeed they are limited and even, in a certain measure, predictable, so that authors who are not in direct contact may reach analogous results. For example, once the culture has established that a work of art is the product of ingenuous inspiration, whereby spontaneity comes to be cultivated, as happens with Romanticism, it is a short step to the valorizing of the dream, to the liberating of the unconscious; and only a further step to automatic writing. Or once associationistic psychology, dear to eighteenth century thinkers, has been accepted, one arrives readily at the stream of consciousness; and then, in a period of scepticism concerning the idealistic principles of inspiration, the intuitive logic of associations may disappear altogether, so that what remains is a purely intellectual and craftsmanly mode of composition (as in Pound's Cantos). In the transformation of cultural systems, the same results can be reached by artists who never knew each other and never read each other's writings. Coleridge writes:

On similar subjects or occasions some similar Thoughts must occur to different Persons, especially in men of resembling genius, quite independent of each other. The proof of this, if proof were needed, may be found in the works of contemporaries of different countries in books published at the very same time, where neither could have seen the work of the other—perhaps ignorant of the language. I have my lectures on Shakespeare two years before Schlegel began his at Vienna, and I was myself startled at the close even verbal Parallelisms.


Coleridge might, in his particular case, have resorted to such a principle in order to vindicate his own originality, even where his ideas give, with reason, the impression of plagiarism. But the substance of his declaration is theoretically unexceptionable.

In a word, it is pointless to deny Cumming's futurist status on the grounds that he does not appear to have had direct contact with the Futurists as such. Personally, I would not have a moment's hesitation in placing his work within that system, even if it could be proven that his only point of inspiration was the coup de dès.

Furthermore, it is even possible, on close examination, to hypothesize that very mode of causal plausibility dear to positivistic philology. Let us take a somewhat less superficial look at the situation.

Marinetti spoke in London as early as 1910. In 1912 his Manifesto appeared in the catalogue of the London exhibition of futurist painting. In 1913 the International Show of Modern Art opened, on which occasion, through an important article by Mabel Dodge, the Americans encountered the work of Gertrude Stein, expatriated in Paris. In the same year Harold Munro dedicated a considerable section of his Poetry and Drama to Futurism (with translations of poems by Marinetti, Buzzi and Palazzeschi). In 1914 Cummings—as a student at Harvard—read Tender Buttons, published by his friend Damon. Here, as is well known, there is a revolutionary elaboration of the formal structure of the sentence, with strings of syntagmatic fragments and exercises in verbal autonomy (of a virtually paroliberista kind; it is obvious that Stein, in Paris, was acquainted with Futurism), effects of “simultaneity,” and the attempt to reproduce “the process or movement of thought instead of the logical word-order of achieved thought,” as Northrop Frye very precisely observes (1967:76). At the same time Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound were founding Vorticism (in the first issue of the review Blast, 1914), and the movement—as Cianci has recently stressed (1979:44ff)—felt the influence of Futurism, even if Pound, who had split with Marinetti, admitted his debts only to Imagism, Picasso and Kandinsky. But then Pound expressed reservations concerning Futurism without denying its importance. In volume 96 of the Fortnightly Review (1914) he wrote:

In the Eighties there were symbolists opposed to impressionists, now you have vorticism, which is, roughly speaking, expressionism, neocubism, and Imagism gathered in one camp and futurism in the other. Futurism is descended from impressionism. It is, in so far as it is an art movement, a kind of accelerated impressionism. It is a spreading, or surface art, as opposed to vorticism, which is intensive.

The vorticist has not this curious tic for destroying past glories. I have no doubt that Italy needed Mr. Marinetti, but he did not sit on the egg that hatched me, and as I am wholly opposed to his aesthetic principles, I see no reason why I, and various men who agree with me, should be expected to call ourselves futurists. We do not desire to evade comparison with the past. We prefer that the comparison be made by some intelligent person whose idea of ‘the tradition’ is not limited by the conventional taste of four or five centuries and one continent.

(p. 468)

Cummings also happened to be in France in 1917-18, as a volunteer in the Red Cross, even if, due to the exigencies of war and to an absurd episode of imprisonment—on the (unjustified) grounds of suspected treason—the young poet may not have had occasion for relevant cultural experiences. However, Apollinaire had already published his Calligrammes (tied directly to the Marinettian experience).

In 1920, after his return to his homeland, Cummings became “first managing editor” of The Dial, and had various opportunities to meet and get to know many people at the centre of the literary and artistic life of New York. Then, continuously between 1921 and 1923, and intermittently up to 1931, he lived in Paris—this time for cultural reasons—where, among other undocumented experiences, he formed a friendship with Larianov, the famous designer of the Red Ballet, and with Louis Aragon, poet and leader of one of the dada factions in Paris. Cummings translated into English Aragon's poem Le Front Rouge, patently inspired by the expressionistic technique of Mayakovskij. It was certainly Aragon, tied as he was to communism, and thus obviously interested in what went on in the Soviet Union, who in 1931, persuaded Cummings to visit Russia. In Moscow, the poet saw Dana, a friend he had met in France (his “Virgil”). This experience, which lasted only a month, was altogether negative. The Soviet world seemed to him a “hell” and as far as one can tell, he made no contact with avant-garde poets there—he maintained, indeed, that genuine art could not be produced in such a country—but met Americans resident in Russia and was invited to the occasional party (as is well known, he noted his impressions in the volume Eimi, published in 1933). These are the years of his first poetic production. Between 1923 and 1931 he published Tulips and Chimneys (1923), And and XLI Poems (1925), Is 5 (1926), the play Him (1927), Viva (1931): a corpus which already demonstrates both the complete maturity of the poet and the deployment of practically the whole range of his formal means.

One is prompted to ask whether, with hypothetically deeper knowledge (which does not appear, at the present state of research, materially attainable), the Dial period, the extensive Parisian experience, the friendship with people closely connected with the world of contemporary Russian culture, and the journey into the Soviet hell itself, might not prove to have brought about interesting and direct ties with Futurism, both western and eastern. The formal similarities—without in any way diminishing the originality of Cummings's version—are quite striking. This is especially so in the case of Russian cubofuturism, with, for example, the publication in 1914 of the first journal of the national futurists, in which one comes across poems such as those of V. Kamenskij, very similar to the works of Cummings; not to mention the fact that in 1920 Sersenevich published an imaginist volume, 2 × 2 = 5, whose title sounds very close to one of those chosen by Cummings.

But, as has already been stressed, what interests an historian of the synchrony of cultural systems, beyond specific documents, is above all the existence of analogies, similarities, correspondences. In a now distant (and precocious) essay on the poetry of Cummings (published in Studi Americani, 1958), among assumptions which in part I still hold and which in part call for correction (as is inevitable at a distance of more than twenty-five years), I made a rudimentary mention of the “semasiological” issue (this was my seed-like lexical definition of what was later to flower as semiotics) whereby the poetic practice of Cummings evidently revealed an affinity with the impulse that the early twentieth century had given, and was still giving, to reflection on the nature of the linguistic sign. (It might be of interest to note that in America Charles Peirce had already founded his semiotics, that E. Sapir had published, in 1921, his Language, and that The Meaning of Meaning by C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards appeared in the same year, 1923, as the first substantial collection of poems by Cummings, Tulips and Chimneys.) The importance of these publications does not require comment for anyone who has the least interest in the basic tendencies of the new linguistics, concerned with the profound knowledge of the sign. In America, as in Europe, only generic information was available as to what had been and was being produced in Slavic countries, both in the field of poetic experiment and in the extremely important theoretical reflection carried out by linguists, which the activities of the poets accompanied and from which they received their inspiration for their maturer experiments of later years. (The spokesman of Russian Formalism, Victor Erlich, was to publish his Russian Formalism only in 1954). Today, in the light of much wider information, the phenomenon of correspondence appears still more considerable and interesting.

Some useful historical data: in 1911 Russian futurism was founded; in 1912 Krucenych published his first “auto-written” book; in the same year the Russian futurist Manifesto appeared; in 1913 the first “transmental” poems were written, again by Krucenych; in 1914 the first futurist newspaper was issued. And 1915—a fact of great significance for the study of poetic language—saw the foundation of the Linguistic Circle of Moscow, and the following year of the OPOYAZ, whose work was to continue until the middle of the twenties.

Cummings shared the basic interests of the international artists and theorists connected with futurism (in the artistic field, naturally): the attention they gave to the phonic-graphic structure of the Signifier, to the Signifier-Signified relationship (no longer considered as arbitrary or conventional), to the conception of the work of poetry as “artifice” and as “defamiliarization” (ostranenie), and thus to the attack on the status of the Signifier, which, no longer regarded as “transparent,” blocks attention onto itself, revealing the reintegration of the form/content dichotomy. Cummings himself came to forge a peculiar lyric message which, at the distance of more than half a century, appears a veritable laboratory comprehending the entire phenomenology of language.

I would at once like to point out that Russian futurism is quite distinct from the Marinettian brand, even if it was originally inspired by the latter, and that while Cummings had little affinity with Marinetti and his followers, including Apollinaire, he had considerable affinity with Soviet cubofuturism. The Russians—unlike Marinetti who proclaimed, for example, in the Manifesto tecnico della letteratura futurista (1914), that the new poetry ought to express the modern sensibility, with the “celebration” and “mirroring” of industrialism, of technological progress, and even of the war—assumed, like Cummings, a position of violent dissent towards the ruling culture, and conducted their revolution against the Signifier not in order to offer a language appropriate to the great metropolis, and to the mechanical era, but in order to destroy the cultural models of the past and inaugurate a new vision of the world, in decisive contrast, and indeed at war, with the principles of the alienating technological civilization. The Russians affirmed that the material treated had little importance, and that the poet should turn his attention to language, since only its manipulation could give rise to new content.1

The poetry of Cummings, analogously, is characterized by an extreme poverty of content, and by as insistent a repetition of themes as one can find in a lyrical production worthy of historical attention, while his concern for the physicality of the linguistic means and for the effects produced by his idiosyncratic treatment of of them is immense. It should be mentioned, moreover, that while western futurism is limited almost exclusively to operations regarding typographical iconicity, and to exercises of an ingenuously onomatopoeic nature, both Russian cubofuturist poetry and the poetry of Cummings go far deeper, with more intense effects, in exploring the suggestiveness of a non-conventional treatment of the Signifier.

What we have stated so far derives from a close scrutiny. But it is worth reconsidering the phenomenon, also, from a more panoramic point of observation, taking into account the whole western, and especially anglo-saxon, avant-garde, according to global behavioral models. The theoretical thesis of this second line of enquiry lies in the assumption that it is possible—still leaving aside the diachronic cause/effect chain—to construct synchronically the paradigm that connects and unites the various cultural systems of a given period. When this is possible—as it often is—we have what Yurij Lotman terms “structural” code complex (1969:120).

For this reason one might take into consideration two factors that lie side by side with Futurism: on the one hand Imagism (and with it, Vorticism), on the other Cubism. On close inspection the three movements have two elementary traits in common: the fragmentation of the normal structure of the expressive means and the recomposition of the fragments in ways quite different from traditional modes, and in particular with the marked tendency to realize what language denies by its very nature, namely simultaneity. Futurism operates above all on the phonic-graphic make-up of language; Imagism devotes its attention to wider complexes, especially to clause and sentence structure. The former thus tends to defamiliarize the phonic-syntactic tissue, the latter the transphrastic logic of discourse, whereby what is produced on the one hand is a mosaic of phonemes and morphemes, on the other a mosaic of syntagms, with parallel attention to sound and graphic form and to syntagmatic composition respectively. The resulting poetic biases—towards the abstract, autonomous composition of the Signifier, and towards the reproduction of psychological and cognitive simultaneity—find a common ground: both processes are recognizable together, for example, in the work of Picasso, who argued, in perfect harmony with the principle of freed words, that things should be represented “as they are thought” and not “as they are seen” (De Micheli 1964:81).

In brief, to keep within the bounds of the anglo-saxon world, the result is the break with phonetic and syntactic logic that one finds in Cummings on the one hand, and on the other the parataxis of Pound in The Cantos (the earliest go back to 1917), in Hugh Selwyn Mawberley (1920), of Eliot in The Waste Land and of Joyce in Ulysses (both published in 1922, just a year earlier than Tulips and Chimneys).

Along with Pound one must place Wyndham Lewis, who in Time and Western Man argued the case for “space” as the appropriate dimension for the activity of the spirit, polemicizing with the “temporalists” (among whom he counted Joyce himself). The Cantos are substantially constructed through the accumulation of fragments and intertextual allusions, combined by means of an essentialy spatial compositional mode. Their discourse never spreads out in flows of juncturae, but displays its own inlaid texture designed to obliterate time. Pound conceives the ideogram, from which he took his inspiration, as a knot, or Vortex, of concrete ideas, and illustrates the formal process involved in the brilliant metaphor of the magnet: a magnet, above which is held a glass covered with iron filings, will cause the separate and confused particles to be redisposed in a design imposed upon them by energy, equivalent to the “concept.” Pound likens this to a rose. It is, evidently, the compositional method of the entire twentieth-century avant-garde, under the twin signs of collage and montage.2

The specific position adopted by Cummings can be readily seen as an integration of these two modalities, even if—as we have seen—with a decidedly futurist inclination that, within English-language literature, is uniquely his (with the partial and not very conspicuous exception of Gertrude Stein's lyric poetry).

To the presence of Futurism and Imagism should be added the chronologically prior and pioneering influence of Cubism (Picasso's first cubist paintings date from 1908). It should be remembered that Cummings was also a painter, and that certain developments introduced into his linguistic experientalism may have been filtered through his pictorial practice. From Cubism derives his continuous and persistent resort to ambiguity, which consists on the one hand of the invitation to search out, through the recomposition of simultaneous data, a representative order, a syntactic logic capable of constructing a recognizable object in the mind (a process shared by the other two movements); on the other hand this recomposition is continually frustrated by illogical connections, by sudden deviations, which force the reader to start the labour of reconstruction afresh. The result is that the object (or rather the subject) of the recomposition is once again disintegrated, removed from what we might term a mimetic vision to an indistinct and confused impression. And the function of this same ambiguity concerns precisely the traditional perception of the real which it undermines. It provokes the sense that things are perceived and not perceived: in a word, that something has been fractured in the certainty of possession of the world; that the basic parameters of knowledge have ceased to function.

There is an acute observation in a study by Fausto Curi, Perdita d'aureola (1977), which is worth remembering. Curi sees in our culture, and “over more than a century”—the literary archetype is justly traced back to Mallarmé's Coup de dès—the gradual destruction of the “linear model” in philosophy, in science, in literature; and while on the one hand he discerns in Marinetti the “first model of delinearization in the twentieth-century avant-garde,” he acknowledges, on the other, its theoretical statement in Derrida's Grammatologie and identifies as an offshoot, in Italy, the destruction of syntax in the poetry of Edoardo Sanguineti and Nanni Balestrini (pp. 157-159 et passim).

I would associate with the remarks of Curi, still within the Italian context, other related observations by Renato Barilli in Viaggio al termine della parola (1981). Here the main concern is the final result of the processes of disintegration, and the introductory essay is furnished with an anthology of the most recent Italian works. Amongst these one can recognize, here and there, procedures of “intraverbal experiment” that recall Cummings. Barilli writes that “since all possible transgressions and perversions of the semantic and syntactic order have been experimented by the poets … there is no longer a margin for achieving a sufficient dose of originality,” unless by passing over the space of the sentence and working instead on “its essential ingredient,” the word, “subjecting it to successive fractures and segmentations that might consist in splitting the word root, the lexematic core, from its morphological appendices, or alternatively, through ever more savage interventions, in scanning syllables, or in isolating single phonemes, or finally in crossing altogether the threshold of linguistic pertinence, that last limit of conventionality that allows one to recognize in a sound or in a graphic trace the presence of the minimal unit of language, the letter” (pp. 7-8). Obviously the most important moment in this process is represented by Finnegans Wake.

But it should be stressed that all these procedures—of Cubism, of Futurism, of Imagism, of Vorticism—are to be located within a more general systematics which, identified from an even more elevated perspective, offers the historical sense and the ideological substance of the twentieth-century avant-garde as a whole. I am concerned to indicate it in that the most authentic expressions of the general tendency of the century constitute, it is true, a lacerated body, but a body which is not without a soul.

Many twentieth century authors speak of “fragments” or “ruins” (the Romantics already used these terms).3 W. B. Yeats confessed that he felt he was “bursting into fragments.” Gertrude Stein, in her essay on Picasso, said of the century: “it is a time when everything cracks, where everything is destroyed, everything isolates itself” (1938:49). And T. S. Eliot: “Son of man, / You cannot say, or guess, for you know only / A heap of broken images” (1963:63). The essential ingredients of avant-garde literature in our century—and not only of literature—are to reveal the fragmentation of the world and its reconstruction in particular patterns that reproduce the effort of living and the very frustrations of perception. The world appears as a myriad of impressions, which find form in a cognition that obeys the basic law of perception itself, “simultaneity.” Montages and collages are technical expedients designed to reproduce the formal mechanisms of consciousness, striving to give some sort of order to material at the same time that it is perceived.

In certain authors of the second half of the twentieth century this process has become purely formal. But before reaching this “abstract” and “vacuous” outcome, which in effect undermines the social function of art (and one perceives between the lines of Barilli's comments the melancholy of one who sees the process of fragmentation dear to the historical avant-garde reduced to a simple game, mere bricolage), the avant-garde of the early twentieth century was strongly committed in an ethical sense, being vitally concerned with arousing, as we have said, a new vision of the world. Obviously, art, in its ideality, cannot aspire to the practical operativity of social reforms and political revolutions, but it can, by changing our way of seeing things, denounce the sterility of surviving forms and stir us from cognitive torpor. The procedures of the historical avant-garde, what is more, seemed to represent the only means of saving art from the death that philosophers, politicians and tired disillusioned artists had predicted for it. Benjamin was right in claiming that “only within a pacified and satisfied humanity will art cease to exist.”


The locating of Cummings's poetry within the stylistic system of futurism is a generic, typological operation which, among other things, hypothesizes, in the interests of general theory, a possible case of synchronic parallelism in cultural phenomena. But the discussion does not imply that the poet limited himself to an insignificant actualization—conscious and surreptitious or casual and spontaneous—of what the movement had already achieved, or to a superfluous mimicry of expressive modes. Nobody, I am sure, could possibly deny to the work of Cummings a peculiar and lively originality. Within the necessary economy of an essay such as this, what I am claiming can be verified through the internal analysis of at least one of his most characteristic and artistically most mature products. I have chosen the poem which, in Poems 1923-1954, the first complete edition of the Cummings corpus, appears as number 53, belonging originally to the collection no thanks of 1935. Anyone with close experience of international Futurism will make his own mental comparisons, and will realize, for example, that compared to italian Futurism, even if the latter boasts the technical invention of the movement, the futurism of Cummings is something far more important, is not marked by superficiality, is not limited to mere protest. For many futurists—one cannot but agree with Carlo Bo (1969:272ff)—futurism was a missed opportunity.

1 what a proud dreamhorse pulling (smoothloomingly) through
2 (stepp)this(ing)crazily seething of this
3 raving city screamingly street wonderful
4 flowers And o the Light thrown by Them opens
5 sharp holes in dark places paints eyes touches hands with new-
6 ness and these startled whats are a(piercing clothes thoughts kiss
7 -ing wishes bodies)squirm-of-frightenedshyare whichs small
8 its hungry for Is for Love Spring thirsty for happens
9 only and beautiful
there is a ragged beside the who limps
10 man crying silence upward
—to have tasted Beautiful to have known
11 Only to have smelled Happens—skip dance kids hop point at
12 red blue yellow violet white orange green-
13 ness
o what a proud dreamhorse moving(whose feet
14 almost walk air). now who stops. Smiles.he

At a first and superficial glance, the reader finds before him an apparently senseless mass of discourse fragments. His interpretation then proceeds through laborious inferences and conjectures. In the first place, he will endeavour to rejoin the disconnected parts of the syntactic continuum and to work out the function of certain grammatical anomalies. A first try-out might reconstruct the following syntagm:

what a proud dreamhorse pulling (l. 1) r wonderful flowers
(ll. 3-4) through (l. 1) this crazily seething of this (ll. 2) raving
city screamingly street (l. 3).

One might note the ambiguity of crazily seething, which is not a verb phrase but an attribute, and of this raving city, which could be, in itself, a regular phrase but is immediately revealed as an apposition of screamingly street; the use of screemingly as an adjective; the elimination of capital letters and punctuation; the particular use of parentheses. One then recognizes unusual and embedded words: smoothloomingly is a neologistic composite that contains the semes of an indistinct apparition, from its slow and easy progress (smooth) to an authentic epiphany: to loom implies something immaterial manifested in majestic and indefinite form; in (stepp) r (ing) there is the separation of the gerundial suffix from its verb.

The first three lines are powerfully onomatopoeic. They imitate the limping gait of a horse and the din of a city. That the horse limps is said later: the who limps (l. 9) where one notes an idiosyncratic substantivization that exploits the deictic nature of the pronoun with the purpose of not giving body to the animal. Smooth, as I mentioned, may indicate the progress of the cart, and its contrast with the rhythm of the hooves, but it also clearly has something to do with the apparition of this kind of ghost: the cart of the florist. At a phonic level the utterance alludes to the sounds of the hooves:

(stepp)thi(ing)crazily seething of this
raving city screamingly street (ll. 2-3).

The onomatopeia is realized through the insistence of phonic combinations of the /ST/, /THIS/, /SITH/, /THIS/, /SIT/, /SK/, /ST/, /IT/ kind, together with the insistence of the vowels /i/, /i:/, in this, ing, -zily, seething, this, raving, city, screamingly, street. The recurrence of the phonic group ing acts as resonance to the marked rhythm of the horse. The articulation cannot fail to call to mind lexemes of the ringing, ring, ding kind. The din of the city, also expressed semantically—seething, raving, screamingly—is echoed phonically in the stree of street. Still at the level of onomatopeia and phonosymbolism, one should note the sequence /u/, /u:/, that marks the effort of the gait:

pulling(smoothloomingly)through (l. 1)

The limping rhythm pervades the entire lyric, and is corroborated, further on, by the line-end breaks (with effect of enjambement):

this / raving (ll. 2-3)
new- / ness (ll. 5-6)
kiss- / ing (ll. 6-7)
green- / ness (ll. 12-13)

and by the spatial isolation of stamps (l. 14) which mimics the last beat of the hoof.

In line 4 the limping gait is rendered through the rhythm of the diphthong /ou/:

And oh the light thrown by Them opens

to which is added also the rhythm of /a:/:

sharp holes in dark places (l. 5)

Still in line 4 one notes a particular function of the capital letters (And, Light, Them), which take on an emphatic value, expressing the emotion at the sight of the flowers.

In line 5 the metaphoric function appears on the surface: the flowers, with their violent colors perforate the zones of darkness:

(opens) sharp holes in dark places

while the light of the colors:

paints eyes touches hands with new- / ness

The enjambement makes the reader linger over new, and then creates a surprise effect of disambiguation: is it an adjective? Immediately after one learns that it is not, but, in any case, the first impression is not altogether cancelled.

The rhythmic gait of the horse, now irregular, continues:

sharp holes / dark places / paints eyes / touches hands /
… piercing clothes / thoughts / kissing / wishes / bodies (ll. 5-7)

The clause of line 6 is completed in line 7:

and these startled whats are (l. 6) squirm-of-frightened shy (l. 7)

and again ostend acts of grammatical violence: whats is a substantive pronoun (and as such can take the plural suffix). It is the flowers that are referred to. The abuse is motivated by the search for a new impressionistic effect: they are paint spots, not immediately perceivable as distinct flowers. What is a syncategorematic term, and so usable because of its lack of semantic body. We have already seen the case of the who, and it may be useful to note that the ghost cart is quite dematerialized by incorporeal signs.

In the following line, an iconic sense of contorsion (squirm) is linked to the release of a timid fear:

squirm-of-frightened shy (l. 7)

The flowers were “holes”, or something that “pierces,” and the holes are transformed into “lips”:

(piercing clothes thoughts kiss / -ing wishes bodies) (ll. 6-7)

In line 8 there is another grammatical anomaly, parallel to that of the whats, and with an analogous function:

are whichs

The pseudoclause are whichs small its should be broken down into are whichs, comma, small its. It, as well, represents a process of impressionistic substantivization.

Note, now, the parallelism:

                                        Is                                                                                                    happens
hungry for Love (l. 8) s thirsty for only (ll. 8-9)
                                        Spring                                                                                beautiful

Is is used as a noun. Is, Love, Spring are, in the Cummings idiolect, three recurrent positive symbols, which we will shortly consider. The second triad gives happens and only again as substantives. The basis of the noun happens is, naturally, verbal, and indicates—like Is—the action of taking place, in the third person.


there is a ragged r man
beside the who limps (l. 9)

The rhythm of the utterance takes up again the halting progress. By the animal there is a ragamuffin who is evidently leading the cart (note: a “concrete” man—without any grammatical emptying—leading a “dream”). The ragamuffin yells into the air words that cannot be heard in the din of the city: thus he yells “silence.”

crying silence upward (l. 10)

The three lexemes of the floral experience are represented in reverse order. The earlier passage read: Happens, Only, Beautiful; and now:

to have tasted Beautiful (l. 10)
to have known (l. 10) Only (l. 11)
to have smelled Happens (l. 11)

three syntagmatic fragments dependent on the distant And o combined impression of the senses and the intellect. These fragments mimic again the rhythm of the horse's gait; but—a fact of high imaginative value—blended into them is an invitation to skip and dance (to the steps of the animal). The invitation is presumably made to a group of adolescents (kids), curious and excited accompanying this extraordinary cart, skipping in the streets of the metropolis (in case it is of interest, probably Paris; in a prose piece celebrating the city, very dear to Cummings, one reads: “In crooked streets young voices cry flowers” Norman 1958:191):

skip / dance / kids / hop / point / at (l. 11) / red / blue
yellow / violet / white / orange / green- (l. 12) / ness (l. 13)

I have divided the lexemes in order to emphasize the rhythm, which has become frenetic. Note the ambiguity of green, which is disambiguated from adjective to noun, with the impressionistic effect already observed in new- / ness.

Line 13, opening with a fragment of the preceding line, concludes with a return, in varied form, of the initial syntagmatic motif:

O what a proud dreamhorse

The rhythm eases out. The pauses, now longer, are indicated by the grammatical periods. The horse slows up and stops—an even longer pause signified by the dislocation of the last word, the last beat of the hoof:

.now who stops. Smiles.he
                                                                                stamps (l. 14)

From a formal point of view, the return of the syntagmatic motif introduced in the opening line closes the composition in a “circular” fashion: a circularity indicated also by the repetition lavished within the poem:


Evident at the level of the signified is an elementary lexematic antinomy:


which permits the following construction of a semic paradigm:

Nature vs. Artifice, Culture
Vitality vs. Aridity
Beauty vs. Ugliness
Rhythm vs. Chaos
Silence vs. Din
Poeticality vs. Prosaicality

It is thus possible to locate the image of the “cart” within a mythical-classical code, thereby indicating another possible—indeed, very probable—textual isotopy. Cummings's horse is a kind of Pegasus. In lines 13-14—(whose feet / almost walk air)—can be seen an allusion to the “winged horse.” The parentheses have here the normal function of an aside, but also that of an insertion onto another plane: the mythical isotopy. For the Greeks Pegasus was the horse which, stamping its hoof, caused the fountain of Hippocrenes (precisely, “fount of the horse”), sacred to the Muses, to spring up. Cummings's horse similarly stamps its hoof—and the poem is made! Evidently the classical reference corroborates the above-indicated antinomy: Poeticality vs. Prosaicality. So that there is no lack of ironic implications: Poetry has, in the world of the Metropolis, a chimeric appearance (smoothloomingly). But then the Cummings macrotext reveals, with its occurrences of the idea of the horse, that the latter is, in his idiolect, a symbol: an antiquated animal, threatened by the precariousness, the absurdity, the Beauty of the modern world.

The man who leads the horse is a ragamuffin (like the poet of the bohemian tradition), who speaks, but whose words are not heard (cries silence upward), do not reach anybody's ears; presumably his merchandise remains unsold. Ezra Pound likewise resorted to practically the same image, to indicate the condition of poetry in our century. In Hugh Selwyn Mauberley England has a “mute” song on her lips: Tell her that goes / With song upon her lips / But sings not out the song (n.d.:181). On the subject of ambiguity, one might recall the other sense of cry (“weep”).

The “limping” rhythm seems to allude to the particularly difficult condition of twentieth-century poetry, whose Pegasi do not have a balanced and harmonious amble.

One or two further clarifications, this time derived from a reconsideration of this lyric within the Cummings corpus: Is, Love, Spring are synonymous—and very recurrent—terms, all subordinate to the idea of the spontaneous, vital and beautiful act through which being and nature affirm their profound reality. Is is the vern-noun that contains the original existential act (and at the same time represents subjective affirmation).

As we have seen, to the first triad examined above is associated—again synonymously—the second: Beautiful, Only, Happens, terms which indicate the status of beauty: the acts (Happens) and their irrepeatability and uniqueness (Only).

Cummings's thematics—apart from certain lyrics inspired by slums, in which, among other things, a realistic and sometimes jargon-filled speech is employed—has as its preferred concerns Nature and Love: a highly delicate love consubstantial with Spring (evocations of freshness, purity, rebirth, innocence, spontaneity, instinct) and Autumn (melancholy, death, fatality, cruelty). It is a very simple, late-romantic—one might say “decadent”—thematics, but one which avoids sentimental fin de siècle languor precisely because of a scrupulous and analytical formal cerebralism that dominates sentiment and, so to speak, “contrives” it (Cummings's verse has been described as an “algebra of the heart”).

Underlying the poet's “naturism” is a subtle philosophical theme—often satirical and bitter—which extols the individual, the subject, the self, as the sole truth and as the source of love. Cummings did not love the “collectivity” (mankind, which through an ironical neologism he called manunkind), and declared himself against all institutions, including, therefore, language. Thus at the basis of his poetics is the opposition NATURE versus CULTURE.

One more observation: the poetry of Cummings aspires, as I have already said, to “simultaneity.” In effect the composition in question is a kind of compression of ideas, of images, of sensations. And the structural principle of simultaneity explains also the paradoxical syntactic distance of

—to have tasted Beautiful (l. 10)

from the interjection

And o (l. 4)

Another indication, finally, concerning ironic undertones. There is undoubtedly something grotesque in the smiling of the horse (Smiles, l. 14), which, at the level of the real, presumably shows its teeth, perhaps in neighing. In the symbolic isotopy, does Pegasus laugh? Or mock? Or deride? Or sneer? It is also ironical that the entire poem of 14 lines constitutes, of course, the canonical structure of the “sonnet.” The shadow of the sonnet is very often discernible within the corpus. On reconsideration, this particular pseudo-sonnet has also, in its own fashion, a rhyming (or better, assonantic) structure:

through (l. 1) / new- (l. 5)
this (l. 2) / kiss (l. 6)
wonderful (l. 3) / small (l. 7)
opens (l. 4) / happens (l. 8) / stamps (l. 14)
green (l. 12) / he (l. 14) / feet (l. 15)


  1. Cf. Roman Jakobson, Novejsaja russkaja poèzija (Prague, 1921).

  2. Cf. Guide to Kulchur (Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1938), p. 152.

  3. Cf. T. McFarland, Romanticism and the Forms of Ruin (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981).


Barilli, Renato, 1981. Viaggio al Termine della Parola (Milan: Feltrinelli).

Bo, Carlo, 1969. “La Nuova Poesia,” Storia della Letteratura Italiana (Milan: Garzanti), Vol. XI, 272ff.

Cianci, G., 1979. Futurismo/Vorticismo, Quaderno No. 9 (Palermo).

Coleridge, S. T., 1936. Miscellaneous Criticism, ed. Thomas M. Raysor (London: Constable).

Cummings, E. E., 1954 [1923]. Tulips and Chimneys, in Poems 1923-1954 (New York: Harcourt Brace).

Curi, Fausto, 1977. Perdita d'aureola (Turin: Einaudi).

De Micheli, M., 1964. Scritti di Picasso (Milan: Feltrivelli).

Eliot, T. S., 1963. The Waste Land, in Collected Poems 1909-1962 (London: Faber and Faber).

Frye, Northrop, 1967. The Modern Century (Oxford: Oxford UP).

Lotman, Yurij, 1969 [1967]. “Il problema di una tipologia della cultura,” in I Sistemi di Segni e lo Strutturalismo Sovietico, eds., R. Faccani and U. Eco (Milan: Bompiani). Italian trans. of “K probleme tipologij kul'tury,” in Trudy po znakovym sistemam Σημειωτιχὴ III (Tartu), 30-38.

Marinetti, F. T., 1914 (1912). “Manifesto tecnico della letteratura futurista,” in: “Lacerba,” reprinted in Marinetti e il Futurismo, ed., Luciano de Maria (Milan: Mondadori), 77-91.

Norman, C., 1958. E. E. Cummings: The Magic Maker (New York: Macmillan).

Pagnini, Marcello, 1958. “E. E. Cummings, poeta dell'impressione e dell'analisi,” Studi Americani 4, 344-359.

Pound, Ezra, 1914. “Vorticism,” Fortnightly Review 96 (Sept. 1), 468.

n.d. [1920] Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, in Selected Poems, ed. T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber).

Stein, Gertrude, 1938. Picasso (Boston: Beacon Press).

Richard S. Kennedy (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: Kennedy, Richard S. “Tulips, Chimneys, &.” In E. E. Cummings Revisited, pp. 53-67. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.

[In the following excerpted essay, Kennedy considers the significance to his career of Cummings’s original version of Tulips & Chimneys.]

Sometime in 1919 Cummings had assembled a hefty manuscript of poems entitled “Tulips & Chimneys,” which he gave to his friend Stewart Mitchell, the managing editor of the Dial, asking him to help find a publisher. Mitchell tried six publishing houses without success. Cummings then removed some of the poems that an editor might find either unpoetic or obscene, rearranged their order, and tried again in 1922, through John Dos Passos, to find a home for his wayweary volume. This 1922 collection of 152 poems eventually saw publication, but not all at once. Dos Passos managed to persuade Thomas Seltzer to publish a selection of sixty-six of the poems under the title Tulips and Chimneys in 1923. (Cummings was furious that Seltzer did not use the ampersand in the title.) Lincoln MacVeagh of the Dial Press made another selection from what was left over and published XLI Poems in 1925. What the two editors avoided were the most experimental as well as the most sexually daring of the poems. Cummings was thus reduced to venturing a private publication with the items that remained, to whose company he restored some of the poems he had withdrawn in 1922, and to which he also added a few more pieces he had written when he returned to Paris in 1921, He called the volume & (his ampersand at last dignified into a title) and brought it forth early in 1925.

If Cummings' first version, “Tulips & Chimneys,” had been put before the public in 1919 it would have established, four years earlier, his place in the twentieth-century revolution in literature. It is now possible to see what such a volume would have been like because George Firmage reconstructed and published the 1922 version in 1976. Since this edition represents the stage of development that Cummings had reached by 1919, we should consider its contents in close detail.

The first portion, “Tulips,” contains an immense variety of Cummings' earlier work, including poems that had appeared in the Harvard Monthly; poems that he had written for Dean Briggs in classroom assignments; a long Hellenistic “Epithalamion” that he had composed for Scofield Thayer's wedding; a long tribute (“Puella Mea”) to Elaine Thayer, Scofield's wife, with whom he had fallen in love; and a Keatsian fantasy inspired by Aucassin and Nicolette. This early work, which was divided into the categories “Songs,” “Chansons Innocentes” (which contained “in Just-” and “Tumbling-hair”), “Orientale,” and “Amores,” is, for the most part, a series of free-verse exercises traditional in tone. The only Cummings touch that adds distinction is his manipulation of typography through lowercase and capital letters and his play with spacing. Two of these early poems give evidence that even his classroom exercises disclose a true poetic voice. One is a genuinely singable lyric that begins “when god lets my body be / From each brave eye shall sprout a tree” and ends “and all the while shall my heart be / With the bulge and nuzzle of the sea” (CP [The Complete Poems], 19). The other is a ballad-like piece in the medieval manner that begins

All in green went my love riding
on a great horse of gold
into the silver dawn.
four lean hounds crouched low and smiling
the merry deer ran before.
Fleeter be they than dappled dreams
the swift sweet deer
the red rare deer.
Four red roebuck at a white water
the cruel bugle sang before …

(CP, 15)

Then comes a more untraditional series of poems grouped under the headings “La Guerre,” “Impressions,” “Portraits,” and “Post Impressions.” By their references to both modern music and painting, the categories thus far suggest a mixture of the arts, and one can sense the presence of Debussy, Monet, and Cézanne even in the table of contents. The “Impressions” are, appropriately, descriptive poems, usually with an emphasis on light. The especially delicate “Impression II” uses the metaphor of piano-playing to carry the image of springtime rain before it changes into mist and fog:

the sky a silver
dissonance by the correct
fingers of April
                                        into a
clutter of trite jewels
now like a moth with stumbling
wings flutters and flops along the
grass collides with trees and
houses and finally,
butts into the river

(CP, 60)

But death still intrudes upon some of these renderings of the diurnal variations of light, as in the opening lines of “Impressions IX”:

The hours rise up putting off stars and it is
into the street of the sky light walks scattering poems
on earth a candle is
extinguished                    the city
with a song upon her
mouth having death in her eyes
and it is dawn
the world
goes forth to murder dreams …

(CP, 67)

Among the “Portraits,” along with “bestial Marj,” we have several representations of the seamy side of life expressed in the Satyric style: a drunken woman passed out on the sidewalk (“the / nimble / heat”); a street evangelist (“the skinny voice”); a grubby Greek restaurant (“it's just like a coffin's / inside when you die”); a family in an ugly street scene (“i walked the boulevard”); a prostitute in monologue (“raise the shade / will youse dearie”); five men in a Middle Eastern café (“5 / derbies-with-men-in-them smoke Helmar”), and so on. The settings are frequently crowded with repellent detail. This nightclub scene is representative:

between nose-red gross
walls                    sprawling with tipsy
tables the abominable
floor belches smoky
laughter into the filagree
frame of a microscopic
stage whose jouncing curtain.          ,rises
upon one startling doll …

(CP, 80)

Yet the metaphorical language here compresses the features and actions of drunks into the description of the scene, and the handling of the punctuation suggests the motion of the curtain—so that an aesthetic complex begins to form. Thus in spite of all the repulsiveness we are getting genuine free-verse poems in this section. Moreover, Buffalo Bill and Picasso appear as a couple of bright spots among the “Portraits.”

Next come the “Post Impressions.” As they begin we look at the natural scene again—the sunset, a seascape, cloud cover, and so on—but the forcing of language and the jumbled typography now take us to the far edge of expression. For example, in “Post Impressions II” we are buffeted with the Hephaestian style as adjectives are mismatched with their nouns:

beyond the brittle towns asleep
i look where stealing needles of foam
in the last light
thread the creeping shores
as out of dumb strong hands infinite
the erect deep upon me
in the last light
pours its eyeless miles
the chattering sunset ludicrously
dies,i hear only tidewings
in the last light
twitching at the world

(CP, 104)

Yet sometimes, when it is dealing with an appropriate subject, the style can soothe, as in the poem entitled “SNO,” which carries metaphors of cleansing and of gentle, scarcely perceptible sounds of falling snowflakes:

                    a white idea (Listen
drenches:earth's ugly)mind.,Rinsing with exact death
the annual brain
                                                                      clotted with loosely voices
look.          Skilfully
.fingered by(a parenthesis
the)pond on whoseswooning edge
black trees think
(hear little knives of flower
stropping sof a.          Thick silence)
tiny,angels sharpen:themselves
don't speak
                                                  A white idea,
drenching.                    earth's brain detaches
clottingsand from a a nnual(ugliness
of)rinsed mind slowly:
from!the:A wending putrescence.          a.of,loosely

(CP, 113)

Images, space, and oddities of punctuation combine to develop a snowfall breathlessly heard rather than depicted. Color and concept merge in the image of the snow; then the command to “Listen” is suddenly intruded. The space that follows here and elsewhere in the poem allows, each time, for quiet to prevail. The “drenching” of earth makes it a wet snowfall and thus able to do the “Rinsing.” Earth is given a “mind” for the “idea” to cleanse, but its brain is only annual and thus comes to death in the natural cycle because it has become “clotted.” The snowflakes, “loosely” falling, that bring the cleansing death are now “voices” that we have been asked to listen for. The period and the comma are presumably other pauses for listening. Then we are commanded to “look” and perceive that the earth is touched (“fingered”) by a pond, where the snow is melting (“swooning”) and where the contrasting black of the trees is another concept. Now new sound metaphors are introduced: snowflakes as flower petals gently sliding over a razorstrop or as angel feathers. Repetition of the command for silence and the metaphor of the “white idea” cleansing the earth now lead to the visual breakup of words and intrusions of punctuation marks to suggest the dissolving of the clotted brain and an image of a muddy stream of melted snow (“A wending putrescence”) winding into the pond.

There are troubles in expression however. The illogical adjective “exact” has, by now, been so overused by Cummings that it has become a hackneyed term in his poetic vocabulary. The “(a parenthesis / the)” device is an arbitrary item of logographic teasing. In his experiments with expression Cummings can be careless in his early work.

But among the “Post Impressions” we also have glimpses of the human scene, especially in three prose-poems (forms that Cummings learned from Mallarmé and Rimbaud) about an organ grinder and his monkey, about the rush hour in lower Manhattan, and about McSorley's saloon on the lower East Side. The last is especially notable in its attempt to create a collage of sound. What the poem presents in this vignette is a suggestion of evil as it makes its appearance in a bar-room. But of greatest interest is Cummings' play with words that have rhyme and consonance—dint, grin, point, glint, squint, and wink—or words that begin or end with similar consonant sounds—piddle, spittle, topple, dribble, gobble. In addition there is a collage of onomatopoeic bar-room sounds mixed with snippets of the customers' talk. We might call this work a sound painting. Here is an excerpt from the opening of the piece:

i was sitting in mcsorley's.                    outside it was New York and beauti-
fully snowing.
Inside snug and evil.                    the slobbering walls filthily push witless
creases of screaming warmth chuck pillows are noise funnily swallows
swallowing revolvingly pompous a the swallowed mottle with smooth or
a but of rapidly goes gobs the and of flecks of and a chatter sobbings
intersect with which distinct disks of graceful oath,upsoarings the
break on                    ceiling-flatness
the Bar.tinking luscious jigs dint of ripe silver with warmlyish
wetflat splurging smells waltz the glush of squirting taps plus slush
of foam knocked off and a faint piddle-of-drops she says I ploc spittle
what the lands thaz me kid in no sir hopping sawdust you kiddo he's a
palping wreaths of badly Yep cigars who jim him why gluey grins topple
together eyes pout gestures stickily point made glints squinting who's
a wink bum-nothing and money fuzzily mouths take big wobbly foot-steps
every goggle cent of it get out ears dribbles soft right old feller
belch the chap hic summore eh chuckles skulch. …
and i was sitting in the din thinking drinking the ale,which never
lets you grow old blinking at the low ceiling my being pleasantly was
punctuated by the always retchings of a worthless lamp.

(CP, 110)

The second portion of the book, “Chimneys,” is made up of sixty-two sonnets divided into three groups, “Sonnets—Realities,” “Sonnets—Unrealities,” and “Sonnets—Actualities.” Although all are, in a stretch of the term, sonnets, the three groups roughly correspond to the three styles we have already identified in earlier chapters. The “Sonnets—Realities” are in the Satyric style. Their subjects are, as we might expect, street markets, tenements, cheap restaurants, pool halls, nightclubs, and other inner-city settings that are peopled with such figures as card players, vagrants (the “twenty seven bums”), belly dancers, prostitutes, and gangsters. Most of the poems of this group are demonstrations that the sonnet form can adapt itself to “unpoetic” subject matter. For example, this one begins like a description from a police blotter:

“kitty”. sixteen,5′1″,white,prostitute.
ducking always the touch of must and shall,
whose slippery body is Death's littlest pal,
skilled in quick softness. Unspontaneous.           cute.
the signal perfume of whose unrepute
focusses in the sweet slow animal
bottomless eyes importantly banal,
Kitty. a whore. Sixteen
                                                                                          you corking brute
amused from time to time by clever drolls
fearsomely who do keep their sunday flower.
The babybreasted broad “kitty” twice eight
—beer nothing,the lady'll have a whiskey-sour—
whose least amazing smile is the most great
common divisor of unequal souls.

(CP, 126)

But in its fresh use of language, the poem goes far beyond the mere ugliness found in the “Portraits” to create both wit and sentiment. For expressing the idea of rules and duties Cummings uses verbs as nouns: “ducking always the touch of must and shall.” Kitty's role-playing in order to be cute is conveyed by the words “skilled” and “unspontaneous.” A surprise emerges when we encounter “banal” after “bottomless eyes.” The metaphorical compactness of “sunday flower” for the virginity of young fellows who teasingly talk with Kitty introduces a tone of scorn for them, especially when it is followed by their own role-playing: the sudden intrusion of their tough talk, “—beer nothing, the lady'll have a whiskey sour—.” In fact the shifts of tone in the poem from judgment of Kitty to judgment of the “clever drolls” who joke with her but fear her sexuality are rounded out in a final softening look at Kitty's “least amazing smile” and its power as expressed in mathematical terms. The motifs of “sixteen” and “twice eight” are pulled together in the fact that the number eight is the largest “common divisor” of sixteen.

I should digress to point out that the “Sonnets—Realities,” both in the 1922 version of Tulips & Chimneys and in &, reflect an attitude in which sex is something dirty or repulsive, an attitude telling us that Cummings' upbringing led him to be fearful about sex. Indeed, even though he and Slater Brown became quite friendly with two Parisian prostitutes he kept his “sunday flower” until the night before he left Paris in 1917 to sail home—losing it during a not-entirely-satisfactory experience when he had been taken to bed by a waitress from a couscous restaurant on the rue du faubourg-Montmarte. Thus the speaking voice in the “Sonnets—Realities” is an imagined one, such as “meestaire steevensun” in “when you rang at Dick Mid's Place” (CP, 120). As his journals make clear Cummings never visited prostitutes in the United States, nor was he an opportunistic womanizer. On the contrary, he was a virile but rather romantic young man in his treatment of women and was always, in the words of Slater Brown, “a one-woman man.”1 What we can guess then about the grimy subject matter in many of his poems is that it springs from a double origin: his desire to shock The Great American Public as well as his interest in playing off matter against form as one feature of the revolution in literary expression.

The “Sonnets—Unrealities” contain a miscellaneous mixture of poems old and new. There are love poems; considerations of death; observations on the sea, on a garden, on autumn and winter; a tribute to Froissart; cosmic meditations, and so on. The Hephaestian style is sometimes present here but not always under control. There is a lot of apprentice work in these poems as well, some of which are leftovers from Cummings' college years.

The “Sonnets—Actualities,” mostly love poems written for Elaine Thayer, are a much more satisfactory mix. The Cummings idiom, with its peculiar jargon of mismatching adjectives such as crisp, skillful, brittle, trite, fragile, precise, exact, and clumsy, is more in evidence than most readers would wish, but there are also many fresh and startling images in his descriptions of both city and country scenes and in his tributes to his ladylove. Here, for instance, is one of the monuments he erects for her:

my love is building a building
around you,a frail slippery
house,a strong fragile house
(beginning at the singular beginning
of your smile)a skilful uncouth
prison,a precise clumsy
prison(building thatandthis into Thus,
Around the reckless magic of your mouth)
my love is building a magic,a discrete
tower of magic and(as i guess)
when Farmer Death(whom fairies hate)shall
crumble the mouth-flower fleet
He'll not my tower,
where the surrounded smile

(CP, 165)

On the whole the three groups of sonnets show that Cummings' judgment was faulty when he made his choices of what to include in his first book. Either he did not like to discard poems that he had worked hard to complete, or he could not discriminate his good work from what was poor. These pages offer plenty of evidence that he would sometimes allow himself to publish an item of self-conscious pretentiousness just because he managed to squeeze it into sonnet form. How could he decide to include this poem from his Rossetti period that begins with these lines?

O Thou to whom the musical white spring
offers her lily inextinguishable
taught by thy tremulous grace bravely to fling
Implacable death's mysteriously sable
robe from her redolent shoulders …

and goes on to apostrophize: “O Love! upon thy dim / shrine of intangible commemoration …” (CP, 142). But also to his credit Cummings was a poet who took risks. He often tumbled; yet when he succeeded he achieved that unique quality he strove for.

What is more remarkable is that his judgment was somewhat better than that of his editors. For XLI Poems, Lincoln MacVeagh selected most of Cummings' overwrought sonnets that had a “poetic” tone and rejected the more interesting constructs. Thomas Seltzer did better, and the 1923 Tulips and Chimneys has enough good material in it to be a valuable contribution to modern poetry. But he too was leery of Cummings' poems that were daunting in their typographical high jinks or that were too openly sexual. As a consequence, for & Cummings was left with what he told his typesetter friend, S. A. Jacobs, was his “most personal work.”2 Since & was going to be privately published he did not have to worry about censorious editors. Thus he could restore the poems he had withdrawn from the 1919 Tulips & Chimneys. This especially affected the sonnets that appeared in the new volume.

Among the “Sonnets—Realities” in & were such tough-minded poems as “O It's Nice To Get Up In, the slipshod mucous kiss / of her riant belly's fooling bore” (CP, 203) (which played with allusions to a Harry Lauder song that was popular in the English music halls, “O It's Nice to Get up in the Morning”); “the dirty colors of her kiss have just / throttled my seeing blood,her heart's chatter / riveted a weeping skyscraper in me” (CP, 205); “the poem her belly marched through me as / one army” (CP, 208); and “her careful distinct sex whose sharp lips comb / my mumbling grope of strength” (CP, 210). These and other “dark lady” sonnets are cleverly composed and filled with exploding metaphors and clashing grammatical elements. One example can stand for the rest:

in making Marjorie god hurried
a boy's body on unsuspicious
legs of girl. his left hand quarried
the quartzlike face. his right slapped
the amusing big vital vicious
vegetable of her mouth.
Upon the whole he suddenly clapped
a tiny sunset of vermouth
-colour.          Hair. he put between
her lips a moist mistake,whose fragrance hurls
me into tears, as the dusty new-
ness of her obsolete gaze begins to.          lean. …
a little against me,when for two
dollars i fill her hips with boys and girls

(CP, 211)

Among the “Sonnets—Actualities” were more that he had created for Elaine. One outstanding item begins “upon the room's / silence, i will sew / a nagging button of candlelight” (CP, 215). The final sonnet in the group of seven was the finest erotic poem Cummings ever wrote, a response to the oneness of sexual union that is quiet and delicately direct in its phrasing.

i like my body when it is with your
body.           It is so quite new a thing.
Muscles better and nerves more.
i like your body.          i like what it does,
i like its hows.          i like to feel the spine
of your body and its bones,and the trembling
-firm-smooth ness and which i will
again and again and again
kiss,          i like kissing this and that of you,
i like,slowly stroking the,shocking fuzz
of your electric fur,and what-is-it comes
over parting flesh. … And eyes big love-crumbs,
and possibly i like the thrill
of under me you so quite new

(CP, 218)

When we look back over this whole collection of poems we can perceive that as a poet Cummings was pulled in three directions. His unorthodox play with typography, punctuation, and spacing masks this three-way split. Cummings was a lyric poet, ready to sing of love, the moon, the stars, and the beauties of nature, especially flowers. This was the poet who loved the music of Debussy and the painting of Monet. He was also the poet of tough, hard-edged reality, with a leaning toward Juvenalian satire. He liked popular music, the burlesque theater, and the paintings of the “Ash-Can” school. But then too, he was the aesthetic constructionist in poetry who wanted to push language to its outer limits and to introduce visual features into literary expression. He liked the music of Stravinsky, the paintings of Picasso, and the sculpture of Brancusi. As we shall see, these diverse tendencies and tastes persisted throughout his career in varying degrees.

The poems, almost all written before 1920 and published in three separate volumes over the period 1923 through 1925, put Cummings firmly in the center of modern poetry. Even though not all the work he included was worthy of publication there was a solid body of first-rate work here—enough to establish a reputation. As we might expect some critics and reviewers were troubled by or even dismissive of his typographical legerdemain or his Hephaestian distortions, but others grudgingly recorded genuine admiration. Robert L. Wolf, writing in the New York World, said, “it is a very disconcerting thing to be compelled to admit, reluctantly, that [Tulips and Chimneys] is very good, that it is extraordinarily good, that it contains, in its own individual and unprecedented style, as beautiful poems as have been written by any present-day poet in the English language. When I first read Mr. Cummings' poetry, some years ago in magazines, it inspired me with rage and scorn; from which it appears that disgust is a half-way station on the road to admiration.”3

Nor did the volumes sell very many copies. It would be another thirteen years before any book of his poems did anything but lose money for publishers and another sixteen years beyond that before his Poems 1923-1954 brought him unqualified recognition and publishing success.


  1. RSK, Interview with Slater Brown, September 1971.

  2. Letter to S. A. Jacobs, Spring 1924, in the Clifton Waller Barrett Library, University of Virginia.

  3. New York World, November 8, 1923, 9.

Richard S. Kennedy (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: Kennedy, Richard S. “Jeers, Cheers, and Aspirations.” In E. E. Cummings Revisited, pp. 68-83. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.

[In the following excerpted essay, Kennedy examines Cummings's writing during a particularly difficult period in the 1920s.]

In the midst of his efforts to publish between 1922 and 1925 Cummings faced personal problems of such gravity that they brought about a change in his personality. It all began in 1918 when he fell in love with Elaine Thayer, the wife of his best friend. The Thayer marriage of 1916 had been in trouble for some time, a situation made clear by the fact that the couple now lived in separate apartments on different sides of Washington Square in Greenwich Village. Moreover, Scofield needed to be in Chicago for long periods of time before the Dial headquarters moved to New York, and when he traveled he left his wife behind. Out of genuine affection for her, Cummings, Brown, Dos Passos, and other friends frequently spent time with her when her husband was away. Soon a love affair developed between Cummings and the lonely Elaine. Even so he and Scofield remained good friends after Scofield returned to New York permanently. Further complications arose when Elaine became pregnant with Cummings' child and, unwilling to have an abortion, she gave birth to a baby girl in December 1919 while still married to Thayer, who then took on the role of father. Cummings' love affair with Elaine continued intermittently in New York and Paris during the years 1920 to 1924, until the Thayers agreed to divorce in 1921. Cummings finally married Elaine in March 1924 and legally adopted little Nancy who was by then four years old.

But as a self-centered poet and painter Cummings was a very poor husband and father. As a consequence Elaine, neglected once again by Cummings' bachelor-like routine, left him for a wealthy Irish businessman. She officially divorced Cummings in December 1924 and later moved to Ireland, taking Nancy with her and preventing Cummings from having any contact with the child.1 The loss of both Elaine and Nancy was a psychological blow that depressed Cummings deeply for the next couple of years and left scars for the rest of his life. However unsettling all these troubles were to him, he continued to write and paint in a little studio on the third floor of 4 Patchin Place in the Village. After several months had passed he developed a new love affair with Anne Barton, whom he eventually married in May 1929.

Anne was a former fashion model who had divorced Ralph Barton, a widely published cartoonist known principally for his illustrations in Anita Loos' Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Anne was a good-time woman, lively, witty, and well-suited to the role of the New York flapper of the 1920s. She enjoyed parties with a lot of laughter, drinking, jazz on the phonograph, and dancing. In her vivacity she was very good for Cummings' bruised psyche, but since she was not always faithful to him, she created new problems for him too.

In spite of the disruptions in his personal life during these years, Cummings managed to publish five books and to continue painting and exhibiting at the annual Independent Artists shows. There was a good deal of variety in the books: Is 5, a collection of poems (1926); Him, an Expressionist play (1927); [No title], a sequence of absurdist narratives (1930); CIOPW, a collection of his artwork in charcoal, ink, oil, pencil, and watercolor (1931); and W (ViVa) (1931), another book of poems.

Is 5 reveals some of the strains on Cummings' creativity, for it shows both an advance beyond the Tulips and Chimneys poems and a falling off, in that it includes a number of trifles that Cummings should have left in his files. It also includes several poems that had already appeared in the private publication &, perhaps an indication that Cummings felt a need to pad—or, more accurately, strengthen—his new volume. There are some new stylistic features however. A few poems are presented in a phonetic rendering of the New York lower-class dialect. For instance, this epigram about a whore and a priest:

now dis “daughter” uv eve(who aint precisely slim)sim
ply don't know duh meanin uv duh woid sin in
not disagreeable contras tuh dat not exacly fat
“father”(adjustin his robe)who now puts on his flat hat

(CP [The Complete Poems], 238)

Note that the last phrase, describing the priest, is in normal English.

Besides the presence of several linguistic pranks there is occasional evidence that the Dada movement had made an impact on Cummings while he was in Paris in 1921-22. The Dada spirit revels in irrationality of the sort Cummings exhibits in one item that begins in this way:

Will i ever forget that precarious moment?
          As i was standing on the third rail waiting for the next train to grind me
into lifeless atoms various absurd thoughts slyly crept into my highly sexed
          It seemed to me that i had first of all really made quite a mistake in being
at all born,seeing that i was wifeless and only half awake,cursed with pimples,
correctly dressed,cleanshaven above the nombril,and much to my astonishment much
impressed by having once noticed(as an infantile phenomenon)George Washington al-
most incompletely surrounded by well-drawn icecakes beheld being too strong,in
brief:an American,is you understand that i mean what i say i believe my most
intimate friends would never have gathered.
A collarbutton which had always not nothurt me not much and in the same place.
Why according to tomorrow's paper the proletariat will not rise yesterday.

(CP, 260)

Of course one principal idea of Dada, which we have encountered before in Cummings' work, is the necessity to destroy the accepted and the traditional in order to discover something new and surprising in artistic effect, or in order to seek some hidden truth that lies beyond the rational. Hence the title of Cummings' book, which asserts his endeavor to rise out of the realm where twice two is four.

One distinctive feature of Is 5 is the presence of a series of antiwar poems, two of which employ a new satirical device of Cummings', namely the use of allusive quotations or fragments of quotations, a technique that he learned from T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. But unlike Eliot or Pound he does not employ this technique for general cultural criticism, rather, he aims to produce real laughter by ridiculing his subjects. In one of these poems, carefully worked out in sonnet form, he pillories a Fourth-of-July speechmaker by choosing patriotic and religious clichés common to platform oratory and compressing fragments of them together in order to demonstrate by this jumble the meaningless emptiness that these appeals have:

“next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims' and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn's early my
country 'tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?”
He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water

(CP, 267)

He goes even further in another of the antiwar poems and uses repeatedly the Latin phrase “etcetera” to suggest valueless verbiage, until finally he capitalizes “Etcetera” in order to give it new meaning:

my sweet old etcetera
aunt lucy during the recent
war could and what
is more did tell you just
what everybody was fighting
my sister
isabel created hundreds
hundreds)of socks not to
mention shirts fleaproof earwarmers
etcetera wristers etcetera,my
mother hoped that
i would die etcetera
bravely of course my father used
to become hoarse talking about how it was
a privilege and if only he
could meanwhile my
self etcetera lay quietly
in the deep mud et
Your smile
eyes knees and of your Etcetera)

(CP, 275)

In another of the satirical poems he takes fragments of advertising slogans or parodies of brand names of commonly marketed products and mixes them with lines from patriotic songs, this time in an attack on the average American poet. The title is “POEM, OR BEAUTY HURTS MR. VINAL” (Harold Vinal was the editor of Voices, a poetry quarterly, and secretary of the Poetry Society of America). It begins with an explosion of phrases:

take it from me kiddo
believe me
my country,'tis of
you,land of the Cluett
Shirt Boston Garter and Spearmint
Girl With The Wrigley Eyes(of you
land of the Arrow Ide
and Earl &
Collars)of you i
sing:land of Abraham Lincoln and Lydia E. Pinkham,
land above all of Just Add Hot Water And Serve—
from every B.V.D.
let freedom ring …

(CP, 228)

He goes on to a series of scatological jokes while developing his theme that ordinary American poetry is on the same level as advertising copy (or worse, since Cummings calls the poets “throstles,” songbirds whose scientific name is “turdus musicus”). The poem ends with a picture of the poets as constipated children straining to produce their poetic results. In the concluding lines the advertised products that he alludes to are Carter's Little Liver Pills, Nujol (a laxative), Kellogg's Bran Flakes (“There's A Reason”), Odorono (an underarm deodorant), and Colgate's Toothpaste.

americans(who tensetendoned and with
upward vacant eyes,painfully
perpetually crouched,quivering,upon the
sternly allotted sandpile
—how silently
emit a tiny violetflavoured nuisance:Odor?
comes out like a ribbon lies flat on the brush

(CP, 229)

These three pieces are among the most frequently anthologized of Cummings' poems, even though they are found in this not-very-memorable volume. Another work that is often included in anthologies is the first poem in which Cummings expresses the basic tenet of his Romanticism, the primacy of emotion over reason. It is addressed to a ladylove, and it denigrates anyone who follows rules and systems (“the syntax of things”).

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world
my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers.          Don't cry
—the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids' flutter which says
we are for each other:then
laugh,leaning back in my arms
for life's not a paragraph
And death i think is no parenthesis

(CP, 291)

But the assertion about immortality expressed in grammatical terms in the final lines has a subtle qualifier in the phrase “i think.” He does not say “i feel.”

For all his repeated rejections of thinking and systematic regimentation Cummings took great pains to arrange his collections of poems in orderly patterns. The key number in this book is five. It opens with five sonnets characterizing five prostitutes (“FIVE AMERICANS”) and closes with five sonnets addressed to a beloved one. Further, he divides the book into five sections: Part I, linguistic jokes, experiments, and bagatelles; Part II, antiwar poems; Part III, poems set in Europe; Part IV, love poems; Part V, love sonnets. The next volume W (ViVa) takes its title from a graffito commonly found on southern European walls, meaning “Long live,” as in “Viva Napoli!” or “Viva Presidente Wilson!” Employing a pattern of seven, Cummings arranges seventy poems; every seventh poem is a sonnet, and the last seven poems are all sonnets. The thematic order in ViVa is a pattern that he follows in most of his books, starting with Is 5; he later described it in a letter to Francis Steegmuller: “to begin dirty (world, sordid, satires) & end clean (earth, lyrical, love poems).”2

In spite of the cheeriness of the title the first half of ViVa is difficult going. It contains a relentless series of linguistic puzzles with an occasional powerfully expressed satire, such as the first sonnet, which ironically echoes the book's title in its phrase, “LONG LIVE that Upwardlooking / Serene Illustrious and Beatific / Lord of Creation, MAN.” This poem is a bitter attack on humankind's presumptuousness in an age of new scientific theory, when Space is “curved,” life is just a reflex, and “Everything is Relative,” with “god being Dead (not to / mention inTerred)” (CP, 317). This is the first of Cummings' attacks on Science, an abstraction that he associates with all that is wrong with the modern world and that he regards as the epitome of unfeeling reason. It is a bugaboo he will chase for the rest of his career.

The thirtieth poem in the collection has become very famous. An antiwar poem that is thematically connected with his hostility toward government and authority, “i sing of Olaf glad and big” is the story of the torture, imprisonment, and death of a conscientious objector during the Great War. Part of its icy irony is brought about by Cummings' having used an irregularly rhymed tetrameter doggerel for such a terrible story. To heighten the irony he chose a formal diction such as one might find in a Victorian moralistic tale about a naughty boy who mistreats the kitten; Cummings occasionally even throws in an archaic word:

but—though all kinds of officers
(a yearning nation's blueeyed pride)
their passive prey did kick and curse
until for wear their clarion
voices and boots were much the worse,
and egged the firstclassprivates on
his rectum wickedly to tease
by means of skilfully applied
bayonets roasted hot with heat—
Olaf (upon what once were knees)
does almost ceaselessly repeat
“there is some shit I will not eat.”

(CP, 340)

The pose of a medieval balladeer, a François Villon, or a Geoffrey Chaucer, is maintained right up to the end with the summarizing prayer, “Christ (of his mercy infinite / i pray to see; and Olaf, too …” (CP, 340). It is a remarkable production and quite a characteristic subject for “our nonhero, little Estlin.”

In the middle of ViVa begins a sequence of nature poems, pulled about in the Hephaestian style on such topics as a sunset; an electrical storm; a flower opening its petals; a star at twilight; a moonrise; nature as a transcendent entity; his mother's heaven pictured as a flower garden; a bat at twilight; the dying of life in winter; and a rainfall. The works are in all shapes and jumbles of expression. One of the most fascinating poems is about an electrical storm accompanied by rain, followed by the sun coming out, birds singing, and the refreshment of the earth. The ups and downs of capital and lowercase letters, the pull and push of space, punctuation, and word division make it a dynamic performance.

          dis(appeared cleverly)world
iS Slapped:with;liGhtninG
                                                            loSSo!M iN
-visiblya mongban(gedfrag-
ment ssky?wha tm)eani ngl(essNessUn
rolli)ngl yS troll s(who leO v erd)oma insCol
                                        n, o ; w :
o all the roofs roar
(we(are like)dead
ther or im)
                    sib(ly as
                                        But l!ook—
                    n:starT birDs(lEAp)Openi ng
t hing; s(
                    )all are aLl(cry alL See)o(ver All)Th(e grEEn

(CP, 348)

Among the love poems one has become especially well known because it was used by Woody Allen in his film Hannah and Her Sisters. But long before that it was read aloud by many a young man, perhaps stretched in front of the fireplace on an April night, to his much-adored girlfriend. It attempts to express the transcendent feeling of response to the power of a beloved one in the metaphor of the opening and closing of flower petals. These are the first two of its blank-verse stanzas:

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near
your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose

(CP, 367)

By 1931 Cummings had become a leading American poet in two areas—as a satirist and as an experimenter with language in creating constructs that went beyond what any poetic wordsmith had ever achieved; in another area he had done commendable work—as a lyric poet, especially in his love poems. But his reputation was limited by two aspects of his career: one, the fault of critics; the other, the fault of himself.

Many critics and reviewers were loathe to acknowledge that the kind of expression Cummings attempted had a high literary value. They regarded him as a trickster and as an iconoclast ready to tear the fabric of literature or undermine the moral basis of society. Yet Cummings himself had helped them to hold their prejudices against his work for he had published a great many poems unworthy of print by a serious poet—much apprentice work appeared in Tulips and Chimneys and XLI Poems and too many jokes or gimmicky trifles in Is 5 and ViVa. These problems were not going to vanish as time went on. But the very fact that he always had the essential grain in spite of his seeming inability to get rid of chaff meant that a winnowing was possible for anthologists and poetry lovers who could make their own choices. As for the critics and reviewers, they became more used to the Cummings idiom as his books continued to emerge, and what is more, younger judges who were used to reading modern literature were continually arriving on the scene. In time the recognition would come.


Cummings always lived frugally and managed to scrape along by means of occasional prizes, gifts from his father, a small legacy from his grandmother, and what little money his writing brought in. To supplement his income he sometimes wrote comic vignettes under a pseudonym for Vanity Fair magazine and illustrated them with line drawings. He had a taste for Dadaesque nonsense, and the editor of Vanity Fair, Frank Crowninshield, seemed to tolerate it. Eventually Cummings made a small book of these nonsensical narratives in prose, with each of its nine chapters illustrated by a pen-and-ink sketch. After this series appeared in New American Caravan (1929), an annual edited by Alfred Kreymborg and Paul Rosenfeld that was intended to show the work of younger writers, it was published in book form without a title by Covici-Friede in 1930. It was not a significant work. Each chapter weaves a meandering thread of jokes, puns, clichés, burlesques of literary quotations, and narrative nonsequiturs that lead nowhere. It becomes very tiresome reading in a few pages, though some of Cummings' friends seem to have found it entertaining.


A major undertaking in the years following Cummings' problems with marriage, fatherhood, and divorce was his attempt to write a play. Throughout 1926 he had striven to create a dramatic work, going through reams of paper for his notes and drafts, hoping to produce something that was really significant and at the same time “different.” At length, after a determined struggle, he completed Him, a play that followed the tendencies of Expressionism, a movement in European painting and theater that had its success largely in Scandinavia and Germany.

The Expressionist playwrights professed to show the inner life of the psyche in exterior action, especially in stylized action and stereotypical characters. The first American plays to reflect this mode were Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones (1920) and The Hairy Ape (1922). But the overearnest Germanic intensity that O'Neill absorbed was not accepted by other American playwrights. Elmer Rice in The Adding Machine (1923), John Howard Lawson in Processional (1925), and John Dos Passos in The Garbage Man (1926)—all had Americanized Expressionism by giving it comic overtones and letting serious ideas emerge through comic distancing.3

This American tradition appealed to Cummings, who had discussed literary ideas with both Lawson and Dos Passos. In Him he developed a play concerned with the theme of bringing to birth: Me, the heroine, is pregnant; Him, a playwright, is struggling with writer's block while trying to finish his play; and both Him and Me are moving toward a merger as true lovers, not just as an artist and his mistress. In the play Him has many speeches about the creative process and the problems of the artist. Me speaks for another side of Cummings' psyche, and since she frequently states that she has no mind and cannot understand things she represents Cummings' Romantic valuing of feeling over reason. As a character she offers a good counterpoise to the posturing, wisecracking behavior of Him and causes him to mellow into a human being by act 3. These themes, plus other motifs about the unconscious, the problems of identity, and the mysteries of gender are presented in a muddled way by means of the Cummings idiom in dialogue between Him and Me, but also through a series of vaudeville skits, circus sideshows, and carnival barker spiels, which are the liveliest parts of the play.

When the curtain rises we see a hospital scene, with Me being anesthetized on an operating table. (Cummings is here consciously alluding to the opening lines of T. S. Eliot's “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”) Besides the doctor, onstage are the three Weird Sisters, the Fates, who in Greek mythology preside over childbearing and the destinies of human beings. They sit in rocking chairs, knitting the threads of destiny, and chatting in a mixture of twisted proverbs, advertising slogans, and trite phrases of neighborly gossip. This scene recurs five times in the play, although the number nine, which stands for the period of gestation, is the key figure in the pattern of the play.4

The next scene is the “Room” where Him and Me conduct their dialogue. Me is complaining about Him's neglect of her and hints to the audience of her pregnancy. Him, preoccupied with his play, responds absently or spouts joking nonsense, although at one point he talks about the creative achievement of the artist in a frequently quoted metaphor involving the circus acrobat:

imagine a human being who balances three chairs, one on top of another, on a wire, eighty feet in air with no net underneath, and then climbs into the top chair, sits down, and begins to swing … it is such a perfect acrobat! The three chairs are three facts—it will quickly kick them out from under itself and will stand on air … it rocks carefully and smilingly on three facts, on: I am an Artist, I am a Man, I am a Failure—it rocks and it swings and it smiles and it does not collapse tumble or die because it pays no attention to anything except itself.


When Me asks to see parts of the play he is writing Him agrees, and we are offered nine vaudeville skits,5 most of which have comic reference to psychological problems or processes. For example, in one scene a man carrying a trunk marked “fragile” is stopped by a policeman. The man says that the trunk is his unconscious, although he does not know what is in it. When the policeman finally opens it and peers in he collapses in a dead faint. Some of the scenes were at that time recognizable parodies of elements in recent Broadway plays or musical comedies. One, in which two men named Bill and Will wear masks and engage in a “Who's-on-first?”-kind of dialogue, pokes fun at O'Neill's The Great God Brown. Another, in which two men meet six times, exchange cryptic greetings, and then pop balloons with their cigars, is a parody of a Broadway musical number, “How's tricks?” Another scene, set in ancient Rome and presenting four fluttering homosexuals in togas, is Cummings' burlesque of the comic sketches frequently found in burlesque theaters—thus, a burlesque of burlesque.

The most elaborate of the scenes has a Negro ensemble singing a bawdy version of “Frankie and Johnie.”6 (When Him was published in 1927 Cummings had a battle with Liveright, his publisher, over his right to include the line about Johnie “finger-fucking Nellie Bly”—a battle that he lost.) Toward the end of the song a censorious figure, John Rutter, the president of the Society for the Contraception of Vice (a jibe at John S. Sumner, head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice), arises from the audience and objects to the song just as the singers are about to utter a vernacular word for penis. But he is frightened away when Frankie advances down nine stairs and presents him with an amputated penis in a bloody napkin, “the best part of the man who done me wrong” (56).

After more meandering dialogue between Him and Me and another burlesque sketch, this time set in Paris (Him's dream, in which he appears carrying a head of cabbage and declaring “I was born the day before yesterday”), the play reaches its climax as Me hears a drumbeat suggesting the heartbeat of her child, and the scene merges into a circus sideshow, presumably the bizarre contents of Me's unconscious, in which a barker presents eight circus performers: the nine-foot giant, the tattooed man, the six hundred pounds of passionate pulchritude, and so on. The ninth attraction is the dancer, Princess Anankay (Greek for Necessity), announced as “the undiluted original milkshake of the ages … the world's first and foremost exponent of the yaki-hula-hiki-dula otherwise known as the Royal Umbilical Bengal Cakewalk” (I have translated the barker's dialect). But when the curtains open Me stands holding a newborn baby. Him utters “a cry of terror” and the three Weird Sisters exclaim, “It's all done with mirrors!” (144).

The play ends with a brief scene in which Him and Me are back in the Room once more, as if the previous scene had never taken place. Me, facing the footlights, points out to Him that the audience represents the real world; the actors and the play are only what the audience pretends is real.

Although Cummings' notes and drafts show that he was working with a fascinating complex of ideas,7 he was not actually able to bring them alive in dramatic form in this play. An uncut version of Him runs almost four hours,8 a wearisome evening given the obscurities of Cummings' dialogue and the lack of clarity between parts. The most disappointing feature, however, is the conclusion. In the last scene there is no reference to the baby, to the relationship between Him and Me, or to Him's play. The turn to the audience is merely a mechanical device in the guise of a statement on imagination and reality.

Since its publication Him has been produced from time to time by little theater groups. Its initial production, in a cut version, at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village in 1928 was its most successful, for it had a full professional cast and production staff.9 The play ran for twenty-seven performances to full houses of 200 people in the small theater at 133 MacDougal Street. It appealed to the Playhouse clientele—intellectuals, bohemians, and academics—who could appreciate the allusions to literature and psychoanalysis and delighted in the combination of learned wit and carnival-show atmosphere in the vaudeville skits. No one was quite sure what the play was about, and a controversy about its value arose that was carried on between the Broadway reviewers and Cummings' friends and supporters, who published a pamphlet edited by Gilbert Seldes entitled him and the critics.10 What seems clear is that the play became a kind of Rorschach blot enacted on stage; thus the members of the audience were really responding to the preperformance “Warning” that Cummings printed in the program: “Relax and give the play a chance to strut its stuff—relax, stop wondering what it's all ‘about,’—like many strange things, Life included, this Play isn't ‘about,’ it simply is. … Don't try to enjoy it, let it try to enjoy you. DON'T TRY TO UNDERSTAND IT, LET IT TRY TO UNDERSTAND YOU.”11

As time went on Cummings tried his hand at drama now and again, but except for a short Christmas play, Santa Claus, which we will take note of later, he never succeeded in getting any farther than notes and schemes.


  1. For the full details of Cummings' loss of Elaine and his struggle for parental rights to spend time with Nancy, see chapters 16 and 17 of DITM.

  2. March 5, 1959, SL, 261.

  3. Even The Hairy Ape had the subtitle A Comedy of Ancient and Modern Life in Eight Scenes.

  4. All quotations are from the first edition of Him (New York, 1927).

  5. The ninth is enacted as a dream by Him.

  6. Edmund Wilson supplied Cummings with the words for this version of the song.

  7. An extensive accumulation of pages, bMS Am1823.4 (15) and bMS Am1892.7 (198), remains.

  8. This was the length of the performance of the complete version of Him as performed by the Circle Repertory Theater (New York Times, April 20, 1974).

  9. For an account of the rehearsals and production, see Helen Deutsch and Stella Hanau, The Provincetown: A Story of the Theater (New York, 1959), 170.

  10. No date. Introduction by Gilbert Seldes and statements by Conrad Aiken, William Rose Benét, S. Foster Damon, Waldo Frank, Paul Rosenfeld, John Sloan, Edmund Wilson, Stark Young, and others. A copy is in bMS Am1823.8 (39).

  11. Ibid.

Brian Docherty (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Docherty, Brian. “e. e. cummings.” In American Poetry: The Modernist Ideal, edited by Clive Bloom and Brian Docherty, pp. 120-30. Houndmills and London: Macmillan, 1995.

[In the following essay, Docherty discusses the paradox of modernism and traditionalism in Cummings’s poetry.]

e. e. cummings is at once the most modern of traditionalists and the most traditional of Modernists. This ironic paradox runs through both his life and his poetry. Born in 1894 to a family of impeccably New England Puritan stock, his life as a writer was to some extent a negation of his background. Like Ezra Pound, cummings never held a ‘normal’ job, but lived true to his principles, devoted to his art even at the expense of so-called material success. His father was both an academic, who became America's first Professor of Sociology, and a Unitarian minister at Boston's fashionable Back Bay Church. Two conspicuous features of cummings's work are a hatred of rationalising intellectual types and a virtual absence of orthodox Christian faith, Puritan or otherwise. This is not to imply that he was in any way estranged from his family. It was his father who secured his release from a French prison in 1917 (this adventure is related in The Enormous Room), and there are some beautiful poems to his parents, obviously written out of a deep love, notably ‘my father moved through dooms of love’. (Most of cummings's poems are untitled, so first lines have been taken as titles in this chapter.)

Like Pound, cummings enjoyed the benefits of a sound classical education, studying Greek and Latin at high school before going on to Harvard in 1911. cummings was part of probably the last generation to be educated in precisely this manner, and his training shows through in the poetic strategies he adopted. He shared Pound's desire to ‘make it new’, but not the obsession with the Provençal troubadours and the Eleusinian mystery religion. His interest in classical language is also different from that of, say, H. D., who valued those qualities we think of as ‘classical’: clarity, hardness and precision. cummings set out to write a vernacular American, and succeeded as well as William Carlos Williams in capturing the true vulgarity of American speech. He did it by treating English as if it were a foreign language, full of wonder and freshness, and by writing English as if it were an inflected language like Greek or Latin. Some of the perceived characteristics his detractors have objected to can possibly be blamed on his Harvard education. Harvard is, of course, one of the world's great universities, but it is fair to say that nobody there at that time had any conception of literary theory. ‘English Literature’, as an academic discipline in its own right, was the invention of F. R. Leavis, William Empson and I. A. Richards in England, and the ‘New Critics’ in America.

cummings was largely taught by classics scholars, a body of men who often believed that reading and criticising modern literature was the sort of thing any intelligent man could do in his bath. Although cummings believed in self-discipline in an Emersonian sense (and rejected all external standards), he never learnt self-criticism as a writer, although he worked hard, being a careful and meticulous craftsman. Perhaps a dose of Leavis-style ‘close reading’ would have helped him to distinguish between successful and unsuccessful poems. A published output of some 800 poems would seem to mark a determination to get everything into print, rather than the ‘distillation’ or ‘essence’ theory favoured by other poets. This is characteristic both of the Puritan obsession to save and use every scrap, in any activity, and of cummings's own temperament. He is primarily a poet of spring, overflowing with life and vitality.

Like Walt Whitman, cummings has sometimes been accused of lacking a sufficient sense of evil or a tragic vision of the world. This view ignores the fact that cummings perceives certain aspects of the modern world as tragedy in the making, or more accurately, as grotesque farce. His perception of the world as it is, and not as he would like it to be, either by a reconstitution of past order and wholeness, or as the stage for a revolution of visionary utopia, makes cummings a poet of hate as well as a poet of love. (And it serves to distinguish him from, on the one hand, Pound and Eliot, and on the other hand, Whitman and Ginsberg.) Even in his hates, however, cummings is a generous poet, willing to say some things other poets shied away from, with a kind of stiff-necked New England honesty. Since cummings took his Emersonian transcendentalism seriously and conscientiously, his concept of love was not determined by Christianity of the ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’ variety. For cummings, an honest man could only be a good lover if he was a good hater. His hatred is reserved for political tyranny, of both left and right, for the ill-treatment or torture of individuals, for bureaucrats, politicians, salesmen, people unable to think for themselves, and bigots. By his willingness to take up the stones of castigation, cummings confronts his readers with the follies, abuses and evils of the modern world, and most people's willingness to close their eyes, turn their back, or cross the street.

‘Humanity i love you’ (CP [The Complete Poems], 53)1 is an example of his technique of paradox. After five stanzas of wry acceptance of the compromises people employ in their daily lives, the last line, ‘i hate you’, is a shock the reader is not prepared for. cummings appears to suggest that while acceptance of such compromises keeps the world turning, intelligent consideration would lead to rejection of such attitudes and practices. The implication is that if we all start to hate compromise, a more honest society might be possible. ‘a man who had fallen among thieves’ (CP, 256) is a version of the biblical story of the Good Samaritan, condemning the hypocritical upright citizens who refuse to help this unfortunate man, robbed of both his money and his dignity by whoever sold him drink. cummings's contempt for the by-passer is coupled with a love for the individual strong enough to let him help the fallen man even though he is ‘banged with terror’ (CP, 256).

‘next to of course god america i’ (CP, 267) is a satire on both the cliché-spouting patriot and the gullibility of his audience. cummings includes most of the clichés politicians mouth at election time, and his point is that while anyone who dared to criticise any of these concepts would be labelled un-American and a commie subversive, it is politicians like this who have muted the voice of liberty. His general attitude to politicians is expressed succinctly in ‘a politician is an arse upon’ (CP, 550), a two-line epigram in the best classical tradition. Politicians of the liberal, compromising variety are condemned in ‘THANKSGIVING (1956)’ (CP, 711), one of his relatively new titled poems. It is a disciplined exercise in rhymed four-line stanzas designed to be heard loud and clear. The Russian state is stigmatised as a ‘monstering horror’, and the Soviet leadership as ‘a which that walks like a who’. Hungary is praised for having the bravery to stand up for freedom and liberty, while both the United Nations and the United States are criticised for failing to come to Hungary's aid when it is invaded by the forces of Communism which ‘Western democracy’ professes to oppose. Individuals in Europe and America who failed to condemn the invasion are included in his critique, and liberal democracy is shown to be impotent in the face of Stalinist aggression.

uncle sam shrugs his pretty
pink shoulders you know how
and he twitches a liberal titty
and lisps ‘i'm busy right now’

(CP, 711)

The implication is that America is run by homosexuals, whom cummings regarded as decadent perverts who were probably fellow travellers anyway. The persona in the poem echoes the rantings of the crazed bigot Senator McCarthy, who ruined many people's lives in the 1950s with his anti-communist witch-hunts.

Homosexuals feature in another hate poem, ‘flotsam and fetsam’ (CP, 492). This little gem is perhaps aimed at W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, who arrived in America in early 1939, some months before the outbreak of the Second World War. The poem criticises gays, middle-class intellectuals fleeing the coming war, and left-wingers with the means to insulate themselves from the economic realities of life. While advocating the principles of communism, they are themselves insured by Lloyd's. Left-wing dogma is also condemned in ‘kumrads die because they're told’ (CP, 413), an attack on what cummings views as the de-individualising effects of collectivist philosophies. The rhythm is strongly marked, and rhyme is again employed to point up the message that collective attitudes constitute a form of indoctrination which has the most disastrous consequences; ‘and kumrads won't (believe in life) … because they are afraid to love’ (CP, 413). These lines represent one of cummings's strongest critiques of the modern state, and the de-personalisation caused by acceptance of dogma and obedience to orthodoxy.

Another poem which contrasts institutional thinking with the plight of the individual is ‘i sing of Olaf glad and big’ (CP, 340). Again there is a strong rhythm and deftly placed rhyme, employed to make the message clear. Olaf is a principled individual, probably a second-generation Swedish American from the Mid-West farm belt, brought up in the Lutheran church. He is a heroic figure who dies for his beliefs after enduring barbaric treatment, including the ultimate obscenity with red-hot bayonets. American democracy and freedom suffer grievously at the hand of their supposed defendants, ironically described as ‘(a yearning nation's blueeyed pride)’, while the pacifist traitor is lauded as ‘more brave than me: more blond than you’ (CP, 340). cummings is impartial in his attitude to regimes where correct attitudes are instilled and maintained by force. America and Russia are two faces of the same coin as far as he is concerned.

‘a salesman is an it that stinks Excuse’ (CP, 549) is an attack on commercialism in a modified sonnet, a hate poem on the negative side of America, expressed in a form traditionally reserved for love poems. The colloquial language of the salesman offers a further ironic contrast to the formal qualities normally expected of a sonnet. By its willingness to say anything and sell anything to make a quick profit, the whole of American life has been debased. Capitalism is rotten to the core, and so corrupt that democracy can be bought and sold like any other commodity. cummings says let the buyer beware, since only ‘subhuman rights’ are on offer here, not freedom or liberty. Rights belong to the free individual as typified by the lover, because in cummings's world only the free individual can be a lover, and only the lover is free.

Because he is such a good hater of what he perceives as the faults of the modern world, cummings is both a great lover and a great love poet. Poems about love or lovers make up some 25 per cent of his output, some 200 poems. His concept of love as a healing force in the world is more rigorous and less chauvinist than the often vacuous effusions on ‘love’ emanating from the poetry and music of the 60s counter-culture. Some 50 per cent of his poems on love are sonnets, modified and modernised in various ways, with a significant mixing of linguistic registers from traditional to formal to colloquial to standard Harvard to comic. This is cummings's largest subject area and it is appropriate that his versatility should be fully demonstrated in the subject which mattered most to him. ‘my love’ (CP, 33) is a surprisingly traditional tribute from the poet to his lady, addressed in the archaic ‘thy’ form, employing jewel and fertility imagery to make a poem rather like an Imagist Keats. ‘it may not always be so and i say’ (CP, 146) is a regular sonnet, a formal but tender address to his lady with a rather posed rhetorical quality. Some readers may not be completely convinced by the poet's demonstration of generosity towards his rival, but it is nevertheless a lovely and moving poem which shows cummings's mastery of form.

‘i like my body when it is with your’ (CP, 218) is a modern, more relaxed exercise in sonnet form with modern language to match. It is a celebration of the joys of physical love, a contemporary version of John Donne without the metaphysical overtones. It is both a young man's poem and an adult poem, enjoyment of the natural attributes without prurience, salaciousness, or a need to dominate the other person. It is entirely in the Whitmanian tradition, celebrating love, and opposed to the Platonist and Pauline attitudes to sexual pleasure. cummings upholds the modern post-Freudian view that to be spiritually happy, humans must be sexually fulfilled. (It should be noted, however, that generally cummings was not sympathetic to Freud.) ‘she being Brand’ (CP, 246) is one of the better-known poems, mainly because cummings's detractors hold it up as an example of his typographical eccentricities. In fact, critics who call attention to poems for this reason merely advertise their failure to come to terms with an important element of Modernist poetry from Pound onwards, the use of the capabilities of the typewriter to provide a score for the speaking voice. This is another sex poem with the emphasis on performance, the description of a new car being driven for the first time being a metaphor for a young woman's first full sexual experience. The poem also provides an illustration of the American obsession with automobiles, and the frequent equation of women and cars in American popular culture. (The American love affair with the car is documented in the lyrics of songwriters such as Chuck Berry and Bruce Springsteen.) Far from being eccentric or careless, the line lengths, word divisions and the stanzaic patterning are carefully designed and laid out on the page to give the reader a precise guide to the cadencing of the poem when read aloud. cummings's practice as a painter no doubt influenced his writing here. The visual devices are employed for non-visual purposes, and this poem is a reminder that nearly all of cummings's poems are speakable, with only a small handful offering real difficulties, although some rearrangement of the poem's element is sometimes necessary.

‘if i have made, my lady, intricate’ (CP, 307) is another sonnet, a lyric to his lady on a traditional theme, the poet's inability to write poems which do justice to her beauty. cummings's debt to the lyric tradition in English literature is plain here, yet the tone of the poem has a calm and tender beauty unique to cummings. It is entirely typical of his work as a poet of love and spring, whose April lies in a different world from that of Eliot's The Waste Land. ‘may i feel said he’ (CP, 399) is a high-spirited comic poem on a serious subject, the games people play which end up in adultery. As usual, cummings has a serious point to make in the last line, ‘(you are Mine said she)’. In his poetic world, people always have to face the consequences of their actions. Most of the love poems, however, involve relationships between free individuals, which accounts for the lack of guilt, violence or recrimination in the poems. ‘sweet spring is your’ takes up the theme of the ending of ‘if i have made, my lady, intricate’, in rhymed four-line stanzas. For cummings, April is the gladdest month, full of new life and new energy after the long hibernation of winter, when the world belongs to lovers. Nature as process and rebirth is symbolised in that the last stanza is identical to the first, an affirmation that love does indeed make the world go round. The poem is not frivolous or irresponsible since this attitude, lived seriously, implies that people have no right to destroy the planet's ecosystem for profit, kill animals for their skins, or restrict other people's liberties. cummings's attitude to time, of living fully in the present and making the most of your time, is expressed in ‘if everything happens that can't be done’. It is a celebration of growth and movement, and love. ‘i carry your heart with me / i carry it in’ is another lyric sonnet on a traditional theme, that of love as the motive force in the poet's life. Love and life as a cyclical process are again emphasised by making the last line identical to the first, an unusual device in a sonnet.

As well as personal and sexual love, cummings is a love poet in a more general sense. There are notable poems to his parents and poems about praiseworthy individuals, such as ‘rain or hail’ (CP, 568). There are also many sonnets on the nature of love. ‘love's function is to fabricate unknowingness’ (CP, 446) announces cummings's anti-rationalising philosophy in its first line. It is a poem where death is accepted as a natural process because love can transcend death and time. ‘love is more thicker than forget’ (CP, 530), in four short rhymed stanzas, gives a definition of love and the conditions under which love is encountered. Love is the permanent source of life and energy. ‘nothing false and possible is love’ (CP, 574) is another modernised sonnet, employed to define the truth of love and lovers. Love is the positive force in the world, with its own moral laws, ‘love is a universe beyond obey / or command’. ‘true lovers in each happening of their hearts’ (CP, 576) is a sonnet where the normal form is only slightly modified by half rhymes. True lovers enjoy the secret of life, and heart wins over the mere mind's ‘poor pretend’. The effect of ‘loves own secret’ is the subject of ‘if (touched by love's own secret) we, like homing’ (CP, 659). Mundane reality is negated by love and most people are ‘contented fools’ unable to ‘envision the mystery of freedom’. The ordinary time-bound world is dismissed as a mechanical hoax. ‘being as to timelessness as it's to time’ (CP, 768) is a sonnet of affirmation, of faith in a world where love is a real presence. cummings's cyclical view is again on offer, but the second stanza answers a question some readers may wish to put to the poet,

(do lovers suffer? all diversities
proudly descending put on death pull flesh:
are lovers glad? only their smallest joy's
a universe emerging from a wish)

(CP, 768)

The third stanza is a series of paradoxes designed to illustrate the all controlling, all conquering nature of love, and the poem ends with another swipe at intellectuals, whom cummings considers fools.

Many of the love poems are also a celebration of nature or the external world, and poems about nature make up some 20 per cent of his output. One of the best known, ‘in Just’ (CP, 27) celebrates the arrival of spring from a children's point of view and introduces the satyric lame balloonman, perhaps cummings's best-known creation. ‘Spring is like a perhaps hand’ (CP, 197) presents spring as the renewer of life made dull and familiar by winter, gently rearranging the world while people stare, as their faculties are awakened. ‘may my heart always be open to little’ (CP, 481) illustrates what cummings takes to be a proper attitude to nature, while ‘anyone lived in a pretty howtown’ (CP, 515) shows the townspeople living according to the natural procession of the seasons, with ‘anyone’ contracted to ‘noone’. ‘i thank You God for most this amazing’ (CP, 663) is a sonnet of praise, one of the very few cummings poems in which God is addressed directly. It expresses delight and wonder ‘for the leaping greenly spirits of trees’, and alludes to the death and rebirth myth of Osiris, of which the Christ story is a version in anthropological terms. Nature is taken as proof of the existence of God, and the poem represents a precious moment of transcendent awareness.

Many more examples could be given, as very few of cummings's poems are located indoors, although some are spoken by drunks or set in bars. The most striking absence from his output is poems about work and routine. In this respect, more than any other poet of his generation, more so than either Pound or Hart Crane, cummings is one of Trotsky's ‘bourgeois bohemians’. He probably regarded most work as useless toil, something which made individuals into most people or unpeople. For this reason cummings is not a social poet in the way Williams is. He is concerned to celebrate the lover and the individual, and attacks anyone or anything which threatens people's ability to achieve their full potential as individuals. The other striking absence is poems of meditation, since, apart from hate poems and love poems of various sorts, descriptive poems and poems of praise make up nearly half the total. Satire is also well represented, making up some 20 per cent of his output, with poems of reflection and persuasion representing smaller groupings. A typical cummings poem might well be a sonnet praising lovers and Spring.

cummings's language is probably the most varied of any modern American poet, yet he is often regarded as a comic or burlesque poet. He has, in fact, three main types of language, the mock or burlesque, a neutral register, and a formal or archaic tone. cummings is skilled at mixing linguistic registers within poems, and varying the effects within forms such as sonnets, and types such as satires. He is also famous for his use of typography, mixing capitals and lower case, and splitting phrases and words in unusual places. This is not an aberration, or an attempt to shock the reader. Although he has possibly the most highly developed visual sense of any modern poet, he breaks and remakes the visual mould of the poem for primarily auditory reasons. cummings has a scrupulous concern to aid the reader in realising the sound of the poem. A poem such as ‘she being Brand’, or ‘ygUDuh’ (CP, 547) is laid out for the purpose of giving the reader a precise guide to the sound of the text. ‘ygUDuh’ is spoken by an aggressive drunk, and is an exact portrait of the sort of bigot we all hope never to meet in a bar, and cummings presents this stream of bigotry without editorialising or comment. Poems like this show that cummings had a strong grasp of localism and objectivism, and could be as much the Modernist, in that sense, as the next poet when he chose.

cummings is also well known for the liberties he took with the English language, which fall into three main categories. The first is his characteristic variation of the normal subject—predicate—object word order in sentences. This is sometimes done for metrical reasons, although he very rarely resorted to old-fashioned poetic inversion: ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’, is a good example. If the second line ‘(with up so floating many bells down)’ (CP, 515) is reconstituted as ‘with so many bells floating up [and] down’, it not only destroys the rhythm but confuses the meaning. cummings's arrangement has rhythmic intensity, a visual image of the moving bells, and an idea of many different bells sounding simultaneously. We are also reminded that the normal linear word order in English locks our thinking about time and space into a mode which post-Einsteinian science has shown to be non-valid, however convenient for mundane use.

The second of cummings's characteristic strategies is his systematic conversion of verbs into nouns. These grammatical shifts convey both cummings's tone and his attitude to the world, as in ‘he sang his didn't he danced his did’ (CP, 515). In fact more parts of speech, such as adverbs, pronouns, adjectives and conjunctions, are converted into nouns. cummings also employs his conversion technique for rhythmical effects, and effects of rhetorical ambiguity, by inserting adverbs into subordinate adjectival clauses, so we get ‘the slowly town’ or ‘your suddenly body’.

cummings's third strategy is more idiosyncratic, and perhaps derives from his classical education. His English behaves like an inflected language such as Greek or Latin, with their case endings. In these languages the same phrase can be modified and even reversed by the suffixes on each word (hence the old ‘man bites dog’ joke). By using prefixes such as ‘un’, cummings created a distinctive conceptual vocabulary, such as ‘unmind’, ‘undeath’, ‘unpeople’, and ‘fools of unbeing’. The dislocations practised by cummings are carefully calculated and require a corresponding effort on the part of the reader, similar to the demands of Pound's ideogrammic method. Often, reading a cummings poem requires an analysis of the syntax and a synthesis of the poem into ‘normal’ word-order and arrangement. This more active reading process involves the reader in a creative partnership with the writer and was one of the prime aims of the Modernist project. In this sense, cummings's textual strategies are analogous to those of Bertolt Brecht's alienation effect, or the Russian Formalists whose notion of ‘ostranenie’ or making strange, a technique of defamiliarisation, was intended to renew both literature and the world for the reader. Like the French Surrealists, cummings was a profoundly serious artist, who employed wit and satire in his assault on the bourgeois value system most people were compromised into accepting. The view of cummings as the comic poet of Romantic humanism is finally a limiting one, although at times he appears to resemble W. C. Fields in his outrageous misanthropy.

cummings's love for the natural world and those free individuals who are able to love and be loved, makes him a true heir of Emerson, and he represents the end of the New England Transcendentalist tradition. cummings was a radical in his metaphysics and his attitudes to society, like Emerson, but he is also radical in his use of poetic language in ways not available to Emerson. Although an anti-intellectual, a good proportion of his satires are concerned with ideas or concepts, albeit expressed in a playful fashion. cummings revitalised the lyric as a poetic form, and invented both a language and a way of using language which constitute a fresh look at the world. It is an invitation to readers to examine their own lives and the role of the individual in Western civilisation. While making full use of the English lyric tradition, cummings remains in many ways ahead of his time; he is at once the most modern of traditionalists and the most traditional of Modernists.


  1. All quotations are taken from e. e. cummings, The Complete Poems, 1910-1962, ed. George James Firmage (London: Granada, 1981), page numbers are given after quotes, e.g. (CP, 515).

Michael Webster (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Webster, Michael. “E. E. Cummings: Romantic Ideology and Technique.” In Reading Visual Poetry after Futurism: Marinetti, Apollinaire, Schwitters, Cummings, pp. 111-40. New York: Peter Lang, 1995.

[In the following essay, Webster examines the effect of Cummings's typographical experimentation on his Romantic themes.]

Like the burlesk comedian, I am abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement.

—E. E. C. (CP [The Complete Poems] 223)

A “simultaneity of the radically disparate” describes the poetry of E. E. Cummings (1894-1962) rather well. Critics have long been puzzled by the simultaneous presence in his poetry of romantic sentiments and experimental typography. Early critics like R. P. Blackmur often deplored the romanticism (calling it “incorrigibly sentimental”) while they ignored or suppressed the typographical “peculiarities.” The following is from Blackmur's 1930 essay, “Notes on E. E. Cummings' Language:”

… extensive consideration of these peculiarities today has very little importance, carries almost no reference to the meaning of the poems. … At present the practice can only be “allowed for,” recognized in the particular instance, felt, and forgotten: as the diacritical marks in the dictionary are forgotten once the sound of the word has been learned. The poem, after all, only takes wing on the page, it persists in the ear.

(“Notes” 291)

Blackmur's conception of lyric poetry as overheard discourse (an idea that goes back at least as far as John Stuart Mill) forces him to see Cummings' visual devices as something peripheral to the essence of the poem, as “notation,” and not as a different kind of sign-making. Jonathan Culler notes that concentration on the voice of the speaker may lead to a neglect of the sheer play of sound associations or of intricately patterned verbal and visual design structures often found in poetry (“Changes” 40-41).

Northrop Frye called these two aspects of the lyric melos and opsis, or “babble” and “doodle” (275). For Frye, the “radical” or root of babble is charm: “the hypnotic incantation that, through its pulsing dance rhythm, appeals to involuntary physical response, and hence is not far from the sense of magic, or physically compelling power” (278). The root of “doodle” is riddle:

a fusion of sensation and reflection, the use of an object of sense experience to stimulate a mental activity in connection with it. Riddle was originally the cognate object of read, and the riddle seems intimately involved with the whole process of reducing language to visible form, a process that runs through such by-forms of riddle as hieroglyphic and ideogram. The actual riddle-poems of Old English … belong to a culture in which such a phrase as “curiously inwrought” is a favorite aesthetic judgement.


We saw how Apollinaire combined incantation (Frye notes the “etymological descent of charm from carmen, song”) with “curiously inwrought” visual riddle-charms in some of his calligrams. Cummings constructs intricate visual patterns that “address the ear through the eye” (Frye 278). His visual effects do not function solely as notations for the speaking voice, however; they interact with the syntax, spelling, and punctuation of the verbal material to produce the whole meaning of the poem. Blackmur demotes these riddling, visual aspects of Cummings' poetry precisely because he cannot see (hear?) poetry as anything other than overheard discourse.

Some critics of the generation after Blackmur tried to rehabilitate Cummings' puzzling orthographic, syntactic, and visual devices by noting their quirky effectiveness in capturing movement. At the same time, however, many of these critics preferred to emphasize the lyrical, meditative Cummings over the satirical, playful enfant terrible. Chief among these is Norman Friedman, who tried to counter charges against the frivolous nature of verbal and visual play in Cummings by showing that the poet had a serious, transcendental message to impart, a message that matured and deepened as he grew older. In his book, E. E. Cummings: The Growth of a Writer (1962), Friedman sought to tame the wild irruption of typographical and visual devices in Cummings' poetry by shunting them into generic categories:

… in general Cummings uses metrical stanzas for his more “serious” poems, and reserves his experiments by and large for his free verse embodiments of satire, comedy, and description. Parody, pun, slang, and typographical distortion are called into being by the urgencies of the satirical mode, which requires the dramatic rendition of scorn, wit, and ridicule. Violence in the meaning: violence in the style. Similarly, as we shall see, the movement required of a descriptive poem calls in turn for somewhat similar distortions. Motion in the mind: motion in the eye.


Despite the unease betrayed by the quotation marks around “serious,” Friedman clearly distinguishes among greater and lesser generic categories, putting the typographical into the lesser. Of course, one could find exceptions to Friedman's “general” strictures dividing the “serious” from the satirical and descriptive (“brIght” [CP 455] and “o / the round” [CP 606] come immediately to the mind), but that would be to conduct the argument in the same terms of “serious” vs. less serious. I would rather have the satiric and descriptive poems seen as different, but not one whit less “serious” than the more transcendental poems. Equally misguided appear more recent attempts to divide Cummings into two poets: the writer of “minor” lyrics and the major visual “innovator,” “the most inventive American poet of his time” (Kostelanetz, “E. E. Cummings” 230). While it is true that Cummings himself realized certain differences between his “lyrical” poems and some of his more emphatically “visual” ones (“not all of my poems are to be read aloud—some … are to be seen & not heard” [Letters (Selected Letters of E. E. Cummings) 267]), all his poems in whatever style or “genre” use similar, basic syntactical, morphological, typographical, and visual devices. The romantic sentiments, fractured words, dislocated syntax and morphological displacements (“he sharpens is to am / he sharpens say to sing” [CP 624]) occur in “lyric” as well as “visual” poems. The techniques he uses accept no division into lyric and visual, serious and satiric, romantic and experimental. On this technical level at least, we must take our Cummings whole—or not at all.

The reader may have noticed that I have already used the word “whole” twice in this chapter, once to refer to the complete meaning of a single poem and once to refer to the consistent use of technical devices. We will find that after we have passed through the pinhole of the avant-garde, styles usually considered “advanced” or disruptive can coexist quite nicely with a “backward” aesthetic that still sees the work of art as an autonomous, complete, organic whole, as is the case with Cummings. And even his startling technique combines elements of an ideology of Romantic individualism with avant-garde ideals of direct, living creation.

In an early (1920) review of T. S. Eliot, Cummings praises Eliot's “technique” and then proceeds to define technique in a thoroughly un-Eliotish way:

By technique we do mean one thing: the alert hatred of normality which, through the lips of a tactile and cohesive adventure, asserts that nobody in general and someone in particular is incorrigibly and actually alive. This someone is, it would seem, the extremely great artist: or, he who prefers above everything and within everything the unique dimension of intensity, which it amuses him to substitute in us for the comforting and comfortable furniture of reality.

(Miscellany 27)

Here we can see how romantic individualism and extreme experimentalism can be made to co-exist: Cummings' artist alertly hates normality, and his poems (“the lips of a tactile and cohesive adventure”) assert that he is alive. This aliveness, or “unique dimension of intensity” qualitatively differs from “comfortable” everyday reality. For poetry to be alive, individual, and intense, it must alertly and cleverly use new techniques. Norman Friedman has written well on Cummings' philosophy, so we'll let him summarize:

Cummings belongs with Coleridge and the Romantic tradition in seeing the natural order as superior to manmade orders. He, like Coleridge, views nature as process rather than product, as dynamic rather than static, as organic rather than artificial, and as becoming rather than being. And he, like Coleridge, believes that the intuitive or imaginative faculty in man can perceive this natura naturans directly, and so he is a transcendentalist. Specifically, he believes there is a world of awareness—the true world—which is outside of, above, and beyond the ordinary world of everyday perception. The ordinary world is a world of habit, routine, and abstract categories, and hence lies like a distorting film over the true world of spontaneity, suprise, and concrete life. The ordinary world is a world of two-dimensional surfaces, facts, and nouns—it is a second-hand world. The true world is a world of three-dimensional depths, truths, and verbs—it is the first-hand world. For Cummings, it is the poet's function to decry the ordinary world and exalt the true, to represent not what any camera can see, but to imitate the “actual crisp organic squirm” itself.

(Growth 5-6, Cummings quoted from Miscellany 19)

It should be noted that Cummings' transcendentalism is not a Platonic one of abstract essences, but one that recognizes the immanent in the first-hand, actual world of nature. Lloyd Frankenberg noted long ago (1949) that Cummings' separation of the world into “ordinary” and “true” stems from his celebration of the individual (144-45). Hence his satires of science, abstractions, “furnished souls,” and any “collective pseudobeast.” Hence also, “his reanimation of the cliché and the colloquial; his concern with the look of a poem, how it lies on the page, as well as the shape it makes in the ear” (Frankenberg 144). Cummings' techniques strive to enact aliveness, movement, individuality and to deride collective homogeneity.

Cummings' characteristic devices have often been described (see especially Friedman, Art 86-117, and Cureton, “Visual Form” and “A Case Study”) but seldom or only glancingly related to the practices of the futurists, Apollinaire or dadaist poets like Schwitters and Hausmann. Dickran Tashjian included a chapter on Cummings in Skyscraper Primitives, his study of the influence of dada on the American avant-garde. From Tashjian we learn why Cummings is not often treated in this context: there is little or no evidence of positive influence. Tashjian comments mainly on the similarities in attitude between the two, noting similar anti-art stances and insistences that the work of art be coterminous with life (182-87). Tashjian notes that in “i will be” Cummings imitates a flight of birds with capital letters and “creates a sense of simultaneity” by “a judicious use of parentheses” (170-71):

                                                            l oo k-
          pigeons fly ingand
whee(:are,SpRiN,k,LiNg an in-stant with sunLight
ing all go BlacK wh-eel-ing

(CP 122)

Technically speaking, however, this passage reminds me more of futurist devices (capitalization, spacing) designed to iconically render an impression. We may note that Cummings uses more small-scale techniques (breaking individual words, capitalizing individual letters, the “sprinkled” punctuation) than the futurists.

At least two early critics of Cummings saw him in the context of the European avant-garde. R. P. Blackmur says that “Mr. Cummings belongs to the anti-culture group; what has been called at various times vorticism, futurism, dadaism, surrealism, and so on,” and whose “general dogma” he avers, consists of “a sentimental denial of the intelligence and the deliberate assertion that the unintelligible is the only object of significant experience” (“Notes” 287-88). According to Blackmur, the “relentless pursuit of the actual in terms of the immediate” causes Cummings to disregard the historical meanings of words and lose himself in private sensations:

Poetry, if we understand it, is not in immediacy at all. It is not given to the senses or free intuition. Thus, when poetry is written as if its substance were immediate and given, we have as a result a distorted sensibility and a violent inner confusion. We have, if the poet follows his principles, something abstract, vague, impermanent, and essentially private.

(“Notes” 311)

Blackmur criticizes Cummings as if he were Marinetti; my second chapter sees a similar gap between Marinetti's intuition and a language used as if it were material. For Blackmur, Cummings' language is naive or obscure because it is not reflective; it disregards “the only method of making the unique experience into a poem—the conventions of the intelligence” (“Notes” 289).

We shall see that Cummings plays off conventions quite intelligently, but let us first look at our other early critic, John Peale Bishop, who sees Cummings in almost exactly the same terms as Blackmur, but this time more positively:

The mind in Cummings has become its own material. The center no longer holds and he ends by becoming fascinated by the speed of its fragments. By sticking strictly as may be to what he knows, by staying within a record of sensations, Cummings has been able to do what a generation of poets in Europe, with considerably less success, attempted to do. Whether they were called Futurists in Italy, or Dadaists in France, or by other names in other countries, their aims have been more completely accomplished by Cummings than by any poet on the continent.


Both critics emphasize the immediacy, the lack of distance between sensation and the written poem, with Bishop giving Cummings more credit for “sticking strictly” to his sensations. Neither give the poet credit for conscious craft, for making a complete artifact.

No doubt the reader has noticed the echo of Yeats in Bishop's remarks and the strong influence of Eliot on Blackmur's. A theory of poetry that values the impersonal, dramatic, and symbolic might naturally misapprehend the individual, lyric, and metonymic poetry of Cummings. Bishop values Cummings' “lyrical and satirical” gifts, but notes somewhat ruefully that “nothing has made him a dramatic poet” (130). Of course he is right. The drama in Cummings comes from the way words are handled on the page and not from any symbolic maskmaking. Blackmur's “futurist” account of Cummings' style may be harder for the contemporary critic to comprehend. Can Cummings be profitably viewed as a poet writing down his impressions and sensations using futurist techniques, or must we make further distinctions?

Cummings early on expressed his admiration for various forms of the “New Art” as he called it in his Harvard commencement address (see Miscellany 5-11). Richard S. Kennedy notes in his biography of the poet how he admired Cézanne, the cubists, and the futurists, quoting from some notes Cummings made around 1918:

… he was especially taken by Futurism because of his appreciation of movement in art. Balla and Duchamp “paint the fact of motion.” He is ready to declare that “the highest form of composition is the Squirm, it is made of Creeping, Stretching, Gliding, Shrinking, Gripping. As emphasis tends towards angularities, the composition Wags, Hops, Bounds, Fiddles, Sprints, Fumbles, Trembles and Struts.”

(Dreams 180)

Cummings speaks of painting here, and his own early non-representational paintings betray a futurist influence (mainly in their radiating composition), filtered through Joseph Stella and Delaunay disciples (the so-called “Synchromists”) like the Americans Stanton MacDonald-Wright and Morgan Russell. Around 1927, Cummings switched to a more figurative style reminiscent in some respects of Cézanne. (For a reproduction in color of a “futuristic” non-representational painting, Noise Number 13, see Cohen, Poet and Painter 27, Plate 5. For information on Cummings the painter, see the above title and Cohen, E. E. Cummings' Paintings, and Kidder, “Twin Obsessions.”) Cummings soon developed techniques in poetry to write “the fact of motion.” He believed these techniques to be new. Writing in 1920 to his father on the following passage

(Do you think?)the
i do,world
is probably made
of roses & hello:
(of solongs and,ashes)

(CP 66)

he commented, “‘roses & hello’ also the comma after ‘and’ (‘and,ashes’) are Firsts” (Letters 71). The first First, the nominalization of a part of speech other than a verb, was a device that would make Cummings infamous, especially among those who do not like their grammar rules toyed with. Later, he became fond of turning abstract relational words like relative pronouns into nouns, as in “lenses extend / unwish through curving wherewhen till unwish / returns on unself” (CP 554). It's possible that Cummings picked up the use of the ampersand from the futurists, but he could have seen it used by Blake or other 18th century authors as well. Cummings probably had seen very few examples of futurist words-in-freedom. He did, however, have some acquaintance with Marinetti's theoretical writings, taking notes of them as reported in A. J. Eddy's Cubists and Post-Impressionism (Cohen, Poet and Painter 159-160). The second First, the intimate use of punctuation (here the comma softly indicates a fall, a pause, an ashflake) owes nothing to Marinetti or Apollinaire since, as we have seen, neither used traditional punctuation marks as a major iconic device.

It is worthwhile to note that in his first experiments in visual arrangements of words on the page (1916), Cummings did away with most punctuation in order to concentrate on overall visual effect:

                                                  picker of buttercups
And the big bullying daisies
                                                                                          through the field wonderful
with eyes a little sorry
Another comes
                                                  also picking flowers.

(CP 26)

This poem imitates Pound's “The Return” in the use of modern diction to treat obliquely a classical subject, narrating the abduction of Persephone (“Tumbling-hair”) by Hades (“Another”). Cummings was impressed by Pound's modern treatment of the classical subject, but he noted, “the inaudible poem—the visual poem, the poem for not ears but eye—moved me more” (quoted in Dreams 106). In “Tumbling-hair,” Cummings suggests motion not by using a telling verb or by manipulating punctuation, but by spatial syntax: “the visual rhythm of the phrasing suggests the wanderings of the picker to the different locations of the wildflowers; the list of flowers is scattered as in a field” (Fairley 26).

Soon, he was combining such spatial effects with various punctuation marks to suggest movement and to reinforce and render iconically the meanings of words (as we saw with the ash-flake). He wrote a friend in 1918, “Note punctuation exemplifying a theory of my soul that every ‘word’ purely considered implies its own punctuation” (quoted in Kennedy, Dreams 183). Cummings refers in this letter to the poem “SNO,” which is a lesson in how to look and listen to a snowfall:

          a white idea(Listen
drenches:earth's ugly)mind.,Rinsing with exact death
the annual brain
                                                            clotted with loosely voices
look. Skilfully
.fingered by(a parenthesis
the)pond on whoseswooning edge
(hear little knives of flower
stropping sof a. Thick silence)
tiny,angels sharpen:themselves
don't speak
                                        A white idea,
drenching. earth's brain detaches
clottingsand from a a nnual(ugliness
of)rinsed mind slowly:
from!the:A wending putrescence. a.of,loosely

(CP 99)

Certainly the scattered commas, periods, and semicolons imitate the visual effect of snowfall, while a middle pair of parentheses visually reinforces two verbal meanings: the rhetorically and visually parenthetical pond and the edges of that pond. Note how the thinking trees “surround” the parenthetical edges around “hear … silence.” The snowflakes (“little knives of flower”) are so soft, they strop not “a sofa” but “sof a,” which conflates the indefinite article with the final “a” of “sofa,” creating a softer “soft” that lacks the final alveolar stop “t.”

This curious “sof a” encapsulates two more of Cummings' favorite techniques: syntactical transposition and splitting letters from words to form puns. Indeed, Cummings' visual effects nearly always occur within a linear syntactical context. Very often this syntax is disrupted, either by deleting or transposing words, by visually separating words from one another, or by making one part of speech take the place of another, as in “he danced his did” (CP 515). Cummings thus plays with an astounding number of expectations or assumptions we have when we read poetry: lineation, punctuation, syntax, spelling, word order, word integrity and capitalization. He manipulates spatial, visual and syntactical elements of language as material, creating physical effects on the page. These effects iconically reinforce meaning and emotion. Thus the relatively straightforward (only one transposition) rinsing of “the annual brain clotted with loosely voices” becomes at the end of the poem:

don't speak
                                        A white idea,
drenching. earth's brain detaches
clottingsand from a a nnual(ugliness
of)rinsed mind slowly:
from!the:A wending putrescence. a.of,loosely

(CP 99)

We see earth's mind being cleansed by this white idea (white implies blankness, a clean slate) as the punctuation marks-snowflakes dance (and descend: “!:..,;”) between the now unclotted, “detached” syntax. The last line “;voices” neatly pairs the nearly silent snow with the now rinsed voices in the brain. Note how Cummings combines purely physical effects with ones that present only an analogy of movement: the parentheses imitate an edge; the scattered punctuation marks imitate the random downward movement of the flakes but not their shape; and the scrambled syntax is only analogous to “unclotting,” itself a metaphor for mental cleaning.

Critics trained in linguistics and semiotics rather loosely term these analogies and resemblances “iconic,” following C. S. Peirce's definition of an icon as something that represents its “object mainly by its similarity” (2.276). I say “loosely” because as Umberto Eco has rather painstakingly shown, “iconism is not a single phenomenon, nor indeed a uniquely semiotic one” (Theory 216). However, these theoretical difficulties should not deter us from what Richard D. Cureton calls “the construction of a practical, critical tool” (“Poetic Syntax” 338). Cureton has worked extensively and well examining the various aesthetic uses of Cummings' iconic syntax, which he defines as the use of “some aspect of the physical form of the syntax, the spatiotemporal ordering of the words … to support the conceptual content of the poem” (“Case Study” 211). We have seen how the scrambled syntax in “SNO” supports the conceit of “unclotting” the mind. (For a more general discussion of iconism in poetry, see Max Nänny, “Iconic Dimensions.” For other linguistic criticism of Cummings see Fairley, Freeman, and Cureton, “‘he danced his did’: an analysis.”) Now our task is to see how Cummings' iconism differs from that of Marinetti, Apollinaire, and Schwitters.

Although it is difficult to pinpoint exact correspondences between ideology and style, one might expect some differences in style between Cummings and Marinetti, considering their differences in ideology. Cummings' experimental styles spring from his consistent individualism, and from his concern that the work of art express the “alive” individual. In 1926 he wrote that the poet cares little about something made, but “is obsessed by Making” (CP 225). And in 1944 he stressed that “nothing which is not alive can be art” (six 68). To be “alive” the poet must write like himself, which is difficult because “nothing is quite as easy as using words like somebody else. We all of us do exactly this nearly all the time—and whenever we do it, we're not poets” (quoted in Norman 353-54). Such a philosophy is a far cry from Marinetti's dreamt-of unification with material, and his call for the annihilation of psychology in poetry. Marinetti's style seeks to imitate the chaotic flux of mass movements like war, while Cummings seeks to register an individual, living response to existence. While Cummings the painter was early influenced by Duchamp and Balla and the “Synchromists,” the poet worked out his own methods for liberating “the actual crisp organic squirm—the IS” (Miscellany 19). While Marinetti strings nouns and unconjugated verbs together as if they had the force of chaotic reality, Cummings manipulates spelling, syntax, word order, and punctuation in physical ways which interact with the meanings of the words. Marinetti disparages syntax and punctuation as relics of a too-literary past; Cummings manipulates them to iconic advantage.

There are some similarities, however. Both poets tried to inject life and presence into literature by various typographical manipulations. But whereas Marinetti's life consisted almost wholly of bombastic explosions and futurist propaganda, Cummings sought to render quieter moods:

ting air

(CP 448)

Here, the parentheses imitate not a pond's edge, but the swooping shapes of birds (they seem to be swallows) at twilight. Cummings composes solely for the eye here, rendering the hesitations of the mind (“come / soul; / &:and”) and the fugitive nature of birdsong in air (“are / ar / a”) by marks that cannot be entirely pronounced. Marinetti uses letters as non-pronounceable design elements in “Après la Marne,” but not in ways that so clearly suggest analogies to movement or sound. These visual “voices” of the birds are scattered in the vastness of the sky, whose shape they mirror. This kind of symmetry, typical even in a poem like this about random voices, shows us another difference between the two poets' concepts of “life.” Like most Romantics, Cummings thought of the poem as a living organic whole, displaying symmetries and warts similar to Nature's. Marinetti takes a more avant-garde position: art must be coterminous with life, so it must be material, not aesthetic. Cummings' aesthetic is closer to Apollinaire's combination of avant-garde and traditional stances.

But of course, again we must qualify our statements. Like Cummings, Apollinaire's visual effects usually occur within the context of a linear syntax (and as we have seen, sometimes the context of stanza and rhyme also). Cummings will often use iconic devices within the context of larger stanzaic structures (most noticeably the sonnet) and very occasionally will hide an insistent beat beneath a confusing facade of misspaced letters. The following description of a striptease,

sh estiffl
ystrut sal
lif san
dbut sth
s li psh ergo
wnd ow n,

(CP 445)

relineates to a roughly iambic

she st í ffly strúts all í fs and búts
the póuting whó now sl í ps her gówn dówn

(I am grateful to Cureton, “Visual Form” 253 for this observation.) Notice the interpolated “ono” and the slow, almost drunken diction (“s li psh ergo”) created by the spacings in the last two lines. I have not found a shaped poem by Cummings (he wrote very few of them) that conceals a linear stanza structure as in Apollinaire. We saw with the pond's edge in “SNO” and the swallows in “birds(” that Cummings, like Apollinaire, can use shapes to indicate objects, but he usually incorporates these shapes within a more linear context:

float on some
i call twilight you
'll see
an in
of an if
dream than become
am than imagine

(CP 571)

Here Cummings uses a typographical symbol (a parenthesis) instead of a word to represent an object—in this case the crescent moon. He also places a question mark in lieu of the expected “thing” after “some” in order to show “the proper degree of hesitancy” (Friedman, Art 105). Apollinaire represents the moon in similar fashion in his “Voyage” (fig. 32). In this calligram we see four (five if you count the telegraph wires) pictographs: a cloud, a bird, a train and stars in the sky. The moon (a much fuller crescent than Cummings') is isolated in the “c” of “c'est” in the sentence “la douce nuit lunaire et pleine d'étoiles c'est ton visage que je ne vois plus” (“The sweet moonlit and full of stars night it's your face that I will never see again”). The reader should note that the beloved's face is made not only of the night and stars, but also appears iconically stamped in the moon itself (“it is your face”), traditional symbol of faraway, changeable womanhood. Instead of his usual practice of building or tracing an icon or emblem with many words, Apollinaire integrates a pictorial icon at the letter-level, something that Cummings does much more often.

For example, we see the full moon in “mOOn Over tOwns mOOn” (CP 383) and (perhaps more subtly) we see it rise in the sky if we look at the following in reverse of reading order:

          (ver no(w ove(r all;

(CP 385)

By placing his icons at the letter level, Cummings more firmly integrates picture and syntax, visual and literary. This integration of visual and literary codes into one form will later become a cardinal principle of the Concrete poets: isomorphism.

However, Cummings often embeds his visual syntax in larger, more arbitrary “stanzaic” forms. In “a- / float on some” the lines follow an arbitrary pattern of 1-3-1-3-1-3-1-3-1 (Friedman, Art 105). These stanza-like forms provide an outer shell through which the syntax and visual effects must run, somewhat like the pictograms of Apollinaire. In more traditional poems, they tend to become inventive song-like stanza structures (precision creating movement):

buy me an ounce and i'll sell you a pound.
slimmer the finger the thicker the thumb(it's
round and round
early to better is wiser for worse.
order a steak and they send us a pie(it's
mine is yours

(CP 513)

Here, Cummings invents a stanzaic pattern that reinforces and highlights the unusual meter of the song (dactylic trimeter, followed by three strong stresses, followed by an amphimacer). The poems cast in these lyrical visual structures (and the ones in more conventional stanzaic forms) tend to rely more on linguistic manipulation than on iconic presentation to achieve their effects. For example, the intriguing line “early to better is wiser for worse” forms a kind of anti-proverb out of three comparative terms (“better,” “wiser,” “worse”) and the Poor Richard saying, “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” Combine these with the marriage ceremony's “for better or for worse” and we have a complex intertextual statement that parodies thrifty bourgeois wisdom and instead urges a less prudent approach to both sexual and monetary giving and taking.

The strict patterning of lines in “a- / float” and “buy me an ounce” might seem to offer a possible analogue to some of the more formally composed visual poetry of Kurt Schwitters. However, Cummings never wrote visual or verbal non-representational poetry like Schwitters. Cummings' sound poems (if they can be called that) are representational: they render dialect or onomatopoeia. Often the dialect is a stylized and opaque New Yorkese, as in this anti-war poem:

                              ydoan o
                              yunnuhstan dem
                              yguduh ged
                              yunnuhstan dem doidee
                              yguduh ged riduh
                              ydoan o nudn
                              lidl yelluh bas
                              tuds weer goin

(CP 547)

Here, spelling and spatial layout do function as notations for reading. For example, we can hear the speaker's nasal intonation in “ydoan o nudn” (“you don't know nothing”) and we can see the common American spondaic stress when swearing in the line breaks of “gud / am” and “bas / tuds.” The wildly distorted spelling and the visual structure of the lines force the reader to work hard to produce the proper sound and meaning. These visual distortions involve the reader more effectively in the production of the dialect (and point of view) of the speaker than merely listening to a recitation would. The poem engages the eye at least as much as it does the ear. In the following excerpt, Cummings renders onomatopoetically a popular art not often discussed in high-brow criticisms of sound poetry, that of black scat-singing:


(CP 426)

The visual arrangement also suggests a soft-shoe tap dance to me, but the intent to represent a certain form of rhythmical nonsense-speech should be clear.

Similarly, when Cummings isolates individual letters, it is not in order to make a non-representational visual structure, as in the “i-Gedicht” or the “Gesetztes Bildgedicht,” but to reinforce and amplify the meaning or iconically represent that meaning, as in this elegy for the music critic Paul Rosenfeld:

the round
little man we
loved so isn't
a gay of a
brave and
a true of a
who have
d i

(CP 606)

The isolated o's render Rosenfeld's rotundity, while various word-splittings give us two “o no's” not audibly present in the linear text. The final line isolates the “he” in “nowhere,” showing the reader that Rosenfeld is still “(he)re” in the living poem. Claus Clüver has pointed out to me that Rosenfeld may also be outlined in profile by the shape of the poem, with the “o” at the top becoming a smallish head, and the next eight lines forming a rather full chest and belly, which then taper down to the legs and feet. The reader may also have noted the 1-3-1 line pattern, with some “lines” being made up of single letters only. Although there is no reason to believe that he could have known of it, Cummings seems to be expanding on Schwitters' dictum that “the basic material of poetry is not the word but the letter” (LW5: 190). However, Cummings certainly would not countenance a reduction of poetry to groups of letters alone.

Breaking words into components to form puns constitutes a playing with the linguistic code, but not a displacement of that code into another sign system. Nor does it constitute what I have called a mixing of codes as in Schwitters' “An Anna Blume.” Cummings' semantic, syntactic, and spatial transformations break rules in a consistent manner (usually as a way of overcoding the meaning) and consistently leave other rules unbroken. Richard Cureton has shown how the reader constructs a set of rules for making sense of syntactical transformation (“‘he danced’” 245-53). For example, the reader must assume that grammatical and case markers remain valid: for if Cummings wants to abandon word-order restrictions, he must leave the grammatical markers intact as a guide to the reader. In the following stanza

me under a opens
(of petals of silence)
hole bigger than
never to have been

(CP 634)

we know that the subject of “opens” is “hole” and not “petals” or “me” because, in spite of the syntactic dislocations, the grammatical markers remain in force. As far as I know, this rule remains constant throughout Cummings' work, but when it comes to visual devices, often the rules change to suit the needs of individual poems.

Often, words are split in order to create visual puns (as in the “o / n / o” of the tribute to Paul Rosenfeld), but this same device can also be used for other purposes, as we saw with the “are / ar / a” ending of “birds(” (CP 448). He finds a variety of uses for visual non-grammatical devices like punctuation marks and capital letters. The exclamation point in the following poem differs in semantic function from those we saw in the poem in Rosenfeld (“no!w”) and the one in the scat-singing imitation:

te sky
?t rees whic
h fr
om droppe
s wh

(CP 487)

Cummings splits words in this poem not primarily to form puns but to indicate the fragmentary nature of the perception and to mime the leaf's detaching and its subsequent descent. This time a syntactic dislocation and not a word-splitting forms a pun. The change of “a dropped leaf goes” to “droppe / d /, / le / af / a:;go / e / s,” serves to isolate “a:;go,” which tells us that most of the leaves dropped awhile ago. S. V. Baum asserts that the exclamation point at the beginning of the poem stands for a flash of lightning (“Technique” 119). One can find support for such an interpretation by referring to another poem where the context makes the meaning more obvious:

          dis(appeared cleverly)world
iS Slapped:with;liGhtninG

(CP 347)

Here too, the sudden appearance of the world is “cleverly” emphasized, this time by parentheses. Often, the context will provide readers with clues as to how punctuation marks should be read within an individual poem. Various parentheses, commas, exclamation points, and spacings always work in a consistent manner within individual poems. But a semantics or grammar of visual marks cannot be carried over from poem to poem. Cummings usually provides enough visual, thematic, and grammatical clues to enable the reader to parse the meaning of items, like punctuation marks, that he has endowed with new semantic content. His practice thus contrasts sharply with Marinetti and Schwitters, who reach the limits of semiotic intelligibility. Occasionally, as in “! blac,” the marks may be open to various interpretations: I would not want to rule out the lightning idea, but I find it a trifle improbable. Here, (as is not often the case with Cummings) we need intentional evidence to make a sure judgement.

Cummings uses individual letters and marks as a logical part of an explicit meaning-structure, the poem. Schwitters uses these individual elements non-representationally, either as visual elements or as vocables in a sound-poem. When Schwitters writes a poem with recognizable words and sentences, he emphasizes juxtaposition of discourses (often found ones) and codes, which contributes not towards a unified meaning-structure but to a mixing of codes, an undecidable “abstract” structure. Even Cummings' asyntactic visual structures function within syntactic linear statements and also within larger literary codes and genres such as description, elegy, satire, and so on. Cummings often carries syntactic and visual play much further than other writers, but can often be depended upon to encode clues to decipherment within the poem.

The experienced reader soon learns the rules of this “ungrammar” of syntactical and visual devices (see Cureton, “Visual Form,” Fairley, and Freeman), some few of which we have illustrated here. His attitude towards syntax and form distinguishes Cummings from his predecessors. Marinetti wanted to do away with both syntax and form and thus impoverished his literary means of expression. Apollinaire wavered between asyntactic juxtaposition and a more formal, ordered art. The calligrams represent something of a hybrid compromise between the two. Schwitters theoretically recognized only non-representational form, allowing the literary content of his works to stand in enigmatic juxtaposition. The visual and sonic poetry of the early three seems to come upon them almost as an accident or by-product of their avant-garde activity; Cummings by contrast explores the use of visual, sonic, and syntactic devices for specifically artistic uses. These devices are not used as part of propaganda for a new art or a new way of living; they are simply ways of enlivening poems. Whatever progaganda they proclaim is implicit in the poetry. The incorporation of avant-garde techniques into a concept of organic form only became possible after the avant-garde had failed to integrate autonomous art with life, failed to “put an end to the production of works of art” (Bürger 57).

These devices were harnessed, invented and elaborated by Cummings in order to render his art more direct, more alive. We have seen how such devices can fail to impress even highly sophisticated readers like R. P. Blackmur, who see them as falling outside of their conception of poetry. In order for Blackmur to read Cummings at all, he had to minimize and even suppress these typographical devices, saying they carry “almost no reference to the meaning of the poems” (“Notes” 291). Blackmur was so convinced that poetry existed for the ear alone that he included this comment in a later (1941) review of Cummings: “if he is trying to write a poetry in symbols—a mere eye poetry—then he is committing the sin against the Holy Ghost” (“Review” 76). Of course, Blackmur is right: historically, poetry was a matter of rhythmically sung, chanted, or spoken sounds. Blackmur feels the avant-garde challenge to tradition, and responds with particular vehemence. We have seen that although Cummings does not belong to the avant-garde as we define it, Blackmur insists on leaguing him with “the anti-culture group; what has been called at various times vorticism, futurism, dadaism, surrealism, and so on” (“Notes” 287). Perhaps Cummings is more worthy of attack than the rest of the “group” precisely because he acts as if it were a perfectly natural and acceptable thing for a poet to split words up over the page, to punctuate iconically and to write a poetry (such as “are / ar/ a”) for the eye alone. Cummings is more dangerous than Marinetti because he claims to be producing an autonomous work within that institution we call “art.” Criticism of Cummings divides between those, like Blackmur, who would exclude him from that institution and those, like Friedman, who search for ways to include him.

I would think that few scholars would take Blackmur's side now, but the struggle illustrates the changed status of art after the avant-garde. (In a review of the posthumously published Collected Poems, Helen Vendler finds Cummings' “unreadable-aloud poems [his] most original and charming contribution to English verse” [324]. While she praises the visual poems as “exquisite and fragile triumphs,” she finds the poet himself to be “abysmally short on ideas.” Moreover, his undiminished “optimism excludes too much,” inevitably sounding like sentimentality [325]. That these strictures contain a measure of truth should not blind us to Cummings' very real merits, both lyrical and visual.) In a “simultaneity of the radically disparate,” how are we to know what is legitimate art and who is to legitimize it? Cummings' life overlaps at each end the old avant-garde and the new. Though he was really very little influenced by the old avant-garde, his use of similar devices for wholly artistic purposes was made possible by the avant-garde's attack on art as an institution. It remains to clarify his relationship with the new avant-garde, represented here by concrete poetry.

In his survey of visual devices in Cummings' poetry, Richard Cureton includes a section on concrete poetry, which he defines as “texts that free the perceiver from the enforced linearity of the spoken word” (“Visual Form” 272). While I have no quarrel with this particular stylistic definition, I should like to add that early concrete texts seek to give the word a spatial, not language-bound syntax and that they present themselves in some sense as “authorless” artifacts, as signs that refer back not to a subject who “tells” us something but to themselves and their own process of signification. We have seen an example of spatial syntax already, the “o no!” in

the round
little man we
loved so isn't

(CP 606)

The reader must jump across intervening linear syntax to form the phrase. As Cureton notes, with Cummings such spatial syntaxes are almost always embedded in syntactically coherent (if not always normally ordered) statements (“Visual Form” 272).

o pr
gress verily thou art m
mentous superc
lossal hyperpr
digious etc i kn
w & if you d
n't why g
to yonder s
called newsreel s
called theatre & with your
wn eyes beh
ld The
                    (The president The
                    president of The president
                    of the The)president of
                    the(united The president of the
                    united states The president of the united
                    states of The President Of The)United States
                    Of America unde negant redire quemquam supp
sedly thr

(CP 392)

The initial “o” stands in for all “disappeared” o's on the left margin. Other o's remain unaffected. The reader soon realizes that this present/absent “o” represents iconically the “supposedly thrown” baseball. This iconic device graphically shows the reader what Cummings objects to in the “progress” of the “socalled newsreel”: the film presents a mediated, unreal event as if it were present, actual, and alive. The newsreel lacks aliveness and spontaneity, as does the empty pomp of the ceremony of throwing out the first ball of the season. Such an event is staged and ultimately extraneous to the “win” and “gab” that constitute “baseball.” Cureton sees an arm in “wingab” that throws the “ball-like o up the left margin, sweeping up the o's in the various words split across the line boundaries” (“Visual Form” 250). Such a visual reversal of normal reading order constitutes spatial syntax. Cureton further notes that the “fanfare” (“The president,” etc.) in the poem can be read downwards and diagonally. Reading outside the parentheses produces another reading of the phrase. He comments: “the strobing audiovisual linguistic forms enact the auditory echoing the passage describes” (“Visual Form” 272).

The repetition we see in the “fanfare” about the President that makes possible multi-directional readings is not common in Cummings' poetry. We see it in what is perhaps his most “concrete” poem, “brIght”:

bRight s??? big
soft near calm
calm st?? holy
(soft briGht deep)
yeS near sta? calm star big yEs
near deep whO big alone soft near
deep calm deep
Who(holy alone)holy(alone holy)alone

(CP 455)

Here Cummings abandons syntax for a numerical (and partially spatial) pattern. As the star emerges from the question marks, the concept “bright” becomes more questionable, transformed into a metaphysical principle. The poem uses 11 words 44 times: each word appears as many times as it has letters (three-letter words are used three times, and so on). The “stanzas” follow an increasing 1-2-3-4-5 line pattern. These numerical patterns may serve to reinforce a sense of a hidden pattern in the universe, but as Cureton notes, this “metaphysical, metatextual” iconism (if we can call it that) differs from the more clearly motivated iconism of the question marks that represent the emerging star (“Visual Form” 270).

We can see this difference clearly when we look at the asyntactic, patterned repetition of a concrete poem like Haroldo de Campos' “branco” (1957, fig. 31). Here the words, in the absence of syntax, are organized not numerically, but spatially and musically. The poem can be read across, down, or diagonally like the “fanfare” in Cummings' “o pr / gress” poem. The repetitions form not a numerical pattern, but a loosely musical one. It is not too difficult to see the vertical rows of words as chords, or to use an analogy that de Campos himself employed, to see the horizontal descending “vermelho” (red) and “estanco” (I stanch, I stop) lines in a kind of visual-verbal counterpoint to the top line of “blanco” (white). As in the “fanfare” (but not so much in “brIght”), the visual structure reinforces and, at times, coincides with the verbal meanings. De Campos comments: “The maximum opening of the page coincides with the maximum blank of the page: a coinformation, at the visual level, with the effect of white color over a white surface in painting, or the word white written in white ink on white paper” (Williams 55). To which comment we must add the irony of writing in black letters a word (“branco”) that signifies its opposite: white.

Claus Clüver notes that one can read “branco” as an attempt to transfer the non-representational, self-contained structure of Mondrian's painting to poetry. For Clüver, the “four verbal elements [are] arranged in a spatial structure which is both static and full of dynamic possibilities” (“Painting” 32). Moreover, the poem is nearly as self-contained as a Mondrian painting: “Just as any path we may follow through the poem will ultimately send us back into the text for another excursion, so do the words out of which it is formed refer primarily to each other or to the space which surrounds them” (“Painting” 32). Cummings' poems are seldom so self-referential as this.

Even in his most repetitious and asyntactic poems (like “brIght”), Cummings never calls attention to the arbitrary sign-function of the poem in this way, for several reasons. For one, he seldom writes poems that can be seen (as “branco” can) as metapoetry, a text about texts. Secondly, he almost always embeds a multi-directional passage (like the “fanfare”) in a recognizable verbal syntax. His spatial syntax works most often at the letter-level and not at the word-level, as in most early concrete poems. Thus he calls attention to the reading process, to the deciphering of the poem as a kind of puzzle, and not to the arbitrariness of the signifier. Working within a linear verbal syntactic frame almost forces Cummings to gain his visual effects by splitting up words, since it would be quite difficult to make the spatial syntax coincide or act in counterpoint with the verbal by distributing whole words about the page. (Mallarmé tries something like this in Un coup de dés.) The concrete poets solved the problem by eliminating all or most of the linear syntax and then arranging a few whole words in a spatial syntax.

The concrete poets relied not only on spatial arrangement to order their words, but on musical devices and analogies to musical procedures like repetition, variation, and spatial “counterpoint.” They used a minimum number of words arranged spatially and “musically,” to make the poem seem like an object. Space and visible and aural language interact so closely in a concrete poem that they form a single gestalt: a semiotically isomorphic construction. This isomorphism eliminates references to an author, making the poem an “open” semiotic entity. The minimal message-content and lack of persona and ordering syntax leave the reader free to make a maximum of associations in interpreting the work.

Cummings' minimalism, even in works that make no overt reference to an author, is of a different kind. Spatial and verbal arrangement interact to create a single form, but words are split to create movement:


(CP 673)

In a poem roughly contemporaneous (1958) with “branco,” Cummings was more a minimalist than many concrete poets: using only three words, he makes them refer to “loneliness,” “oneliness,” the concept of “one” (repeated in numerical form four times), all the while iconically imitating the leaf's fall. The structure of the poem is not musical, but is based on the iconic fall of letters down the page and on the simple transposition of the initial “l” of “loneliness” to the beginning of the poem. The spatial arrangement of the letters serves only to imitate falling and to isolate the “l's.” While we can read various parts of the poem out of what might be considered normal syntactic order (“one” and even “iness”—Cummings' lower case ego fused through art into a oneness with a single falling leaf), it does not offer as many possible paths to the reader as “branco.” And instead of presenting the reader with an object, Cummings is more interested in writing down a certain physical and emotional movement by means of precise syntactical and orthographical dislocations.

Another poem, written about the same time, enacts a similar merging of poet and landscape; and this time the visual and lexical effects are integrated into a more complex syntax:

e this park is e
ody's elsewher
e except me 6 e
nglish sparrow
utumn & t
he rai

(CP 696)

We find hidden in the first word of the poem the dim light and the familiar lower case “i” persona of the poet, who is “nu” (naked and new) to the world. The second stanza sports four lower case “e's” at the corners, emblematic of “e. e.,” the author. The stanza as a whole contains no fewer than 12 “e's” which iconically link the author, e. e., with emptiness and the 6 (the number that looks like an inverted lower case “e”) “e / nglish sparrow / s.” The author appears also in the last two stanzas, as the “he” and “e” that lurk inside “the rain.” (Note that the variations occur at the letter, not word level.) This last “e” may be isolated in order to recall in a shorthand manner the three entities (author, emptiness, sparrows) that were iconically merged in the second stanza. In the last two stanzas, those merged, dim existences are obscured by the rain, which starts in spatters (“t / he rai / n”) and rapidly becomes a downpour (“th / e / raintherain”).

Some readers may find, like Richard Cureton, that in Cummings' visual poetry the “visual prosody” is often at odds with the phonological prosody (“Visual Form” 277). Visual effects like word-splitting and the iconic use of the “e's” in this poem certainly interrupt the phonological reading of the poem. The reader is invited to backtrack, find words within words, and in general linger over the letter breaks in an effort to motivate them. There can be no reconciling this activity with phonological prosody. Here, Cummings comes closest to Apollinaire: both in separate ways initiate visual readings that work against or in counterpoint to phonological, spoken prosody. Cummings knew this as well as anyone: he recorded only those poems in regular metrical stanzas, or those like “plato told” (CP 553) that use visual form to reinforce the spoken reading of the poem. He knew very well (and in defiance of Blackmur's Holy Ghost) that some of his poems were “to be seen & not heard” (Letters 267).


Cummings, E(dward) E(stlin) (Vol. 8)