E. E. Cummings

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In what ways did E. E. Cummings’s prison camp experience help to preserve him from the elitist attitude that a privileged upbringing such as his can easily foster?

Cummings can express both childlike and childish attitudes in his writing. What is the difference? Exemplify each.

What is traditional in Cummings’s sonnets and what unique?

“Anyone lived in a pretty how town” is a relatively short lyric poem that implies but compresses a love story. Explain the suggestions of the story.

Cummings is also a satiric poet. What satirical techniques does he bring to a poem like “I sing of Olaf”?

What does Cummings mean by his reference to the Cambridge ladies’ “furnished souls”? To what exactly is the poem objecting? Comfort? Complacency? Some other unstated quality in their lives?

Choose one of Cummings’s grammatically unconventional poems and explain how it challenges you to think productively about the poem.

Other literary forms

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In addition to poetry, E. E. Cummings also published two long prose narratives, The Enormous Room (1922) and Eimi (1933); a translation from the French of The Red Front, by Louis Aragon (1933); a long play, Him (pb. 1927); two short plays, Anthropos: The Future of Art (pb. 1944) and Santa Claus: A Morality (pb. 1946); Tom: A Ballet (pb. 1935); a collection of his own drawings in charcoal, ink, oil, pastels, and watercolor, CIOPW (1931); his autobiographical Harvard lectures, i: six nonlectures (1953); and a collection of his wife’s photographs with captions by Cummings, Adventures in Value (1962).

Of these, The Enormous Room and Eimi are of particular interest because of their contributions to Cummings’s critical reputation and to his development as an artist. The former is the poet’s account of his three-month confinement in a French concentration camp in 1917. It was hailed on its appearance as a significant firsthand account of the war and has become one of the classic records of World War I. It is also significant in that it is Cummings’s first book, and, although prose, it reflects the same kinds of linguistic experimentation and innovation apparent in his poetry. Also reflecting his stylistic innovations is Eimi, Cummings’s account of a trip to Russia, which has a topical vitality similar to the war experiences. The major themes of the critical response to Cummings’s poetry, which developed in the 1920’s, were implicit in the responses to The Enormous Room. Those themes, explicit by 1933, also helped to shape the criticism of Eimi.

Similar to the two prose narratives, Him, a long, expressionistic drama, is also representative of Cummings’s development and of his critical reputation. Experimental and distinctive, the drama was produced in 1928 by the Provincetown Players. In the program notes, Cummings cautioned the audience against trying to understand the play. Instead, he advised the audience to “let it try to understand you.” As with the poetry and the prose, there were outraged cries claiming that the play was unintelligible, although there was also an affirmation of the lyrical originality and intensity of the play. The recognition of Cummings’s lyrical talents was gradually to replace the often angry rejections of his work because of its eccentricity.

Stylistically distinctive and important in any full assessment of his achievement is the collection of Cummings’s presentations as the annual Charles Eliot Norton Lecturer in Poetry at Harvard, i: six nonlectures . Of immediate interest, however, is the autobiographical content of the lectures. The first lecture is titled “i & my parents” and contains poetic and affectionate sketches of his mother and father; the second is titled “i & their son.” The final...

(This entire section contains 475 words.)

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four, less pointedly autobiographical in the usual sense of the word, are an exploration of the relationship between the poet’s values and his sense of personal identity, between what he believes and what he is.


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E. E. Cummings is not usually included in the first rank of modernist poets, which always begins with T. S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, and Ezra Pound and is, more often than not, rounded out with Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams. Two aspects of his career, however, give his achievement a great deal of significance. First, he was on the cutting edge of the modernist, experimental movement in verse. Pound, at the center of that movement, was dedicated to restoring value and integrity to the word by breaking the mold of the past, and in that cause, he evangelically admonished the poets of his generation to “make it new.” Although a disciple of no one, Cummings led the assault on conventional verse, pushing experimentation to extremes and beyond with his peculiarly distinctive typography and his unconventional syntax, grammar, and punctuation. Although he paid the price of such experimentation, which brought charges of superficiality and unintelligibility, he served the modernist movement well by helping to educate an audience for the innovations in verse and prose of the second and third decades of the twentieth century.

Second, Cummings was not only a leading experimenter in an age of experimentation but also an intense lyric poet and an effective satirist. As a lyricist, he celebrated those experiences, values, and attitudes that lyric poets of all times have celebrated, and high on his list was love—sexual, romantic, and ideal or transcendental. His love poetry often reminds readers of Renaissance poets because of its subject matter, diction, and imagery. He is often bawdy, often sentimental, sometimes concrete, sometimes abstract, but almost always intense. Many of his lyrics express a childlike joy before nature and the natural state; he also celebrated personal relationships, particularly in his well-known tributes to his father and mother.

As a satirist, Cummings’s principal target is man en masse. This thrust is the opposite of the celebration of individuality, a principal subject of his lyricism. In poems with a military setting, he satirically attacks not the military but the submergence of the individual into the mass that the military often brings about. He attacks the same submergence in poems that seem to be attacking modern advertising or salespeople. Neither, however, is the real object of his scorn; it is not modern advertising but the mass mind of the mass market that it engenders that he lashes out at in several of his most effective satiric pieces.

Cummings celebrates love, spontaneity, individuality, and a childlike wonder before nature. He attacks conformity, the mass mind, progress, and hypocrisy. His greatest achievement is that in an age of experimentation in verse, and in an age defensive and self-conscious about feeling, he fashioned a personal, highly idiosyncratic style that at its best provided him with effective vehicles for some of the finest lyric and satiric poetry of the modernist period.

Among the honors and awards he received were the Dial Award in 1925, Guggenheim Fellowships in 1933 and 1951, the Levinson Prize from Poetry magazine in 1939, the Shelley Memorial Award in 1945, the Academy of American Poets Fellowship in 1950, and a special citation by National Book Awards in 1955 for Poems, 1923-1954. He was awarded the Boston Arts Festival Award in 1957 and the Bollingen Prize for Poetry in 1958.


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Ahearn, Barry, ed. Pound/Cummings: The Correspondence of Ezra Pound and E. E. Cummings. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996. These interchanges cast light on both the poets and their times. Includes bibliographic references.

Cowley, Malcolm. A Second Flowering: Works and Days of the Lost Generation. New York: Viking, 1973. Contains a chapter on Cummings that focuses on his life in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Discusses his philosophy and evaluates his poetry.

Dumas, Bethany K. E. E. Cummings: A Remembrance of Miracles. London: Vision Press, 1974. Contains a chapter on Cummings’s life and several chapters analyzing his poetry, prose, and dramatic works. Includes a bibliography and indexes.

Friedman, Norman. E. E. Cummings: The Art of His Poetry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1960. The first book-length analysis of Cummings’s poetry. Discusses his poetic vision and his techniques. Includes indexes.

Friedman, Norman. E. E. Cummings: The Growth of a Writer. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964. Detailed discussion of each of Cummings’s major works in order to show his development. Includes index and a brief bibliographical note.

Kennedy, Richard S. Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E. E. Cummings. New York: Liveright, 1980. A detailed, scholarly study of Cummings’s life that discusses his poems and his philosophical views. Includes a chronological list of Cummings’s works, a bibliographical essay on secondary works, an index, and illustrations.

Kennedy, Richard S. E. E. Cummings Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1994. Primarily an analysis of Cummings’s major writings but also provides a condensed version of his life interspersed with the analysis. Includes a chronology of the poet’s life, a bibliography of works by and about him, an index, and numerous illustrations.

Kidder, Rushworth M. E. E. Cummings: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979. Because of the separation in time between Cummings’s life and the appearance of this volume, Kidder had gained some objectivity over earlier critics, enabling him to focus on enduring values in the poetry. His commentaries are fresh and insightful, often correcting existing misconceptions. Includes a bibliography and indexes.

Lane, Gary. I Am: A Study of E. E. Cummings’ Poems. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1976. A good reference for new readers. Reprints selected poems, appending detailed discussions designed to make the obscure and complicated devices transparent. The critical apparatus features complete notes, an index, and a bibliographical note.

Norman, Charles. The Magic Maker: E. E. Cummings. Rev. ed. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1972. First written while Cummings was still alive, this combination memoir and critical introduction grows out of a long and intimate relationship with the poet. The personal material bears a rich authenticity, full of telling anecdotes. The illustrations are unrivaled. A good index offers useful cross-references, but there are no notes.

Sawyer-Lauçanno, Christopher. E.E. Cummings: A Biography. Naperville, Ill.: Sourcebooks, 2004. Massive in scope and in number of pages, this biography and literary study of Cummings is readable, comprehensive and highly recommended.

Waggoner, Hyatt H. American Poets from the Puritans to the Present. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968. Contains a section on Cummings that discusses his transcendental philosophy and evaluates his poetry.

Wegner, Robert E. The Poetry and Prose of E. E. Cummings. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965. More than the other sources, this book focuses on revealing the evolution of Cummings’s style and the relationship between his life and work. It includes a chronology of publications rather than of his life. Includes footnotes and indexes of first lines and subjects but no bibliography.


Critical Essays