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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?

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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 four, less pointedly autobiographical in the usual sense of the word, are an exploration of the relationship between the poet’s values and his...

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Critical Essays