The Poetry of Cummings Critical Essays

e. e. cummings

Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

Perhaps only Dylan Thomas, of twentieth century poets, has had the impact upon youth which has been E. E. Cummings’. There is scarcely a single American college student today who has not read and often even memorized at least one poem by Cummings, and this outside class, on his own, with a sense of immediacy and identification bordering on ownership. This kinship with youth is no surprise, for even his last poems, the work of a man nearing seventy, celebrate the here and now of being, the eternal present in which limitless future pivots to limited past. It is this moment of aliveness and pure being that youth experiences most fully without regard to the relentless flow of time, and it is that experience which Cummings believed to be living, the only moment of truth.

What IS is the present, and living fully requires that one expand to fill the moment, to experience it spiritually as well as physically. Cummings was a Romantic and a Transcendentalist, and he felt that the truth that is always here can only be found by love.

E. E. Cummings gave himself in his poetry fully to the life of the now and the love that gives that life its meaning. His thinking is certainly not new; it is as old as thought itself. Poetry is, however, an art of making new, of giving new life to the ideas that have always been, the eternal verities; and Cummings set out to refresh his Romantic ideas, to make love itself all new anew. His verbal pyrotechnics and typographical eccentricities are products and tools of that quest. By making language look new on the page, he forces his reader to engage the poem at a new level of concentration and, hopefully, to follow that engagement through to the moment of living which Cummings tried to catch up in the poem.

For example, the first poem in 95 POEMS is a definition of loneliness. Its devices are one metaphor, loneliness as a falling leaf; use of the similarity of the letter l to the numeral 1; use of the one in loneliness; a typographical pattern emphasizing the long, narrow numeral 1 and the lone fall of a leaf; and a final definition of loneliness as I-ness. That is all, and yet it does make a simple metaphor into a small poem and it does demand the reader’s involvement in that metaphor, if only to puzzle it out. It is a poem to be read silently on the page, a poem for the eye, but Cummings wrote most of his poems for the ear as well. The cool elegance of the opening of “All in green went my love riding” is an example of this smooth ballad style.

But he often went to the other extreme, to the almost unintelligible language of the streets, to the poetry of the very common man, as in the poem “oil tel duh woil doi sez,” in the volume titled W (pronounced ViVa).

He also changed the language itself, using parts of speech in unexpected ways, forcing verbs to work as nouns, making new words grow from the everyday words of the language. The poem “so isn’t so small one littlest why,” in 1 X 1, for example, is cryptic only until the parts of speech shed their usual functions and take up new ones....

(The entire section is 1273 words.)