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Life Sketch of E. E. Cummings

Life sketches of poets and other writers afford readers a glimpse into the writing process, backgrounding the creativity of each artist.

E. E. Cummings

E. E. Cummings

Introduction

About the poetic style of E. E. Cummings, poet Randall Jarrell has averred, "No one else has ever made avant-garde, experimental poems so attractive to the general and the special reader."

Cummings experimentation with language led to a distinct style through his invention of new words and new ways to use them. He even employed novel organizational placings of terms that violated the traditional grammar rules as well as linguistic common sense.

Despite Cummings non-traditional use of language, his poems attracted a wide following, and many of his poems became quite popular with readers of all stripes. John Logan, writing of Cummings in Modern American Poetry: Essays in Criticism, declared Cummings as "one of the greatest lyric poets in our language."

In Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time, Stanley Hyman claimed, "Cummings has written at least a dozen poems that seem to me matchless. Three are among the great love poems of our time or any time."

In addition to poetry, Cummings dabbled in painting and has left several interesting self-portraits to posterity.

Early Life

Edward Estlin Cummings was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on October 14, 1894, to Edward Cummings and Rebecca Haswell Clarke. At the Cambridge Latin High School, he studied Greek and Latin. After high school, he attended Harvard, where he earned both the BA and MA degrees. Several of his early poems were published in 1917 in Eight Harvard Poets.

While still a child, Cummings set his sights on becoming a poet, and he instituted for himself the task of composing one poem each day; thus, between the ages of eight and 22 he explored the many forms and aspects of poetry composition, mostly the traditional poetic forms that had been employed for centuries.

Around 1916 as modernism was taking its place among the literary movements, Cummings began experimenting with forms that ultimately led to his unique language use that has captured the imagination of the generations of poetry readers who followed his own.

War and Marriage

After World War I broke out in Europe in April 1917, Cummings offered his services by volunteering in the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Service in France. This type of service became a common option for many pacifists during the war. Stationed near the border of France and Germany, Cummings met and became fast friends with William Slater Brown, a fellow American.

After inserting veiled comments into letters back home and befriending other soldiers in other units, the pair of friends became suspicious in the eyes the authority and were arrested, charged with treason, and placed in an internment camp in Normandy. Cummings’ father was able to secure his son’s release from the camp in December 1917, but his friend did not secure release until April 1918.

The U.S. Army drafted Cummings into service in July 1918. He went through basic training for six months in Massachusetts. After his military experience ended, Cummings began an affair with Elaine Thayer, who was married to Schofield Thayer, a friend of Cummings.

Obviously an enthusiast for open-marriage, Thayer did not object to that relationship. Elaine became pregnant with Cummings child, a daughter named Nancy.

Cummings and Elaine married in 1924 after her divorce from Schofield Thayer. Cummings adopted Nancy, who did not find out that Cummings was her biological father until 1948. The Cummings-Thayer marriage lasted only a short time.

Only two months after the wedding, Elaine left America for Europe to settle her sister’s estate. On the ship traveling to Europe, Elaine met and fell in love with another man. She and Cummings divorced in 1925.

In 1929, Cummings married a second time to Anne Minnerly, but that marriage lasted only three years with Minnerly seeking a Mexican divorce in 1932. The US did not recognized Mexican divorces until August 1934.

After separation from wife #2, Cummings began a relationship with Marion Morehouse. It remains unclear if the pair ever legally married, but the two lived together until his death in 1962.

Journey to The USSR

Like a number of artists practicing during the 1930s, Cummings had a brief flirtation with communism, thinking the system might offer a better, freer world. He traveled to the USSR in 1931, and it did not take long for the poet to realize that the USSR was governed by the strong arm tactics of a dictatorship. Instead of more freedom, the individual was fiercely ruled by state dictates.

Cummings published his observations of the machinations of dictatorship in his Eimi, a compilation of his journal entries. In that volume, he accused the Soviets of dehumanizing policies. The term, "eimi," is Greek for "I am." In this work, he labels the USSR an “uncircus of noncreatures."

Cummings became especially disgusted after the body of the dictator Lenin was laid to rest in its elaborate tomb. This event inspired some of Cummings most forceful, impassioned pieces that appear in that work. According to John Peale Bishop, Cummings’ style "reaches its most complete development in the prose of Eimi." Bishop continues,

Indeed, one might almost say that, without knowing it, Cummings had been acquiring a certain skill over the years, in order that, when occasion arose, he might set down in words the full horror of Lenin’s tomb.

As Cummings kept track of his 35-day journey through the USSR, he employed various allusions to Dante’s Inferno, equating his Soviet experience to a descent into Hell. Only after leaving the USSR and entering the free world was it possible for the poet "to feel like a man" again.

Bishop claims that Cummings’ Soviet experience had led the poet to understand the true nature of freedom: that the quality exists inside the individual. It is the free will with which man is endowed that makes all freedoms possible.

According to Rushworth M. Kidder, Eimi is "a report of the grim inhumanities of the Soviet system, of repression, apathy, priggishness, kitsch, and enervating suspicion."

After the publication of Eimi, Cummings came up against the ignorance of heavily statist-leaning publishers, who refused to publish the already widely noted poet’s works. Thus, Cummings had to self-publish a number of his collections in the late 1930s.

The Writing Life

The 1920s proved to be a highly creative period for Cummings. He began his publishing career in 1922 bringing out his first book, The Enormous Room. This fictional account of his experience in the French internment camp is offered in a humorous style, somewhat at odds with the reality of the experience.

Cummings free-wheeling style nevertheless demonstrates that his experience in the camp contributed to his growth as an artist.

Critics such as David E. Smith, John Dos Passos, and John Peale Bishop have all written glowing reviews of Cummings’ The Enormous Room. As Smith has observed, the emphasis of that work is placed upon what "the initiate has learned from his journey." Smith continues,

In this instance, the maimed hero can never again regard the outer world (i.e., ‘civilization’) without irony. But the spiritual lesson he learned from his sojourn with a community of brothers will be repeated in his subsequent writings both as an ironical dismissal of the values of his contemporary world, and as a sensitive, almost mystical celebration of the quality of Christian love.

Dos Passos has remarked that the book, "in a style infinitely swift and crisply flexible, an individual not ashamed of his loves and hates, great or trivial, has expressed a bit of the underside of History with indelible vividness."

Bishop added, "The Enormous Room has the effect of making all but a very few comparable books that came out of the War look shoddy and worn."

Tulips and Chimneys vs Tulips & Chimneys

In 1923, Cummings next publication, his first collection of poems titled Tulips and Chimneys, was brought out. In this collection, his unique language use is on display. He employed non-traditional spacing, unconventional combinations of terms, fractured grammatical expressions, and many varying combinations of punctuation.

Cummings originally wanted his first collection to be titled, Tulips & Chimneys, but the publisher insisted upon employing the word not the ampersand. The publisher had also removed a number of offending poems from the collection. But in 1925, Cummings brought a collection of those excised poems and titled the collection &.

In 1925, rather quickly upon the heals of his publication of &, he came out with XLI Poems. Reviewing this collection in the magazine, The Nation, poet and critic Mark Van Doren averred that Cummings was a poet with "a richly sensuous mind; his verse is distinguished by fluidity and weight; he is equipped to range lustily and long among the major passions."

By the end of year 1925, Cummings had garnered a prize of $2000 from Dial Magazine, which offered this annual award to an up and coming writer. At the time, the $2000 sum was equal to a full year’s income for a writer.

In 1926, in another collection of poems titled Is 5, Cummings for the first time offered an introduction to his philosophy of poetry. He believed that poetry was a "process" not merely a "product." During this decade, Cummings established his reputation as an experimental artist in the avant-garde.

Critics never failed to focus on his unique use of language. Writing in The Modern Poets: A Critical Introduction, M. L. Rosenthal opined,

The chief effect of Cummings’ jugglery with syntax, grammar, and diction was to blow open otherwise trite and bathetic motifs through a dynamic rediscovery of the energies sealed up in conventional usage.... He succeeded masterfully in splitting the atom of the cute commonplace.

Richard P. Blackmur, writing in The Double Agent: Essays in Craft and Elucidation, opines,

Cummings has a fine talent for using familiar, even almost dead words, in such a context as to make them suddenly impervious to every ordinary sense; they become unable to speak, but with a great air of being bursting with something very important and precise to say.

Literary luminaries such as Bethany K. Dumas, S. I. Hayakawa, Norman Friedman, Stephen E. Whicher, and many others have found Cummings a fit focus upon which to opine. For example, Hayakawa has effused, "No modern poet, to my knowledge, has such a clear, childlike perception as E. E. Cummings—a way of coming smack against things with unaffected delight and wonder. This candor ... results in breath-takingly clean vision."

In 1952, Cummings was honored by being chosen to deliver the Charles Eliot Norton lectures in poetry at Harvard University. That lecture series was published as i: six nonlectures. They featured Cummings highly personal stories from his life, and Jenny Penberthy has called them "autobiographical rambles."

On September 3, 1962, E. E. Cummings died at Memorial Hospital in North Conway, New Hampshire, of a brain hemorrhage. He was 67. He is interred at Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston, Massachusetts.

At the time of the poet’s death, he was considered the second most widely anthologized, read, and studied American poet, following Robert Frost.

Signature of E. E. Cummings

Signature of E. E. Cummings

e. e. cummings vs E. E. Cummings

The poet’s name is often expressed in all lower-case letters, apparently to mimic the poet’s unconventional style. The critic Henry T. Moore erroneously claimed that Cummings legally changed his name to sport all lower-case letter, and Norman Friedman allowed that inaccurate claim to be published in the preface of his book, E. E. Cummings: The Growth of a Writer.

Responding to Moore’s erroneous claim, Cummings’ widow offered Friedman a correction, "You should not have allowed H. Moore to make such a stupid & childish statement about Cummings & his signature."

Although Cummings did often write his signature in all lower-case letters, he more often used capital letters in the traditional fashion. The lie that needs to be put to rest is that Cummings legally changed his name. As his widow made clear, Cummings did not engage in that "stupid & childish" act.

Sources

E. E. Cummings  - Self-Portrait

E. E. Cummings - Self-Portrait

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Linda Sue Grimes