Poetry Dispatch No. 124 | November 19, 2006
This is “love-poem” week at the Poetry Dispatch center, a week of Thanksgiving, deep in the woods of a northern Wisconsin peninsula on a mild, slightly overcast Sunday morning in November, amidst the sound of guns going off in the distance (deer season), some longing for snow, for the deeper sense of autumn, for memories of love in all its dimensions…a moment of giving thanks for man’s capacity to choose the right words to say what is in his heart. Norbert Blei
14 by E.E. Cummings
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
from 100 SELECTED POEMS
Edward Estlin Cummings (October 14, 1894 – September 3, 1962), popularly known as E. E. Cummings, was an American poet, painter, essayist, and playwright. His body of work encompasses more than 900 poems, several plays and essays, numerous drawings, sketches, and paintings, as well as two novels. He is remembered as a preeminent voice of 20th century poetry, as well as one of the most popular.
Cummings’ publishers and others have sometimes echoed the unconventional orthography in his poetry by writing his name in lower case and without periods. Cummings himself used both the lowercase and capitalized versions, but according to his widow did not, as reported in the preface of one book, have his name legally changed to “e. e. cummings”. He did, however, write to his French translator that he preferred the capitalized version (“may it not be tricksy”). One Cummings scholar believes that on the occasions Cummings signed his name in all-lowercase, the poet may have intended it as a gesture of humility, and not as an indication that it was the preferred orthography for others to use for his name.
E. E. Cummings was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1894, to Edward and Rebecca Haswell Clarke Cummings. Cummings’ father was a professor of sociology and political science at Harvard University and later a Unitarian minister. He and his son were close, and Edward was one of Cummings’ most ardent supporters. Raised in a well-educated family, Cummings was writing poetry as early as age ten. His only sibling, a sister, Elizabeth, was born when he was six years old.
From 1911 to 1916, Cummings attended Harvard University, from which he received a B.A. degree in 1915 and a Master’s degree for English and Classical Studies in 1916. While at Harvard, he befriended John Dos Passos and roomed in the freshman dormitory, Thayer (room 306), named after the family of one of his Harvard acquaintances, Scofield Thayer. Several of Cummings’ poems were published in the Harvard Monthly as early as 1912, Cummings himself laboring on the school newspaper alongside fellow Harvard Aesthetes Dos Passos and S. Foster Damon. In 1915, his poems were published in the Harvard Advocate.
From an early age, Cummings studied Greek and Latin. His affinity for each manifests in his later works, such as XAIPE (Greek: “Rejoice!”; a collection of poetry), Anthropos (Greek: “mankind”; the title of one of his plays), and “Puella Mea” (Latin: “My Girl”; the title of his longest poem).
Painting by e.e. cummings | Mt. Chocorua, Oil on canvas, ca. 1938
In his final year at Harvard, Cummings was influenced by avant garde writers such as Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. He graduated magna cum laude in 1916, delivering a controversial commencement address entitled “The New Art”. This speech gave him his first taste of notoriety, as he managed to give the false impression that the well-liked imagist poet, Amy Lowell, whom he himself admired, was “abnormal”. For this, Cummings was chastised in the newspapers. Ostracized as a result of his intellect, he turned to poetry. In 1920, Cummings’ first published poems appeared in a collection of poetry entitled Eight Harvard Poets.
In 1917, Cummings enlisted in the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corp, along with his college friend John Dos Passos. The novelty of automotives, and thus ambulances, made driving acceptable to young, well educated men in the US. (World War I saw more well-known writers in medical service than any other war in history because of this. At least 23, including Hemingway, were enlisted in ambulance corps, an interesting and unusual percentage). Due to an administrative mix-up, Cummings was not assigned to an ambulance unit for five weeks, during which time he stayed in Paris. He became enamored with the city, to which he would return throughout his life.
On September 21, 1917, just five months after his belated assignment, he and a friend, William Slater Brown, were arrested on suspicion of espionage (the two openly expressed pacifist views on the war). They were sent to a military detention camp, the Dépôt de Triage, in La Ferté-Macé, Orne, Normandy, where they languished for 3½ months. Cummings’ experiences in the camp were later related in his novel The Enormous Room about which F. Scott Fitzgerald opined, “Of all the work by young men who have sprung up since 1920 one book survives- ‘The Enormous Room’ by e e cummings….Those few who cause books to live have not been able to endure the thought of its mortality.”
He was released from the detention camp on December 19, 1917, after much intervention from his politically connected father. Cummings returned to the United States on New Year’s Day 1918. Later in 1918, he was drafted into the army. He served in the 73rd Infantry Division at Camp Devens, Massachusetts, until November 1918.
Cummings returned to Paris in 1921 and remained there for two years before returning to New York. During the rest of the 1920s and 1930s he returned to Paris a number of times, and traveled throughout Europe, meeting, among others, Pablo Picasso. In 1931 Cummings traveled to the Soviet Union and recounted his experiences in Eimi, published two years later. During these years Cummings also traveled to Northern Africa and Mexico and worked as an essayist and portrait artist for Vanity Fair magazine (1924 to 1927).
In his youth, Cummings attended Cambridge Latin High School. Early stories and poems were published in the Cambridge Review, the school newspaper.
In 1926, Cummings’ father was killed in a car accident. Though severely injured, Cummings’ mother survived. Cummings detailed the accident in the following quote, from Richard S. Kennedy’s biography of Cummings, Dreams in the Mirror:
“… a locomotive cut the car in half, killing my father instantly. When two brakemen jumped from the halted train, they saw a woman standing – dazed but erect – beside a mangled machine; with blood spouting (as the older said to me) out of her head. One of her hands (the younger added) kept feeling her dress, as if trying to discover why it was wet. These men took my sixty-six year old mother by the arms and tried to lead her toward a nearby farmhouse; but she threw them off, strode straight to my father’s body, and directed a group of scared spectators to cover him. When this had been done (and only then) she let them lead her away.”
His father’s death had a profound impact on Cummings and his work, who entered a new period in his artistic life. Cummings began to focus on more important aspects of life in his poetry. He began this new period by paying homage to his father’s memory in the poem “my father moved through dooms of love”.
Born into a Unitarian family, Cummings exhibited transcendental leanings his entire life. As he grew in maturity and age, Cummings moved more towards an “I, Thou” relationship with his God. His journals are replete with references to “le bon Dieu” as well as prayers for inspiration in his poetry and artwork (such as “Bon Dieu! may I some day do something truly great. amen.”). Cummings “also prayed for strength to be his essential self (‘may I be I is the only prayer–not may I be great or good or beautiful or wise or strong’), and for relief of spirit in times of depression (‘almighty God! I thank thee for my soul; & may I never die spiritually into a mere mind through disease of loneliness’).”
i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
Cummings was married three times, including a long common-law marriage.
1. Elaine Orr: Cummings’ first marriage, to Elaine Orr, began as a love affair in 1919 while she was married to Scofield Thayer, one of Cummings’ friends from Harvard. The affair produced a daughter, Nancy, born on December 20, 1919. Nancy was Cummings’ only child. After obtaining a divorce from Thayer, Elaine married Cummings on March 19, 1924. However, the marriage ended in divorce less than nine months later, when Elaine left Cummings for a wealthy Irish banker, moved to Ireland and took Nancy with her. Under the terms of the divorce Cummings was granted custody of Nancy for three months each year, but Elaine refused to abide by the agreement. Cummings did not see his daughter again until 1946.
2. Anne Minnerly Barton: Cummings married his second wife Anne Minnerly Barton on May 1, 1929. They separated three years later in 1932. That same year, Anne obtained a Mexican divorce that was not officially recognized in the United States until August 1934.
3. Marion Morehouse (born March 9, 1906, South Bend, Indiana): In 1932, the same year Cummings and Anne separated, he met Marion Morehouse, a fashion model and photographer. Although it is not clear whether the two were ever legally married, Morehouse lived with Cummings until his death in 1962. Morehouse died May 18, 1969, while living at 4 Patchin Place, Greenwich Village, New York City, where Cummings had resided since September 8, 1924.
Despite Cummings’ consanguinity with avant-garde styles, much of his work is traditional. Many of his poems are sonnets, and he occasionally made use of the blues form and acrostics. Cummings’ poetry often deals with themes of love and nature, as well as the relationship of the individual to the masses and to the world. His poems are also often rife with satire.
While his poetic forms and themes share an affinity with the romantic tradition, Cummings’ work universally shows a particular idiosyncrasy of syntax, or way of arranging individual words into larger phrases and sentences. Many of his most striking poems do not involve any typographical or punctuation innovations at all, but purely syntactic ones.
As well as being influenced by notable modernists including Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, Cummings’ early work drew upon the imagist experiments of Amy Lowell. Later, his visits to Paris exposed him to Dada and surrealism, which in turn permeated his work. Cummings also liked to incorporate imagery of nature and death into much of his poetry.
While some of his poetry is free verse (with no concern for rhyme or meter), many have a recognizable sonnet structure of 14 lines, with an intricate rhyme scheme. A number of his poems feature a typographically exuberant style, with words, parts of words, or punctuation symbols scattered across the page, often making little sense until read aloud, at which point the meaning and emotion become clear. Cummings, who was also a painter, understood the importance of presentation, and used typography to “paint a picture” with some of his poems.
The seeds of Cummings’ unconventional style appear well established, even in his earliest work. At age six he wrote to his father:
FATHER DEAR. BE, YOUR FATHER-GOOD AND GOOD,
HE IS GOOD NOW, IT IS NOT GOOD TO SEE IT RAIN,
FATHER DEAR IS, IT, DEAR, NO FATHER DEAR,
LOVE, YOU DEAR,
Following his novel The Enormous Room, Cummings’ first published work was a collection of poems entitled Tulips and Chimneys (1923). This work was the public’s first encounter with his characteristic eccentric use of grammar and punctuation.
Some of Cummings’ most famous poems do not involve much, if any, odd typography or punctuation, but still carry his unmistakable style. For example, the aptly titled “anyone lived in a pretty how town” begins:
anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did
Women and men(both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain
“why must itself up every of a park” begins as follows:
why must itself up every of a park
anus stick some quote statue unquote to
prove that a hero equals any jerk
who was afraid to dare to answer “no”?
Readers sometimes experience a jarring, incomprehensible effect with Cummings’ work, as the poems do not act in accordance with the conventional combinatorial rules that generate typical English sentences. (For example “Why must itself…” or “they sowed their isn’t [...]“). His readings of Stein in the early part of the century probably served as a springboard to this aspect of his artistic development (in the same way that Robert Walser’s work acted as a springboard for Franz Kafka). In some respects, Cummings’ work is more stylistically continuous with Stein’s than with any other poet or writer.
In addition, a number of Cummings’ poems feature, in part or in whole, intentional misspellings, and several incorporate phonetic spellings intended to represent particular dialects. Cummings also made use of inventive formations of compound words, as in “in Just-“, which features words such as “mud-luscious”, “puddle-wonderful”, and “eddieandbill.” This poem is more commonly known as Chansom Innocent. It has many references comparing the “balloonman” to Pan (mythology), the mythical creature that is half-goat and half-man.
Many of Cummings’ poems are satirical and address social issues (see “why must itself up every of a park”, above), but have an equal or even stronger bias toward romanticism: time and again his poems celebrate love, sex and the season of rebirth (see “anyone lived in a pretty how town” in its entirety). Cummings’ talent extended to children’s books, novels, and painting. A notable example of his versatility is an introduction he wrote for a collection of the comic strip Krazy Kat. Examples of Cummings’ unorthodox typographical style can be seen in his poem “the sky was candy luminous…”.
During his lifetime, Cummings published four plays: HIM (1927), Anthropos: or, the Future of Art (1930), Tom: A Ballet (1935), and Santa Claus: A Morality (1946).
- * HIM, a three-act play, was first produced in 1928 by the Provincetown Players in New York City. The production was directed by James Light. The play’s main characters are “Him”, a playwright, and “Me”, his girlfriend. Cummings said of the unorthodox play:
- “Relax and give the play a chance to strut its stuff—relax, stop wondering what it is 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.”
- * Anthropos, or the Future of Art is a short, one-act play that Cummings contributed to the anthology Whither, Whither or After Sex, What? A Symposium to End Symposiums. The play consists of dialogue between Man, the main character, and three “infrahumans”, or inferior beings. The word anthropos is the Greek word for “man”, in the sense of “mankind”.
- * Tom, A Ballet is a ballet based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The ballet is detailed in a “synopsis” as well as descriptions of four “episodes”, which were published by Cummings in 1935. It has never been performed. More information about the play as well as an illustration can be found at this webpage from the E. E. Cummings Society.
- * Santa Claus: A Morality was probably Cummings’ most successful play. It is an allegorical Christmas fantasy presented in one act of five scenes. The play was inspired by his daughter Nancy, with whom he was reunited in 1946. It was first published in the Harvard College magazine the Wake. The play’s main characters are Santa Claus, his family (Woman and Child), Death, and Mob. At the outset of the play, Santa Claus’s family has disintegrated due to their lust for knowledge (Science). After a series of events, however, Santa Claus’s faith in love and his rejection of the materialism and disappointment he associates with Science are reaffirmed, and he is reunited with Woman and Child.
In 1952, his alma mater, Harvard, awarded Cummings an honorary seat as a guest professor. The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures he gave in 1952 and 1953 were later collected as i: six nonlectures.
Cummings spent the last decade of his life traveling, fulfilling speaking engagements, and spending time at his summer home, Joy Farm, in Silver Lake, New Hampshire.
He died on September 3, 1962, at the age of 67 in North Conway, New Hampshire of a stroke. His cremated remains are buried in Lot 748 Althaea Path, in Section 6, Forest Hills Cemetery and Crematory, Boston, MA. In 1969, his third wife, Marion Morehouse Cummings, died and was buried in a contiguous plot: Lot 748, Althaea Path, Section 6.
During his lifetime, E. E. Cummings received numerous awards in recognition of his work, including:
- * Dial Award (1925)
- * Guggenheim Fellowship (1933)
- * Shelley Memorial Award for Poetry (1944)
- * Harriet Monroe Prize from Poetry magazine (1950)
- * Fellowship of American Academy of Poets (1950)
- * Guggenheim Fellowship (1951)
- * Charles Eliot Norton Professorship at Harvard (1952–1953)
- * Special citation from the National Book Award Committee for his Poems, 1923-1954 (1957)
- * Bollingen Prize in Poetry (1958)
- * Boston Arts Festival Award (1957)
- * Two-year Ford Foundation grant of $15,000 (1959)
- * The Enormous Room (1922), a memoir
- * Tulips and Chimneys (1923)
- * & (1925) (self-published)
- * XLI Poems (1925)
- * is 5 (1926)
- * HIM (1927) (a play)
- * ViVa (1931)
- * Eimi (1933)
- * No Thanks (1935)
- * Collected Poems (1960)
- * 50 Poems (1940)
- * 1 × 1 (1944)
- * Xaipe: Seventy-One Poems (1950)
- * Poems, 1923-1954 (1954)
- * 95 Poems (1958)
- * 73 Poems (1963) (posthumous)
- * Fairy Tales (1965) (posthumous)
A number of books have been written about E. E. Cummings, notably:
- * Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E. E. Cummings, by Richard S. Kennedy
- * E. E. Cummings: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Norman Friedman
- * E. E. Cummings: The Art of his Poetry, by Norman Friedman
- * E. E. Cummings: A Bibliography, by George James
- * “A Concordance to the Complete Poems of E.E.Cummings”, by Katharine McBride