Creating Poetry:The Art of e.e. cummings

AUTHOR: Jennifer Sauvey

EDP 380H, FALL, 1995

18 December, 1995

The poems to come are for you and for me and are not for mostpeople.

--it's no use trying to pretend that mostpeople and ourselves are alike. Mostpeople have less in common with ourselves than the squarerootofminusone. You and I are human beings;mostpeople are snobs.

Take the matter of being born. What does being born mean to mostpeople? Catastrophe unmitigated. Socialrevolution. The cultured aristocrat yanked out of his hyperexclusively ultravoluptuous superpalazzo, and dumped into an incredibly vulgar detentioncamp swarming with every conceivable species of undesirable organism. Mostpeople fancy a guaranteed birthproof safetysuit of nondestructible selflessness. If mostpeople were to be born twice they═d improbably call it dying.

you and I are not snobs. We can never be born enough. We are human beings;for whom birth is a supremely welcome mystery,the mystery of growing:the mystery which happens only and whenever we are faithful to ourselves. You and I wear the dangerous looseness of doom and find it becoming. Life,for eternal us,is now;and now is much too busy being a little more than everything to seem anything.catastrophic included (Cummings, 1935).

So begins No Thanks, a book of poetry written by the already well-established Edward Estlin Cummings. When most people think of poetry, certain vocabulary comes to mind. Imagery. Rhyme. Meter. Flow. Figurative language. When the poetry of E.E. Cummings is mentioned, these stereotypical poetic techniques are forgotten. Instead, the mind focuses on Cummings' technique of avoiding technique. The lack of capitalization and nonstandard punctuation most likely begin the list of Cummings' nonrules in the minds of many. Sadly, the knowledge of the poetry of E.E. Cummings most likely ends there for most people. Unable to venture beyond his disregard for standard grammatical structure, many simply do not attempt to find the meaning behind his words. They miss his satirical views, his beautiful observations, and his skillful choice of words. This lack of respect for the importance of individual words prompted Cummings' attack of most people. His bitterness is directly related to his struggle to get this particular collection of poetry--his seventh--published.

Edward Estlin Cummings has always had an affinity for language. Early in life he penned a couplet, which illustrates his reliance on the power of simple observation:


O, the pretty birdie, O;
with his little toe,toe,toe! 
                                              (Norman, 1958, p. 26)

This appreciation for one's ability to observe and interpret was influenced by Cummings' upbringing. Born on October 14, 1894, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Edward Estlin had the gift of caring, intelligent, progressive parents. His father, Edward, graduated from Harvard in 1883, with a degree in philosophy. He then studied at Oxford, with the Reverend Samuel A. Barnett and Professor Estlin Carpenter (who made enough of an impression on the young Edward to cause him to choose to name his son after him.) Edward Cummings went on to teach political economy and sociology at Harvard until 1900. His instruction was praised with the following commendation: "As a teacher at Harvard he was human, alert, and stimulating" (Norman, p. 17). These attributes would eventually influence his young son. After his years at Harvard, Cummings became an ordained minister at the Unitarian South Congregational Society of Boston.

Edward Cummings was a patient, accepting man. His daughter, Elizabeth Cummings Qualey, characterized her father's personality with "Sage people worried about children spoiling their lawns. My father liked to have us play in our yard, and used to say he was raising children and not grass. We could call and shout, but we were forbidden to scream unless we were hurt. My father did a lot of his work at home in his study. He said that happy noises, even loud ones, never disturbed him" (Norman, p. 20). It is obvious that the happiness and well-being of the Cummings' children was a priority in the household.

E.E. Cummings admired his mother, Rebecca Haswell Clarke Cummings, immensely. He remarked, "Never have I encountered anyone more joyous, anyone healthier in body and mind, anyone so quite incapable of remembering a wrong or anyone so completely and humanly and unaffectedly generous" (Norman, p. 18). He immortalized these endearing qualities of his beloved parents in the following poem:

if there are any heavens my mother will(all by herself)have
one.  It will not be a pansy heaven or
a fragile heaven of lilies-of-the-valley but
it will be a heaven of blackred roses

my father will be(deep like a rose
tall like a rose)
standing near my

(swaying over her
silent)
with eyes which are really petals and see

nothing with the face of a poet really which
is a flower and not a face with
hands
which whisper
This is my beloved my

				(suddenly in sunlight
he will bow,
& the whole garden will bow)
Elizabeth Cummings also had a great influence on her brother. Throughout childhood, the two were close playmates. She recalls,

"My brother was great fun to be with. He could draw pictures, and tell stories, and imitate people and animals, and invent games, and could make you laugh, even when you thought you felt very miserable....When we had the whooping cough we were sick for weeks and weeks. After we got over the worst we didn't have to stay in bed and could even play in the yard on nice days. But we still coughed like anything at times. About half the children in the neighborhood had the whooping cough, or had been exposed to it. My brother formed a club called the "Whooper Club." Anyone could belong who had the whooping cough or who expected to come down with it. My brother was president, and editor of the "Whooper Club " paper, which he typed on mother's old Hammond typewriter. Every member of the "Whooper Club " had to write or dictate a story for the paper. We had badges and a motto, too, and we all played together and had so much fun that children tried to get exposed to the whooping cough so they could join" (Norman, p. 24).

It is obvious that E.E. Cummings was an electric personality, even as a child. He is described in his older years as being solitary and dedicated, but not as aloof as many believed him to be. He often dreaded company, but could entertain visitors with his animated conversations. He was enthusiastic, cynical, certain of his beliefs and often unaccepting of the convictions of others. Mostly, he was self-confident (sometimes mistakenly labeled arrogant) and insightful.

The earliest contributors to Cummings' writing future were great works of literature. As a child, he remembers reading voraciously, concentrating mainly on classics in the canon--Charles Dickens, Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Gulliver's Travels, The Holy Bible, and any poetry he could find. These past masters definitely influenced his career, if not in style then at least in exposure to the power of words.

Cummings' formal writing contributions began to take shape in college. He attended Harvard University, like his father, and became involved in a variety of literary circles there. He contributed regularly to both the Harvard Monthly and the Harvard Advocate. One of his most memorable meetings at Harvard occurred when the revered Professor Josiah Royce stopped Cummings on the street to ask him about his desire to write poetry. He then recommended that the young poet read Rossetti to further enhance his original thoughts. This encounter led to Cummings' future experimentations with the sonnet.

Cummings met many other influential minds while at Harvard, including Robert Hillyer, J.R. Dos Passos, and R.S. Mitchell. These young men shared ideas and challenged one another to greatness. However, I do not believe that any of them could be considered Cummings' mentor. In fact, I am not sure that there is any one single person who led Cummings to greatness. His drive was intrinsic, based on a desire to share with the world, unabashedly, his views on life in his own manner. The young men he encountered during his studies merely provided an accepting environment in which he could work.

Cummings' greatest collaborators would most likely be Scofield Thayer and Sibley Watson, with whom he worked to transform a magazine entitled the Dial into a respectable periodical. It was in this magazine that Cummings' first important works began to appear to the public.

Over the years, Cummings gained many supporters, even in the face of controversy. One of the men most dedicated in his beliefs of the poet's abilities was Ezra Pound, who often wrote favorable reviews in support of Cummings' work. When the two men finally met, Cummings was actually home in bed with the flu. However, he gathered enough energy to meet the man who made such a point to recommend his writing. Cummings was often negatively critiqued, especially by those who searched for, but could not find, meaning in his work. As a result, many of the writings defending Cummings' artistry were cynical and sarcastic toward the original reviewer. In a review of Cummings' play, Him, (of which Cummings had specifically stated, "relax, stop wondering what it's all about"--like many strange and familiar things, Life included, this PLAY isn't 'about,'," it simply is. Don't try to despise it, let it try to despise you. Don't try to enjoy it, let it try to enjoy you. DON'T TRY TO UNDERSTAND IT, LET IT TRY TO UNDERSTAND YOU (Norman, p. 239)), one reviewer muses that he does not understand a certain stage direction. One of Cummings' friends and supporters, William Slater Brown, responds to that review with "the first passage...is simply an accurate description of a plainclothesman creeping furtively across the stage toward some invisible object concealed in the wings. I am sorry I have been unable to paraphrase the passage in words of fewer syllables than Mr. Cummings uses, but if Mr. Preston will look all the hard ones up in the dictionary, I am sure the meaning will be cleared up for him nicely" (Norman, p. 229).

Although Cummings is best known for his poetry, he was also a skilled essayist, novelist, playwright, and painter/sketch-artist. His first novel, The Enormous Room, published in 1922, focuses on his experiences in a war prison camp. He was arrested in 1917 because his friend, William Slater Brown, sent letters home which could possibly have been against the American government. Cummings' association with Brown made him appear suspicious, causing them both to spend time in the prison until their names were cleared by their families.

Cummings' second novel, Eimi, concentrates on his view of Russia, which he visited in 1931. According to Ezra Pound, "When Russia was interesting, Mr. Cummings got up and went there. When one of us wants to know about Russia to the extent that Mr. Cummings once wanted to, we might perhaps show like activity " (Norman, p. 278). Cummings' anti-Communist interpretations of life in the Soviet Union are stuffed into his novel, as illustrated by the following passage:

The "Modern man" equals a defenseless literate bombarded with slogans mottoes pictures and whatever else will tend to make him;i.e.make him need something unnecessary

"how sweet is the groan which comes from ruins"--. Bullshit

"the bursting of gunfire adds a hitherto unknown gaiety to the landscape"--. If you're not within range. If you are,you'll be apt to accept even communism rather than endure that same gaiety. (Cummings, 1933).

Cummings' play, Him, mentioned earlier, played off-off-Broadway in 1928. Consisting of two main characters, Him, and his wife, Me, the play explored relationships. The play "gives Me (and you) a thorough self-analysis. But she does not understand, because she feels. The woman Me is at once undefinable, being beautiful and tender; and more commonplace, being the victim of emotions and experiences she cannot share" (Norman, p. 218). This theme ties in closely with Cummings' expressionist beliefs. Cummings was also a gifted sketch artist and painter, although his spatial talents are rarely defined. He painted regularly--everyday in his later years. His work was exhibited widely, and he even presented some shows of solely his work. It is interesting that a man so gifted with painting words can also portray his ideas in art. He once described himself as "an author of pictures, a draughtsman of words" (Norman, p. 4).

It is often difficult to classify Cummings' style because it so defiantly broke the defined rules. He is "an individualist, a noncomformist, one who would go his own way no matter what" (Friedman, 1972, p. 1). He has been described as antirational, anticollectivist, antipolitical, antiintellectual, expressionist. He wrote widely about love and nature, mixed in with satirical observations. His work is sometimes un interpretable, because he did not want interpretation. His writing is "poetry for the eye as well as for the ear" (Haines, 1951, p. 24). For Cummings, the restrictive boundaries of grammar and form were merely obstacles with which he dispensed early. Barbara Watson (1956) stated:

"Growth and risk emerge as the cardinal principles of Cummings' anarchistic freedom. The safety of perfection, of absolutes, of scientific precision, may be necessary, but can never be loved....Cummings' own poetry is true to this theory. It sets an example of risk-taking under ideal conditions. He has the strength to take his chances, takes them willingly and joyfully, takes them for himself and not for others, does not always win, but when he wins makes something that is worth all the failures, even worth looking a bit ridiculous at times "(Watson, p. 43).

E.E. Cummings biggest failure is often thought to be that he never progressed beyond his original adaptations of poetry. Instead, he continued to revise and grow within his own new rules of ungrammar. He played with capitalization, punctuation, adding parentheses, subtracting unnecessary words, breaking words in odd places, adding words in even stranger places, making interpretation out of the seemingly undefinable, deleting interpretation where he thought it need not be. He recharacterized the "i" by removing its importance. "In the personal world which rejects shall and must, only the "i" is sacred. Robbed of the formal suit in which it had become indistinguishable from the crowd, the little swaggering "i" asserts its reference to one real and single being" (Watson, pp. 39-40). How interesting that the importance of I is typically stated by its capitalization, but its un capitalization" makes it stand out even more. This idea of breaking the rules to gain recognition seems central to many of Cummings' ideas. His decision to stay with these ideas allowed him to explore them in-depth. Perhaps, however, he did not need to venture outside of these new parameters. Perhaps his greatest successes lie within his own stagnant behavior.

Cummings' greatest linguistic gift was his ability to state the obvious in an obtuse manner. Sometimes the obvious eludes our thoughts, and it must be stated in an innovative style to become important again. Cummings mastered this style in his new symbol system for poetry, in which the reader must decipher the words, phrases, and sentences before he or she can begin to make sense of them. His innovations were not the result of a single breakthrough. They evolved gradually, through each successive work of poetry or prose. Note the following three poems, and the progression from typical poetic form to the abstract style which is characteristically Cummings:

Eruptive lightnings flutter to and fro
Above the heights of immemorial hills;
Thirst-stricken air, dumb-throated, in its woe
imply down-sagging, its limp body spills
Upon the earth.  A panting silence fills
The empty vault of Night with shimmering bars
Of sullen silver, where the lake distils
Its misered bounty.--Hark!  No whisper mars
The utter silence of the untranslated stars (Cummings, 1912).

inthe,exquisite;
morning	sure	lyHer eye s exactly sit,ata little roundtable
among otherlittle roundtables  Her,eyes		count slow(ly

obstre poroustimidi ties surElyfl)oat iNg,the

ofpieces ofof sunligh tof fa l l in gof throughof treesOf.

(Fields Elysian

The like,a)slEEping neck a breathing a    ,lies
(slo wlythe wom an pa)ris her
flesh:wakes
			in little streets

while  exactlygir  lisHlegs;play;ing;nake;D
and

chairs wait under the trees

Fields slowly Elysian in 
a firmcool-Ness 		taxis, s.QuirM

and,   b etw ee nch air st ott er s thesillyold
WomanSellingBalloonS

In theex qui site
morning,
		her sureLyeye s sit-ex  actly  her sitsat a surely!little.
roundtable  amongother;littleexacty  round.   tables,

Her
	.eyes		(Cummings, 1925).

Do.
omful
relaxing

-ly)
downrise outwrithein-
ing upfall and

Am the glad deep the living from nowh
-ere(!firm!)exp-
anding,am a fe

-rvently(susta-
inin
-gness Am

root air rock day)
:you;
smile,hands

(an-
onymo
-Us

		(Cummings, 1935).
Notice the progression from Rossetti inspired sonnets to broken lines and sentences to broken words, all with seemingly random capitalization and punctuation. Cummings' belief in the power of parentheses also comes through in these selections. However, it is obvious that Cummings' style did not simply occur--it was developed over many years of work. The refinement of this style is evident in Cummings' progressive writings.

It is difficult to assess whether or not Cummings had a Faustian bargain. His personal relationships with women were not extremely successful. He married three times--his first two marriages ended quickly. His only child, a daughter, was the product of his first marriage. His third wife, Marion Morehouse Cummings, stayed with him for thirty years, until his death in 1962. She devoted her entire life to him--soon after their marriage she gave up her successful modeling, acting, and photography careers to support her husband's endeavors. Perhaps Cummings' first two wives were not willing to give themselves so wholly to Cummings' work, causing the eventual disintegration of the relationships. Or maybe Cummings placed entirely too many demands on their devotions. Whatever the case, it seems as if it was his third wife who actually had a Faustian bargain considering she practically gave up her entire identity to be with her husband.

It is also not easy to find evidence of the ten-year rule in Cummings' progression of work. Consider his professional timeline:

Rather than major breakthroughs occurring every ten years, Cummings was instead a prolific producer of poetry and prose throughout his lifetime.

In general, E.E. Cummings does not fit many of the aspects of Gardner's theory. He did create a new system of writing poetry, which is similar to Mondrian's breaking down complex images into simpler components--ungrammar. However, Cummings did not have a true Faustian bargain, a definite mentor, or a ten-year rule. His work did not evolve beyond his original adaptations. Nonetheless, he was a successful creative individual.

References

Cummings, E.E. (1934). The enormous room. New York: The Modern Library.

Cummings, E.E. (1966). Collected poems. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

Fairley, I.R. (1975). E.E. Cummings and ungrammar: A study of syntactic deviance in his poems. New York: Watermill.

Friedman, N. (1960). E.E. Cummings: The art of his poetry. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press.

Friedman, N. (1972). E.E. Cummings: A collection of critical essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Haines, G. (1951). The world and E.E. Cummings. In Friedman, N. (Ed.), E.E. Cummings: A collection of critical essays (pp. 15-30). Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Norman, C. (1958). The magic-maker: E.E. Cummings. New York: Macmillan.

Watson, B. (1956). The dangers of security: E.E. Cummings' revolt against the future. In Friedman, N. (Ed.), E.E. Cummings: A collection of critical essays (pp. 31-45). Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.