E. E. Cummings

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Cummings, Edward Estlin (14 October 1894 - 3 September 1962)

An American poet with unorthodox punctuation, one influenced by Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein, Cummings once wrote, “Not for philosophy does this rose give a damn.”

He is the author of The Enormous Room (1922), an autobiographical narrative describing his work with the American ambulance corps in France during World War I and his imprisonment by the French for about six months in a concentration camp. Despite the filthy surroundings and inhumane treatment by officials and jailers, Cummings maintained his sense of humor, exalting a person’s human values in the face of what he considered to be sheer ignorance.

In Tulips and Chimneys (1923), he wrote about

the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls
are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds
(also, with the church's protestant blessings
daughters, unscented shapeless spirited)
they believe in Christ and Longfellow, both dead

James D. Hart has described Cummings’s work as showing

  • his transcendental faith in a world where the self-reliant, joyful, loving individual is beautifully alive but in which mass man, or the man who lives by mind alone, without heart and soul, is dead. The true individual Cummings praised, often reverently and with freshness of spirit and idiom, but the "unman" was satirized as Cummings presented witty, bitter parodies of and attacks on the patriotic or cultural platitudes and shibboleths of the "unworld." This poetry was marked by experimentalism in word coining, the shifting of grammar, the blending of established stanzaic forms and free verse, flamboyant punning, typographic distortion, unusual punctuation, and idiosyncratic division of words, all of which became integral to the ideas and rhythms of his relatively brief lyrics.

His interests were humanities-centered, and he read widely. Michael Webster, for example, cites Estlin's reading of

  • poets, their prose writings, novelists, psychology, writers on Eastern religion and poetry and painting (starting at the beginning with Lao Tzu and Chuangtse), and a few of the more poetic philosophers: Santayana, his old neighbor William James (only The Varieties of Religious Experience), and even (in his later years) Simone Weil. He was friends with A. J. Ayer, who sent EEC his books and papers (one each on Camus & Sartre), but EEC was by no means a logical positivist (or an existentialist).

After being asked several times by Warren Allen Smith to put a label on his philosophic outlook, he wrote:

since you insist:I rather imagine that
“the approach to philosophy” of any
artist worth his salt is neither “naturalistic”
nor “supernaturalistic”; but aesthetic.

Years after the poet Marianne Moore gave The Dial Award to Cummings, she thanked him for a book by writing,

  • Blasphemous, inexorable, disrespectful, sinful author though you are - you received a cordial welcome at my door today.

Capital letters, however, did apply when Cummings wrote his name. When the composer David Diamond caught one editor who typed the name “e. e. cummings,” Diamond expostulated, “E. E. Cummings would come from Patchin Place with a whip had he known you lowercased his name! His daughter is furious if anyone does today. All his books, as was his signature, are in capital letters. Only his poetry does the Mallarmer (sic) letters, small type (Mr Jacobs).”

His Final Years

After suffering a cerebral hemorrhage, he was buried at the Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston. At one time, Cummings's father - Edward - was the associate minister of the South Congregational Church (Unitarian) in Boston Dana McLean Greeley, the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, led the service. When his companion, Marion, died, she was buried beside him - the marker reads "Marion Morehouse Cummings, 1906-1969."

(Columbia Encyclopedia in an early edition mistakenly did not capitalize his name. Noman Friedman further explains that Cummings wrote to his mother as to why he printed "I" as "i": "I am a small eye poet."

http://www.harvardsquarelibrary.org/unitarians/cummings.html Notable American Unitarians] mistakenly spells his name with small letters.

(See entry for Robert Frost and for Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society).

(See a portion of Catherine Reef's E. E. Cummings, A Poet's Life (Clarion Books, 2006).

Susan Cheever's E. E. Cummings: A Life

The Economist (22 February 2014) reviews Susan Cheever's work, about Cummings: E.E. Cummings: A Life (Pantheon; 213 pages; $26.95 and £16.28)

Most people were puzzled by E.E. Cummings. Having written poetry from the age of eight, he was lauded after his death as one of America’s great modernist writers. Yet his poems were unlike any others seen before. Often short and occasionally scurrilous, they used lower-case letters and lacked punctuation. “may i feel said he/(i’ll squeal said she” is how one famous poem begins. Many seemed more like nursery rhymes or nonsense verse than serious work. “What is wrong with a man who writes like this?” asked one exasperated critic.
Susan Cheever’s fine new biography of Cummings sheds some light. The daughter of John Cheever, an American author, she is an astute observer of the inner life of writers and how they work. The charge most often laid against Cummings—that he was a “kid’s poet” who did not need to be taken seriously—is countered by meticulous research showing the classical influences on his writing.
Cummings was born in 1894, the son of an academic, and grew up around Harvard University. His poetry was influenced by the men he encountered: the chairman of the department of philosophy inspired his love of the sonnet form, while William James, the philosopher and brother of novelist Henry, spurred Cummings on to write. Yet his verse also grew out of a rebellion against this world: “the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls/are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds”, he wrote dismissively in one popular early poem. It was only in New York that he felt free. Surrounded by writers such as Marianne Moore and Edmund Wilson, and photographers such as Walker Evans, he spent over 40 years in Greenwich Village, living in the same apartment.
Most of Cummings’s life was focused on his work. He wrote nearly 3,000 poems, two novels and four plays, as well as painting portraits. He was briefly married twice and spent the rest of his life with Marion Morehouse, a photographer and model, travelling between Europe and America. Certain events shaped his life: having enlisted during the first world war, he was imprisoned in a French camp on suspicion of treason, and a visit to Russia in the 1920s made him a staunch anti-communist. As he put it in one poem, “every kumrad is a bit/of quite unmitigated hate”.
His life was mostly an inward-looking one, though, which makes him a hard subject for a biographer. Ms Cheever mostly gets round this problem, even in such a short book. Alongside descriptions of Cummings’s life she provides examples of his poetry, and she often combines her analysis of events with literary criticism. External events are sketched in lightly whereas personal encounters are given more depth. Cummings’s anti-Semitism is analysed extensively. Ms Cheever also makes much of the reunion between Cummings and his daughter Nancy, who did not know he was her father until she was in her 30s and a poet herself. Such details ensure this biography succeeds where other works have failed, by making this tricky poet understandable.

{CE; FFRF; The Selected Letters of Marianne Moore, 1957; U; UU; WAS, 1951; Michael Webster, e-mail, 29 April 2009}


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