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."

(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).

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