E E Cummings

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E. E. Cummings

Edward Estlin Cummings (October 14, 1894September 3, 1962), typically abbreviated E. E. Cummings, was an American poet, painter, essayist, and playwright. Though a representation not endorsed by him, his publishers often mirrored his atypical syntax by writing his name in lower case, e. e. cummings.

Cummings is probably best known for the unusual style used in many of his poems, which includes unorthodox usage of both capitalization and punctuation, in which unexpected and seemingly misplaced punctuation sometimes interrupt sentences and even individual words. Several of his poems are also typeset on a page in an unusual fashion, and appear to make little sense until read aloud.

Despite Cummings' affinity for avant garde styles and for unusual typography, much of his work is formally traditional; for instance, 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 satire and the relationship of the individual to the masses and to the world. But, while his poetic forms and even themes show a close continuity with the romantic tradition, his 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 punctuational innovations at all, but purely syntactic ones.

During his lifetime, he published more than 900 poems, along with two novels, several essays, as well as numerous drawings, sketches, and paintings. He is remembered as one of the preeminent voices of twentieth-century poetry.


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Graduation photo from the Cambridge Latin School, 1911

E. E. Cummings was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 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. Raised in a liberal family, Cummings was writing poetry as early as 1904 (age 10). His only sibling, a sister, Elizabeth, was born six years after he was.

In his youth Cummings attended the Cambridge Latin High School. Many of his early stories and poems were published in the Cambridge Review, the school newspaper.

From 1911 to 1916 Cummings attended Harvard, from which he received a B.A. degree in 1915 and a Master's degree for English and Classical Studies in 1916. Also while at Harvard, he met and befriended John Dos Passos. Several of Cummings' poems were published, beginning in 1912, in the Harvard Monthly, a school newspaper on which Cummings worked with his friends Dos Passos and S. Foster Damon.

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Graduation photo from Harvard College, 1915

From an early age, Cummings studied the classical languages of Greek and Latin. His affinity for both can be seen in his later works, such as XAIPE (the title of one of his collections and "Rejoice!" in Greek), Anthropos (the title of one of his plays and "mankind" in Greek), and "Puella Mea" (the title of his longest poem, and "My Girl" in Latin).

Cummings graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in 1915, and delivered the commencement address, entitled "The New Art". In his final year at Harvard, he came under the influence of the works of avant garde writers, such as Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. His first published poems appeared in a collection of poetry entitled Eight Harvard Poets in 1917.

Cummings went to France in 1917 as a volunteer for the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps in the First World War. However, due to an administrative mix-up, Cummings was not assigned to his unit for five weeks, during which time he stayed in Paris. Cummings became enamored with the city, which he would return to throughout his life. Cummings was eventually assigned to an ambulance unit though, after five months, he and a friend, William Slater Brown, were arrested on September 21 1917 on suspicion of espionage (the two openly expressed pacifist views on the war). They were sent to a detention camp, the Dépôt de Triage, in La Ferté-Macé, Orne, Normandy for 3½ months. Cummings' experiences in the camp were later related in his novel The Enormous Room.

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Cummings as a Private at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, 1918

He was released from the camp on December 19 1917, after much intervention from his 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 recorded his experiences in Eimi, published two years later. During these years Cummings also traveled to Northern Africa and Mexico. Also, from 1924 to 1927, he worked as an essayist and portrait artist for Vanity Fair magazine.

In 1926, Cummings' father, whom he was close to, and who was one of Cummings' most ardent supporters, was killed suddenly and tragically in a car accident. Though severely injured, Cummings' mother survived, and lived for more than twenty years until her death in 1947. Cummings detailed the accident in the following quote, from Richard S. Kennedy's biography of Cummings, Dreams in the Mirror [1]:

"... 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, 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" [2].

Cummings was married three times. His 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, who was born on December 20 1919. Nancy was Cummings' only child. After obtaining a divorce from Thayer, Elaine and Cummings married on March 19 1924. However, the marriage ended in divorce less than nine months later, when Elaine left Cummings for a wealthy Irish banker, moving to Ireland and taking Nancy with her. Although under the terms of the divorce Cummings was granted custody of Nancy for three months each year, Elaine refused to abide by the agreement. Cummings did not see his daughter again until 1946.

Cummings married his second wife, Anne Minnerly Barton, on May 1 1929. The two separated three years later in 1932. That same year, Anne obtained a divorce in Mexico, although it was not officially recognized in the United States until August 1934.

In 1932, the same year he and his second wife separated, Cummings met Marion Morehouse, a fashion model and photographer. Although it is not clear if the two were ever officially married, Morehouse would live with Cummings for the remainder of his life, and is considered to have been at the least his common-law wife.

In 1952, his alma mater, Harvard University, awarded Cummings the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship, an honorary seat as a guest professor. The lectures he gave in 1952 and 1953 were later collected as i:six nonlectures. Cummings spent the last decade of his life largely traveling, fulfilling speaking engagements, and spending time at his summer home, Joy Farm, in New Hampshire.

Cummings died in 1962 in North Conway, New Hampshire, after having a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 67. He is buried in Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston, Massachusetts.

Cummings' poetic style

Cummings' unusual style can be seen in his poem "Buffalo Bill's" from the January 1920 issue of the Dial

As well as being influenced by notable modernists including Stein and 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.

While some of his poetry is free verse (with no concern for rhyme and scansion), many of his poems 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. As a painter, Cummings understood the importance of presentation, and used typography to "paint a picture" with some of his poems.[3]

Some of Cummings's most famous poems do not involve much if any odd typography or punctuation at all, but still carry his unmistakable style. For example, one famous poem begins:

anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so many floating 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

Another poem 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"?

Uninitiated readers sometimes experience a jarring, incomprehensible effect because the poems do not accord with the conventional combinatorial rules that generate typical english sentences. (For example "Why must itself..." or "they sowed their isn't [...]"). His readings of Gertrude Stein in the early part of the century probably functioned as a springboard into 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's work shows more stylistic continuity 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; several feature 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" and "puddle-wonderful".

Many of Cummings' poems address social issues and satirize society (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 spring (see "anyone lived in a pretty how town" in its entireity). His 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.

An example of Cummings' unorthodox typographical style can be seen in his poems "the sky was candy luminous..." and "a leaf falls loneliness".


Cummings has been criticized for allowing himself to become static in technique, and accordingly showing a lack of artistic growth; however, others opine that Cummings simply found a style that suited him and kept it. He has also been labeled by some as a misanthrope due to his sometimes harsh satire. Some critics say his depictions of society's hypocrisy are monotony elitism and self-indulgent. Most controversial perhaps is the hotly-disputed claim that some of his works feature racist and anti-semitic overtones.[4]

Cummings as a painter

Cummings always considered himself just as much a painter as he was a poet or writer. Especially in his later years, spent at his home in New Hampshire, Cummings would paint during the day and then write at night.

Beginning with his years at Harvard and continuing on into the 1920s, Cummings identified with the artistic movements of Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism. He particularly admired the work of Pablo Picasso.

Cummings first received critical acclaim for his drawings and caricatures published in the literary magazine the Dial during the 1920s. Cummings later gained recognition as a painter, participating in a number of art shows. He also published CIOPW, a collection of works in the mediums charcoal, ink, oil, pastel, and watercolor, in 1931.

List of shows

Cummings' paintings were placed in a number of shows during his lifetime, including:

  • Two paintings in a show of the New York Society of Independent Artists (1919, 1920)
  • Show of paintings at the Painters and Sculptors Gallery in New York, New York (1931)
  • Show at the Kokoon Arts Club in Cleveland, Ohio (1931)
  • Show of oils and watercolors at the American British Art Gallery in New York, New York (1944)
  • Show of oils, watercolors, and sketches in Rochester, New York (1945)
  • Show of watercolors and oils at the American British Art Gallery in New York, New York (1948)

Cummings as a playwright

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." [5]

Anthropos, or the Future of Art

Anthropos 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

Tom: A Ballet is a ballet based on Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel 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

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.

The play's main characters are Santa Claus, his family (Woman and Child), Death, and Mob. At the outset of the play, Santa Claus' family has disintegrated due to their lust for knowledge (Science). After a series of events, however, Santa Claus' 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.

Santa Claus: A Morality was first published in the Harvard University magazine the Wake.

Capitalization of Cummings' name

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E. E. Cummings' signature

His name is frequently written in lowercase, e. e. cummings, as the lowercase form was a concept for a cover design by one of his publishers. However, Cummings himself capitalized his name. Stories claiming that Cummings preferred a lowercase version of his name or even so much legally changed his name to the lowercase version are false.

Cummings scholar Norman Friedman addressed the matter in his essay "NOT 'e. e. cummings'", which appeared in the first edition of Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society (Spring 1 (1992): pp.114-121).


During his lifetime, E. E. Cummings received numerous awards in recognition of his work, including:


  • Eight Harvard Poets (Boston: Cornhill, 1917)
  • The Enormous Room (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1922), a novel based on his war experiences. The word 'shit' on page 219 was inked out on later copies of the first edition.
  • Tulips and Chimneys (New York: Thomas Seltzer, 1923)
  • & (New York: Cummings, 1925)
  • XLI Poems (New York: Dial Press, 1925)
  • is 5 (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1926)
  • him (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1927)
  • [No title] (New York: Corvici Friede, 1930)
  • Anthropos or The Future of Art (1930)
  • CIOPW (New York: Corvici Friede, 1931)
  • ViVa (New York: Horace Liveright, 1931)
  • Eimi (New York: Corvici Friede, 1933)
  • No Thanks (New York: Golden Eagle, 1935)
  • Tom: A Ballet (Santa Fe: Rydal Press, 1935)
  • 1/20 (London: Roger Roughton&Mdash;Contemporary Poetry and Prose, 1936)
  • Collected Poems (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1938)
  • 50 Poems (New York: Duell Sloan and Pearce, 1940)
  • 1 × 1 (New York: Henry Holt, 1944)
  • Santa Claus: A Morality (New York: Henry Holt, 1946)
  • Puella Mea (Mt. Vernon: Golden Eagle, 1949)
  • Xaipe (New York: Oxford University, 1950)
  • i: six nonlectures (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1953)
  • Poems 1923–1954 (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1954)
  • 95 Poems (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1958)
  • 16 Poèmes Enfantin (New York: Marion Press, 1962)
  • 73 Poems (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1963)
  • Fairy Tales (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1965)

Further reading

A number of books have been written about E. E. Cummings, notably:


  • ^  p. 293, Kennedy (1980)
  • ^  p. 41–43, Lane
  • ^  Landles
  • ^  Shafer
  • ^  p. 295, Kennedy (1980).


  • Everett, Nicholas. 'E. E. Cummings' in Hamilton, Ian (ed.). The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-century Poetry in English (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994)
  • Kennedy, Richard S. (1980). Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E. E. Cummings. New York: Liveright Publishing. ISBN 0871406381
  • Kennedy, Richard S. 'E. E. Cummings' in American National Biography. (New York: Oxford University, 2000)
  • Landles, Iain (2001). "An Analysis of Two Poems by E.E. Cummings". SPRING, The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 10 (2001), 31-43.
  • Lane, Gary (1976). I Am: A Study of E. E. Cummings' Poems. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas. ISBN 0700601449
  • Shafer, Nancy Imelda (2005). "ee cummings" (http://www.empirezine.com/spotlight/cummings/cummings.htm). Retrieved 17 April 2005.

External links


Cummings Society
Poems and biographies

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