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Essay On E. E. Cummings Poetry

Edward Estlin Cummings (October 14, – September 3, ), popularly known as E. E. Cummings, with the abbreviated form of his name often written by others in lowercase letters as e.e. cummings (in the style of some of his poems—see name and capitalization, below), was an American poet, painter, essayist, author, and playwright. His body of work encompasses approximately 2, poems, two autobiographical novels, four plays and several essays, as well as numerous drawings and paintings. He is remembered as a preeminent voice of 20th century poetry.

Edward Estlin Cummings (October 14, – September 3, ), popularly known as E. E. Cummings, with the abbreviated form of his name often written by others in lowercase letters as e.e. cummings (in the style of some of his poems—see name and capitalization, below), was an American poet, painter, essayist, author, and playwright. His body of work encompasses approximately 2, poems, two autobiographical novels, four plays and several essays, as well as numerous drawings and paintings. He is remembered as a preeminent voice of 20th century poetry.

Born into a Unitarian family, Cummings exhibited transcendental leanings his entire life. As he grew in maturity and age, Cummings moved more toward an "I, Thou" relationship with 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')."

Cummings wanted to be a poet from childhood and wrote poetry daily aged eight to 22, exploring assorted forms. He went to Harvard and developed an interest in modern poetry which ignored conventional grammar and syntax, aiming for a dynamic use of language. On graduating he worked for a book dealer.

In , with the first world war ongoing in Europe, Cummings enlisted in the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps, along with his college friend John Dos Passos. 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 fell in love with the city, to which he would return throughout his life.

During their service in the ambulance corps, they sent letters home that drew the attention of the military censors, and were known to prefer the company of French soldiers over fellow ambulance drivers. The two openly expressed anti-war views; Cummings spoke of his lack of hatred for the Germans. On September 21, , just five months after his belated assignment, he and a friend, William Slater Brown were arrested by the French military on suspicion of espionage and undesirable activities. They were held for 3½ months in a military detention camp at the Dépôt de Triage, in La Ferté-Macé, Orne, Normandy.

They were imprisoned with other detainees in a large room. Cummings' father failed to obtain his son's release through diplomatic channels and in December wrote a letter to President Wilson. Cummings was released on December 19, , and Brown was released two months later. Cummings used his prison experience as the basis for his novel, The Enormous Room () about which F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "Of all the work by young men who have sprung up since one book survives—The Enormous Room by e e cummingsThose few who cause books to live have not been able to endure the thought of its mortality."

Cummings returned to the United States on New Year's Day Later in he was drafted into the army. He served in the 12th Division at Camp Devens, Massachusetts, until November

Cummings returned to Paris in and remained there for two years before returning to New York. His collection Tulips and Chimneys came in and his inventive use of grammar and syntax is evident. The book was heavily cut by his editor. XLI Poems, was then published in With these collections Cummings made his reputation as an avant garde poet.

During the rest of the s and s Cummings returned to Paris a number of times, and traveled throughout Europe, meeting, among others, Pablo Picasso. In Cummings traveled to the Soviet Union, recounting 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 ( to ).

In , Cummings' father was killed in a car accident. Though severely injured, Cummings' mother survived. Cummings detailed the accident in the following passage from his i: six nonlectures series given at Harvard (as part of the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures) in –

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"

Final years

In , his alma mater, Harvard University awarded Cummings an honorary seat as a guest professor. The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures he gave in and 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 of a stroke on September 3, , at the age of 67 in North Conway, New Hampshire at the Memorial Hospital. His cremated remains were buried in Lot Althaeas Path, in Section 6, Forest Hills Cemetery and Crematory in Boston. In , his third wife, model and photographer Marion Morehouse Cummings, died and was buried in an adjoining plot.

Cummings' papers are held at the Houghton Library at Harvard University and the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

Marriages

Cummings was married briefly twice. Cummings' first marriage, to Elaine Orr, began as a love affair in while she was married to Scofield Thayer, one of Cummings' friends from Harvard. During this time he wrote a good deal of his erotic poetry. The affair produced a daughter, Nancy, born on December 20, Nancy was Cummings' only child. After divorcing Thayer, Elaine married Cummings on March 19, However, the marriage ended after two months and they were divorced less than nine months later. 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

He married his second wife Anne Minnerly Barton on May 1, , and they separated three years later in That same year, Anne obtained a Mexican divorce that was not officially recognized in the United States until August

The 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 in a common-law marriage until his death in Morehouse died on May 18, , while living at 4 Patchin Place, Greenwich Village, New York City, where Cummings had resided since September 8,

Political views

According to his testimony in EIMI, Cummings had little interest in politics until his trip to the Soviet Union in , after which he shifted rightward on many political and social issues. Despite his radical and bohemian public image, he was a Republican and, later, an ardent supporter of Joseph McCarthy.

Poetry

Despite Cummings' consanguinity with avant-garde styles, much of his work is quite traditional. Many of his poems are sonnets, albeit often with a modern twist, 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. He began to rely on symbolism and allegory where he once used simile and metaphor. In his later work, he rarely used comparisons that required objects that were not previously mentioned in the poem, choosing to use a symbol instead. Due to this, his later poetry is “frequently more lucid, more moving, and more profound than his earlier.” 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,
ESTLIN.

Following his autobiographical novel The Enormous Room, Cummings' first published work was a collection of poems entitled Tulips and Chimneys (). 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, particularly in unusual and impressionistic word order.

Cummings' work often does not act in accordance with the conventional combinatorial rules that generate typical English sentences (for example, "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.[citation needed] In some respects, Cummings' work is more stylistically continuous with Stein's than with any other poet or writer.[citation needed]

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 part of a sequence of poems entitled Chansons Innocentes; it has many references comparing the "balloonman" to Pan, the mythical creature that is half-goat and half-man. Literary critic R.P. Blackmur has commented that this usage of language is “frequently unintelligible because he disregards the historical accumulation of meaning in words in favour of merely private and personal associations.”

Many of Cummings' poems are satirical and address social issues but have an equal or even stronger bias toward romanticism: time and again his poems celebrate love, sex, and the season of rebirth.

Cummings also wrote children's books and novels. A notable example of his versatility is an introduction he wrote for a collection of the comic strip Krazy Kat.

Controversy

Cummings is also known for controversial subject matter, as he has a large collection of erotic poetry. In his collection Xaipe: Seventy-One Poems, Cummings published two poems containing words that caused an outrage in some quarters.

one day a nigger
caught in his hand
a little star no bigger
than not to understand
"i'll never let you go
until you've made me white"
so she did and now
stars shine at night.

and

a kike is the most dangerous
machine as yet invented
by even yankee ingenu
ity(out of a jew a few
dead dollars and some twisted laws)
it comes both prigged and canted

Cummings biographer Catherine Reef notes of the incident:

Friends begged Cummings to reconsider publishing these poems, and the book's editor pleaded with him to withdraw them, but he insisted that they stay. All the fuss perplexed him. The poems were commenting on prejudice, he pointed out, and not condoning it. He intended to show how derogatory words cause people to see others in terms of stereotypes rather than as individuals. "America(which turns Hungarian into 'hunky' & Irishman into 'mick' and Norwegian into 'square- head')is to blame for 'kike,'" he said.

But readers were still hurt, despite his commentary. Jews, living in the painful aftermath of the Holocaust, felt his very words were antisemitic, in spite of their purpose. William Carlos Williams spoke out in his defense.

Plays

During his lifetime, Cummings published four plays. HIM, a three-act play, was first produced in 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 Symposium. 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 It has never been performed.

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 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' 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.

Name and capitalization

Cummings's publishers and others have sometimes echoed the unconventional orthography in his poetry by writing his name in lowercase and without periods, but normal orthography (uppercase and periods) is supported by scholarship, and preferred by publishers today. Cummings himself used both the lowercase and capitalized versions, though he most often signed his name with capitals.

The use of lowercase for his initials was popularized in part by the title of some books, particularly in the s, printing his name in lower case on the cover and spine. In the preface to E. E. Cummings: the growth of a writer critic Harry T. Moore notes " He [Cummings] had his name put legally into lower case, and in his later books the titles and his name were always in lower case." According to his widow, this is incorrect, She wrote of Friedman "you should not have allowed H. Moore to make such a stupid & childish statement about Cummings & his signature." On 27 February , Cummings wrote to his French translator D. Jon Grossman that he preferred the use of upper case for the particular edition they were working on. One Cummings scholar believes that on the rare occasions that Cummings signed his name in all lowercase, he may have intended it as a gesture of humility, not as an indication that it was the preferred orthography for others to use.

Critic Edmund Wilson commented "Mr. Cummings’s eccentric punctuation is, also, I believe, a symptom of his immaturity as an artist. It is not merely a question of an unconventional usage: unconventional punctuation may very well gain its effect the really serious case against Mr. Cummings’s punctuation is that the results which it yields are ugly. His poems on the page are hideous.”

Awards

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

Dial Award ()
Guggenheim Fellowship ()
Shelley Memorial Award for Poetry ()
Harriet Monroe Prize from Poetry magazine ()
Fellowship of American Academy of Poets ()
Guggenheim Fellowship ()
Charles Eliot Norton Professorship at Harvard (–)
Special citation from the National Book Award Committee for his Poems, ()
Bollingen Prize in Poetry ()
Boston Arts Festival Award ()
Two-year Ford Foundation grant of $15, ()

Books

The Enormous Room ()
Tulips and Chimneys ()
& () (self-published)
XLI Poems ()
is 5 ()
HIM () (a play)
ViVa ()
EIMI () (Soviet travelogue)
No Thanks ()
Collected Poems ()
50 Poems ()
1 × 1 ()
XAIPE: Seventy-One Poems ()
i—six nonlectures () Harvard University Press
Poems, ()
95 Poems ()
73 Poems () (posthumous)
Fairy Tales () (posthumous)

References

Wikipedia - woaknb.wz.sk

Literary critics have found any number of ways to divide writers into opposing teams. Isaiah Berlin distinguished between "hedgehogs," who know one big thing -- Tolstoy, Dante -- and "foxes," who know many different things -- Dostoevsky, Shakespeare. Philip Rahv taught a generation of readers to look at American literature as a combat between aesthetic "palefaces" like Henry James and vigorous "redskins" like Walt Whitman. But when it comes to the poetry of the twentieth century, perhaps the most useful distinction is the one between parents and children. Some poets present themselves as fathers or mothers -- thoughtful, serious, eager to claim authority and accept responsibility. Others are determined to remain sons or daughters -- playful, provocative, in love with games and experiments, and defiant of convention in language as in life.

Undated painting of Cummings as a child by Charles Sydney Hopkinson

The most notorious and beloved child in modern American poetry is E.E. Cummings. Even readers who seldom read poetry recognize the distinctive shape that a Cummings poem makes on the page: the blizzard of punctuation, the words running together or suddenly breaking part, the type spilling like a liquid from one line to the next:


one

t
hi

snowflake 

(a
  li
    ght
  in
g)

is upon a gra

v
es

one

Cummings was not the first poet to use a typewriter, but as this poem shows, he was the first to take advantage of its power to control the exact spacing and shape of every line, and thus to make a poem's visual appearance as important as its musical rhythms. What looks like a thin trickle of letters becomes, to a reader who has learned Cummings's tricks, a picture in print: the snowflake "alighting" in a twirl, the severe vertical of the "gravestone." This playful tinkering with language is the most obvious and appealing sign of Cummings's originality; as he once wrote, it is "such minutiae as commas and small i's,in whichmy Firstness thrives."

But "Firstness" was not just a quality of Cummings's style. With the rebellious enthusiasm of a true poetic "son," he elevated it to a moral and even a cosmic principle: his poems are constantly exhorting us to be original, independent, self-reliant. And he is scornful of everyone who takes refuge in received ideas and conventional standards -- all the cumbersome traditions that parents pass on to their children. This is the constantly repeated message of his poetry:


i mean that the blond absence of any program
except last and always and first to live
makes unimportant what i and you believe;
not for philosophy does this rose give a damn

"So far as I am concerned," Cummings once declared, "poetry and every other art was and is and forever will be strictly and distinctly a question of individualityNobody else can be alive for you; nor can you be alive for anybody else."

Yet this declaration of independence was issued, paradoxically, in the most grandly institutional of settings: from the stage of Sanders Theatre, in one of the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures that Cummings delivered in and To compound the irony, this was the very same stage from which Cummings gave a Commencement address at his Harvard graduation in -- an address that praised "The New Art" in terms calculated to scandalize an audience of proper Bostonians. Throughout his life, Harvard was an inescapable presence in Cummings's moral universe: a place where conventions were imposed and where they could be fought against, a place endowed by the fathers but populated by the sons. To understand Cummings's achievement, and the limits of that achievement, Harvard is the best place to start.

The full scope of the University's role in Cummings's life can be fully appreciated only now, thanks to a new biography of the poet by Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno. E.E. Cummings: A Biography is a definitive account of the poet's turbulent life, a page saga that includes some of the most colorful personalities of the Modernist period: Hart Crane and Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore and John Dos Passos. Cummings, born in , was part of the generation that returned from World War I ready to demolish Victorian illusions and experiment with all kinds of liberation, sexual and social as well as literary. As he told his Sanders Theatre audience in the s, he belonged to "what some wit once nicknamed a 'lost generation,'" whose defining characteristic was a joyful, almost nihilistic embrace of risk. "I don't think we enjoyed courting disaster," Cummings recalled; "I do feel we liked being born."

Harvard graduation photograph
Private Cummings at Fort Devens, Massachusetts,
Cummings in a hammock with his father and sister, Elizabeth

Cummings may have resisted the journalistic label of the "lost generation," but his life helped to define its now-mythic itinerary. He was thoroughly disaffected by his wartime experiences, which he described in his autobiographical novel, The Enormous Room. He was glad to escape the regimentation of army life for the artists' playground of Greenwich Village, where he threw himself into writing, painting, and sexual adventure. (Cummings would run through two marriages and many love affairs before settling down with the former model Marion Morehouse, his companion for the last 30 years of his life.) Like so many of his fellow Modernists -- Edmund Wilson, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald -- he made the pilgrimage to Paris in the s, finding it a liberation and a revelation: "an actual marriage of material with immaterial thingsan immediate reconciling of spirit and flesh, forever and now, heaven and earth."

For the rest of his life, Cummings would reside in Greenwich Village -- his apartment at 4 Patchin Place became one of the most famous literary addresses in America -- and make regular visits to Paris. And as time passed, his odd-looking poetry, which first appeared in little magazines and ephemeral editions, won an ever-larger readership. It turned out that Cummings's rebellion against social and sexual convention, far from being a lonely fight, brought him exactly in sync with the national mood. His rejection of sexual puritanism, his insistence on the freedom of the individual to think and explore and create, resonated perfectly with the increasing permissiveness of American culture. One might say that Cummings was just a few years ahead of his generation, attacking old values and institutions that were on the verge of surrender. By the time he died, in , he had become perhaps the most beloved and widely read of American Modernist poets. His popularity, like that of his contemporary Edna St. Vincent Millay, owed a great deal to his ability to capture the Bohemian mystique of the Village and the Left Bank, where literary and sexual experimentation seemed to go hand in hand:


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

The readers who delighted in such poems might have been surprised to learn that, in fact, Edward Estlin Cummings came from the most respectable quarter of Cambridge, Massachusetts. His childhood home was at Irving Street, just a few blocks from where the Science Center now stands. He grew up surrounded by Harvard, and his first playmates were professors' children. As he recalled in his Norton lectures: "Our nearest neighbour, dwelling (at a decent distance) behind us, was Roland Thaxter, primarily the father of my loveliest playmate and ultimately the professor of cryptogamic botany. To our right, on Irving Street, occurred professors James and Royce and Warren; to our left, on Scott Street, transpired professor of economics Taussig."

And Estlin, as he was known all his life, was the son of Edward Cummings, a member of the University's fledgling department of sociology. Genealogy, even more than geography, put Harvard at the center of the young poet's mental and emotional life. As he grew up, his feelings about the world of Harvard and Cambridge were always informed by his strong, conflicting responses to his father, and vice versa. And it is no exaggeration to say that having a father like Edward Cummings -- physically strong and spiritually intrepid, a dominant presence in his home and his city -- helped to make E.E. Cummings one of the eternally rebellious "sons" of modern American poetry.

While Edward Cummings's family had been in Massachusetts since the s, he was hardly a Boston Brahmin. He put himself through high school working as a carpenter and was the first member of his family to attend college. But once he arrived at Harvard, in , he immediately felt at home -- so much so that, with a few interruptions, he stayed there for the next 21 years. After graduating magna cum laude in , he briefly attended the law school, then switched to the divinity school. After earning a master's degree, he went on to study sociology at the graduate school of arts and sciences, where he was a protégé of the great philosopher and psychologist William James. It was James who introduced Edward to his wife-to-be, Rebecca Clarke, the granddaughter of a prominent Boston politician; they were married in , the same year Edward joined the Harvard faculty. He would teach at the University for the next nine years, and would live on Irving Street, in Harvard's penumbra, for the rest of his life.

Edward Cummings's decision to join divinity with sociology was perfectly in tune with his Unitarianism, a faith that emphasized good works and philanthropy over doctrine and dogma. The same spirit reigned at Harvard: in , Edward Cummings was awarded the University's first Robert Treat Paine Fellowship, a grant of $ "to study ethical problems of society and the effortsto ameliorate the lot of the masses of mankind." This sounds at least as much like a religious calling as a secular science. Indeed, according to Sawyer-Laucanno, Cummings had been disappointed with the Harvard Divinity School precisely because "he found that his interest in ministering to the poor and oppressed did not fit particularly well with the school's program that emphasized theology and pulpit studies over social issues."

So it made sense that, in , Edward Cummings would finally leave Harvard in order to become the minister of a church famous for its commitment to "social issues." He was asked to take over the pulpit of Boston's South Congregational Church from Edward Everett Hale, one of the most famous philanthropists in America, who had turned his church into a center for activism. Whether as professor or as minister, Edward Cummings represented the best of nineteenth-century Unitarian Boston in general, and of Harvard in particular: its high moral principles, its noblesse oblige, and its confident liberalism.

To be the son of such a man, however, was not easy. One of the most revealing sections of Sawyer-Laucanno's biography deals with Cummings's youthful ambivalence toward his father, drawing on notes that Cummings wrote decades later. In those recollections, the adult poet remembers how overwhelming his father's example seemed, both morally and physically: "My father was a walking Platonic triad -- the good, the true, the beautiful." And the son was desperate to live up to his father's expectations. There even seems to be a hint of this in a diary entry that his mother, Rebecca, wrote when he was just a few days old: "Boy circumcised by Dr. Hildreth -- Bore it very well -- Cried lustily till Edward spoke to him telling him to bear it bravely. [T]hen the boy actually stopped crying."

Whether this was coincidence or precocious obedience, Cummings's awe of his father continued to be a theme of his childhood. In one late-life memoir, he recalled an episode when "I was given a new sled, and went out with my nurse to coast -- the sled, going fast, hit something and threw me off, and I cried: I begged the nurse not to tell my fatherI was always afraid of my father." And inevitably, the desire to please his father colored Estlin's feelings about Harvard, where his father and all his neighbors taught, and which he was destined to attend. "As a baby," he told the audience at his Norton lectures, "I sported a white sweater; on which my mother had embroidered a red H, for Harvard." On his third birthday, in , his mother noted in her diary Estlin's fondness for the John Harvard statue: "He is very fond of John Harvard and says 'when I get a 'ittle bigger Mullah, I'm going to be a big college boy and go to college with Fader.'"

That is just what he did -- though by the time Cummings entered the College, in , his father had long since left the faculty. The precocious year-old freshman attended classes while living at home; not until he was a senior did he take a room in the Yard, in Thayer Hall. Still under his father's watchful eye, Estlin seemed to be following faithfully in Edward's footsteps. Like his father, Estlin graduated magna cum laude, and like his father, he stayed on to earn a master's degree.

But unlike Edward, Estlin was no earnest student. He was known, rather, as one of the College's leading aesthetes, a connoisseur of avant-garde painting, music, and literature. He spent his time debating the work of Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell at the Harvard Poetry Society and helping to put together a literary magazine, the Harvard Monthly. The masthead of the Monthly boasted some names that would become famous in the s: Cummings's fellow editors included the novelist John Dos Passos, the critic Gilbert Seldes, and the poet Robert Hillyer. Other editors, like the wealthy Scofield Thayer and J. Sibley Watson, would remain Cummings's friends and patrons throughout his life -- "the truest friends," Cummings declared, "any man will ever enjoy." They were drawn together by their enthusiasm for the most radical trends in modern art and their disdain for their more conventional classmates at the Advocate. Sawyer-Laucanno quotes Malcolm Cowley, who would become famous as a chronicler of the "lost generation":

[T]he Monthly and the Advocatelooked down on each other -- or to be accurate, they nodded to each other coldly from the facing doors of their respective sanctums on the dusty third floor of the Harvard Union. The Monthlies thought that the board of the Advocatewas composed of journalists, clubmen, athletes and disciples of Teddy Roosevelt, a former editor, and not a man of letters among them. The Advocates suspected that the Monthlies were aesthetes (as indeed most of them came to be called), scruffy poets, socialists, pacifists or worse.

Cowley's amused recollection sheds an indirect but significant light on Cummings's life and work. For just as Cummings and his friends made war on the College's philistinism from their office inside the Union, so Cummings's lifelong rebellion against the world of Harvard and Cambridge was decidedly a revolt from within, a matter of family rivalry rather than genuine rejection. It is important to keep this in mind whenever Cummings's poetry mocks Cambridge as the epitome of stifling respectability:


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,
are invariably interested in so many things --
at the present writing one still finds
delighted fingers knitting for the is it Poles?
perhaps. While permanent faces coyly bandy
scandal of Mrs. N and Professor D
the Cambridge ladies do not care,above
Cambridge if sometimes in its box of
sky lavender and cornerless,the
moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy

This is one of Cummings's best-known poems, and with good reason: it is a wonderful tirade, each detail chosen for its sarcastic bite: the souls that come already "furnished" with ideas and "comfortable" assumptions, residing in passionless, "unscented" bodies. And it reflected Cummings's deeply felt resistance to what he perceived as Cambridge's lifelessness. This is made clear in a letter the poet wrote to his younger sister in , when she was struggling to leave the family home and move to New York:


NOTHING IS SO DIFFICULT AS TO BE ALIVE!!!!!! which is the ONLY THING WHICH YOU CANNOT LEARN ever,from anyone,anywhere: it must come out of you;and it never can,until you have KNOCKED DOWN AND CARRIED OUT all the teachable swill of Cambridge etc.

The physical dimension of "being alive" was as important in Cummings's rebellion against Cambridge as the mental and spiritual. Outwardly, Cummings was a well-behaved young man; according to Malcolm Cowley, "he was intensely shy and private in the Cambridge fashion." Yet as Sawyer-Laucanno reveals, this shyness concealed a strong sexual appetite, which Cummings both longed and feared to indulge. He blamed his repression on what he called "my New England downbringing," which "tried its best to make [me believe] that 'virtue' and volupté are opposites." And his father, the pastor, was the living symbol of that sexual Puritanism. "I led a double life," Cummings recalled, "getting drunk and feeling up girls but lying about this to my Father and taking his money all the time." More generally, he wrote, "FEAR & SEX go together in my life. With sex I associate, also, GUILTINESS."

It was only in his senior year, when he finally moved out of the Irving Street house, that Cummings had the opportunity and the audacity to overcome that guiltiness. As an adult, Cummings would become an emblem of the sexually liberated Twenties. His poetry has a sexual frankness, a delighted naughtiness that still makes it very popular with adolescent readers:


may i feel said he
(i'll squeal said she
just once said he)
it's fun said she 

(let's go said he
not too far said she
what's too far said he
where you are said she)

But in order to achieve that kind of freedom, some confrontation with his "downbringing," and with his father, was necessary -- and Harvard offered the perfect staging ground. Cummings and his friends loved to explore the bars and brothels of Boston. He took advantage of his newfound freedom, as he later recalled, to "roam that surrounding world sans peur, if not sans reproche." It was on one of these expeditions, with his classmate "Tex" Wilson, that Cummings parked his father's car in front of a prostitute's apartment, only to emerge to find it towed away. As Sawyer-Laucanno tells the story, the woman, "thinking she was doing a good deedrung the Reverend at three in the morning to tell him his car had been seized by the Boston police."

Self-portrait by Cummings, circa

This was a rude awakening in more senses than one. In the ensuing fight, Edward Cummings wailed to his errant son, "I thought I had given birth to a god." This seems like a peculiar bit of hyperbole coming from a minister. But even if Cummings was exaggerating his father's reaction in retrospect, it is true that Cummings senior and junior often thought about each other in quasi-blasphemous terms. In his novel The Enormous Room, which details his experiences in a French detainment camp during World War I, Cummings printed an introduction by his father, which turns the son into an unmistakably Christ-like figure:


He was lost by the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps. He was officially dead as a result of official misinformation. He was entombed by the French Government. It took the better part of three months to find him and bring him back to life with the help of powerful and willing friends on both sides of the Atlantic.

And if Estlin was God the Son, it was only natural for Edward to become God the Father. "My father," the poet recalled as an adult, "is the principal figure of my earliest remembered life; when he cradled me in his arms, i reposed in the bosom of God Himself; & when i rode on God's shoulder i was king of the world. His illimitable love was the axis of my being." It must have been difficult for this God to learn that his only son was, in fact, all too human.

But it was a necessary shock, and it didn't permanently fracture their relationship. To the end of his life, Cummings declared his profound respect for his father. Certainly any father would be proud to receive the kind of encomium Cummings delivered in one of his Norton lectures:


He was a New Hampshire man, 6 foot 2, a crack shot & a famous fly-fisherman & a firstrate sailor (his sloop was named The Actress) & a woodsman who could find his way through forests primeval without a compass & a canoeist who'd stillpaddle you up to a deer without ruffling the surface of a pond & an ornithologist & taxidermist & (when he gave up hunting) an expert photographer (the best I've ever seen) & an actor who portrayed Julius Caesar in Sanders Theatre & a painter (both in oils and watercolors) & a better carpenter than any professional & an architect who designed his own houses before building them & (when he liked) a plumber who just for the fun of it installed all his own waterworks

In his attitude toward his father and toward Harvard, then, Cummings demonstrated an ambivalence that would leave deep marks on his whole life and work. On the one hand, he cast off his inherited Cambridge earnestness, moralism, and Puritanism. Yet he did all this as a student in his father's university, careful never to rebel so openly that he would be cast out of the community that was his birthright. In fact, it can often seem that Cummings's rebellion is staged specifically for the benefit of his father and his father's world.

And the limits of Cummings's rebellion help to explain the limits of his modernity. Superficially, Cummings is the most radical of poets: no American poet of his generation so fractured the surfaces of poetry. But as the great critic Randall Jarrell wrote, "Even the poems' difficulties are of an undemanding, unaccusing sort -- that of puzzles"; once the reader has gotten accustomed to Cummings's typographical fireworks, there is nothing in the substance of the poems, their ideas and feelings and views of the world, that is genuinely challenging.

In this, Cummings offers a sharp contrast with T.S. Eliot '10, A.M. '11, whose student years at Harvard nearly overlapped with Cummings's, and who came from a similar Unitarian background. (Coincidentally, Sawyer-Laucanno reveals, Cummings and Eliot acted together in a Cambridge Social Dramatic Club production in ) Eliot's poetry offers a profound challenge to the secular optimism of American culture -- above all, to the national reverence for individualism. That is why The Waste Land and Eliot's other great poems continue to be among the most provocative and influential in modern poetry. Cummings's poems, on the other hand, are what Jarrell called "the popular songs of American intellectuals," in the sense that they repeat to us our own most comfortable assumptions -- about love, nature, and the supreme value of the individual.

In the least attractive of his poems, Cummings invites the reader into a mutual admiration society, urging us to feel superior to all the soulless mediocrities who can't share our delicacy of feeling. Cummings's poems and letters are filled with a truly adolescent sense of superiority, curdling at times into misanthropy:


Huge this collective pseudobeast
(sans either pain or joy)
does nothing except preexist
its hoi in its polloi

Cummings's assurance of superiority, like his failure to genuinely disturb his readers, makes even his most adventurous work seem like the antics of a beloved child, certain that his transgressions will be forgiven. "As for me," he said in his Norton lectures, "I was welcomed as no son of any king and queen was ever welcomed. Here was my joyous fate and my supreme blessing." And he recognized that Harvard, too, welcomed him, even in his rebellion: "As regards my own self-finding, I have to thank first of all that institution whose initial I flaunted unknowingly during my very earliest days." No wonder Harvard invited him back, almost 40 years after he graduated, as a Norton Lecturer. He may have been a prodigal, but he was always its son.

Contributing editor Adam Kirsch '97, book critic of the New York Sun, is the author of the forthcoming The Wounded Surgeon, a study of modern American poetry. Houghton Library houses the Cummings papers: the bulk of his manuscripts and drawings, and his incoming correspondence.

"one// t". Copyright © , by the Trustees for the E.E. Cummings Trust, "the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls". Copyright , , © by the Trustees for the E. E. Cummings Trust. Copyright © by George James Firmage, the lines from "voices to voices,lip to lip". Copyright , , © by the Trustees for the E. E. Cummings Trust. Copyright © by George James Firmage, the lines from "i like my body when it is with your". Copyright , , , , © by the Trustees for the E.E. Cummings Trust. Copyright © by George James Firmage, the lines from "may i feel said he". Copyright , © , by the Trustees for the E.E. Cummings Trust. Copyright © by George James Firmage, the lines from "of all the blessings which to man". Copyright , © , by the Trustees for the E.E. Cummings Trust, from COMPLETE POEMS: by E.E. Cummings, edited by George J. Firmage. Used by permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation.

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