E. E. Cummings (1894-1962)

    Contributing Editor: Richard S. Kennedy

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    Sometimes students are not aware that the visual presentation of a poem is part of its overall statement. In addition, they are sometimes puzzled by Cummings's unusual linguistic usage: the use of nouns as verbs, other locutions of nouns, etc. (e.g., the world is made of "roses & hello," "of so longs and ashes").

    When I call students' attention to ways that words or presentations on the page actually function, this most often brings home an effect that may have been missed (e.g., in the poem "l(a" to point out the way the letter "L" and the word "one" are introduced, as the word "loneliness" and "a leaf falls" are intertwined). Sometimes I simply ask students for their individual responses and find that they really can feel the significance of an unusual expression.

    An extreme example of Cummings's play with language is his poem in pseudosonnet form "brIght." Note some of the patterns in evidence here. The three-letter words "big," "yes," and "who" are used three times; the four-letter words "soft," "near," "calm," "holy," "deep," and "star," four times; the five-letter word "bright," six times. The lines are arranged in a numerical progression from the first line standing alone to a final five-line group. Another progression moves from "s???" to the full spelling of "star," as if a star gradually comes into being. "brIght" orthographically disappears into "?????T." as if dawn comes, isolating the morning star, and then causes it to fade. The pattern of capital letters at length spells out BRIGHT, YES, and WHO. Suggestion builds that the poem has reference to the star of Bethlehem because of the allusions to the Christmas hymn "Silent night, holy night/All is calm, all is bright."

    I have sometimes begun class by asking, "How does Cummings indicate in his poems that he is a painter as well as a poet?" Another simple approach is to ask, "How does Cummings seem different from any other poet whose work you have read?" I have also asked students at some point in a discussion, "Why are these linguistic presentations that Cummings makes classified as poems?" (This last, of course, is not asked about his sonnets or rhymed stanzaic verses.)

    Students vary in their responses, but most of them react deeply to his outlook on life--his valuing of love, nature, human uniqueness. Fewer students appreciate his play with form. Almost all enjoy his humor and satire. Nearly every student joins him in his antiwar stance.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    Cummings is, in his general outlook on life, an unabashed romantic. He affirms life wholeheartedly in all its multiplicity, but especially in whatever is simple, natural, loving, individual, unique. Above all, he emphasizes feeling and emotion rather than thought or analysis. He rejects those social forces in life that hinder the unique and individual expression of each person's essential being. He is particularly hostile to forces that promote conformity, group behavior, imitation, artificiality. He regards technology and the complexities of civilization as dehumanizing. Above all, he abominates war, which he looks upon as the ultimate negation of human values.

    Although Cummings maintains the same general views throughout his life, he is more affirmatively exuberant in his early career and more lightheartedly iconoclastic. In his later career, he is more serene in his response to the basic good things of life and to the beauties of the natural world, but more harshly satiric in his denunciation of what he opposes.

    Cummings's play with language, punctuation, capitalization, and his visually directive placement of words on the page are congruent with the new movement in the arts that began in the 1900s in European painting--the movement toward "break up and restructuring" that was part of the revolt against realism in modern art.

    Original Audience

    Cummings does not address a particular audience, although he assumes that his readers are generally educated in literature and the arts.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Cummings's work may be associated with the experiments in language and form that are found in the writings of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and John Dos Passos. He may be contrasted with writers in the realistic or naturalistic vein, such as Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Robinson, Robert Frost, and Ernest Hemingway.

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing

    1. I have sometimes lectured on his characteristic ideas and attitudes and then asked students to point out which poems illustrate these best. Or I have lectured on his special techniques and expressive devices in order to alert the students to ways of reading and understanding his work.

    2. I have sometimes asked students to compare a Cummings sonnet with a conventional one, or to compare a Cummings lyric with one by Frost.

    I have also asked students to point out the likenesses and differences between a specific Cummings work and one by Eliot or Pound.


    Richard S. Kennedy's introduction to the typescript edition of Tulips & Chimneys by Cummings (Liveright, 1976) summarizes his view of life and his poetic techniques.

    Norman Friedman's E. E. Cummings: The Art of his Poetry (Johns Hopkins, 1960), Chapters Three and Four, deal clearly with his attitudes and his poetic devices.

    Richard S. Kennedy, Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E. E. Cummings (Liveright, 1980) is the definitive biography.