Today is the birthday (1894) of Edward Estlin Cummings, usually going by his middle name, Estlin, but quite often referred to in lowercase letters without punctuation as e e cummings. This usage mimics the style of his poetry, but was mostly something others did. The use of lowercase for his initials was popularized in part by the title of some books, particularly in the 1960s, printing his name in lower case on the cover and spine. In the preface to E. E. Cummings: The Growth of a Writer by Norman Friedman, 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 Cummings’s widow, however, this is incorrect. She wrote to Friedman: “You should not have allowed H. Moore to make such a stupid & childish statement about Cummings & his signature.” On February 27, 1951, 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. Cummings himself occasionally used lower case initials when he signed, but normally he used upper case.
Cummings was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His father was a professor at Harvard University and later the nationally known minister of Old South Church in Boston, Massachusetts. He exhibited transcendental leanings his entire life. As he grew older, 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 from 8, 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. Upon graduating, he worked for a book dealer.
In 1917, 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, 1917, 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 1917 wrote a letter to President Wilson. Cummings was released on December 19, 1917, and Brown was released two months later. Cummings used his prison experience as the basis for his novel, The Enormous Room (1922), about which F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “Of all the work by young men who have sprung up since 1920 one book survives—The Enormous Room by e e cummings… Those 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 1918. Later in 1918 he was drafted into the army. He served in the 12th 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. His collection Tulips and Chimneys came in 1923 and his inventive use of grammar and syntax is evident. The book was heavily cut by his editor. XLI Poems, was then published in 1925. With these collections Cummings made his reputation as an avant garde poet.
During the rest of the 1920s and 1930s Cummings returned to Paris a number of times, and traveled throughout Europe, meeting, among others, Pablo Picasso. In 1931 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 (1924–1927).
In the 1930s Samuel Aiwaz Jacobs was Cummings’ publisher; he had started the Golden Eagle Press after working as a typographer and publisher. In 1952, his alma mater, Harvard University awarded Cummings an honorary chair as a guest professor. The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures he gave in 1952 and 1955 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, 1962, at the age of 67 in North Conway, New Hampshire at the Memorial Hospital. His cremated remains were buried in Lot 748 Althaeas Path, in Section 6, Forest Hills Cemetery and Crematory in Boston. In 1969, his third wife, model and photographer Marion Morehouse Cummings, died and was buried in an adjoining plot.
I’ve been a huge fan of Cummings’ poetry since the age of 15 when my English teacher, John Pearce, who was enormously influential on me (https://www.bookofdaystales.com/world-teachers-day/ ), introduced my class to “anyone lived in a pretty how town.” I can’t honestly say I grasped much about the poem then, but it sowed a seed. For many years I kept a complete anthology of his poems on my nightstand, and frequently dipped into it for old favorites or new finds. His style, marked by a disregard for grammar and syntax, is immediately recognizable. This is the first stanza of a well-known favorite:
my father moved through dooms of love
through sames of am through haves of give,
singing each morning out of each night
my father moved through depths of height
Cummings’ father was killed in a tragic car accident which Cummings grieved dreadfully, and this poem is his eulogy. There is no mistaking Cummings’ style here – especially the odd pairings of images and the seemingly meaningless phrases created by lack of grammar (e.g. “sames of am”), which freak out my word processor more than when I write in Spanish. Once in a while I’ll read an “interpretation” of one of his poems and am instantly horrified by the attempt to pin his poetry down. You can’t. I do the same when somebody tries to “explain” a painting or a piece of music. The meanings are ineffable. I just let his words wash over me in waves of feeling. When I mention Cummings to friends, they more often than not have a favorite to tell me about; it touches them in ways that cannot be articulated. Many people (especially students) try to imitate him, but it is useless. His poems are unique. Of course, they are not all pearls, but that may be, in part, because some do not speak to my own life experiences.
Here is the last stanza of “somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond”
(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands
I would not dream of trying to “explain” such a poem. It simply resonates with me and my feelings.
Despite Cummings’s familiarity with avant-garde styles, much of his work is quite traditional. Many of his poems are sonnets, often with a modern twist, and he occasionally made use of the blues form and acrostics. Many of his most striking poems do not involve any typographical or punctuation innovations at all, but purely syntactic ones.
Cummings, who was also a painter, understood the importance of presentation, and used typography to “paint a picture” with some of his poems. This one is a classic:
I could tell you what critics have said about this poem, but I’m not going to. It should be easy enough to pull your own meanings out of it without my help. If you want a little help try writing it out horizontally:
l (a leaf falls) oneliness
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,
It’s amazing to me that a 6 year old could write this. His affection for his father is palpable.
I could use the fact of his confinement in Normany in La Ferté-Macé as an excuse to write about a culinary specialty of the town – tripe fertoise – but I’ll spare you. Maybe one day I’ll recount the story of my pilgrimage to La Ferté-Macé. For now I turn to another famed Cummings poem, “as freedom is a breakfastfood.” This reminds me of discussions I have had over the years with people over the notion of “breakfast food.” Different cultures and different times have their own ideas of what you should eat for breakfast. I’ve mention the full English breakfast many times. Here’s an image to make the mouth water.
Many Western cultures see eggs as the quintessential “breakfast food” whether fried, scrambled, poached, or in an omelet. But this is mere habit. In Yunnan my students tell me that noodles in broth is classic breakfast food. They would NEVER eat rice for breakfast — unthinkable. And so it goes. In London workers at all-night markets have steak, chips (fries), and a pint of beer for breakfast (then go to bed). My father told me when I was young that when he was a Royal Navy officer the crew ate what they felt like eating. I firmly remember his image of eating curry for breakfast. Sounded good to me at the time, and still does.
In accord with my general philosophy about eating, I eat what I want when I want. I don’t have set meal times, and I don’t have set foods for set times. In fact it’s clear that in the Western world breakfast is a popular dish all day. Many road joints offer “breakfast all day.” I once saw a sign that read “breakfast at any time” and I was tempted to order “poached eggs on toast in the Renaissance.” Yeah, I’m a smart ass. But you get the idea. Put something together like a Cummings poem. It doesn’t matter if it breaks “the rules,” in the same way that he broke the rules of grammar and syntax. Just have at it, and be happy.