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by Bamber Gascoigne

Edward Estlin Cummings (1894-1962) - e e cummings


American poet and painter who first attracted attention for his eccentric punctuation, but the commonly held belief that E.E. Cummings had his name legally changed to lowercase letters is erroneous – he preferred to capitalize the initials of his name on book covers and in other material. Despite typographical eccentricity and devotion to the avant-garde, Cummings's themes are in many respects quite traditional. He often dealt with the antagonism between an individual and the masses, but his style brought into his poems lightness and satirical tones. As an artist Cummings painted still-life pictures and landscapes at a professional level.

Humanity i love you because
when you're hard up you pawn your
intelligence to buy a drink.

(from 'Humanity i love you,' 1925)

Edward Estlin Cummings was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His father, Edward, was a Harvard teacher and later a Unitarian minister. Rebecca Haswell Clarke, his mother, enjoyed reading poetry to her children, and encouraged him to write poetry every day. Edward Cummings died in 1926 an accident, when his car was hit by a steam locomotive.

His first poem Cummings wrote when he was only three.  He was educated at Cambridge High and Latin School, and from 1911 to 1916 he attended Harvard, where he met John Dos Passos. Cummings became an aesthete, he began dress unconventionally, and dedicated himself to painting and literature. He graduated in 1915 with a major in classics.

With Dos Passos and others he published in 1917 Eight Harvard Poets. During the last years of World War I, he was an ambulance driver with the Norton-Harjes ambulance company in Northern France. He had left America in defiance of his parent's wishes, to support the Allied armies. His friend William Slater Brown, with whom he had crossed the Atlantic, was referred to in the book as "B."

Indiscreet comments in the letters of a friend led to Cummings's arrest and incarceration along with a diverse collection of soldiers and other prisoners in a French concentration camp at La Ferté-Macé. Later, he found out he had been accused of treason, but the charges were never proven. This experience gave basis for Cummings's only novel, The Enormous Room (1922), in which he drew acidly funny sketches of the jailers and sympathetic portraits of prisoners. This work had been written at his father's urging. On publication, the book divided reviewers, some of whom expected it to be a documentary, instead of a collection of isolated episodes resisting simple classification. It sold only 2,000 copies in its first edition, but influenced authors such as Hemingway, an ambulance driver himself on the Italian front.

The novel was followed by collections of verse, Tulips and Chimneys (1923), which contrasted the evils of war to the 'sweet spontaneous earth', and XLI Poems (1925). In the 1920s and 1930s Cummings divided his time between Paris, where he studied art, and New York, where he had a child with a friend's wife. He first came to Europe with John Dos Passos in 1921 and took a room at the Hotel Marignan. His friend Slater Brown stayed with him at Marignan periodically. Upon returning from a bicycle tour in Italy, he checked into the Hôtel de la Havane, where he lived again in 1924 after divorcing Elaine Orr, the former wife of his mentor, Scofield Thayer.

In Paris Cummings met the poets Ezra Pound, Hart Crane, and Archibald MacLeish. His friends also included the philosopher A.J. Ayer, who had a short affair with Cummings' wife, Marion Morehouse. She was twelve years his junior, a former Ziegfield showgirl and one of the leading models of the age. Cummings's friendship with Ayer lasted over twenty-five years. Once Cummings took Ayer to see the legendary stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. "You walk on tightropes as if they lay on the ground," Cummings wrote in a birthday poem to Ayer, "and always, bird eyed, notice more than we notice you notice."

Cummings supported himself by painting portraits and writing for Vanity Fair. Throughout the 1920s, he contributed to The Dial, perhaps America's greatest literary journal. & (1925) and is 5 (1925), inspired by Apollinaire, were written in the poet's new style. The books presented his radical experiments with punctuation and typography, and he used lower letter cases in his own name. In 1930 Cummings published a sixty-three page volume with no title. Grammatical anarchism, a modern extension of romanticism, was a both result of the poet's hostility to mass society and his attempt to find a new way to write on old subjects: "Since feeling is first / who pays any attention / to the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss you." (from 'since feling is first', 1926). In the line "mOOn Over tOwns mOOn" (1935), which showed the movement of the full moon, the letters became pictorial signs.

Cummings believed that modern mass society was a threat to individuals. "Progress is a comfortable disease," Cummings once wrote. He was interested in jazz, which had not yet become mass entertainment, cubism, and contemporary slang, an unorthodox form of language. "His head was a storehouse of remembered verses from Sappho in Greek, Laforgue in French, Horace in Latin, and Amy Lowell, Shakespeare, and Longfellow in English," recalled Archibald MacLeish, "and he could weave the most incongruous quotations together spontaneously, with effects sometimes funny and sometimes of a startling beauty."

Very often Cummings's rebellious attitude towards religion, politics, and conformity came to the fore. "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". (from 'the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls', 1923). But Cummings also celebrated the joy of life and the beauty of natural world, from which people have unluckily estranged themselves. "anyone lived in a pretty how town / (with up so floating many bells down) spring summer autumn winter / he sang his didn't he danced his did." (from 'anyone lived in a pretty how town', 1940).

In 1927 his play him was produced by the Provincetown Players in New York City. During these years he exhibited his paintings and drawings, but they failed to attract as much critical interest as his writings. Moreover, his ballet Tom, based on Uncle Tom's Cabin, was pronounced undanceable, and fourteen publishers had politely turned down his new book, entitled 70 Poems. In 1931 Cummings traveled in the Soviet Union and recorded later his impressions in Eimi (1933), a version of Dante's Descent into Hell, in which he saw the Russians as "undead." On the eighteenth day of his visit Cummings descended into Lenin's Tomb. It was difficult to find a publisher for the work, because leftist and avant-garde circles nurtured great hopes for the first Socialist State. On leaving Russia he also translated Louis Aragon's Le Front Rouge, a poem influenced by Mayakovsky.

When Cummings did not find a publisher for 70 Poems, he got $300 from his mother and published the collection in 1935 under his own imprint, the Golden Eagle Press, but now entitleD No Thanks.

Farrar & Rinehart
-Simon & Schuster
---Limited Editions
---Harcourt, Brace
----Random -House
---- Equinox Press
-----Smith & Haas
------Viking Press
--------- Scribner's

(arranged in the form of a funeral urn in the dedication page of No Thanks)

From 1952 to 1953 Cummings was a professor at Harvard. His series of lectures appeared under the title i: six nonlectures. In 1957 he received a special citation from the National Book Award Committee for Poems, 1923-1954, and in 1957 he won the Bollinger Prize. Cummings was married three times, first to Elaine Orr; the marriage ended in divorce in less than nine months. He then married Anne Minnerly Barton; they separated in 1932. The rest of his life Cummings shared with Marion Morehouse, a photographer and model, whom he met in 1933. They collaborated in 1962 in Marion Morehouse's photographic book, Adventures in Value. Cummings died of cerebral hemorrhage on September 3, 1962, in North Conway.  When his wife asked him to stop cutting wood on a hot day, he said: "I'm going to stop now, but I'm just going to sharpen the axe before I put it up, dear." They were his final words. 

For further reading: The Magic-Maker by Charles Norman (1958); E.E. Cummings, the Art of His Poetry by N. Friedman (1960); E.E. Cummings and the Growth of a Writer by N. Friedman (1964); E.E. Cummings by B.A. Marks (1965); E.E. Cummings: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. by N. Friedman (1972); E.E. Cummings, a Remembrance of Miracles by B.K. Dumas (1974); Dreams in a Mirror by Richard S. Kennedy (1979); Critical Essays on E.E. Cummings, ed. by G.H. Rotella (1984); American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, Volume 2: E.E. Cummings to May Swenson, 2000 (edited by Robert Hass et al.); E. E. Cummings: A Life by Susan Cheever (2014)

Selected works:

  • Eight Harvard Poets, 1917 (with others)
  • The Enourmous Room, 1922
  • Tulips and Chimneys, 1923
    - [valikoima] Valitut runot (suom. Leevi Lehto ja Esa Mäkijärvi, 2016)
  • &, 1925
    - [valikoima] Valitut runot (suom. Leevi Lehto ja Esa Mäkijärvi, 2016)
  • XLI Poems, 1925
  • is 5, 1926
    - [valikoima] Valitut runot (suom. Leevi Lehto ja Esa Mäkijärvi, 2016)
  • him, 1927 (play)
  • by e e cummings, 1930 [published without a title]
  • CIOPW, 1931
  • ViVa, 1931
    - [valikoima] Valitut runot (suom. Leevi Lehto ja Esa Mäkijärvi, 2016)
  • Eimi, 1933
  • no thanks, 1935
    - [valikoima] Valitut runot (suom. Leevi Lehto ja Esa Mäkijärvi, 2016)
  • Tom, 1935 (a ballet from H.E.B. Stowe's novel Uncle Toms Cabin)
  • One Over Twenty, 1937
  • Collected Poems, 1938
  • New Poems, 1938
  • 50 Poems, 1940
  • 1 x 1, 1944
  • Anthropos: The Future of Art, 1945
  • Santa Claus, 1946
  • Eimi, 1948
  • XAIPE, 1950
  • i, six nonlectures, 1953
  • Poems 1923-1954, 1954
  • 95 Poems, 1958
  • A Miscellany, 1958
  • Adventures in Value: Fifty Photographs by Marion Morehouse, 1962
  • 73 Poems. 1964
    - [valikoima] Valitut runot (suom. Leevi Lehto ja Esa Mäkijärvi, 2016)
  • Fairy Tales, 1965
  • E.E. Cummings, a Miscellany Revised, 1965
  • A Miscellany Revised, 1965
  • Complete Poems, 1968
  • Three Plays and a Ballet, 1968
  • Selected Letters of e e cummings, 1969
  • Complete Poems: 1913-1962, 1972
  • Poems 1905-1962, 1973
  • Uncollected Poems (1910-1962), 1981
  • 1981; Etcetera: the Unpublished Poems of e e cummings, 1983
  • His Whist and Other Poems for Children, 1983
  • Complete Poems 1904-1962, 1994
  • The Theatre of E. E. Cummings by E. E. Cummings, 2013 (edited and with an introduction by George James Firmage, afterword by Norman Friedman)

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