Cheat sheet… E. E. Cummings

With World Poetry Day coming up this Thursday, our Cheat Sheet today features the American poet E. E. Cummings…

ee cummings

 

 

E. E. Cummings

Just the facts:

  • Full name – Edward Estlin Cummings – though his family always called him Estlin.
  • Lived 14th October 1894 – 3rd September 1962
  • He was born to Harvard professor turned Unitarian minister Edward Cummings and his wife Rebecca Haswell Clarke, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  • He was the eldest of two, and his younger sister Elizabeth was born in 1901.
  • His mother read her children poetry from an early age, and encouraged Estlin in particular to try to write, and crucially to write daily.
  • At the age of three, Cummings wrote his first poem: “Oh, the pretty birdie, O; with his little toe, toe, toe!” There’s more punctuation there than in some of his later poems…
  • Cummings went to Harvard in September 1911 and graduated magna cum laude in 1915.
  • Having continued to amass poetry, sticking to his ritual of writing something daily, he was finally published in the Harvard Advocate in his graduation year.
  • His undergraduate studies, and subsequent Master’s Degree in English and Classics brought him into contact with the work of writers such as Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, who were to have a profound effect on his writing style.
  • Cummings met and befriended John Dos Passos and S Foster Damon during his time at Harvard, and they worked together on the school newspaper.
  • His poems were included in the collection Eight Harvard Poets in 1917.
  • The same year, Dos Passos and Cummings enlisted in Norton-Harjes (American Red Cross) Ambulance Corps though Cummings ended up stuck in Paris for five weeks while he waited to be assigned to a unit.
  • As a young American in Paris, he seems to have enjoyed himself – so much so that he would return to the city many times in the years to come.
  • Letters sent by Dos Passos and Cummings, letters in which they openly denounced the war, were frequently intercepted by the military censors.
  • On 21st September 1917, Cummings and a friend, William Slater Brown, were arrested, charged with espionage and imprisoned in a detention camp in Normandy.
  • The poet was locked in a large room with many other prisoners until he was finally released three and a half months later, before travelling home to America.
  • Back in the USA, he was drafted and served at Camp Devens, Massachusetts until the end of the war.
  • In 1918, Cummings began an affair with his friend Scofield Thayer‘s wife Elaine Orr which served as inspiration for his Erotic Poems… He had been commissioned by Thayer to write a poem, Epithalamion, to mark the occasion of their marriage in 1916…
  • In December of 1919, Cummings gave the couple another gift – a baby girl called Nancy. Generous to a fault one might say.
  • In 1920, The Dial, which was edited by Thayer, published seven of Cummings’ poems including Buffalo Bill’s which brought him to the attention of the wider nation for the first time.
  • In 1921, Cummings returned to Paris, where he lived for the next two years.
  • There, he wrote his autobiographical novel, The Enormous Room (1922), which told the story of his wartime detention, and Tulips and Chimneys (1923), his first collection of his own poetry.
  • He briefly returned to Greenwich Village in New York before going on to spend most of the 1920s travelling through North Africa and Mexico for Vanity Fair, when he wasn’t in Paris or exploring Europe meeting people such as Pablo Picasso.
  • On 19th March 1924, Cummings married Elaine Orr, who was freshly divorced from Thayer.
  • They separated two months later and were divorced less than nine months after that when Elaine absconded with an Irish banker, taking Nancy with her. Cummings didn’t see his daughter again for twenty-two years.
  • In 1925, his second collection, XLI Poems was published, furthering his cutting edge, avant garde reputation.
  • In 1926, his parents were involved in a car crash which killed his father and severely injured his mother. Cummings’ work from then on became more mature, beginning with the personal elegy my father moved through dooms of love.
  • In 1928, his play HIM was first produced in New York. His instructions to the audience were “DON’T TRY TO UNDERSTAND IT, LET IT TRY TO UNDERSTAND YOU.”
  • On 1st May 1929 he married Anne Minnerly Barton, and they enjoyed a long and happy marriage. A comparatively long and happy marriage. When compared to his first one. They separated in 1932.
  • His trip to the USSR in 1931 was captured in his travelogue EIMI (Greek for “I am”) and radicalised the poet – pushing him toward the right rather than the left in response to the squalid conditions he observed and described in the book as “Hell”.
  • After separating from his second wife, he met the model and photographer Marion Morehouse who he lived with for the rest of his life. The secret seems to have been not getting married…
  • After his ballet Tom, A Ballet, based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin failed to ever actually get produced, Cummings wrote his allegorical play Santa Claus: A Morality in 1946, which was inspired by his reunion with his daughter Nancy (more on that below).
  • In 1952 he was awarded a  guest professorship at Harvard and gave a series of lectures (The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures), in 1952 and 1955 – which were subsequently published as i: six nonlectures.
  • Forever a traveller, he spent his final years travelling and doing public speaking when not enjoying the comforts of his house, Joy Farm in New Hampshire.
  • He died of a stroke on 3rd September 1962, aged sixty-seven.
  • At the time of his death he had written around 2,900 poems and was the second most widely read poet in America, after Robert Frost.

Key work: It’s almost impossible to choose one piece of work from such a vast collection, so here’s a favourite which we have used on some of our own branded bags…

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

 

Anecdote: In 1946, an odd chain of events had led Cummings to have come back into contact with his daughter Nancy, who had now married Willard Roosevelt, grandson of President Theodore. The two had begun to enjoy a close friendship – to the extent that Nancy even wondered if she was falling in love with the man she thought of as just a friend of her suppose father, Scofield Thayer. Nancy had consented to sit for a portrait painted by Cummings. Left alone in his studio together, Nancy took the opportunity to ask about her father, Thayer, since she had never met him…

“Did anyone ever tell you I was your father?”  replied Cummings.

After a long pause, she replied that he couldn’t mean it. Protesting that she didn’t need to choose between her two “fathers”, Cummings said solemnly “We know who we are.”

DO say: “Capital letters or not, ee cummings’ poetry was the cubism of the written word.”

DON’T say: “Aren’t all his poems actually pretty standard poetic structures with the punctuation removed?”

 

You can find all of our past cheat sheets here.

Read more blog posts about poetry here.

 

Dan Lewis, for Waterstones.com/blog

Is there an author you’d like a cheat sheet to feature? Let us know in the comments below…

 

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