E.E. Cummings, who was born on this day, was second only to Robert Frost in 20th century American poetry readership. But there is no doubt Cummings ranks first in his influence on the shape of modern poetry.
Cummings seemed destined to be a poet. Even his birthplace and childhood home in Cambridge, Massachusetts was less than a mile away from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s house (though poetically, he was many miles away). His father was a minister and Harvard professor, and Cummings had a traditional upbringing with Harvard bachelor and master’s degrees in the classics. But not for him the stiffness of classical poetry. Instead, he pivoted to free-form poetry and in his writing, developed a refreshingly different poetic style, one that is unconventional and remarkably creative in the use of grammar and punctuation. Consider for example, the following poem:
One is forced to read it more than once, perhaps with the head tilted to one side or the other to catch the entire message, with its quiet conclusion. Okay, for those struggling, here’s the poem rearranged in the standard way:
This tongue-in-cheek writing style would be Cumming’s trademark over his entire career. And if his odd writing format seems rather arty, it isn’t just a coincidence, for Cummings was an artist as well as a poet, producing in his lifetime more than 1700 oil paintings, watercolors, drawings and sketches. Indeed, some of his poetry admirers have christened him “the Picasso of poetry.”
The reference to Picasso is not accidental as Cummings met the French master in Paris and was dazzled when the famous Armory Show of avant garde European art was in full swing in New York.
We now see that with an artist’s eye, Cummings imprinted his whimsically arranged poem on the page. Every punctuation mark or capital letter was placed carefully and intentionally, and the very shape of the stanzas had visual significance to him.
Here are two artworks by Cummings:
Mecca of Poetry
In the 1940s and 50s, it almost seemed to be a course requirement for Ivy League poetry majors to make a spring pilgrimage to No. 4 Patchin Place, Greenwich Village where Cummings lived from 1942 to 1962. There, they found a most interesting individual, the celebrated Picasso of modern poetry, the husband or partner of three stunning American women (though not at the same time), and a brilliant exponent of poetic wordplay.
If Robert Frost was the doyen of 20th century American poetry, Cummings was surely the torchbearer of avant garde poetry. He wrote prodigiously, producing some 2700 poems, including more than 200 sonnets. These often did not look or feel like sonnets, but within their 14 lines of verse one could find strong evidence of Romanticism where feeling held sway over thinking, and emotion over reason.
My favorite Cumming poem? There are so many, but the following poems have struck a chord with me through the years. They still do.
LET IT GO – THE
let it go – the
smashed word broken
open vow or
the oath cracked length
wise – let it go it
was sworn to
let them go – the
truthful liars and
the false fair friends
and the boths and
neithers – you must let them go they
let all go – the
big small middling
tall bigger really
the biggest and all
things – let all go
so comes love
WHO KNOWS IF THE MOON’S
who knows if the moon’s
a balloon,coming out of a keen city
in the sky—filled with pretty people?
(and if you and i should
get into it, if they
should take me and take you into their balloon.
we’d go up higher with all the pretty people
than houses and steeples and clouds:
away and away sailing into a keen
city which nobody’s ever visited,where
in love and flowers pick themselves
SOMEWHERE I HAVE NEVER TRAVELLED, GLADLY BEYOND (Excerpts)
Somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence;
in your most frail gesture are things which close me,
or which I cannot touch because they are too near
Your slightest look easily unclose me
though I have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully, mysteriously)her first rose
(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
Here’s the full poem, read by Catricia Hiebert