Edward Estlin Cummings, better known as e.e. cummings (Cambridge, October 14, 1894 – North Conway, September 3, 1962), was an American poet, painter, illustrator, playwright, writer, and essayist.
After his studies at Harvard, he served as an ambulance driver on the French front during the First World War. Unjustly accused of espionage, he was interned at La Ferté-Macé; from this experience he drew inspiration for The Enormous Room (1922), a book polemic and at the same time pathetic and funny.
Cummings is famous for his unorthodox use of capitalization and punctuation rules, and for using syntactic conventions in avant-garde and innovative ways. In his writings one finds unexpected and seemingly out-of-place punctuation marks that interrupt whole sentences or even single words. Many of his poems, because of the careful graphic arrangement of the lines, are more easily understood on the written page than when read aloud.
Among his major works: Tulips and Chimneys (1923), XLI Poems (1925), Poems 1923-1954 (1954).
Edward Estlin Cummings (also e. e. cummings, according to his habit of signing himself in lower case) was born on October 14, 1894, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Edward and Rebecca Haswell Clarke Cummings. His father, Edward, was a professor of sociology and political science at Harvard University. Father and son had such a close relationship that the parent always warmly encouraged him to write.Estlin”s first poetic evidence would date from when he was only three years old; it was a poem entitled “Oh little birdie oh oh, With your toe toe.” When he was six years old, his sister Elizabeth was born.
He attended Cambridge Latin High School. His early short stories and poems found their way into the school newspaper, Cambridge Review. From 1911 to 1916 he was a student at Harvard University. There he received the B. A. in 1915 and in 1916 he received the M. A. cum laude, that is, the degree, (literally, Magister Artium) in English and Classical Studies, discussing a thesis entitled The New Art. Several poems by E. E. Cummings were published beginning in 1912 in Harvard Monthly. Cummings himself was editor of the university journal along with fellow Harvard scholars Aesthetes, John Dos Passos, Foster Damon.
From a young age E. E. Cummings devoted himself to the study of Latin and Greek. His devotion to ancient languages is attested to by the titles of several of his works.During his final year at Harvard he was influenced by the writing of Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. His first published poems were collected in a work published in 1920, entitled Eight Harvard poets, written with John Dos Passos.
In 1917, due to World War I, Cummings enlisted in the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps. However, an administrative error prevented him from serving for five weeks, during which he stayed in Paris. Cummings developed a deep love for the city that would drive him to return several times during his life. Just five weeks later, on September 21, 1917, he and his friend William Slater Brown were arrested on suspicion of espionage. The accusation was based on the anti-war views that the two had openly expressed and on letters, called “very bad letters”, that William had written and that had been intercepted by an overzealous censor.They were sent to the detention camp of La Ferté-Macé, in Orne, in Normandy, where they remained for about three months. His friend left the camp for the prison of Précigne around November, after the arrival of the commission that was established every three months to judge the prisoners, while Cummings had to wait until December 21, when he received permission to return to the United States. This solution was arrived at after several interventions and solicitations by his father, also addressed to the institutions. Cummings father, in a touching letter of great humanity, also turned to Woodrow Wilson to sensitize the presidency on the case of his son and of all the American citizens who were then involved in similar unfortunate situations. However, the answer was very late and this, together with the worry that the letter had been lost, increased the tension in the two parents waiting for news of their son. We report a passage of the heartfelt appeal of Cummings father that gives an account of the wear and tear and anxiety felt by parents who had children in the war: “The mothers of our boys in France have rights as much as our own boys. My boy”s mom had the right to be protected from the horrible weeks of anxiety and uncertainty caused by her son”s unexplained arrest and imprisonment. My boy”s mother and all American mothers have a right to be protected against all unnecessary anxiety and pain. “E. E. Cummings returned to the United States on New Year”s Day 1918. He was later recalled to the U.S. Army. He served in the 12th Division at Camp Devens, Massachusetts, until November 1918.
He returned to Paris in 1921 where he stayed for two years until returning to New York. Between 1920 and 1930 he traveled in Europe, meeting Pablo Picasso, among others. In 1931 Cummings traveled to the Soviet Union, recounting his experience in his second novel, Eimi (1933).During these same years he also traveled to North Africa and Mexico and worked as a writer and portraitist for Vanity Fair (1924-1927).
E. E. Cummings” manuscripts are housed at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Austin in Texas.
The accident and the turning point
In the poem my father moved through dooms of love (my father moved through destinies of love), pays tribute to the memory of his father who was killed in 1925 in a car accident, to which his mother, although seriously injured, managed to survive. In his Harvard non-lectures (1952-1953) Estlin Cummings gave the following account of the incident:
“A locomotive cut the car in two. When the two train drivers jumped from the stopped train, they saw a woman – dazed but upright – standing behind a mutilated car; with blood pouring (as the older man reported to me) from her head. One of her hands (the younger man added) kept feeling her dress, as if trying to figure out why it was damp. These men took my elderly sixty-six year old mother by the arms and tried to lead her to a nearby farmhouse; but she broke free from them, walked straight to my father”s body, and ordered a group of frightened bystanders to cover him. When this was done (and only then) did she let them take her away.”
The death of his father had a profound impact on Estlin and his work experienced a new creative phase. Cummings began to focus in his poetry on the most important aspects of life. This artistic turning point was inaugurated with the text, which is a kind of portrait-recollection of a father who had also been a guide in knowledge and a master of life.
Despite Cummings” proximity to avant-garde styles, much of his work falls within the tradition.Many of his poems in fact are sonnets. Cummings” poetry often develops themes of love and nature, as well as the relationship between the individual and the masses. In his poems one also encounters an abundant dose of irony and satire.
While formally and from the point of view of thematic choices his poetry fits into the Romantic tradition, Cummings” work universally demonstrates a particular idiosyncrasy with regard to syntactic structure.
E. C. was influenced by both the Modernists and the “imagist experiments” of Amy Lowell. Later, his visits to Paris exposed him to Dadaism and Surrealism, which in turn entered his work.
While some of his compositions are based on free verse, many others have a structure of fourteen lines that can be traced back to the sonnet, with an intricate rhyme scheme. Like Ezra Pound, Cummings considers the written composition a pictographic instrument, so much so that in his case the use of capital letters, punctuation marks, and frequent verse breaks, where the use of enjambment is forced to the maximum, constitute to the reader”s eye as many rhythmic signs, through which the text can be immediately interpreted and understood at a visual level. For this high degree of visualization Cummings” poetry is also called poem-picture.
The syntactic break and originality in the combination of words came to him from reading at the turn of the century Gertrude Stein, Robert Walser and Franz Kafka.
There is also in E. C. a continuous tension to the linguistic innovation expressed through the play of words and the invention of neologisms, generally formed through the fusion of different grammatical elements: adverbs, prepositions, nouns, proper names.
Although the work of E. C. does not know the results of eclecticism and conceptual mixture typical of the poetry of E. P. there is in any case a constant reference to the atmosphere of myth and Greek paganism, experienced and interpreted as symbols of innocence and uncontaminated sensitivity. Think of the Balloonman, protagonist of the spring spell of in-Just, which overlaps the figure of Pan.
From the introduction to Is 5, 1926: “If a poet is anyone, he is someone who cares cordially little about things done – he is someone obsessed with the idea of Doing. Like all obsessions, that of Doing has its disadvantages; for example, my only interest in making money would be to make it. Fortunately, however, I”d rather make anything else, including locomotives and roses. My ”poems” are measured by roses and locomotives (not to mention acrobats Spring Electricity Coney Island Fourth of July Mice Eyes and Niagara Falls).”
Cummings” talents extend to books, short stories, and drawings for children. An interesting example of his versatility is an introduction written for comic strip Krazy Kat by cartoonist George Herriman.
Living language and experimentalism
Cummings conceives the necessity of a dynamism in art, according to which poetry is a body in motion, whose metrical and stylistic themes and figures are endowed with a life of their own, and form and content fused as if they were a single creature.E. C., in the course of its elaboration, tends to achieve an ever-increasing semantic density, forcing the word to reveal itself in a plurality of meanings, eliciting the highest number of nexuses and linguistic games. Cummings also speaks of a life cycle of language according to which it is born in poetry and dies in the use that is made of it to express the aspects of a culture that is considered dead, that is, patriotic, political, commercial (e.g. political slogans, advertising slogans, commonplaces).This is a formulation shared in the same period and in rather similar terms by Wittgenstein and taken up by W. H. Auden in 1967.
The Letters, Ezra Pound and Mary de Rachewiltz
When Cummings began his Harvard non-lectures, he quoted a passage from Rainer Maria Rilke”s Letters to a Young Poet in which he speaks of the infinite solitude in which works of art are born and expressed and of the consequent necessity, in order to approach them, of an act of love.The poet works in silence and solitude, something that is increasingly difficult in an age of sound that overwhelms the individual and “excludes the present moment,” the only one in which the poet lives. It is therefore difficult, Cummings points out, to be oneself, which is what is most required of the poet in a historical period marked by interchangeable personalities. What gives birth to art is intensity. For E.C., living one”s own sensations to the full and sharing them with those who are able to live them just as intensely constitutes the optimum in which the poet”s creativity is manifested.The letters addressed by Cummings to his friends (Sibley Watson, Hildegarde Watson, William Carlos Williams, Charleen Swanzey, William Slater Brown, Ezra Pound, Mary de Rachewiltz) are the testimony of a literary association in continuous ferment, stimulated by frequentation and an intense exchange of ideas. The correspondence with Ezra Pound in particular and his daughter, Mary de Rachewiltz, documents a long and profound friendship that is expressed in the sharing of writing projects, travel and impressions of the world. As for Mary, it is interesting to note the confidential tone with which E. C. comments on the work of translating her works and how this spontaneous affection extends to the evocation of life stories and anecdotes of the poet”s youth spent in Boston (letter of February 19, 1962).
The Enormous Room is an autobiographical novel about the experience of three months of detention lived by the author at La Ferté-Macé. Articulated in thirteen chapters, mostly dedicated to the portrait of men and women with whom he found himself living this situation, the work is outlined as an irreverent and disenchanted denunciation of the excesses that can produce the application of rules and bureaucratic rigor. The result is an expressive gallery of sketches that preserve the memory of behaviors and facts of which otherwise we would never have heard. This work, therefore, in addition to being a work of literary creativity, is also a historical and anthropological document of extreme interest. It is an account of life in the prison camps in the First World War, a theme that to contemporary readers appears even more dense of references, in light of the drama that was consumed in the labor camps and torture (lager) of the Second World War. The emphasis on individualism is aimed at exploring the humanity of people, showing how often the prejudice and aggression that this produces, lead to a distorted view of those we meet and therefore of reality.The forced cohabitation in the prison reveals a varied and touching picture of how, in a condition of discomfort and deprivation, human relationships can be sincere and strengthen.
Alternatives:An imaginary dialogueAn imaginary dialogImaginary dialogue
E. E. Cummings thus comments on The Enormous Room and his second novel Eimi (from the Greek, first person singular of the present tense of the verb to be “I am”): “When The Enormous Room was published, some people expected a book about war; they were disappointed. When Eimi was published, some wanted another Enormous Room; they were disappointed.””Isn”t The Enormous Room really about war?””It uses war to explore an inconceivable immensity that is so incredibly far away that it appears microscopic.””When you wrote this book, did you observe something very large and very far away through war? “”This book wrote itself, I observed a negligible part of something incredibly farther away than any sun; something more inconceivably huge than the most prodigious of all universes.””Meaning?””The individual.”…….. “Eimi is again the individual; a more complex individual, a more enormous room.””
During his lifetime, Cummings published four plays: HIM (1927), Anthropos: or, the Future of Art (1930), Tom: a Ballet (1935), and Santa Claus: a Morality (1946).
HIM, a comedy in three acts, was produced in 1928 by the Provincetown Players in New York and directed by James Light. The main characters are Him, a comedy writer, and Me, his girlfriend.This is how Cummings commented on his work, “don”t try to understand him, let him understand you.”
Anthropos, from the Greek word for “man”, in the sense of “humankind”, is a one-act play through which Cummings contributed to the development of anthropological reflections. The play consists of a dialogue between a Man and three so-called “subhumans”, i.e. creatures considered inferior.
Tom, A Ballet is a ballet based on Uncle Tom”s Cabin. The ballet is developed into four episodes that were published by Cummings in 1935. It has never been performed.
Santa Claus was probably Cummings” most successful play. It is an allegory of capitalism performed in a single act of five scenes. The play was inspired by his daughter Nancy, with whom the poet was reunited in 1946 after a long period of separation. It was first published in the Harvard College magazine, the Wake. The main characters are Santa Claus, his family (a woman and a child), Death, and the Crowd. At the beginning of the play, the family of Santa Claus is disintegrated because of the desire for knowledge (scientific knowledge declined in the materialism to which Cummings” criticism is addressed). After a series of events, however, Santa Claus” faith in love and his rejection of a materialistic world and the disappointment that comes with it are reaffirmed, and the family is finally reunited.
Alternatives:Cummings and PhysicsCummings and the physics
Among other themes, in the poem Space being (don”t forget to remember) curved, E.C. notes the contrast between the purpose of science to understand the universe and technological applications, tendentially destructive, confined to the narrowness of the human world and its conflicts. The poet”s keen interest in physics is attested in it. Published in the collection ViVa in 1931, when only a few specialists knew Einstein”s theories, it is an almost visionary text with regard to the perception of the dimensions and cooperation of space-time. In the four-dimensional model of space-time, the space that constitutes the universe is curved or distorted by the force exerted by the mass of the objects that are there. In the four einstenian dimensions where also the distance is measured in light-years, the light that crosses the universe is, even if slightly, inclined by the gravitational thrust of stars and black holes.The composition of E. C. is a sort of palìntonos armonìa (harmony of opposite tensions) and wants to suggest, through the introduction of contrasting points of view, a sort of curvature of the space of ideas. These fields of opposing forces are measured from the very beginning of the composition (cf. the two incisions in brackets). The second, so to speak, digression is a paraphrase of the beginning of Robert Frost”s poem (Mending Wall, 1914). This poetic allusion corroborates Cummings” initial scientific reference. In Frost”s poem, the forces of gravity and entropy (described through the second principle of thermodynamics, according to which the end of all things is decay, or to use an expression from W. B. Yeats, “things fall apart”) undermine the stability of a stone wall, a straight line, if you will, drawn through the subtle curvature of the world: the rocks keep falling. We also know from Cummings” first room that space is curved, and that the universe his poem gives life to is terribly complex, in tension with itself, composed as much of science as art, serious and equally steeped in satire. Positions slip. Voices intrude and teach at the same time.
The second law of thermodynamics is also referred to by a professor of chemistry at Johns Hopkins University, Donald Hatch Andrews, author of a review of the volume XAIPE (1950).He argues that in the future our century will not be remembered for nuclear fission but rather for having given the first exact formulation of the principles of communication. In mathematical terms, the exchange of communication between human beings, machines and atoms is expressed in the second law of thermodynamics and in the concepts of entropy.In the field of language, Cummings” work stands as an innovation in the art of communication and therefore, in Andrews” opinion, not only has poetic value but as a contribution to the definition of a model to improve the possibilities of communication of human beings.
Of interest to Cummings” considerations of science is the letter of 1
E. C. lived from September 1924 until his death in Greenwich Village with his third companion, Marion Morehouse, a photographer and model, whom he met in 1932.
In 1952 his alma mater, Harvard, awarded Cummings a position as honorary professor. The Readings on Charles Eliot Norton that he gave between 1952 and 1955 were later collected in i: six nonlectures.Cummings spent the last decade of his life traveling, taking on reading assignments, and spending time at his summer residence at Joy Farm on Silver Lake in New Hampshire.
He died on September 3, 1962 at the age of 67 in North Conway, New Hampshire, of cardiac arrest. His cremated remains rest in Lot 748 Althaea Path, Section 6, in Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston.
During his lifetime, Cummings received numerous awards in recognition of his creative work, including:
Alternatives:Cummings in Mass CultureCummings in the mass culture
The texts of E. Cummings have inspired many artists and have been used in both music and film. Songs by the famous artist Björk are based on the texts of his poems: from I Will Wade Out is taken Sun in my Mouth contained in the album Vespertine (2001), from the homonymous poem Sonnets
Also Bob James wrote a piece based on up in the silence the green silence voice of Hilary James.The CD is “Flesh and blood” which represents the debut of his daughter Hilary as a singer.The poem I carry your heart by Cummings was set to music by Michael Hedges. American composer Eric Whitacre has written several choral works to Cummings” texts, which have been widely performed. Three poems by e. e. cummings also constitute the poetic material explored in Luciano Berio”s Circles (for voice, harp and two percussionists, 1960).
John Cage wrote a piece for solo voice, Experience n.2, on the lyrics of It Is At Moments After I Have Dreamed. The singer-songwriter Debora Petrina has made a reinterpretation for voice and prepared piano, entitled Roses of the Day, which Peters Editions has published as a piece co-signed by Petrina, Cage and Cummings.
Another of his famous poems, Your heart I carry with me, is recited in the film In her shoes by Cameron Diaz, who dedicated it to his sister on her wedding day. The same text is also quoted by Abbie Lockart, the doctor of E.R. during the wedding vows with Dr. Kovac and Heath Ledger in the film Heaven + Hell.The poem “Somewhere” is partially read in Hannah and Her Sisters (1985) by Woody Allen.
I Don”t Want Clara also quotes the poem “Somewhere” in the song “Cary Grant,” contained on the album of the same name. This song also quotes Alfred Hitchcock”s Notorious.
In the 2010 film “Charlie St. Cloud – Follow Your Heart” starring Zac Efron, two phrases from the poem “Dive for Dreams” are recited twice during the film: trust your heart