E. E. Cummings

E. E. Cummings books and biography


E. E. Cummings

E. E. Cummings
E. E. Cummings

Edward Estlin Cummings (October 14, 1894 – September 3, 1962), abbreviated E. E. Cummings, was an American poet, painter, essayist, and playwright. His publishers and others have sometimes echoed the unconventional capitalization in his poetry by writing his name in lower case and without periods, as e e cummings; Cummings himself did not approve of this rendering. [1]

Cummings is probably best known for his poems and their unorthodox usage of capitalization, layout, punctuation and syntax. There is extensive use of lower case; word gaps, line breaks and gaps appear in unexpected places; punctuation marks are omitted or misplaced, interrupting sentences and even individual words; grammar and word order are sometimes strange. Many of his poems are best understood when read on the page. When read in the correct fashion, his poems often paint a syntactical picture as vital to the understanding of the poem as the words themselves.

Despite Cummings' affinity for avant-garde styles and for unusual typography, much of his work is traditional. Many of his poems are sonnets, and he occasionally made use of the blues form and acrostics as well. Cummings' poetry often deals with themes of love and nature, as well as the relationship of the individual to the masses and to the world. His poems are often satirical as well. But, while his poetic forms and even themes show a close continuity with the romantic tradition, his work universally shows a particular idiosyncrasy of syntax or way of arranging individual words into larger phrases and sentences. Many of his most striking poems do not involve any typographical or punctuational innovations at all, but purely syntactic ones.

During his lifetime, he published more than 900 poems, along with two novels, several plays and essays, as well as numerous drawings, sketches, and paintings. He is remembered as one of the preeminent voices of 20th century poetry.


Education and early career

From 1911 to 1916 Cummings attended Harvard, from which he received a B.A. degree in 1915 and a Master's degree for English and Classical Studies in 1916. While at Harvard, he befriended John Dos Passos. Several of Cummings' poems were published, beginning in 1912, in the Harvard Monthly, a school newspaper on which Cummings worked with fellow Harvard Aesthetes Dos Passos and S. Foster Damon, and in 1915 in the Harvard Advocate.

From an early age, Cummings studied the classical languages of Greek and Latin. His affinity for both can be seen in his later works, such as XAIPE (the title of one of his collections and "Rejoice!" in Greek), Anthropos (the title of one of his plays and "mankind" in Greek), and "Puella Mea" (the title of his longest poem, and "My Girl" in Latin).

In his final year at Harvard, he came under the influence of the works of avant garde writers, such as Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. Cummings graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in 1915, and delivered a controversial commencement address, entitled "The New Art". This speech gave him his first taste of notoriety as he managed to give the impression that he thought the well-liked imagist poet, Amy Lowell was "abnormal," when his intention was to praise her. Cummings was chastised in the newspapers.

In 1917, Cummings' first published poems appeared in a collection of poetry entitled Eight Harvard Poets. That same year Cummings went to France as a volunteer for the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps in World War I. Due to an administrative mix-up, Cummings was not assigned to an ambulance unit for five weeks, during which time he stayed in Paris. Cummings became enamored with the city, to which he would return throughout his life.

On September 21, 1917, just five months after his belated assignment, he and a friend, William Slater Brown, were arrested on suspicion of espionage (the two openly expressed pacifist views on the war). They were sent to a concentration camp, the Dépôt de Triage, in La Ferté-Macé, Orne, Normandy, where they languished for 3½ months. Cummings' experiences in the camp were later related in his novel The Enormous Room about which F. Scott Fitzgerald opined, "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."

He was released from the detention camp on December 19, 1917, after much intervention from his politically connected father. 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 73rd Infantry 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. During the rest of the 1920s and 1930s he returned to Paris a number of times, and traveled throughout Europe, meeting, among others, Pablo Picasso. In 1931 Cummings traveled to the Soviet Union and recounted 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 to 1927).


As well as being influenced by notable sources modernists including Stein and Pound, Cummings' early work drew upon the imagist experiments of Amy Lowell. Later his visits to Paris exposed him to Dada and surrealism, which in turn permeated his work.

While some of his poetry is free verse (with no concern for rhyme and scansion), many of his poems have a recognizable sonnet structure of 14 lines, with an intricate rhyme scheme. A number of his poems feature a typographically exuberant style, with words, parts of words, or punctuation symbols scattered across the page, often making little sense until read aloud—at which point the meaning and emotion become clear. As a painter, Cummings understood the importance of presentation, and used typography to "paint a picture" with some of his poems.[2]

Even in his earliest work the seeds of Cummings' unconventional style seem well established. At age six Cummings wrote to his father:


Cummings' first published work following The Enormous Room was a collection of poems entitled Tulips and Chimneys (1923). The collection was the public's first encounter with his characteristic eccentric use of grammar and punctuation. An example:






Some of Cummings's most famous poems do not involve much if any odd typography or punctuation at all, but still carry his unmistakable style. For example, the aptly titled "anyone lived in a pretty how town" begins:

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

Women and men(both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn't they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain

"why must itself up every of a park" begins as follows:

why must itself up every of a park
anus stick some quote statue unquote to
prove that a hero equals any jerk
who was afraid to dare to answer "no"?

Cummings' unusual style can be seen in his poem
Cummings' unusual style can be seen in his poem "Buffalo Bill's/ defunct" from the January 1920 issue of The Dial.

Readers sometimes experience a jarring, incomprehensible effect because the poems do not accord with the conventional combinatorial rules that generate typical English sentences. (For example "Why must itself..." or "they sowed their isn't [...]"). His readings of Gertrude Stein in the early part of the century probably functioned as a springboard into this aspect of his artistic development (in the same way that Robert Walser's work acted as a springboard for Franz Kafka). In some respects, Cummings's work shows more stylistic continuity with Stein's than with any other poet or writer.

In addition, a number of Cummings' poems feature in part or in whole intentional misspellings; several feature phonetic spellings intended to represent particular dialects. Cummings also made use of inventive formations of compound words, as in "in Just-", which features words such as "mud-luscious" and "puddle-wonderful".

Many of Cummings' poems address social issues and satirize society (see "why must itself up every of a park", above), but have an equal or even stronger bias toward romanticism: time and again his poems celebrate love, sex and spring (see "anyone lived in a pretty how town" in its entireity).

His talent extended to children's books, novels, and painting. A notable example of his versatility is an Introduction he wrote for a collection of the comic strip Krazy Kat.

An example of Cummings' unorthodox typographical style can be seen in his poems "the sky was candy luminous..." and "a leaf falls loneliness".


Cummings has been criticized for allowing himself to become static in technique, and accordingly showing a lack of artistic growth. He has also been labeled by some as a misanthrope due to his sometimes harsh satire. For a time there was a claim that some of his early works feature racist and anti-semitic overtones.[3] However, it is more often noted by critics that although his approach to form did not often vary, his messages grew stronger, harsher, and more effortlessly romantic in his final years.

Cummings as a painter

Cummings always considered himself just as much a painter as he was a poet or writer. Especially in his later years, spent at his home in New Hampshire, Cummings would paint during the day and then write at night.

Beginning with his years at Harvard and continuing on into the 1920s, Cummings identified with the artistic movements of Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism. He particularly admired the work of Pablo Picasso.

Cummings first received critical acclaim for his drawings and caricatures published in the literary magazine the Dial during the 1920s. Cummings later gained recognition as a painter, participating in a number of art shows. He also published CIOPW, a collection of works in the mediums charcoal, ink, oil, pastel, and watercolor, in 1931.

List of shows

Cummings' paintings were placed in a number of shows during his lifetime, including:

  • Two paintings in a show of the New York Society of Independent Artists (1919, 1920)
  • Show of paintings at the Painters and Sculptors Gallery in New York, New York (1931)
  • Show at the Kokoon Arts Club in Cleveland, Ohio (1931)
  • Show of oils and watercolors at the American British Art Gallery in New York, New York (1944)
  • Show of oils, watercolors, and sketches in Rochester, New York (1945)
  • Show of watercolors and oils at the American British Art Gallery in New York, New York (1948)

Cummings as a playwright

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 three-act play, was first produced in 1928 by the Provincetown Players in New York City. The production was directed by James Light. The play's main characters are "Him", a playwright, and "Me", his girlfriend. Cummings said of the unorthodox play:
"Relax and give the play a chance to strut its stuff—relax, stop wondering what it is all 'about'—like many strange and familiar things, Life included, this play isn't 'about,' it simply is. . . . Don't try to enjoy it, let it try to enjoy you. DON'T TRY TO UNDERSTAND IT, LET IT TRY TO UNDERSTAND YOU." [4]
  • Anthropos, or the Future of Art is a short, one-act play that Cummings contributed to the anthology Whither, Whither or After Sex, What? A Symposium to End Symposiums. The play consists of dialogue between Man, the main character, and three "infrahumans", or inferior beings. The word anthropos is the Greek word for "man", in the sense of "mankind".
  • Tom, A Ballet is a ballet based on Uncle Tom's Cabin. The ballet is detailed in a "synopsis" as well as descriptions of four "episodes", which were published by Cummings in 1935. It has never been performed. More information about the play as well as an illustration can be found at this webpage from the E. E. Cummings Society.
  • Santa Claus: A Morality was probably Cummings' most successful play. It is an allegorical Christmas fantasy presented in one act of five scenes. The play was inspired by his daughter Nancy, with whom he was reunited in 1946. It was first published in the Harvard College magazine the Wake. The play's main characters are Santa Claus, his family (Woman and Child), Death, and Mob. At the outset of the play, Santa Claus' family has disintegrated due to their lust for knowledge (Science). After a series of events, however, Santa Claus' faith in love and his rejection of the materialism and disappointment he associates with Science are reaffirmed, and he is reunited with Woman and Child.

The final decade

In 1952, his alma mater Harvard awarded Cummings an honorary seat as a guest professor. The Norton lectures he gave in 1952 and 1953 were later collected as i:six nonlectures.

Cummings spent the last decade of his life largely traveling, fulfilling speaking engagements, and spending time at his summer home, Joy Farm, in Silver Lake, New Hampshire.


During his lifetime, E. E. Cummings received numerous awards in recognition of his work, including:

  • Dial Award (1925)
  • Guggenheim Fellowship (1933)
  • Shelley Memorial Award for Poetry (1944)
  • Harriet Monroe Prize from Poetry magazine (1950)
  • Fellowship of American Academy of Poets (1950)
  • Guggenheim Fellowship (1951)
  • Charles Eliot Norton Professorship at Harvard (1952-1953)
  • Special citation from the National Book Award Committee for his Poems, 1923-1954 (1957)
  • Bollingen Prize in Poetry (1958)
  • Boston Arts Festival Award (1957)
  • Two-year Ford Foundation grant of $15,000 (1959)

Personal life

E. E. Cummings was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Edward and Rebecca Haswell Clarke Cummings. Cummings' father was a professor of sociology and political science at Harvard University and later a Unitarian minister. He and his son were close, and Edward was one of his son's most ardent supporters. Raised in a liberal family, Cummings was writing poetry as early as 1904 (age 10). His only sibling, a sister, Elizabeth, was born six years after he was.

Image:EECummings pd1.jpg
Graduation photo from the Cambridge Latin School, 1911.

In his youth Cummings attended Cambridge Latin High School. Early stories and poems were published in the Cambridge Review, the school newspaper.

In 1926 Cummings' father was tragically killed in a car accident. Though severely injured, Cummings' mother survived. Cummings detailed the accident in the following quote, from Richard S. Kennedy's biography of Cummings, Dreams in the Mirror [5]:

"... a locomotive cut the car in half, killing my father instantly. When two brakemen jumped from the halted train, they saw a woman standing – dazed but erect – beside a mangled machine; with blood spouting (as the older said to me) out of her head. One of her hands (the younger added) kept feeling her dress, as if trying to discover why it was wet. These men took my sixty-six year old mother by the arms and tried to lead her toward a nearby farmhouse; but she threw them off, strode straight to my father's body, and directed a group of scared spectators to cover him. When this had been done (and only then) she let them lead her away."

His father's death had a profound impact on Cummings, who entered a new period in his artistic life. Cummings began to focus on more important aspects of life in his poetry. He began this new period by paying homage to his father's memory in the poem "my father moved through dooms of love" [6].

Any short biography of Cumming's life would be incomplete without including a brief summary of Cumming's spiritual life. Born into a Unitarian family, he exhibited transcendental leanings his entire life. As he grew in maturity and age, Cummings moved more towards an "I, Thou" relationship with his God. His journals are replete with references to “le bon Dieu” and as well 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')." "[1]"

I thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

Cummings died in 1962 in North Conway, New Hampshire, after having a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 67. He is buried in Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston, Massachusetts.


Cummings was married three times, including a long common-law marriage.

Cummings' first marriage, to Elaine Orr, began as a love affair in 1919 while she was married to Scofield Thayer, one of Cummings' friends from Harvard. The affair produced a daughter, Nancy, who was born on December 20, 1919. Nancy was Cummings' only child. After obtaining a divorce from Thayer, Elaine married Cummings on March 19, 1924. However, the marriage ended in divorce less than nine months later, when Elaine left Cummings for a wealthy Irish banker, moving to Ireland and taking Nancy with her. Although under the terms of the divorce Cummings was granted custody of Nancy for three months each year, Elaine refused to abide by the agreement. Cummings did not see his daughter again until 1946.

Cummings married his second wife, Anne Minnerly Barton, on May 1, 1929. The two separated three years later in 1932. That same year, Anne obtained a divorce in Mexico, although it was not officially recognized in the United States until August 1934.

In 1932, the same year he and his second wife separated, Cummings met Marion Morehouse, a fashion model and photographer. Although it is not clear whether the two were ever officially married, Morehouse would live with Cummings for the remainder of his life.


  • The Enormous Room (1922)
  • Tulips and Chimneys (1923)
  • & (1925) (Self-published)
  • XLI Poems (1925)
  • is 5 (1926)
  • HIM (1927) (a play)
  • ViVa (1931)
  • Eimi (1933)
  • No Thanks (1935)
  • Collected Poems (1960)
  • 50 Poems (1940)
  • 1 × 1 (1944)
  • Xaipe: Seventy-One Poems (1950)
  • Poems, 1923-1954 (1954)
  • 95 Poems (1958)
  • 73 Poems (1963) (Posthumous)
  • Fairy Tales (1965) (Posthumous)

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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