Who is E.E. Cummings?

Niki Foster

E. E. Cummings was an American poet, essayist, playwright, novelist, and painter known for his unconventional use of grammar, punctuation, and language. Though his name makes many people picture a strange-looking poem full of dashes, parentheses, and inconsistent capitalization, much of his work was more conventional in form, although his syntax was always idiosyncratic. He often coined words or evocative phrases, such as mud-luscious and candy luminous, and used language as often for its sound as for its meaning. He was one of the most popular and influential American poets of the 20th century.

E.E. Cummings attended Harvard University.
E.E. Cummings attended Harvard University.

Cummings was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on 14 October 1894, the son of a Harvard professor and Unitarian minister, Edward, and his wife, Rebecca. His father supported his literary leanings, and he started writing poetry by the age of ten. His early poems and stories were published in his elementary school's literary magazine.

E.E. Cummings was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on October 14, 1894.
E.E. Cummings was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on October 14, 1894.

He attended Harvard from 1911 to 1916, earning a Master's degree in English and Classical Studies. During his studies, his literary works were published in the Harvard Monthly and the Harvard Advocate. In 1915, Cummings discovered the work of avant-garde writers like Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, who would have significant influence on his style. He delivered a commencement address at his graduation on the subject of avant-garde poetry.

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After graduation, he enlisted in a European ambulance corps, but his assignment was delayed for five weeks due to an administrative error. He spent the intervening time in Paris, for which he developed a lifelong affection. Five months after beginning work as an ambulance driver, he was arrested along with a friend, William Slater Brown, on suspicion of espionage. The two were interred in a prison camp in Normandy for three and a half months. Cummings would later write of the experience in his novel The Enormous Room.

Shortly after returning to the United States on New Year's Day 1918, Cummings was drafted into the army and served in Massachusetts for the majority of the year. During the 1920s and 30s, he became famous as a writer and traveled the world, experiencing different cultures and meeting fellow artists. He spent the majority of his time in New York and Paris, but also visited the Soviet Union, North Africa, and Mexico. During this period, he also worked on the staff of Vanity Fair as an illustrator and essayist.

In 1926, his parents were in a major car accident, and only his mother survived. He wrote about his father and his death in many of his works, as his upbringing was very influential throughout the poet's life. Not only did his father encourage his artistic efforts, but he also instilled a deep, lifelong spirituality in his son.

Cummings was briefly married twice, for nine months in 1924 to Elaine Orr and for three years to Anne Minnerly Barton beginning in 1929. He had a daughter with his first wife, named Nancy and born four years before their marriage, but he did not have contact with her for over 20 years following the divorce. In 1932, he met fashion photographer and model Marion Morehouse, and the two lived together for the rest of Cummings' life.

He was awarded a seat as honorary professor at Harvard University in 1952 and gave a series of lectures. He spent his last years traveling and speaking publicly. E. E. Cummings died on 3 September 1962. He won over ten awards for his literary work during his lifetime, and his poems continue to be popular and frequently anthologized.

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Discussion Comments


@goldenmist - In the long run it's probably cheaper to buy a complete collection as opposed to some of the smaller ones because you're bound to want to read them all anyway so you may as well get them all at once as opposed to buying each individual collection. I think all of his work is worthwhile to justify this, but others might disagree.

The comparison you made to abstract painting is quite apt; in many ways EE Cummings' poetry was visual art as much as it was poetry. It's not really the type of poetry that works when read aloud but can still produce powerful emotive responses.


@Sequoia - Unfortunately Cummings' poems don't translate as well to the Internet because many people can't be bothered taking the time to format them as intended. I don't own any of his collections, but while at a friend's house I flipped through a book of his which had a poem I still remember called "anyone who lived in a pretty how town". I found it chilling; it's kind of like an abstract painting, it doesn't tell a specific story but rather creates an overall mood which manages to touch deeply on issues of life I think we're all familiar with.

Considering this is the only poem of his I've read - and like I said earlier I'm hesitant to read them online in case they're not formatted correctly, I'm a purist in that way - I'm pretty hesitant to buy the complete collection of his poems which is over 1000 pages, but I'm still interested in reading more of his work.


E.E. Cummings is one of my favorite poets. The way he used syntax and formatting as well as abstract wordplay has been a big influence on my own work. I think he really set the path for poets who wanted to work outside conventional poetic conventions and really experiment with free form poetry. It's easy to take a quick glance at his work and write it off as "weird" and avant-garde" but if you give it a chance you might be surprised how much you like it. People have a tendency to over-think poetry and try to analyze everything to figure out what it "means" instead of just enjoying it for what it is.

One of his most famous poems and one of my personal favorites is titled "No Thanks". When it was published, he dedicated it to the previous twelve editors who rejected it. It's no wonder he's such an influence on other writers; a good reminder to follow your own vision.

What are some of your favorite Cummings poems?

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