From 1911 to 1916, Cummings attended Harvard University, 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, at one time rooming in Thayer Hall, named after the family of one of his Harvard acquaintances, Scofield Thayer, and not yet a freshman-only dormitory. Several of Cummings' poems were published in the Harvard Monthly as early as 1912. Cummings himself labored on the school newspaper alongside fellow Harvard Aesthetes Dos Passos and S. Foster Damon. In 1915, his poems were published in the Harvard Advocate.
From an early age, Cummings studied Greek and Latin. His affinity for each manifests in his later works, such as XAIPE (Greek: "Rejoice!"; a 1950 collection of poetry), Anthropos (Greek: "mankind"; the title of one of his plays), and "Puella Mea" (Latin: "My Girl"; the title of his longest poem).
In his final year at Harvard, Cummings was influenced by writers such as Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. He graduated magna cum laude in 1916, delivering a controversial commencement address entitled "The New Art". This speech gave him his first taste of notoriety, as he managed to give the false impression that the well-liked imagist poet, Amy Lowell, whom he himself admired, was "abnormal". For this, Cummings was chastised in the newspapers. Ostracized as a result of his intellect, he turned to poetry. In 1920, Cummings' first published poems appeared in a collection of poetry entitled Eight Harvard Poets.
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; Cummings spoke of his lack of hatred for the Germans. They were sent to a military detention 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).
His father's death had a profound impact on Cummings and his work, 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".
Born into a Unitarian family, Cummings 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” as well as 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').
Despite Cummings' consanguinity with avant-garde styles, much of his work is traditional. Many of his poems are sonnets, and he occasionally made use of the blues form and acrostics. 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 also often rife with satire.
While his poetic forms and themes share an affinity with the romantic tradition, Cummings' 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 punctuation innovations at all, but purely syntactic ones.
As well as being influenced by notable modernists including Gertrude Stein and Ezra 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. Cummings also liked to incorporate imagery of nature and death into much of his poetry.
While some of his poetry is free verse (with no concern for rhyme or meter), many 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. Cummings, who was also a painter, understood the importance of presentation, and used typography to "paint a picture" with some of his poems.
The seeds of Cummings' unconventional style appear well established, even in his earliest work. At age six he wrote to his father:
FATHER DEAR. BE, YOUR FATHER-GOOD AND GOOD,
HE IS GOOD NOW, IT IS NOT GOOD TO SEE IT RAIN,
FATHER DEAR IS, IT, DEAR, NO FATHER DEAR,
LOVE, YOU DEAR,
Following his novel The Enormous Room, Cummings' first published work was a collection of poems entitled Tulips and Chimneys (1923). This work was the public's first encounter with his characteristic eccentric use of grammar and punctuation.
Some of Cummings' most famous poems do not involve much, if any, odd typography or punctuation, 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"?''
Readers sometimes experience a jarring, incomprehensible effect with Cummings' work, as the poems do not act in accordance with the conventional combinatorial rules that generate typical English sentences. (For example "Why must itself..." or "they sowed their isn't [...]"). His readings of Stein in the early part of the century probably served as a springboard to 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' work is more stylistically continuous 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, and several incorporate 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", "puddle-wonderful", and "eddieandbill." This poem is part of a sequence of poems entitled Chansons Innocentes. It has many references comparing the "balloonman" to Pan, the mythical creature that is half-goat and half-man.
Many of Cummings' poems are satirical and address social issues (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 the season of rebirth (see "anyone lived in a pretty how town" in its entirety).
Examples of Cummings' unorthodox typographical style can be seen in his poem " the sky was candy luminous...".
Public domain poetry and readings:
CD of Cummings reading 42 of his poems:
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