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CUMMINGS, E(DWARD) E(STLIN)
(1894-1962) E. E. Cummings was both a painter and a poet whose art was affected by literary modernism, as well as by postimpressionist and Cubist art he encountered during his university days. Particular influences included Gertrude stein's lively Cubist literary experiments, her word portraits of things in tender buttons (1914), and Pablo Picasso' s visual practice of Cubism. Likewise he internalized Ezra pounds imagist criteria after reading Pound's "The Return" (1912), the anthology Des Imagistes (1914), and amy lowells Sword Blades and Poppy Seeds (1914). This background becomes hybrid in Cummings's striking verbal images arranged as visual images on the page, not as concrete shapes of things, but as representations of the sense and delivery of the words.
Cummings was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His father taught sociology at Harvard College before leaving to become a Unitarian minister and taught his son about the woods and everything in them; Cum-mings's mother introduced him to poetry and hoped he would become a poet. He received a thorough education at home and at Cambridge Latin School before he entered Harvard College in 1911 at the age of 17. By the time he left five years later, graduating magna cum laude with an A.B. (1915) in literature, especially Greek and English, and an A.M. (1916), "he was one of the best-educated American literary figures of his time, T. S. eliot, Archibald macleish, and Ezra Pound being his only rivals" (Kennedy Cummings 15). Cum-mings had written poetry since he was a child. He and some friends, one of whom was John Dos Passos, prepared a manuscript of their poems, which was published while Cummings was in France during World War I. In a poem that focuses on thoughtless readiness to obey and the illusion of glorious war, Cummings's commentary asks the ironic question, "why talk of beauty what could be more beaut- / iful than these heroic happy dead" ("next to of course god america i" ). Falsely accused of espionage when serving as an ambulance corps volunteer in France, Cummings and a friend were imprisoned on the basis of the friend's letters espousing pacifism and because of Cummings's refusal under interrogation to say he hated the Germans. Subsequent imprisonment led to his novelistic account of the experience in The Enormous Room (1922).
After moving to New York, Cummings exhibited his paintings and published his poems in avant-garde magazines during the 1920s. He began to write naturalist and realist poetry, "sonnets and free-verse vignettes that presented nightclubs, crowded tenement districts, ethnic retaurants, prostitutes and their customers, bums, drunks, and gangsters" (Kennedy Cummings 34). Formal recognition came to Cum-mings in the form of a Dial Award (1925), the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship at Harvard (1952-53), a National Book Award special citation (1955), the Bollingen Prize (1958), and election as a member of the National Academy of Arts and Letters, among other honors.
Known for his play with language, including the use of lowercase letters, Cummings had been charmed by the correspondence he received from the caretaker on his New Hampshire farm and was inspired by the caretaker's idiosyncratic use of language to experiment with unconventional use of punctuation and capitalization (Kennedy Cummings 28). He did not, however, use lowercase letters for his own name, signing his books and paintings with the uppercase "E. E. Cummings" whenever he did inscribe his signature. His poems include shocking moments, such as his discussion of "pubic lice" ("my specialty is living said" ) or a "twot" ("red-flag and pink-flag" ), but his innovations are the most noteworthy. He is a liberating poet to read because he shows by example that language is meant to serve, not to be served; he bent and broke the mechanical conventions of language to meet his literary needs. Cummings's neologisms, or word inventions, include the adjective smallening ("a clown's smirk in the skull of a baboon" ), the adverb smoothloomingly ("what a proud dreamhorse pulling [smoothloomingly] through" ), and the verbed noun septembering ("my father moved through dooms of love" ). He would also incorporate phonetic utterance, such as "jennelman" ("a salesman is an it that stinks Excuse" ), compressed spacing for effect in "Bothatonce" ("she being Brand" ), and odd punctuation for effect as in "slo-wly;bare,ly nudg. ing(my / lev-er" ("she being Brand" ). His whimsy and satire combine to describe a man who was "dressed in fifteen rate ideas / wearing a round jeer for a hat" ("a man who had fallen among thieves" ). Other earmarks of a Cummings poem are the childlike exuberance found in words, such as "mud- / luscious" or "puddle-wonderful" ("IN JUST-" ); in phrases, such as "leaping greenly spirits of trees" ("i thank You God for most this amazing" ); and in the disrupted syntax of such lines as "a pretty girl who naked is" ("my youse needn't be so spry" ).
Cummings's love poems exhibit his most delicate and endearing touch. He says, as a result of one woman's kisses, "the sweet small clumsy feet of April came / into the ragged meadow of my soul" ("if i have made,my lady,intricate" ). Here we see the woman as the breath of spring itself (a favorite subject for Cummings) breezing into the beleaguered life of a man who feels himself in tatters. Physical affection is
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