Claude McKay, Selected Poems (New York, 1953).
The Passion of Claude McKay: Selected Poetry and Prose, 1912-1948, ed. Wayne F. Cooper (New York, 1973).
Heather Hathaway, Caribbean Waves: Relocating Claude McKay and Paule Marshall
(Bloomington, IN, 1999). Claude McKay: Centennial Studies, ed. A. L. McLeod (New Delhi, India, 1992). Tilley Tyrone, Claude McKay: A Black Poet's Struggle for Identity (Amherst, 1992).
The popularity of Edward Estlin Cummings's poetry has never been fully matched by his critical reputation. For unsympathetic readers, the visual and syntactic complications of his verse are undercut by the simplicity, even naivety, of its themes and sentiments. For the New Critics of the 1940s and 1950s, Cummings's visual and verbal inventiveness masked a sensibility essentially late Romantic rather than modernist. But for some readers Cummings achieved a fresh, expressive vocabulary which, while unlike that of any other modernist poet, explored the possibilities of free verse in significant new ways, ways that, it can be argued, have been influential upon some later poets.
Cummings was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the son of a Unitarian minister who also taught sociology at Harvard. In 1915 Cummings graduated from Harvard with a BA, gaining an MA in 1916. When the United States entered the European war he served as a volunteer in France in the Norton Harjes Ambulance Corps and was imprisoned for three months on suspicion of espionage, out of which experience came his successful novel The Enormous Room (1922). The poetry that Cummings had been writing during and following his college years appeared soon afterwards in three books, Tulips and Chimneys (1923), XLI Poems (1925), and & (1925). His popular reputation now established by the novel and the poetry volumes, Cummings settled into a routine of living in New York and spending his summers in New Hampshire. His creative work included painting as well as writing, and his paintings were frequently exhibited in galleries over the following decades.
Although Cummings continued to publish collections of poetry up to his death, there was little substantial change in his style and themes. Viva (1931), 50 Poems (1940), and Xiape (1950) are just three of the many volumes. Of the various collected editions, a Collected Poems was published in 1963, the year after the poet's death, and a scholarly edition appeared in 1991 (revised 1994), edited by George J. Firmage. The poems show the strong influence on Cummings of the first phase of modernist experiment as practiced in New York around 1915, particularly imagism and the experiments with typography. Cummings's poems praise concreteness, spontaneous feeling, eccentricity, and individualism, and scorn mass movements, consumerism, nationalism, and what he saw as the monolithic abstractions of scientific and religious thought. His poem "O sweet spontaneous," for example, excoriates "prurient philosophers," "the naughty thumb / of science," and "religions / . . . upon their scraggy knees," and demands that all be answered "with / spring." Cummings's famous poem on his father, "my father moved through dooms of love," praises him for his emotional spontaneity: "Scorning the pomp of must and shall / my father moved through dooms of feel." Similarly, timid respectability is mocked in the well-known poem beginning, "the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls / are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds."
Most of the poems are short lyrics either in praise of the qualities that Cummings admired, nature poems, or witty satirical pieces. Formally, the poems might break up words into syllables and sometimes into individual letters, or words may be run together with spacing eliminated, techniques that contribute to the celebration of unpredictability, and the refusal to obey set notions of form. Punctuation is used expressively rather than to demarcate thematic, grammatical, or rhythmic units. The syllables of a word might be scattered across a line between or within other words, or scattered across a poem. Parts of speech might change their conventional grammatical function, verbs becoming nouns, adverbs becoming adjectives, for example. Idiosyncrasies of spelling and capitalization might be used for punning, or to reflect speech, emphasis, or variety of rhythm, and such formal inventiveness and play sometimes also extends to a poem's visual pattern on the page.
Among Cummings's best-known poems are his praise of the lost, rugged individualism of Buffalo Bill ("Buffalo Bill's / defunct"), and another that celebrates the refusal to conform of conscientious objector "Olaf glad and big." Cummings's celebration of feeling over the abstractions of "wisdom," and the role he gives to language, love, and the seasons, is captured in the opening lines of "since feeling is first":
since feeling is first who pays any attention to the syntax of things will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool while Spring is in the world my blood approves, and kisses are a better fate than wisdom lady i swear by all flowers.
Cummings's publications also include his Dadaist play Him (1927), and Eimi (1933) an account in experimental diary form of his visit to Russia in 1931. In 1952 Cummings was invited to deliver the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard, and these appeared as I: six nonlectures in 1953.
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