Despite Cummings's familiarity with avant-garde styles (undoubtedly affected by the Calligrammes of Apollinaire, according to a contemporary observation), much of his work is quite traditional. Many of his poems are sonnets, albeit often with a modern twist, 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.
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in my heart)i am never without it(anywhere i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done by only me is your doing,my darling) i fear no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true) and it's you are whatever a moon has always meant and whatever a sun will always sing is youFrom "i carry your heart with me(i carry it in" (1952)
As well as being influenced by notable modernists, including Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, Cummings in his early work drew upon the imagist experiments of Amy Lowell. Later, his visits to Paris exposed him to Dada and surrealism, which he reflected in his work. He began to rely on symbolism and allegory where he once used simile and metaphor. In his later work, he rarely used comparisons that required objects that were not previously mentioned in the poem, choosing to use a symbol instead. Due to this, his later poetry is "frequently more lucid, more moving, and more profound than his earlier." 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,ESTLIN.
Following his autobiographical 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, particularly in unusual and impressionistic word order.
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 rainFrom "anyone lived in a pretty how town" (1940)
Cummings' work often does not proceed in accordance with the conventional combinatorial rules that generate typical English sentences (for example, "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 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. Literary critic R.P. Blackmur has commented that this usage of language is “frequently unintelligible because he disregards the historical accumulation of meaning in words in favour of merely private and personal associations.”
Many of Cummings' poems are satirical and address social issues but have an equal or even stronger bias toward romanticism: time and again his poems celebrate love, sex, and the season of rebirth.
Cummings also wrote children's books and novels. A notable example of his versatility is an introduction he wrote for a collection of the comic strip Krazy Kat.
Cummings is also known for controversial subject matter, as he has a large collection of erotic poetry. In his 1950 collection Xaipe: Seventy-One Poems, Cummings published two poems containing words that caused an outrage in some quarters.
one day a nigger caught in his hand a little star no bigger than not to understand "i'll never let you go until you've made me white" so she did and now stars shine at night.
a kike is the most dangerous machine as yet invented by even yankee ingenu ity(out of a jew a few dead dollars and some twisted laws) it comes both prigged and canted
Cummings biographer Catherine Reef notes of the incident:
Friends begged Cummings to reconsider publishing these poems, and the book's editor pleaded with him to withdraw them, but he insisted that they stay. All the fuss perplexed him. The poems were commenting on prejudice, he pointed out, and not condoning it. He intended to show how derogatory words cause people to see others in terms of stereotypes rather than as individuals. "America (which turns Hungarian into 'hunky' & Irishman into 'mick' and Norwegian into 'square- head') is to blame for 'kike,'" he said.
William Carlos Williams spoke out in his defence.
During his lifetime, Cummings published four plays. 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."
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 Symposium. 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.
Santa Claus: A Morality was probably Cummings's 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's family has disintegrated due to their lust for knowledge (Science). After a series of events, however, Santa Claus's 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.
Name and capitalization
Cummings's publishers and others have sometimes echoed the unconventional orthography in his poetry by writing his name in lowercase and without periods (full stops), but normal orthography (uppercase and full stops) is supported by scholarship and preferred by publishers today. Cummings himself used both the lowercase and capitalized versions, though he most often signed his name with capitals.
The use of lowercase for his initials was popularized in part by the title of some books, particularly in the 1960s, printing his name in lower case on the cover and spine. In the preface to E. E. Cummings: The Growth of a Writer by Norman Friedman, critic Harry T. Moore notes, "He [Cummings] had his name put legally into lower case, and in his later books the titles and his name were always in lower case." According to Cummings's widow, however, this is incorrect. She wrote to Friedman: "you should not have allowed H. Moore to make such a stupid & childish statement about Cummings & his signature." On February 27, 1951, Cummings wrote to his French translator D. Jon Grossman that he preferred the use of upper case for the particular edition they were working on. One Cummings scholar believes that on the rare occasions Cummings signed his name in all lowercase, he may have intended it as a gesture of humility, not as an indication that it was the preferred orthography for others to use.