E. E. Cummings: Poems Background

E. E. Cummings: Poems Background

The infant born Edward Estlin Cummings on October 14, 1894 would grow up to become the Harvard graduate who seized the occasion of his commencement speech to introduce his plans to make a name for himself as a poet in the then-scandalous Modernist artistic movement. Those plans would be forged by experiences as a military ambulance driver in France before America’s entry into the war and return to Paris as an art student following the war. Those incidents planted the seed for Cummings to embark upon a lifelong production of poetry that attacked the very conventions of the literary form with as much as vigor as those soldiers hit the battlefield to change the course of history. In the face of a breakdown of confidence in many of the principles that had established conventions and form, the poems of E.E. Cummings would become creative experiments that compelled his ever-expanding readership to reconsider all they had come to expect as obligatory material for the construction of poetry. When reading a poem by E.E. Cummings no literary aspect is sacred, from diction used in recitation right down to the mechanical aspect of how the letters are formatted when the poem is printed:


ng with me
n more o
n than in the


On assignment for Vanity Fair magazine in 1926, E.E. Cummings began traveling around the world and set a routine for himself that would become an essential part of the rest of the life and further reinforce his commitment not only to poetry, but to artistic pursuits ranging from prose to painting. Along the way to his death in 1962, Cummings would become one of the most commercially popular poets in American history not least because of the sheer enjoyment that comes with reading something like:

maggie and milly and molly and may

went down to the beach '(to play one day)

and maggie discovered a shell that sang

so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles, and

even if the punctuation does seem a bit artsy and advanced.

Despite this progressive aspect of his poems, however, critical appreciation for E.E. Cummings would never stretch as wide a net as his popularity among those who read poetry with a less critical eye. While perhaps only Robert Frost can lay claim to being more widely read among 20th century American poets, the status of Cummings as a serious poet whose work is given the same type of scholarly attention as T.S. Eliot has lagged to the point where arguments are even made as to whether he truly belonged to the Modernist movement.

Nevertheless, many of the poems collected in this representative volume are responsible for Cumming becoming a recipient the Shelley Memorial Award, the Levinson Prize and the Bollingen Prize. So, while it may be true that Cummings may not yet have gotten the critical accolades so many of his fans believe is certainly his due, it would be a mistake to suggest that his poetry has not be recognized as having critical value to the extent that he is firmly located within the vanguard of the movement which revolutionized all aspects of poetry following the horrors and awakened consciousness brought about by World War I.

That awakened consciousness brought on by the horrors of war resulted in several poems found within this collection that masterfully exemplifies the means by which Cummings is capable of combining the experimentation and traditionalism within a Modernist aesthetic to transcend both. Many of the poems exhibit some of the more avant-garde techniques of playing with structure and punctuation to be found throughout Cummings’ canon.

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