E. E. Cummings is one of America’s most beloved and widely read poets. His poems are strange and beautiful, with a cadence and rhythm entirely their own. His words are read in wedding vows and many Valentine cards. Cummings could capture in just a few simple words the magic of what it is to love and be loved.
In a world of internet sound-bites and shortened attention spans, his sometimes terse and awkward delivery forces the reader to pause and listen, and let Cummings words sink deeply into our hearts.
But who was this singular and unique poet? Where did he come from, and how did he come to write so many masterful poems?
Read my short bio on one of the twentieth century's most romantic poets.
He was born Edward Estin Cummings in 1894 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His father was a professor at Harvard University and later a minister at a Unitarian church in Boston. Both of his parents supported his creative endeavours. The family would spend their summers at a farmstead called Joy Farm in New Hampshire.
Cummings, age 11
Cummings was devoted to poetry from an early age - writing poetry every day from the age of eight onwards. His parents fostered his love of writing, and he also grew up with the influences of his parent’s friends, such as philosopher William James. He attended Cambridge Latin, a public high school, where he was a member of the Musical Society and the literary journal.
He graduated from Harvard in 1915 with a Bachelor of Arts, and acquired a Masters in Arts in 1916. At university, he became increasingly more interested in modern poetry, with it’s irregular syntax and dynamic use of language. He was influenced by Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and Surrealism.
The majority of his poetry did not use any punctuation, and lacked convention or “correct” grammar. He frequently used phonetic or his own spelling, using compounds of words that had special meaning to him. Most notably, many publishers opt to write his name in lower-case, believing this followed after his own choice. However many have argued against it, including his widow. Although there is proof that he occasionally wrote his name all in lower-case, there are other instances where he had it written or published in the traditional way. In fact, the use of “e.e. Cummings” was used sarcastically by his detractors who criticised his use of the lower-case “I”
In 1917, he enlisted in the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps. An administration error upon arriving in France meant he was not assigned anywhere for 5 weeks, and spent the time exploring Paris, attending the Russian Ballet and learning French. He fell in love with the city and returned continuously throughout his life, first returning in 1921 and spending two years there. Cummings himself was extremely anti-war. The sentiments in his letters drew the attention of the military censors, and he and his friend William Slater Brown were arrested by the French army for suspected espionage. They were held in a detention camp for three months.
His time spent there inspired his autobiographical novel, The Enormous Room (1922), which he published with his father’s support and assistance.
Photograph by Edward Weston
After his two-year stint in Paris, Cummings moved to New York, to Greenwich Village, where he painted and wrote poetry. His first collection, Tulips and Chimneys, was published in 1923, and a further collection in 1925. He set himself apart with his idiosyncratic style, and was established as an avant-garde poet. Although based in New York, he travelled widely across America and Europe. His first few collections were not a critical success.
Cummings married his first wife in 1924, Elaine Orr. They had been together for several years and had a daughter out of wedlock, while they waited for Orr’s divorce to come through. The marriage did not last - they separated and divorced within a few months. He married again in 1929, to Anne Minnerly Barton. They separated three years later. His longest relationship was with photographer Miriam Morehouse, whom he met in 1932. It is not clear that they were ever legally married, but they were together for more than thirty years until Cumming’s death.
In 1926, his parents were in a car accident, his father was killed instantly and his mother badly injured. Creatively, this tragic event was a turning point in his writing, beginning to address more serious themes of life and death.
In 1952, Cummings was awarded an honorary guest professorship at Harvard University, where he delivered five “non lectures”, as he called them. In this last decade of his life, he did not slow down. He continued to travel widely, lecturing and spent his summers at the family farmstead, Joy Farm. He died in 1962 at 67 years old, still working up until his last moments. He is buried in Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston, Massachusetts. A simple stone embedded in the ground marks his grave.
Some of my favourite E.E. Cummings poems and quotes...