Oh no, another poetry post. This one follows on naturally from my comments about my grandfather being my inspiration to write from a tender age. While it was indeed his storytelling and poetry that got me moving, it was the work of another poet that has influenced my own poetry greatly. Mine is not really like his, it’s just that I was inspired immensely by his refusal to conform to the norms that he had been taught, and his flouting of grammer and punctuation. It’s only a cool thing to do if you understand it inside out and if your transgressions result in something sublime. Both things are true of e e cummings. The title of this piece has his name is lower case without punctuation because it was how he often wrote it. It is believed that it was done as a sign of humility, and he was not consistent about it, but it has carried on through the years as his trademark.
First a bit of bio. Edward Estlin Cummings was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, October 14, 1894. He began writing poems as early as 1904 and studied Latin and Greek at the Cambridge Latin High School. He received his B.A. in 1915 and his M.A. in 1916, both from Harvard. While there he was influenced by the writings of Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein.
In 1917, Cummings’ first published poems appeared in the anthology Eight Harvard Poets. The same year, Cummings left the United States for France as a volunteer ambulance driver in World War I. Five months after his assignment; however, he and a friend were interned in a prison camp by the French authorities on suspicion of espionage (an experience recounted in his novel, The Enormous Room) for his outspoken anti-war convictions.
As well as Stein and Pound, cummings’ work was influenced by the imagist experiments of Amy Lowell. His visits to Paris also saw him include dada and surrealism into his poems. His most defining principal though, was his insistence on emphasizing the personal in juxtaposition to the universal, refusing to believe as his peers did that the universe was best viewed from a more all encompassing standpoint. It is believed that his Unitarian upbringing was the reason.
In his work, cummings experimented radically with form, punctuation, spelling and syntax, abandoning traditional techniques and structures to create a new, highly idiosyncratic means of poetic expression. Later in his career, he was often criticized for settling into his signature style and not pressing his work towards further evolution. Nevertheless, he attained great popularity, especially among young readers, for the simplicity of his language, his playful mode and his attention to subjects such as war and sex.
I suppose it was his devil-may-care attitude and consideration of words as a plaything that appealed to me most. The above attributes concerning form and syntax are well illustrated by the following:
who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
he was a handsome man
and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Unfortunately this blog won’t print the poem exactly as it was published. The second line is indented in the original, as is the third and fifth, with the seventh at the same starting point as the second, the eighth even further out than the rest, and the nineth, eleventh and twelfth at the same starting point as the sixth. Reading it with those in mind gives the cadence of the poem, which was often important to cummings, another point of originality. This is his only untitled poem as far as i’m aware.
I’ll leave you with one more of his poems, my favorite by far, and one that illustrates his mastery of the written word and his regard for sensation over form in everyday life. I hope if you’ve never encountered cummings you’ll be inspired to check him out further.
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
lady i swear by all flowers. Don’t cry
—the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids’ flutter which says
we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life’s not a paragraph
And death i think is no parenthesis