It’s the birthday of American poet and playwright E.E. Cummings (1894) (books by this author), born Edward Estlin Cummings in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His father was a professor of sociology and political science at Harvard University, and Cummings grew up around intellectuals, including philosopher Williams James, who encouraged him to write from an early age. Cummings’ family was Unitarian and he considered himself a pacifist, though he enlisted in World War I and was sent to France (1917) to serve in the ambulance corps with his good friend, novelist John Dos Passos.
Cummings’ letters home were vociferously anti-war and he was imprisoned in Orne, Normandy, for almost four months on suspicion of treason. He was kept in one large room with 30 other prisoners, an experience he later fictionalized in his novel The Enormous Room (1922). His father received a letter telling him his son was lost at sea and was so distraught he began writing letters to officials. When he received no answer, he wrote directly to President Wilson, who was able to locate Cummings. Cummings was very close to his parents. His poem “my father moved through dooms of love” was written after his parents were involved in car accident with a locomotive. Cummings’ father was killed instantly, his body cut in half.
Cummings’ poems were short and playfully innovative in structure. He favored concise sentences, lowercase letters, unusual typography, and acrostics. He liked to invent compound words like “puddle-wonderful” and “mud-luscious.” No one quite knew what to make of his work when his first collection, Tulips and Chimneys, was published in 1923. Literary critic Helen Vendler found Cummings’ poetry exasperating. She said, “What is wrong with a man who writes like this?”
For more than 40 years and three marriages, E.E. Cummings lived in the same apartment at #4 Patchin Place in Greenwich Village, New York City. He traveled often to Paris. He had friends like Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and John Cheever. He wore Harris Tweed and a collapsible top hat. His Aunt Jane took most of what little money he had and sent him a carton of Melba toast in return. He survived giving lectures at colleges and high schools. He said, “If poetry is your goal, you’ve got to forget all about punishments and all about rewards and all about self-styled obligations and duties and responsibilities.”
Most of his poetry collections were self-published until the late 1940s, when the burgeoning counterculture suddenly discovered him, and his poetry became quite popular, especially poems like “i carry your heart with me” and “somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond,” which contains his most famous line, “nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.” At the time of his death in 1962, he was the second most popular poet in America, behind Robert Frost.
E.E. Cumming’s collections of poetry include Tulips and Chimneys (1923), & (1925), XLI Poems (1925), and XAIPE: Seventy-One Poems (1950).