Two Childhood Drawings from Poet E.E. Cummings Show the Young Artist’s Playful Seriousness


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Rebec­ca Onion over at Slate’s his­to­ry blog “The Vault” has brought to our atten­tion two delight­ful finds from the Mass­a­chu­setts His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety: child­hood draw­ings by poet and painter E.E. Cum­mings, made when he was 6 and 7 years old. Dat­ing from 1900–1902, the sketch­es, writes Onion, “reflect Cum­mings’ immer­sion in the pop­u­lar cul­ture of the time: cir­cus­es, Wild West shows, and adven­ture fic­tion.” These two draw­ings are fas­ci­nat­ing por­traits of the young Cum­mings’ mind at work. What a young mind he had.

Cum­mings began writ­ing poet­ry at age 8, and wrote a poem a day until he was 22. His mature work, which he began pub­lish­ing after his release from an intern­ment camp in Nor­mandy dur­ing WWI (where he was held for sus­pect­ed trea­son), shows the same kind of child­like play­ful­ness and dis­ci­pline. And while the draw­ing at the top is the work of a young boy strug­gling with the con­ven­tions of the writ­ten word, its odd­ly-spaced and punc­tu­at­ed text—the lex­i­cal and syn­tac­ti­cal ambi­gu­i­ties cre­at­ed by the layout—could cer­tain­ly have come from the pen of the adult poet. Cum­mings’ ideas about his poet­ry were delib­er­ate­ly idio­syn­crat­ic and force­ful­ly indi­vid­ual. As he would write, “may I be I is the only prayer—not may I be great or good or beau­ti­ful or wise or strong.” Or, as he expressed in a sim­i­lar sen­ti­ment in his 1926 col­lec­tion, is 5, per­haps in response to some crit­i­cal oppro­bri­um:

mr youse needn’t be so spry

con­cernin ques­tions arty

each has his tastes but as for i

i likes a cer­tain par­ty

In the draw­ing above, the young Edward Estlin Cum­mings imag­ines him­self as a Buf­fa­lo Bill-like char­ac­ter. Onion points us toward the adult Cum­mings’ dark­ly iron­ic poem “[Buf­fa­lo Bill ‘s],” as a com­pan­ion to the boy Cum­mings’ star­ry-eyed self-fash­ion­ing and “hero wor­ship.” While on a super­fi­cial read­ing, Cum­mings’ work can some­times seem mad­den­ing­ly child­ish and sil­ly, poems like “[Buf­fa­lo Bill ‘s]” show him pluck­ing apart naïve illu­sions about hero­ism and spec­ta­cle as in so many of his oth­er poems he skew­ers the pre­ten­sions of urban sophis­ti­cates and tastemak­ers, pro­mot­ing a Roman­tic, unin­hib­it­ed idea of the self unfet­tered by social, and typo­graph­i­cal, con­ven­tions.

Cum­mings would be very appre­cia­tive of the work the Mass­a­chu­setts His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety has done in cat­a­logu­ing his fam­i­ly papers; he had a deep respect for history—above all for per­son­al his­to­ry. In the first of his so-called “non­lec­tures,” deliv­ered at Har­vard in 1952, he refers to his “auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal prob­lem” in a pas­sage that con­jures the dystopi­an visions of Hux­ley and Orwell:

There’d be no prob­lem, of course, if I sub­scribed to the hyper­sci­en­tif­ic doc­trine that hered­i­ty is noth­ing because every­thing is envi­ron­ment; or if (hav­ing swal­lowed this super­sleep­ing­pill) I envis­aged the future of socalled mankind as a per­ma­nent past­less­ness, pre­na­tal­ly envelop­ing semi­iden­ti­cal super­sub­morons in per­pet­u­al nonun­hap­pi­ness. Right­ly or wrong­ly, how­ev­er, I pre­fer spir­i­tu­al insom­nia to psy­chic sui­cide.

Per­haps Cum­mings could thank “spir­i­tu­al insom­nia” for his seri­ous word­play and bound­less curiosity—two child­hood traits he nev­er let go of.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Art of Sylvia Plath: Revis­it Her Sketch­es, Self-Por­traits, Draw­ings & Illus­trat­ed Let­ters

Dylan Thomas Sketch­es a Car­i­ca­ture of a Drunk­en Dylan Thomas

William S. Bur­roughs Shows You How to Make “Shot­gun Art”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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