Most of us encounter E.E. Cummings at an early age; his poems for adults regularly appear in poetry anthologies for children. We derive great pleasure from his brazen misspellings, portmanteaus, neologisms, and “typographical high jinks,” as Paul Muldoon writes at The New Yorker. Look at this famous writer breaking all the rules, and thereby giving us occasion to talk about the rules, about how poetry is different, about how, among poets, E.E. Cummings stands alone.
Only someone with a keen facility for language can bend it to their individual will, something we may recognize when reading Cummings in high school, when we also recognize the irony and grim satire in his poems. The inventive whimsy had veiled something darker. In 1960, then-high-school student Peter Carlton got the chance to interview Cummings about his poem “Humanity, I love you,” then posted the exchange online 37 years later. “I, for one, do not love humanity,” the poet told him, “I feel that humanity itself is cruel and unjust.”
A common sentiment among modernists, especially those, like Cummings, who had served in World War I. But few of his contemporaries, who included James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound, had his ability to speak to so many different audiences. It’s almost shocking to see the shift in voice between Cummings’ interview with young Carlton and a letter he wrote to Pound 20 years earlier, full of the usual Cummings coinages (“innulluxuls”) and vicious literary barbs (Archibald MacLeish becomes “the macarchibald maclapdog macleash”).
Was Cummings a radical? A romantic? A literary naïf? An outsider? A savvy, cynical player of the game? He contained multitudes. From Eliot he “learned to distrust the hierarchical in every aspect of life,” writes Muldoon, “beginning with his own being. In his poetry, ‘I’ becomes ‘i.’” Whatever attitudes he expresses, Cummings always forces us to wrestle with language—its durability and malleability, its familiar strangenesses—first.
In his most accessible poem, “i carry your heart with me (i carry it in,” Cummings draws our attention to the simplicity of his archetypal images, as if to smirkingly announce, “this is a universal love poem.” Standard fare. But such obvious mirroring of form and content does not diminish the poem’s accomplishment, argues Evan Puschak, the Nerdwriter, in the video above. On the contrary, simple repetitions lead us into far more complicated recursions inside the poem.
Puschak quotes lines from Yeats to illustrate the deftness of Cummings’ deceptive simplicity: “A line will take us hours maybe; / yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.” While many a poet has made the art seem easy, few have made it seem so playful or irreverent as Cummings, or have delighted so many people of so many ages and walks of life—so few of whom may suspect the conceptual heft and rigor that went into his work.
To read Cummings’ poetry yourself, pick up a copy of his complete poems.