How E.E. Cummings Writes a Poem

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Cel­e­brate Valentine’s Day with a Charm­ing Stop Motion Ani­ma­tion of an E.E. Cum­mings’ Love Poem

E.E. Cum­mings Recites ‘Any­one Lived in a Pret­ty How Town,’ 1953

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

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