The Poetry of E.E. Cummings
Edward Estlen Cummings engages the intuitiveness of readers of his poetry with precision. A painter as well as poet, Cummings uses words to create vivid and visceral moments of meaning that are the beating heart of Cummings’ poetry.
The form and content of E. E. Cummings’ poetry is driven by and results from his own personal philosophy regarding the transcendent importance of love and individualism over reason and societal norms. The relationships between those central themes are here explored in three of his poems, published within a span of fourteen years, with the main focus being the poem, “anyone lived in a pretty how town”.
Cummings was a critical lightening rod in his day, and remains controversial even among some of today’s critics. He is, however, one of America’s most-read poets (Silea 2; Baum 104). The target of this controversy was less his subject matter than the manner in which he expressed it. To varying degrees at different stages of his life, he deconstructed the English language, breaking grammatical structures into bits and pieces, only to put them back together in new and thought-provoking ways. He did not do this in ignorance, but with keen awareness of the rules upon which he transgressed: “trying to write poetry before you’ve learned all there is to know about writing is like…trying build yourself a house from the ridgepole down;instead of laying the foundations first & then erecting a structure on them, story by story” (Letters 205).
By today’s standards, this flouting of convention may seem quite tame. This would in likelihood not be the case were it not for the ground broken, plowed and sown by Cummings.
One of Cumming’s most familiar poems is “anyone lived in a pretty how town”. The first line (which, is, in general, the manner by which his poems are identified, because they lack any title other than the number by which they were ordered in their original publication) itself is adequate introduction to Cummings’ style. What appears to be a mish-mash of verbs, nouns and adjectives leaves the read with a distinct, visceral experience despite that disorganization (or reorganization). This is not by chance: the meter, decapitalization, and consonance have already worked their magic to convey a pictorial and emotional message. That is the Cummings hallmark: “How” creates “what.
The “how town” in which “anyone” lives seems, by using “how” as an adjective to describe the town, to raise a question; the expectation for the reader is that this will somehow be resolved in the course of the poem. The poem does, in fact raise a question: Why does humanity forget what it means to be human? This theme, common to much of his poetry, revolves around specific tensions.
In form, Cummings’ poetry is a direct reflection of his personal philosophy regarding these tensions. As Friedman writes, “Cummings’ picture of the world is...