Reviews Of Selected Poetry Collections Essay, Research Paper
On Tulips & Chimneys, which contains "Thy
fingers make early flowers of," "in Just–," "O sweet
spontaneous," and "Buffalo Bill’s"
Slater Brown (1924)
Modern art gets much less explanation than it
deserves. The artist is too busy pioneering, the intransigent critic too busy fighting his
own battles. Nor does any explanation come from the critics of the older school. They have
a fear of tasting anything which they cannot recognize at a glance, they refuse to
understand anything which is disturbingly new. But since they are house-broken only in
their own traditions and would inevitably make a mess of themselves if they wandered
afield, it is perhaps fortunate for the world that they make no attempt to understand the
underlying aesthetic upon which these crisp and brilliant poems of E. E. Cummings are
For Cummings is not only a poet but a painter. His knowledge of word
value is as profound as his knowledge of color, and it is largely for this reason, because
he has carried over the eye and method of art into the field of poetry, that the fresh,
living, glamorous forms he has created seem so intangible. To many of those who do not
understand this fact, this translation of one art into the technic of another, the poems
of E. E. Cummings seem nothing more than verbal and typographical mannerism.
But it is not unapparent in his work that Cummings’ approach to poetry
has been quite definitely through painting. The spatial organization of color has become
the durational organization of words, the technical problem that of tempo. Words, like
planes in abstract painting, function not as units in a logical structure, but as units
functioning in a vital and organic structure of time. Logic and all its attributes of
grammar, spelling and punctuation, become subservient to the imperial demands of form. The
words must come at the moment juste, the spark perfectly timed must ignite them at
their fullest incipient power.
while in the battered
bodies the odd unlovely
souls struggle slowly and writhe
like caught. brave: flies;
In this quotation the verbal units fall, almost as if by fate, into a
sharp relentless tempo that drives each into the highest incandescence of its meaning.
There is no waste, the skilful orchestration of tempo forces each word to the final limit
of its stress.
But Cummings not only derives his technical organization from painting.
The sudden and glaring accuracies of description with which his poetry abounds, are those
of an amazingly adept draughtsman who has for the moment exchanged his own medium for that
of words. In some cases this pictorial accuracy is that of a photograph taken with a lens
of ice, brutally clear. But in many of his more recent poems, of which there are all too
few examples in the present volume, this accuracy, deepened and sharpened by satire, cuts
both ways. These poems, particularly the one published in the fourth number of Secession,
have all the quality of Daumier plus that formal significance which Daumier never
attained. It is a satire both in form and import far beyond the timid and retiring ironies
of T. S. Eliot; a satire which reveals Cummings as completely innoculated against that
galloping stagnation which seems to carry off so many of our younger American poets.
Of the grace of Cummings’ poetry much has been written. But grace is an
emanation, the residue or by-product of a means which has utterly realized its aesthetic
or extra-aesthetic purpose. It is an ease which springs from the perfect economy of
method. But since it cannot be its own purpose, since it can only be attained by way of a
technic whose purpose is not grace itself, it necessarily extends beyond the reaches of
analysis. Nevertheless it may be touched by a consideration of that purpose from which it
emanates, and though I may be leading myself by the nose into a very doubtful territory of
assumptions, I should say that the formal grace (one might as well say beauty and be done
with it) of Cummings’ work is largely due to the fact that the lines of his poems are
built for speed. Their beauty is that of all swift things seen at rest.
In his best work this speed is evident; there exists in them an
organized direction toward which each verbal unit functions at its highest velocity.
Cummings seldom attempts to achieve momentum through the utilization of mass, the violent
and often painful impact of his poems is the active manifestation of speed; their formal
beauty has that quality common to racing cars, aeroplanes, and to those birds surviving
because of their swift wings.
But it is this speed, this sudden impact of his poems which turns so
many people against them. Men do not like to be knocked down, particularly by some quality
they admire. But if art is to have any of the contemporary virtues it must have speed, and
though it is perhaps more pleasant to be softly overturned by the witching waves of Amy
Lowell, or knocked slowly numb by the water droppings of Georgian poetasters, it is
certainly more exhilarating to experience the sharp, the living, the swift, the brilliant
tempos of E.E. Cummings. And though the selection of poems in this volume is neither a
sensitive nor a comprehensive one, though it contains poems of questionable value, it
nevertheless stands as the most important work of poetry yet published in America.
from Slater Brown, "[Review of Tulips and Chimneys ]." Broom 6
Harriet Monroe (1924)
Mr. Cummings’ first book opens with a fanfare–there is a flourish of
trumpets and a crash of cymbals in the resounding music of Epithalamion, a certain
splendor of sound carried just to that point of blare which should match an exaggerated
and half-satiric magnificence of mood. "Go to, ye classic bards," he seems to
say, "I will show you what I can do with iambic pentameter, and a rhyme-patterned
stanza, with high-sounding processional adjectives, long simile-embroidered sentences, and
0-thou invocations of all the gods!" And lo and behold, this modernist does
very well with them–Picasso and the rest, turning from the chaos of cubism to the cold
symmetry of Ingres, must not get ahead of him! He will be in the fashion, or a leap or two
ahead of it–and the muse shall not outrun him!
Listen to two separate stanzas from this glorified and richly patterned
spring-song, this earth- and-sky-inspired Epithalamion:
And still the mad magnificent herald Spring
Assembles beauty from forgetfulness
With the wild trump of April: witchery
Of sound and odor drives the wingless thing,
Man, forth into bright air; for now the red
Leaps in the maple’s cheek, and suddenly
By shining hordes, in sweet unserious dress,
Ascends the golden crocus from the dead.
. . . . . . . . . . . . ..
0 still miraculous May! 0 shining girl
Of time untarnished! 0 small intimate
Gently primeval hands, frivolous feet
Divine! 0 singular and breathless pearl!
0 indefinable frail ultimate pose!
0 visible beatitude–sweet sweet
Intolerable! Silence immaculate
Of God’s evasive audible great rose!
(Right here is due a parenthetical apology. Mr. Cummings has an
eccentric system of typography which, in our opinion, has nothing to do with the poem, but
intrudes itself irritatingly, like scratched or blurred spectacles, between it and the
reader’s mind. In quoting him, therefore, we are trying the experiment of printing him
almost like anybody else, with the usual quantity of periods, commas, capital letters, and
other generally accepted conventions of the printer’s art.)
In a more or less grandiloquent mood the poet swaggers and riots
through his book, carrying off Beauty in his arms as tempestuously as ever Petruchio his
shrew. The important thing, of course, is that he does capture her–she is recognizable
even when the poet, like Petruchio, laughs at her, tumbles her up-to-date raiment,
sometimes almost murders her as he sweeps her along.
She drops swift phrases in passing:
Your thoughts more white than wool
My thought is sorrowful.
Across the harvest whitely peer,
Empty of surprise,
Death’s faultless eyes.
Softer be they than slippered sleep.
Thy fingers make early flowers of
And all the while my heart shall be
With the bulge and nuzzle of the sea.
Thy forehead is a flight of flowers.
The green-greeting pale-departing irrevocable sea.
The body of
The queen of queens is
Than water–she is softer than birds.
The serious steep darkness.
Death’s clever enormous voice [in war].
The Cambridge ladies who live in furnished Souls. . . .
They believe in Christ and Longfellow, both dead.
Some poems guffaw into grotesques leering with tragic or comic
significance. The Portraits are mostly of this kind, and certain of the Impressions.
Here the poet is often too nimble–he tires the reader with intricate intellectual
acrobatics which scarcely repay one for puzzling out their motive over the slippery
typographical stepping-stones. But even here the fault is one of exuberance–the poet
always seems to be having a glorious time with himself and his world even when the reader
loses his breath in the effort to share it. He is as agile and outrageous as a faun, and
as full of delight over the beauties and monstrosities of this brilliant and grimy old
planet. There is a grand gusto in him, and that is rare enough to be welcomed in any age
of a world too full of puling pettifoggers and picayunes.
One might quote many poems in proof of this poet’s varied joys. We shall have to be
satisfied with two. The first is number one of the Chansons Innocentes:
Spring, when the world is mud-
luscious, the little
whistles far and wee.
And Eddie-and Bill come
running from marbles and
piracies, and it’s
when the world is puddle-wonderful.
old balloon-man whistles
far and wee.
And Betty-and-Isbel come dancing
from hop-scotch and jump-rope, and
The second of our quotations is number two of the Orientale series:
I spoke to thee
with a smile, and thou didst not
thy mouth is as
a chord of crimson music.
O thou, is life not a smile?
I spoke to thee with
a song, and thou
didst not listen:
thine eyes are as a vase
of divine silence.
O thou, is life not a song?
to thee with a soul, and
thou didst not wonder:
thy face is as a dream locked
in white fragrance.
O thou, is life not love?
I speak to
thee with a sword,
and thou art silent:
thy breast is as a tomb
softer than flowers.
O thou, is love not death?
Altogether a mettlesome high-spirited poet salutes us in this volume.
But beware his imitators!
from Harriet Monroe, "Flare and Blare." Poetry 23 (1924): 211-15.
Edmund Wilson (1924)
[In this review, Wilson contrasts Cummings with Wallace Stevens.]
Mr. Wallace Stevens is the master of a style: that is the most
remarkable thing about him. His gift for combining words is fantastic but sure: even when
you do not know what he is saying, you know that he is saying it well. He derives plainly
from several French sources of the last fifty years but he never–except for a fleeting
phrase or two–really sounds like any of them. You could not mistake even a title by
Wallace Stevens for a title by anyone else: Invective Against Swans, Hibiscus on the
Sleeping Shores, A High-Toned Old Christian Woman, The Emperor of Ice-Cream, Exposition of
the Contents of a Cab, The Bird with the Coppery Keen Claws, Two Figures in Dense Violet
Night, Hymn from a Watermelon Pavilion, and Frogs Eat Butterflies. Snakes Eat Frogs. Hogs
Eat Snakes. Men Eat Hogs.
These titles also represent Mr. Steven’s curious ironic imagination at
its very best. The poems themselves–ingenious, charming and sometimes beautiful as they
are–do not always quite satisfy the expectation aroused by the titles. When you read a
few poems of Mr. Stevens, you get the impression from the richness of his verbal
imagination that he is a poet of rich personality, but when you come to read the whole
volume through you are struck by a sort of aridity. Mr. Stevens, who is so observant and
has so distinguished a fancy, seems to have emotion neither in abundance nor in intensity.
He is ironic a little in Mr. Eliot’s manner; but he is not poignantly, not tragically
ironic. Emotion seems to emerge only furtively in the cryptic images of his poetry, as if
it had been driven, as he seems to hint, into the remotest crannies of sleep or disposed
of by being dexterously turned into exquisite amusing words. Nothing could be more perfect
in its tone and nothing by itself could be more satisfactory than such a thing as Last
Looks at the Lilacs. But when we have gone all through Mr. Stevens, we find ourselves
putting to him the same question which he, in the last poem of his book, puts To a Roaring
What syllable are you seeking,
In the distances of sleep?
Mr. E. E. Cummings, on the other hand, is not, like Mr. Stevens, a
master in a peculiar vein; a master is precisely what he is not. Cummings’s style is an
eternal adolescent, as fresh and often as winning but as halfbaked as boyhood. A poet with
a genuine gift for language, for a melting music a little like Shelley’s which sighs and
rhapsodizes in soft light vowels disembarrassed of their baggage of consonants, he strikes
often on aetherial measures of a singular purity and charm–his best poems seem to
dissolve on the mind like the flakes of a lyric dew; but he seems never to know when he is
writing badly and when he is writing well. He has apparently no faculty for
self-criticism. One imagines him giving off his poems as spontaneously as perspiration and
with as little application of the intellect. One imagines him chuckling with the delight
of a school-boy when he has invented an adverb like "sayingly" or hit upon the
idea of writing capitals in the middles of words instead of at the beginnings. One
imagines him just as proud to have written
on the groaning flame of neat huge
trudging kiss moistly climbing hideously with
On such a night the sea through her blind miles
of crumbling silence
or the sonnet about the little dancer
absatively posolutely dead,
like Coney Island in winter.
And there is really, it seems to me, a certain amateurishness about the
better of these specimens of his style as well as about the worse. Just as in the first
example he takes one of the lines of least resistance with a difficult sensation by
setting down indiscriminately all the ideas it suggests to him without ever really taking
pains to focus it for the reader, so in the second he succumbs to an over-indulgence in
the beautiful English long i which from "I arise from dreams of thee" to Mr. T.
S. Eliot’s nightingale filling "all the desert with inviolable voice" has been
reserved for effects of especial brightness or purity but which Mr. Cummings has cheapened
a little by pounding on it too much. One or two accurately placed long i’s, if combined
with other long vowels, are usually enough by themselves to illuminate a poem, but Mr.
Cummings is addicted to long i’s, he has got into the habit of using them uncritically,
and he insists upon turning them on all over until his poems are lit up like Christmas
Mr. Cummings’s eccentric punctuation is, I think, typical of his
immaturity as an artist. It is not merely a question of unconventional punctuation:
unconventional punctuation very often gains its effect. But I must contend, after a
sincere effort to appreciate it and after having had it explained to me by a friend of Mr.
Cummings, that Mr. Cummings’s does not gain its effect. It is Mr. Cummings’s theory that
punctuation marks, capitalization and arrangement on the page should be used not as mere
conventional indications of structure which make it easier for the reader to pay attention
to the meaning conveyed by the words themselves but as independent instruments of
expression susceptible of infinite variation. Thus he refuses to make use of capitals for
the purposes for which they were invented–to indicate the beginnings of sentences and the
occurrence of proper names–but insists upon pressing them into service for purposes of
emphasis; and he even demotes the first person singular of the pronoun by a small i, only
printing it as a capital when he desires to give it special salience–not, apparently,
realizing that for readers accustomed to seeing it the other way it calls ten times as
much attention to "I" to write it as a small letter than to print it in the
ordinary fashion. But the really serious case against Mr. Cummings’s punctuation is that
the results which it yields are ugly. His poems are hideous on the page. He insists upon
shattering even the most conventional and harmless of his productions, which if they had
their deserts would appear in neat little boxes like the innocuous correct prose poems of
Mr. Logan Pearsall Smith, into an explosive system of fragments which, so far from making
the cadences easier to follow only involves us in a jig-saw puzzle of putting them
together again. In the long run, I think it may be said that words have to carry their own
cadence and emphasis through the order in which they are written. The extent to which
punctuation and typography can help out is really very limited.
Behind this formidable barrier of punctuation for which Mr. Cummings
seems unfortunately to have achieved most celebrity, his emotions are conventional and
simple in the extreme. They even verge occasionally on the banal. You have the adoration
of young love and the delight in the coming of spring and you have the reflection that all
flesh must die and all "roses" turn to "ashes." But this is perhaps
precisely where Mr. Cummings has an advantage over Mr. Stevens. Whatever Cummings is he is
not chilled; he is not impervious to life. He responds eagerly and unconstrainedly to all
that the world has to offer. His poetry constitutes an expression–and for the most part a
charming expression–of a kind very rare in America–it is the record of a temperament
which loves and enjoys, which responds readily with mockery or tenderness, entirely
without the inhibitions from which so much of American writing is merely the anguish to
escape. He is one of the only American authors living who is not reacting against
something. And for this example of the good life–and for the fact that, after all, he is
a poet at a time when there is a great deal of writing of verse and very little real
poetic feeling–Mr. Cummings deserves well of the public.
from Edmund Wilson, "Wallace Stevens and E. E. Cummings." New
Republic 38 (1924): 102-03.
On is 5 Which Contains "Poem, or Beauty
Hurts Mr. Vinal," "‘next to of course god america i," and "my
sweet old etcetera"
Maurice Lesemann (1926)
There are a number of poems in is 5 which are delightful for sheer appalling
cleverness…. It is notable that in all this group…there are scarcely a dozen poems
which imply any emotion other than laughter. They are full of boisterous energy, and seem
to have been written with great gusto, but they are external, clear of all comment, all
overtones, save laughter, the most external of the emotions. Often they communicate no
intensity but that of the writer working excitedly with his words. This poet never reveals
his inward emotional self while he is aware of the present century. The picture he gives
of his own time is invariably vivid, and almost invariably unpleasant. He goes out to it
with all the energy of his mind, but his inner self withdraws and preserves itself remote
and immune. As in the later work of Joyce, there is a strenuous effort to meet all
manifestations of externality without flinching; an effort to say yes to the world without
establishing a profound inner connection. The resultant world-of-the-poems is a lurid
place inhabited by thugs, policemen, Greek restauranteurs, pimps and prostitutes, drug
addicts, crooked politicians, and an occasional stupid business man. This cast of
characters has certainly not been chosen for its startling effect. The most startling
character Mr. Cummings could offer at the present moment of American literature would be
an intelligent and likable business man, who has no urge to be an artist. Perhaps the
building of a peculiarly selected poem-world is necessary to poets nowadays, to form a
callus upon their spirits and protect them from empirical harshness.
from Maurice Lesemann, "The Poetry of E. E. Cummings." Poetry
29 (1926): 164-69.
On ViVa, which contains "i sing of Olaf glad
and big" and
"Space being (don’t forget to remember) Curved"
Allen Tate (1932)
His uniformity is not uniformity of style. The point could be labored, but I
think it is sufficient to refer the reader of Cummings to the three distinct styles of
poems XVIII, LI, and LVII in Viva. He has a great many styles, and
having these he has none at all–a defect concealed by his famous mechanism of distorted
word and line. For a style is that indestructible quality of a piece of writing which may
be distinguished from its communicable content but which in no sense can be subtracted
from it: the typographical device can be seen so subtracted by simple alteration either in
the direction of conventional pattern or in the direction of greater distortion. The
typography is distinct from style, something superimposed and external to the poem, a
mechanical system of variety and a formula of surprise; it is–and this is its function–a
pseudodynamic feature that galvanizes the imagery with the look of movement, of freedom,
of fresh perception, a kind of stylization which is a substitute for a living relation
among the images themselves, in the lack of a living relation between the images and the
sensibility of the poet. Mr. Cummings’ imagery reaches the page still-born.
…from the aggregate of Mr. Cummings’ poems we return to the image of
his personality: like all poets he seems to say "more" than the explicit terms
convey, but this "more" lies in the origin of the poem, not in the interplay of
its own terms. From To His Coy Mistress we derive no clue to the existence of such
a person as "Andrew Marvell"; from Viva we get only the evidence of personality.
And this is what Cummings’ poetry "means." It is a kind of meaning very common
at present; Mr. Cummings is the original head of an easily imitable school. This does not
mean that he has ever been successfully imitated; no one else has written
"personal" poetry as well as Mr. Cummings writes it. It is rather that he has
shown the possibility of making personal conventions whose origin and limit are
from Allen Tate, "Personal Convention." Poetry 39 (1932): 332-37.
On No Thanks, which contains
Kenneth Burke (1935)
Despite superficial differences, E. E. Cummings’ "No thanks"
and Kenneth Fearing’s "Poems" have important ingredients in common. Both poets
have an exceptional gift for the satirically picturesque. Both specialize in rhetorical
devices that keep their pages vivacious almost to the extent of the feverish. Both are
practised at suggesting the subjective through the objective. And both seem driven by
attitudes for which there is no completely adequate remedy in the realm of the practical
(with Cummings, a sense of isolation–with Fearing, an obsession with death).
Cummings has more range, which is not always a virtue in his case, as
much of his wider scope is devoted to cryptic naughtiness of an immature sort, a somewhat
infantile delight in the sexual parts, alembicated confessions that seem unnecessarily shy
and coy (material which, I suspect, Cummings would have abandoned long before now, had he
not discovered a few processes of stylistic chemistry for extracting the last bit of ore).
And like the chronic invalid who comes to identify his doctor with his disease, hating
them interchangeably, he is dissatisfied not only with the current political and economic
texture, but also with the "famous fatheads" and "folks with missians"
(vindictively mis-spelled) who would attempt its radical cure. Fearing can be buoyed up
with the thought of a situation wherein "millions of voices become one voice"
and "millions of hands . . . move as one." But Cummings sees the process from
the other side, as he strikes at those "worshipping Same," says they "got
athlete’s mouth jumping on & off bandwaggons," and in not very loving verse
lambastes the "kumrads" for being deficient in love.
But even a lone wolf cannot feel wholly content without allies. Hence,
as with belligerent capitalist states, his occasional nondescript alliance with anyone who
will serve (witness his scattering of somewhat shamefacedly anti-Semitic aphorisms,
usually consigned to cryptogram, but still "nonsufficiently in understood"). As
we read "No thanks" carefully, the following picture emerges: For delights,
there is sexual dalliance, into which the poet sometimes reads cosmic implications (though
a communicative emphasis is lacking). For politics, an abrupt willingness to let the whole
thing go smash. For character building, the rigors of the proud and lonely, eventually
crystallizing in rapt adulation of the single star, which is big, bright, deep, near,
soft, calm, alone and holy–"Who (holy alone) holy (alone holy) alone."
from Kenneth Burke, "Two Kinds of Against." New Republic 83 (1935):
On 50 Poems, which contains "anyone lived
in a pretty how town"
R. P. Blackmur (1941)
Mr. Cummings’ poems depend entirely upon what they create in process,
only incidentally upon what their preliminary materials or intentions may have been. Thus,
above all, there is a prevalent quality of uncertainty, of uncompleted possibility, both
in the items and in the fusion of the items which make up the poems; but there is also the
persistent elementary eloquence of intension–of things struggling, as one says crying, to
be together, and to make something of their togetherness which they could never exhibit
separately or in mere series. The words, the meanings in the words, and also the nebula of
meaning and sound and pun around the words, are all put into an enlivening relation to
each other. There is, to employ a word which appealed to Hart Crane in similar contexts, a
sense of synergy in all the successful poems of Mr. Cummings: synergy is the condition of
working together with an emphasis on the notion of energy in the working, and energy in
the positive sense, so that one might say here that Mr. Cummings’ words were energetic.
The poems are, therefore, eminently beyond paraphrase, not because they have no logical
content–for they do, usually very simple–but because so much of the activity is apart
from that of logical relationships, is indeed in associations free of, though not alien
to, logical associations. In short, they create their objects.
…I have been one of his admirers for twenty-one years since I first
saw his poetry in the Dial; and it may be that my admiration has gone up and down
so many hills that it is a little fagged and comes up to judgment with entirely too many
reservations. Yet I must make them, and hope only that the admiration comes through.
First, there is the big reservation that, contrary to the general
belief and contrary to what apparently he thinks himself, Mr. Cummings is not…an
experimental poet at all….
My second reservation…has to do with his vocabulary, which seems to
me at many crucial points so vastly over-generalized as to prevent any effective mastery
over the connotations they are meant to set up as the substance of his poems….
My third reservation is minor, and has to do with the small boy writing
privy inscriptions on the wall; a reservation which merely to state is sufficiently to
expound. Some of the dirt perhaps comes under the head of the poetry of gesture, and some
perhaps is only the brutality of disgust. My complaint is meant to be technical; most of
the dirt is not well enough managed to reach the level of either gesture or disgust, but
remains, let us say, coprophiliac which is not a technical quality.
from R. P. Blackmur, "[Review of 50 poems]." Southern Review 7
e e cummingsesq: A review of his 50 Poems
:dearmrcummings it is
r than you th
ink ;printersink s
ingdownand sp (o)
excite or delight us
the same way anymore ;not
that we ask you to stop (look Listen)
at the pierian sp
;but you must be
careful or you will get
we also admire
tree trunk leaf sky & sn
akes ;prettygirls littlechildr
during moons sl
lights flowers & loves brief
;and we like your
,and you must forgive us
if we sometimes
;because it is
hell is a thirsty place
a draught from the top of
helicon will do ;we are not asking you for
something new ,simply
from Babette Deutsch, "e e cummingsesq: A review of his 50 Poems
." The Nation 17 May 1941, 591.
Commentary on Cummings’ Art and Poetry
Charles Norman (1958)
[Norman relates Cummings’ "individuality of style" in his line drawings,
watercolors, and oil paintings.]
…His line drawings are different from Picasso’s or Cocteau’s…in that they
stop abruptly at the point where movement has been caught….
…In watercolor…he achieves–again with a minimum of strokes–an Oriental
simplicity. His watercolors are deceptive, because Cummings is after an impression,
sometimes so fleeting as to be gone with a change of light; but having caught what he
wished, the picture remains without embellishment….
In his watercolors Cummings is not so much painting a picture as capturing a poetic
metaphor in paint; that is to say, he is celebrating Nature, as he does so often in his
poetry….[His] watercolors…fail to satisfy Western eyes used to projections of mass
instead of space. In this…he is more Oriental than occidental, as though he really were
an inhabitant of China "where a painter is a poet."
It is with his oils that Cummings calls for consideration as a painter wholly apart
from his other, writing self. His oils reveal a mastery of his medium in which the tactile
and the sensory combine, and in this combination faces, landscapes and flowers no longer
celebrate life, but are a part of it….
from Charles Norman, The Magic-Maker: E. E. Cummings. New York: Macmillan, 1958.
Rushworth M. Kidder (1976)
…Cummings’ early poetry and art did bear affinities with that of the Decadents:
sensuality abounded, often gratuitously, and the will to shock the complacency of
bourgeois arts and letters went hand in hand with an art-for-art’s-sake undercurrent.
But as the self-conscious lushness of his early poems dropped away, a new firmness took
its place: the impulse towards economy replaced the temptation towards prolixity. It is no
accident that long poems disappeared from his later volumes. Neither is it an accident
that as Cummings progressed he became more representational in his painting and drawing.
The immediacy of the outer world impinged more and more upon the inner fantasies; satire
replace luxurious sensuality, and the artist who began with the interests of a Beardsley
drew closer to the viewpoints of a Daumier.
Yet throughout this period of growth and development [roughly between 1920 and 1925]
there remain constant similarities between poems and drawings. In each, he is seeking to
convey the delight and humor which his own quick wit found in the world around him. And in
each, he is seeking the most economical means to convey ideas and feelings about ideas. In
each, too, he is seeking precision….Above all, in both poetry and drawing, he seeks
movement and life.
from Rushworth M. Kidder, "‘Author of Pictures’: A Study of
Cummings’ Line Drawings in The Dial." Contemporary Literature 17
Rushworth M. Kidder (1979)
[Here Kidder discusses "fragmentation and fusion, simultaneity, and bilateral
symmetry" as formal features "which show up consistently in [Cummings’]
painting as well as in his poetry."]
Fragmentation and fusion appear in the visual arts in the work of the Divisionists,
who, after analyzing their subject into discrete spots of color, synthesized these spots
into an image.
In the work of the Cubists, and in [some] Cummings drawings and paintings…the process
often emphasized analysis over synthesis….
In poetry, fragmentation and fusion consists in the breaking up of the conventional
arrangements of stanzas, lines, or words into smaller units and in the combining of them
into larger ones. In Cummings’ poetry this rearrangement takes two forms. First,
there are those poems in which he so orders an entire stanza that it takes on a
significant visual pattern….
[Second is] the "splintered / normality" that fractures words into syllables,
nonsyllabic entities, and single letters, and its counterpart, the fusion of words into
[Kidder defines Cummings’ interest in simultaneity in art as "the
simultaneous presentation of various points of view in a visual image" and proceeds
to discuss how this feature is used in poetry. One way is through creation of "double
meanings," another is through interweaving "various threads of narrative into a
garble," and yet another is the insertion into words of parenthetical words or
The point of this simultaneity is not (as it was in Cubism) to show more than
can usually be seen, but to allow language, for all its inefficiencies in portraying
pictorial images, to express as much as the visual arts. The effect, in other words
is to construct a parallel in poetry for painting.
This interest in the simultaneity of of disparate impressions produces, in many cases,
a third formal feature of Cummings’ poetry and painting: bilateral symmetry.
Cummings, it seems, thought in terms of "opposites," whether they "occurred
together" as in burlesque or not. No Hegelian, he did not always demand a resolution
for his thesis and antithesis. He was often content simply to present binary structures,
with some attention to various ideas he had learned from studying composition in the
visual arts–the balancing of equivalents, the distribution of emphasis, the repetition of
from Rushworth M. Kidder, "Cummings and Cubism: The Influence of the Visual Arts
on Cummings’ Early Poetry." Journal of Modern Literature 7 (1979):
Milton A Cohen (1983)
Taken together, the poems and paintings show nearly analogous techniques of ambiguity:
figurative in the painting, thematic in the poems. Flickering in and out of view, these
ambiguities tease the viewer’s eye and mind to see first one view or meaning, then
another, but not one or the other exclusively. By balancing their perceptual force,
Cummings keeps both possibilities simultaneously present….
…[Cummings] sought to make his works more "feelable to the eye,"…and less
recognizable to the mind; to emphasize the sensuous elements that intensify perception of all
the parts, and to obscure the figures that elicit recognition of only part of the
The first half of this aesthetic solution, that of making works "feelable to the
eye," helped to generate many of the visual techniques for which Cummings’
poetry is best known: the busted lines, broken words, ideographic punctuation, and sprung
syntax that move vertically and diagonally, as well as horizontally, on the page. As these
devices slow one’s recognition of thematic meaning, they acquire their own perceptual
importance as fragments. Any linguistic element, no matter how lowly, could be made to
carry an immediately perceptible, sensuous charge. Thus punctuation and capitalization,
lowly servants to words, could act ideographically as well as functionally….
…To achieve the second half of his aesthetic solution, that of retarding recognition
of figures in an abstract painting and of themes in a poem, Cummings considered omitting
the figures and themes altogether from his work and constructing pure abstractions….But
pure abstraction ultimately proved unsatisfying to the painter, and impossible to the
lyrical poet. For Cummings was too much in love with the sights and smells and sounds of
the phenomenal world, too devoted to nature, to abandon it in abstractions.
A happier solution was to admit nature, but to hold it in check: that is, to include
the figures and themes on which the paintings and poems are based, but to diminish their
perceptual dominance by concealing them in perceptually ambiguous structures; to hide them
among the sensuous planes and to divide them between competing arrangements of syntax.
from Milton A. Cohen, "E. E. Cummings’ Sleight-of-Hand: Perceptual Ambiguity
in His Early Poetry, Painting, and Career." University of Hartford Studies in
Literature 15(1983): 33-46.
Regis L. Welch (1984)
…Cummings was attempting…to imitate the modern artist’s attempts to depict a
fourth dimension within a work of graphic art….
…To accomplish [the] feat of linguistic fidelity to the immediacy of experience,
Cummings developed the literary technique of fragmentation or the dismemberment of
language into autonomous yet related fragments. In the technique of fragmentation,
Cummings first reduced language to those components usually regarded as the lowest common
denominators, morphemes and graphemes. Then, instead of the usual arrangements of words
placed in normal syntactical order and grouped into poetic stanzas, Cummings rearranged
these linguistic units into a visual representation of an experience. Such dismemberment
is analogous to the analysis of surfaces into planes and angles such as are depicted in
the Picasso portraits of a profile superimposed on a full face view. Cummings believed
that this separation of phrases, words and morphemes would provide special and unusual
stress for these linguistic fragments because separation would emphasize the spatial
elements surrounding them andwould heighten the aesthetic visual experience of the reader.
Similarly, Cummings felt that the technique of tmesis or the re-combination and the
interspersing of other phrases, words or parts of words would illustrate the
interrelatedness and the overlapping of events which actually or perceptually occur
simultaneously. In the same way that the Cubist painters illustrated the various visual
viewpoints of physical objects, Cummings’ verbal-graphic techniques of fragmentation
and tmesis demonstrated the structure and the component froms of language. At first, the
reader faces the scattered letters and punctuation marks with much the same bewilderment
as that expeienced when first viewing the non-representational cubes and cones of a Cubist
painting. Eventually, the reader realizes that the external elements of language have
merely been dislocated and juztaposed in new ways within the jumbled typography.
from Regis L Welch, "The Linguistic Paintings of E. E. Cummings,
Painter-Poet." Language and Literature 9(1984): 79-89.
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