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E. E. Cummings

An American poet and painter who first attracted attention for his eccentric use of  punctuation, Edward E. Cummings was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on October 14, 1894.   His father was a Harvard teacher and later a Unitarian minister.  Cummings received his education from Cambridge High and Latin School.  From 1911 to 1916, he attended Harvard, where he met John Dos Passos.  While many of his classmates were devoted to sports, parties, and socializing, Cummings was more reclusive.  He dressed unconventionally and dedicated himself to the arts, particularly painting and literature.  He was graduated in 1915 with a major in classics.

Although he never legally changed his name, Cummings liked the way it looked in lowercase; so he adopted it as his professional name in print.  After his death, however, his widow complained to his publisher that the lowercase spelling of her husband's name was an error that should be corrected to uppercase in future editions.  Cummings nearly always signed his name with uppercase letters.

In his writing, Cummings often dealt with the antagonism between an individual and the masses, constantly pushing the individual to the limits of society's stresses, but his style also brought into play a fair amount of light-heartedness and satire.  As a professional artist, he painted still-life pictures and landscapes of great depth.

In 1917, Cummings published with Dos Passos and several other budding writers Eight Harvard Poets.  During the last years of World War I, he drove an ambulance in France.  But indiscrete comments in letters to a friend led to his arrest and imprisonment in a French concentration camp at La FertÚ-MacÚ.  Later, Cummings learned that he had been accused of treason, but the charges were subsequently dropped.  This experience gave basis for his only novel, The Enormous Room (1922), in which he drew acerbic comic sketches of the jailers and sympathetic portraits of prisoners.  He followed up with a collection of verse, Tulips and Chimneys (1923), that drew a contrast between the evils of war to the "sweet spontaneous earth" and XLI Poems (1925).  In the 1920s and1930s, he divided his time between New York and Paris, where he studied art.  There, in the City of Lights, he met poets Ezra Pound, Hart Crane, and Archibald MacLeish.

Cummings was barely supporting himself by painting portraits and writing for magazines such as Vanity Fair.   Despite his Bohemian lifestyle, he was a conservative, irritable man who hated noisy inventions such as vacuum cleaners and radios.  He spent most of his life unhappy, struggling to pay the bills, and ostracized for his unpopular political views.

Throughout the 1920s, Cummings contributed to The Dial, regarded as America's greatest literary journal of the day.  His poems, & (1925) and is 5 (1925), inspired by Apollinaire, were written in the poet's new style.  The books presented his radical experiments with punctuation and typography, and it is here that he began using lower letter cases in his own name. When poems traditionally have been addressed to the ear, he addressed the ear through the eye.  In the line "mOOn Over tOwns mOOn" (1935), which showed the movement of the full moon, the letters became pictorial graphics.

Cummings believed that modern mass society was a threat to individuals.  "Progress is a comfortable disease," he once wrote.  He was interested in cubism and jazz, which had not yet become mass entertainment, along with contemporary slang, an unorthodox form of language, that blossomed during the Jazz Age.  In his poems, Cummings often expressed his rebellious attitude toward religion, politics, and conformity.

the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls
are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds
(also, with the church's protestant blessings daughters, unscented shapeless spirited)
they believe in Christ and Longfellow, both dead
- from the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls, 1923

Although a curmudgeon at heart, Cummings nonetheless appreciated the joys of life and the beauty of nature, from which, he believed, too many people had departed ways.  In 1927, his play, him, was produced by the Provincetown Players in New York City.  His paintings and drawings went on exhibit, but they failed to attract as much critical interest as his writings. 

In 1931, Cummings traveled to the Soviet Union in order to witness firsthand the superior lifestyle he was convinced that socialism held for its practitioners.  He was horrified at what he found there.   He saw no lovers, no one laughing, no one enjoying life's pleasures.  The theaters and museums were full of propaganda, and the Russian people were afraid to talk among themselves in the street.  Everyone appeared to be living a life of absolute misery.  Cummings later recorded his impressions in Eimi (1933), a version of Dante's descent into Hell, in which he saw the Russians as "undead."  When Cummings failed to find a publisher for No Thanks, a collection of poetry, he published it himself. 

(may i touch said he
how much said she
a lot said he)
why not said she

(let's go said he
not too far said she
what's too far said he
where you are said she)

may i stay said he
(which way said she
like this said he
if you kiss said she

may i move said he
it is love said she)
if you're willing said he
(but you're killing said she

but it's life said he
but your wife said she
now said he)
ow said she

(tiptop said he
don't stop said she
oh no said he)
go slow said she

(cccome?said he
ummm said she
you're divine! said he
(you are Mine said she)
- from may I feel said he

He tried to write a script for a ballet, but it was never performed.  He attempted to write for Hollywood, where most of the big money of the day was, but he found himself spending his time painting humming birds and sunsets instead of working on screenplays.  He had to borrow money from his parents and his friends to survive.  He once said, "I'm living so far beyond my income that we may almost be said to be living apart."

A few years later, he decided to make some extra money by giving a series of lectures at Harvard University.  While most lecturers spoke from behind a lectern, Cummings sat on the edge of the stage, reading his poems aloud and talking about what poetry meant to him.  The faculty members were embarrassed by his unique approach, but the undergraduates loved him and came to his lectures in droves.  Although suffering from terrible back pains and forced to wear a metal brace that he called his "iron maiden," he began traveling and giving readings at universities across the country. 

From 1952 to 1953, Cummings was a professor at Harvard.  A series of his lectures was published as i: six nonlectures.  In 1957, he received a special citation from the National Book Award Committee for Poems, 1923-1954; and in 1957, he won the Bollinger Prize.  By the end of the 1950s, he had become the most popular poet in America.  He loved performing, and he loved to hear applause when he spoke.

Cummings, who was married three times, died on September 3, 1962, in North Conway.

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