SOME LITERARY INFLUENCES IN THE SELECTED
POEMS OF EDWARD ESTLIN CUMMINGS
Thesis presented in part fulfilment of the requirements
for the degree of Master of Arts at the Jagiellonian
University of Cracow.
Written under the supervision of dr Graz.yna Branny.
Table of contents:
INTRODUCTION . . . . . Page 3
CHAPTER 1 :
E. E. Cummings as an Heir of the Romantic Tradition . . . . . Page 8
CHAPTER 2 :
The Elements of Realism in the Poetry of E. E. Cummings . . . . . Page 34
CHAPTER 3 :
The Avant-garde Roots in the Poetry of E. E. Cummings . . . . . Page 57
CONCLUSION . . . . . Page 84
BIBLIOGRAPHY . . . . . Page 88INTRODUCTION
Cummings1 remains virtually unknown to the Polish
reader. Both his figure and oeuvre deserve more attention than the critics, as well as
the editors and publishers, have devoted to them. Even the
recent edition of his poetry translated by Stanisl/aw Baran'czak has
not changed the situation2. This may be caused by the fact that the
trails allegedly blazed by him are regarded by some as having been trodden a long
time ago. Despite that, his poetry still finds many devoted admirers all over the
world while the originality of his style enchants even, or maybe especially, a
1 There is disagreement among the critics as to the spelling of E. E. Cummings' name. One of the versions accepts
lower case letters, and such spelling can be found in numerous critical sources. Norman Friedman, in the preface to his
book entitled e. e. cummings. The Growth of a
Writer provides readers with the information that Cummings "had his name
put legally into lower case, and in his later books the titles and his name were always in lower case". Eve Triem in her study
of E. E. Cummings published in Six American
Poets quotes the following story, "While Cummings was in graduate school
he helped to found the Harvard Poetry Society. He and some of his friends in the society put together
Eight Harvard Poets (published in 1917). In it, by a printer's error, according to one story, Cummings' name and the "I's" as well were set
in lowercase letters. He seized upon this as a device congenial to him and later had "e. e. cummings" legalised as
the signature to his poems".
On the other hand, however, the Society of E. E. Cummings in the United States, rectifies this information as
false. Recently, on one of the internet pages (*)devoted to E. E. Cummings in the text written by Norman Friedman
the following information appears that seems to finally settle this question:
As we may have mentioned, due to the kindness of D. Jon Grossman's son, Jerome, we have the complete file of
Jon's correspondence with Cummings. On making a preliminary tour through these letters, we found Jon preparing a
French edition of his translations of Cummings' poetry, and on
27th February 1951 he wrote to the poet: "are you E.
E. Cummings, ee. cummings or what? (so far as the title page is concerned)wd u title page all in lower case ?" The
poet replied on 1st March 1951:"E. E. Cummings, unless your printer prefers E. E. Cummings/ titlepage up to you;but may
it not be tricksy svp[. ]"
That seems definite to us: may it not be
tricksy! For a poet who took such pains with typography as part of his
poetic technique, the styling of his name cannot be an indifferent matter. It may not be that a poet can control his
publisher's decision concerning title page and lettering on the binding - I know to my sorrow that I could not do so when my
books on Cummings were published-but it is certainly the case that Cummings was just short of obsessive when it came
to proofreading the galleys of his own writings inside of their covers and title pages. That the popular image has it that he
is a `lowercase poet' certainly cannot be a reason, for he was also obsessive about not being reduced or stereotyped
or sloganized by `mostpeople'". (On page 49 of my thesis in the footnotes the term "mostpeople" is
Therefore, I have decided to use capital letters when spelling his name throughout my thesis. The exceptions to this
rule are the quotations from the books whose authors chose the lower case option.
2 e. e.cummings, 150 wierszy (Wydawnictwo Literackie, Krako'w 1994).
Edward Estlin Cummings was born in 1894 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Although he is primarily known for his poetry, he was also a fine artist, playwright
and novelist. He also wrote tales for children, art criticism, and even a libretto for
His father was a Harvard professor and a respected Unitarian minister, so
E. E. Cummings was brought up in a family where culture, religion and
traditional values played an important role. E. E. Cummings himself graduated from
Harvard and it was in the Harvard Monthly that in 1912 he published his first
poems. Thorough education he received at the university defies the common,
though unjustified opinion, that his poetry is a mere violation of the traditional
poetic rules, resulting from his ignorance of such rules. The poet himself admits
in Nonlecture Three: "Officially, Harvard presented me with a smattering of
languages and sciences; with a glimpse of Homer, a more than a glimpse of
Aeschylus Sophocles Euripides and Aristophanes, and a deep glance at Dante
and Shakespeare"3. He also took a course in poetic composition. The
Harvard years were important also due to the friendships E. E. Cummings formed at
that time. The names of his friends include great writers, as well as the people
who influenced his artistic development by introducing him to the fields and aspects of art unknown to him before. In this context, the name of S. Foster Damon seems
to be of special import. Charles Norman mentions that he heard E. E. Cummings
say: "Practically everything I know about painting and poetry came to me
It is also noteworthy that he chose modern trends in art as the subject of his Commencement Address, the aim of which was "to sketch briefly the
parallel developments of the New Art in the fields of painting and sculpture, music,
and literature"5. This interest in the overlapping of various forms of art was to remain
a characteristic feature of all his work.
3 Charles Norman, E. E. Cummings. A
Biography (E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., New York, 1967), 31.
4 Ibid. , 38.
5 Ibid. , 41.
The time of his graduation coincided with the First World War and E.
E. Cummings took part in it as a driver in the American Red Cross. This
experience was to leave its stamp on the young poet, for it led to his imprisonment.
The Enormous Room published in 1922 is an account of how it happened, and how
it changed his worldview. The whole incident was crucial to his future
development, not only as an artist. The main interest of the book revolves around the
discovery and experience of freedom as opposed to life within society with its
institutions, which serve to control man and make him subservient. He celebrates the victory
of an individual in his clash with the society, which uses all its tools to
manipulate him. E. E. Cummings concentrates on how the prison conditions led to his
gradual discovery of the importance of an individual. This discovery remained of
paramount importance to all his works. A special quality of the book lies in the fact
that Cummings experiences freedom and happiness in prison, in spite of the
tough conditions, and he finds the people there more respectable than those who
are apparently free, which seems to defy the natural order and common expectations.
After the war he came back to France repeatedly and even lived there
for some time. It was important inasmuch as Paris was the cradle of modern trends
in world art, and E. E. Cummings' works show a strong link to the
Avant-garde. Although he himself always denied having been influenced by the Avant-garde,
in the sense that he had always insisted on all his poetic experiments being solely his own invention, in my opinion one does not contradict the other: E. E.
Cummings could have created his own style independently yet at the same time
simultaneously to other trends.
His artistic connections are much wider notwithstanding. His poems
and drawings appeared in The Dial, the magazine reminiscent, in the origin and
the content, of the 19th century periodical of the Transcendentalists, which is a
very telling detail when considered in the context of E. E. Cummings' artistic credo.
The following years bring further publications of his works, poems as
well as other genres, along with awards acknowledging his firm position among
twentieth century American writers. At the moment of death in 1962 he was considered to
be one of the head figures among American avant-garde artists.
His output includes numerous volumes of poetry:
Tulips and Chimneys (1923), & (1925),
is 5 (1926), ViVa (1931), No
Thanks (1935), New Poems (1938), 50
Poems (1940), 1x1 (1944), Xaipe (1950),
95 Poems (1958). He also wrote four plays:
Him (1927), Anthropos: The Future of
Art (1930), No Title (1930)
and Santa Claus (1946); two books of prose:
Eimi (1933), The Enormous Room
(1922), a libretto for a ballet entitled
Tom (1935). Additionally, the lectures he delivered
at Harvard University as a Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry were
published under the title i: six nonlectures
(1953). His other works include essays,
fairytales, letters and an introduction to a collection of Krazy Kat comic strips, as well as
an album showing his paintings, entitled
CIOPW (1931). He also displayed his
pictures at several exhibitions in various American cities.
In spite of the numerous accusations E. E. Cummings had to face
throughout his life (the majority of which were unjustified), no one denies his merit of
being one of the most innovative of all American artists of this century. However, as
it has already been stated, his originality and novelty go hand in hand with his
respect for tradition as well as its thorough knowledge. Only a well-educated reader is
able to appreciate fully the poet's erudition. E. E. Cummings treated tradition as
a foundation, the starting point and a point of reference rather than an antithesis of his own works, hence the experimental form of his poems results from rather
than opposes literary conventions. E. E. Cummings tried not so much to fight
tradition as to develop it, so that not only words but also the form would be meaningful.
His innovative poetry constitutes protest against the language that no longer
performs its primary function of rendering the reality, which, according to him, is the
poet's task. Although his views are relatively uncomplicated, it does not mean that
they are simplistic. He was often accused of lack of sophistication and naivety,
but these accusations seem to be based merely on the general conviction that
reliance on feelings and
emotions, which E. E. Cummings advocates in his poetry,
As it has already been stated, E. E. Cummings'
works show the traces of various influences. Both Stanisl/aw Baran'czak in
his introduction to a collection of E. E. Cummings'
poems 150 wierszy and Barry A. Marks in his book entitled
E. E. Cummings take special note of the place that Realism and Formalism occupy in his poetry.
Norman Friedman, on the other hand, discusses Romantic elements in his poems. At
the same time, all the critics emphasise the influence modernism had on the form
of his poems.
It is my aim in this thesis to trace down the above mentioned trends
and discuss their employment in the poetry of E. E. Cummings. I would also like
to demonstrate how their combined influence adds to the emergence of E.
E. Cummings' distinctive style.