And so my advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something easy, like learning how to blow up the world-unless you’re not only willing, but glad, to feel and work and fight till you die.- “A Poet’s Advice to Students” – republished in E.E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised
Edward Estlin Cummings was born on October 14th, 1894, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Considered one of the most important poets of the 20th century, he was also a painter, essayist, author, and playwright. He wrote approximately 2,900 poems, two autobiographical novels, four plays, and several essays; his work focused on nature, sexuality, and love.
He is associated with modern free-form poetry and is known for his lack of stylistic and structural conformity. Much of his work incorporates lower case letters, and he is often cited as e.e. cummings.
His father was a Reverend and a professor at Harvard University, and his mother was very engaged in raising him and his sister, teaching him to love language. Cummings began writing poetry at an early age, and much of his work throughout his life deals with the repressed sexuality and strict morality to which his father adhered. Yet, his father’s son, Cummings attended Harvard, graduating with a BA in 1915 and a Master’s degree in 1916.
In 1919 he had a daughter, Nancy, with Elaine Orr, the wife of his friend Scofield Thayer from Harvard. Orr divorced Thayer and married Cummings on March 19th, 1924, but they divorced within a year. Elaine moved to Ireland with Nancy, and Cummings did not see his daughter again until 1946. Nancy married the grandson of President Theodore , and was not aware Cummings was her father until the late 1940s.
After graduating from Harvard, Cummings went to work for a book dealer before volunteering to serve in WWI for the ambulance corps. He was, however, a pacifist and very outspoken against the war, and the French authorities imprisoned him under suspicion of espionage. He chronicled his experiences in the novel The Enormous Room, published in 1922. Less than 2000 copies of the novel were originally printed.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Cummings divided his time between New York and Paris. In 1923 his first collection of poems, Tulips and Chimneys, was released. The publisher, Thomas Selzter, included only 66 of the 152 poems Cummings wanted to appear in the volume, leaving out any that were ‘shocking’ in subject or style. Many of those poems appeared in Cummings later privately printed volumes XLI Poems and & (1925). Cummings originally titled his first work, Tulips & Chimneys – the publisher changing the ampersand to ‘and’ – and Cummings used the rejected ampersand to title his later work.
In 1926 Cummings father was killed when his car was hit by a train, killing him instantly. His mother was also injured in the accident. The tragedy affected Cummings significantly and inspired his poem “my father moved through dooms of love.”
Cummings was a playwright as well. In 1927 the Provincetown Players performed his avant-garde play Him. He was also a noted visual artist, holding many one-person gallery shows.
On May 1st, 1929, he married Anne Minnerly Barton. She obtained a divorce in Mexico in 1932, but it was not recognized in the US until 1934. Soon after he separated from Barton, Cumming met Marion Morehouse, a fashion model, and photographer. They remained together for the rest of his life in a common-law marriage.
His book Eimi (1933) is an account, written in experimental prose, of his 36-day trip to the Soviet Union.
Most of his early work was self-published. He did not gain widespread popularity until the 1940s and 1950s, when his free verse gained favor. Then he received a fellowship from the Academy of American Poets at the start of the 1950s. He also received two Guggenheim Fellowships and a two-year Ford Foundation Grant. Cummings returned to Harvard to lecture in 1952-1953, publishing the discussions in his series as i: six nonlectures (1953).
He died of a stroke, September 3rd, 1962. At the time of his death, he was the second most-read poet in the US, just behind Robert Frost.
His 12 volumes of poetry were collected into the two-volume Complete Poems in 1968.
Author John Cheever’s daughter Susan met E.E. Cummings when she was fourteen. She would later pen his biography E.E. Cummings: A Life.
Lesson from E.E. Cummings
It took decades for Cummings to be recognized as a poetic genius, and then he was greatly celebrated. Don’t give up, and do your own thing.