EE Cummings: A world in each verse

Sudeshna Shome Ghosh | Updated on October 11, 2019 Published on October 11, 2019

“Yes is a world”: EE Cummings’s life of affirmation and reaffirmation   -  WIKIPEDIA

A toast to poet and writer EE Cummings, whose birthday falls on October 14

In the beautiful picture book Enormous Smallness: A Story of E.E. Cummings (2015) by Matthew Burgess, this line from one of Cummings’s dearly loved poems, Love is a place, appears in a splash of dull gold: “Yes is a world”. Burgess writes, “His poems were his way of saying YES. YES to the heart and the roundness of the moon, to birds, elephants, trees and everything he loved.”

Cummings’s work is indeed a way of saying yes to seeing the world in a different way. Sleeping within brackets, curled up at the ends of lopped off lines, lie whole new meanings. His poetry is famously idiosyncratic in the ways he used punctuation, capital letters (or none); even the structure of the poem on the page give the words a coat of hidden meaning. Sometimes, the poems need a few readings for our conventional eyes to adjust to the thought within.

For example, in the quirky yet pithy poem L(a, within parenthesis lie the words “a leaf falls” and outside is the word: “Loneliness”. Anyone who has seen a lone leaf flutter to the ground, its green days over, separated forever from the living branch, and has felt the aloneness of the leaf seeping into them, will understand that Cummings’s poem is perfect. In the space of a few precise and spare lines, it carries a world of loneliness in it.

Edward Estlin Cummings (1894-1962) is one of America’s most loved and widely read poets. Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to doting parents, his was a happy childhood.

His mother Rebecca recognised his love for words early, and would write down the poetry he created. He shined throughout his education, which included a BA and an MA that he earned at Harvard.

When World War I broke out, he enlisted and was sent to France as part of the ambulance corps. His war effort was cut short when he was mistakenly arrested as a spy and imprisoned after his letters were intercepted where he spoke of his lack of hatred for the Germans and that he did not believe in war. His experience of being arrested as a spy resulted in the book The Enormous Room (1922).

From his very first collection of poetry, Tulips & Chimneys, Cummings adopted what was going to be his signature style. The poems were playful, experimental, surprising. While he did not change his name officially to the lower case ‘ee cummings’, his publishers were more than happy to print his name that way, in keeping with how capital letters were used (or not) in his poetry.

Prolific, Cummings wrote a poem a day. From nature, to love, to eroticism, to satire, to philosophy, his poetry touched a range of subjects, and appealed to the young and old and confounded critics.

In his last years, Cummings delivered a series of lectures at Harvard, which were later collected as i: six nonlectures (1953). But rather than enumerating these details, why not read Cummings’s poem Who are you, little i for a glimpse into a life well lived?

In it, the journey from boyhood to the sunset of life is efficiently and startlingly captured. The lines of the poem are arranged with extra line spaces, almost as if the years in between are rolling by — some remarkable, some mundane — till the boy who was once looking out “at the gold of november sunset” becomes a man thinking that if this is the way into the beautiful night, then it has been “a beautiful way”.

In The sky was, the words describing the sky variously as “luminous edible spry pinks shy lemons” are scattered across the page. Are they dots of birds wheeling around, or are they sprigs of clouds sometimes gathering and then dispersing, or perhaps they are thoughts — words and images — that pour into our heads if we take a moment to abandon our daily lives and look up. Cummings also used words differently, or came up with wholly new words by combining old ones. In the delightful in Just, the spring is “mud-luscious” and the world is “puddle-wonderful”.

But Cummings’s works were not just whimsy. There was also biting satire. Read Next to of course god america i and wait for the final line. Then take a pause and read the poem again, noticing the quotation marks this time around, and then evaluate patriotism. In these times of ultra-nationalism, this is a poem we can all read to understand how the purveyors of politics have always manipulated everyone.

Cummings’s life was given over to poetry and writing. Despite his immense popularity, he lived in a small room on 4, Patchin Place, New York, for 40 years.

In the essay The Agony of the Artist (with a capital A), he wrote: “...since whatever Art stands for is whatever cannot be learned. Indeed, the Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself; and the agony of the Artist, far from being the result of the world’s failure to discover and appreciate him, arises from his own personal struggle to discover, to appreciate and finally to express himself.” The poet who wrote timeless lines such as “i carry your heart with me (i carry it in/ my heart)” continues to live on — in the delighted understanding of his lines by a teenager, in the heart-sighs of a lover, in the sad smile of a woman reading his poetry as a tree sheds its leaves outside.

Sudeshna Shome Ghosh is a Bengaluru-based editor

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Published on October 11, 2019
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