The literary work of the American poet e e cummings is well-known, particularly for its innovative and idiosyncratic form, grammar, and syntax. Cummings wrote free-form poems, sonnets, lyric and visual poems, and poems inspired by the Blues. He also wrote novels, essays, and plays but is most known for developing his own unique poetic approach that ignored the conventions of his day. His paintings and sketches are less well-known but share aesthetic as well as thematic concerns. For Cummings, his poetry and painting were intimately related and shared a deep respect for beauty and the captured moment. Both poetry and painting came naturally to him, and he undertook both passions simultaneously. He painted and sketched a range of styles and subjects, including abstract work, landscapes and nature, nudes, and portraits.
e e cummings: The Early Life Of An American Poet
Edward Estlin Cummings, or e e cummings, as styled by his editor, was born in 1894 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His dual creative gifts for poetry and drawing were nurtured from a young age by his parents. He later studied at Harvard, where he was drawn to Modernist poetry for its non-conventional and dynamic approach. His first poems were published in the collection Eight Harvard Poets in 1917.
During the First World War, Cummings was drafted for military service as an ambulance driver. In 1918, an influenza pandemic swept across the U.S. as Cummings was beginning military training. The pandemic later reemerged, and Cummings wrote letters to friends during this time about the hardships of military life.
The influenza pandemic, or Spanish flu as it was known, lasted almost two years and infected around 500 million people. In a letter dated 1918 to Scofield Thayer, also an American poet and an old friend of Cummings who edited the literary magazine, The Dial, Cummings recounted how “The Spanish Flu has claimed so many” and how he was “feeling well enough to die anytime.”
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It’s clear that art had a redemptive capacity for Cummings in the face of the war and the pandemic. Cummings was lucky enough to remain healthy though he didn’t fit in well with military life. In letters to several of his friends, he expressed anti-war views, and he didn’t share the hatred for German soldiers that many of his fellow soldiers felt. However, his perspective didn’t go unnoticed as he was arrested along with his friend, American writer William Slater Brown, on suspicion of espionage and was detained in a French detention camp for over three months.
After the war, Cummings lived in Paris for a few years before returning to New York, where he had previously lived. His first collection of poetry, Tulips and Chimneys, was published in 1923. He did not have a strong public reputation as a painter, though he was painting and sketching while he was writing. He wrote thousands of poems over his career and is best remembered as an avant-garde American poet; his visual art remains little-known.
Like other American poets who had come before, such as Walt Whitman, William Cullen Bryant, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, e e cummings had Romantic leanings. He wrote many poems in celebration of the natural world. It’s also clear from many of his paintings that he took great pleasure in nature and considered it to be something sacred. Here’s a poem first published in his collection Xaipe in 1950, which in Greek means “rejoice”:
i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
As we can see in the poem, there are expansive, tranquil, and dreamlike qualities to many of his landscape paintings. There is also a feeling of oneness with the landscape where the spectator dissolves. His paintings do not share the complexity of some of his poems nor the inventiveness, but instead, depict a straightforwardness and an innocence.
In his book AnOther EE Cummings, Richard Kostelanetz describes Cummings as a critic of technology and urban life. Though he lived in cities for much of his adult life, Cummings cherished the natural world that he had enjoyed as a child. His landscape paintings are vibrant, rich, and often realistic. There’s little room for abstraction or imagination here, though there is an intensity in the colors and a warmth in the textures that invoke a dream-like quality.
In 1931, Cummings published a book with 99 of his sketches, drawings, and paintings entitled CIOPW, which stands for charcoal, ink, oil, pencil, and watercolour. The book contains several important people in Cummings’ life, including Charlie Chaplin, and close friends, as well as landscapes, nudes, and still life.
Poetry, Painting & The Captured Moment
Cummings had a deep interest in and affection for the people in his life, including close friends, wives, and lovers. It is clear that his painting and poetry go hand-in-hand since he often captures a specific moment or feeling in his graphic work, as one would in a poem. Whether it’s a lover asleep fully clothed on a bed, someone reading, or a couple dancing.
In Cummings’ portrait of Dicky Ames, we can see his vivid and playful aesthetic at work. Dicky Ames was a friend of the poet and critic John Peale Bishop who was friends with Cummings. In this work, we can also detect the same urge for experimentation and expression as in his poetry, especially with the use of color and a loose approach to form.
e e cummings was primarily a lyric poet who experimented with form, typography, grammar, and syntax. However, many of his poems contain images, and some of them are visual “eye” poems. Visual art was for Cummings his other passion, on a par with poetry. In a forward for a catalog to one of his rare solo exhibitions, he frames a dialogue between himself and an imagined other, who is a kind of interviewer:
Why do you paint?
For exactly the same reason I breathe.
Tell me, doesn’t your painting interfere with your writing?
Quite the contrary: they love each other dearly.
e e cummings, Painter: Portraits & Nudes
e e cummings painted many portraits of Marion Morehouse, his third wife, who was a fashion model. His free use of color and subtle attention to light and shadow gives an almost extra-terrestrial feel to some of his portraits as if they’ve come from another dimension.
Cummings also sketched nudes and wrote erotic poetry, which was against the grain of the poetry of his day. Once again, we see how his visual art and poetry were intimately related and how Cummings sought beauty in form. His subject matter is varied, but most of his artworks, both poetry and painting, seem to share a love for the everyday. The small joys and moments of pleasure and beauty are immediate and alive.
In summary, the visual work of the American poet e e cummings is intimately related to his poetry. He is firmly placed in the canon of American poetry, but his visual art is not well-known.
Three years after his death, a collection of his writings was published, EE Cummings: A Miscellany Revised, which included many plays and essays previously published under pseudonyms or anonymously. The reissue of the book in 1965 included several of his previously unseen line drawings.
Compared to his poems’ verbal and typographical inventiveness, his paintings and sketches are more immediate and simple. In contrast, many of his poems take a little longer to decipher and sink in. Here is one of his most famous visual poems, where language and form unite.
a)s w(e loo)k