Samantha Maw is studying a Creative Writing MA at Lincoln University and is looking forward to developing a writing career. She is a qualified teacher who has worked in primary and secondary schools in the UK and in Africa (Uganda). She has been writing poems and stories for pleasure since childhood, and continues to pass on her love for reading and writing to the next generation. She lives in Lincoln with a scruffy golden lurcher and two cats and in her spare time likes to tread the boards at her local amateur dramatic society. She is also part of the Lincoln Creative Writer’s group.
Meet the Poet – 1: E.E. Cummings¹
Edward Estlin Cummings was born on 14th October 1894 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is best known for his poems (he wrote 2900), but was also a painter, author, and playwright. Cummings started to write poetry as a child, and between the ages of eight and twenty-two wrote a poem a day, experimenting with many traditional poetic styles. He became interested in modern poetry whilst attending Harvard in 1916 and became very well known for his original use of punctuation and syntax.
He had a varied career. After graduating from Harvard, he started working for a mail order book dealer. In 1917 he volunteered for the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Service in France. Unfortunately, Cummings and his American friend William Slater Brown were held on suspicion of treason in 1917 because of the provocative comments they included in the letters that they sent home. He was released in December 1917 and went on to spend six months at a U.S. Army training camp back home in Massachusetts. He had a daughter, Nancy in December of 1919 and married Elaine Thayer in 1924, only to be divorced again in 1925 (his wife fell in love with another man whilst crossing the Atlantic).
In 1922 Cummings published his first book, The Enormous Room, which was a fictional account inspired by his time in French captivity. Surprisingly, he didn`t see this experience as a terrible ordeal but as a time of spiritual enrichment and learning. This positive outlook probably had something to do with the fact that as he was growing up he enjoyed the company of the philosophers William James and Josiah Royce, who were family friends. His first collection of poems appeared in 1923, entitled Tulips and Chimneys. XLI Poems came next, and later that year Dial Magazine awarded him $2,000 for his work. This was the equivalent of a whole year’s salary! The following year Is 5 was published, an explanation of his approach to poetry, which he described as a `process` rather than a `product`. Cummings was strongly committed to individuality, and a good deal of his criticism was aimed at those in society who sought to restrict individual expression.
Cummings went on to experiment with language and form, although he often used traditional themes like nature, love, and childhood. He wrote many sonnets, but often included a modern and on occasion, sardonic twist. He became a renowned love poet and some of his early work was very erotic. It was clearly intended to shock the puritanical sensibilities of the day. His notion of human Eros was closely linked with the awe and wonder of religious experience, and it wasn’t common at the time to have these two ideas so closely linked.
Cummings also wrote four plays, although not all of these made it to the stage. Him, Anthropos, or the Future of Art, Tom, A Ballet and Santa Claus: A Morality. All four tackled philosophical issues of morality, belonging and materialism. In 1931 he visited the Soviet Union and wrote a travel journal which he later named Eimi (the Greek word for I am). During his visit he saw the preserved body of Lenin in his tomb and was utterly revolted. He equates his entire visit to Dante’s Inferno (a story about the descent into Hell). As you might imagine, this did him no favours with many potential left-wing publishers, who refused to accept his work from this point on. In the late 1930s he resorted to self-publishing his poetry collections. As he approached retirement, he spent his time giving lectures and writing essays on his life’s work.
I’ve always loved his poems because of the lack of convention they encourage. He made it acceptable to manipulate words and phrases and even the look of the text on paper to express strong emotions. His writing has a powerful, unfettered energy to it. I am going to leave you with the first poem of his I ever read. When I came across it, it made me breathe in deep and re-live my childhood wonder at all things natural. It also reminded me of the childlike faith that I had somehow lost along the way.
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)²
E.E. Cummings seemed to enjoy simply being alive, and his writing is full of positive energy. He inspires me to make the most out of my own life and to try and see each experience as a doorway to new and infinite possibilities.
¹ Websites used to research this article were https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/e-e-cummings and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E._E._Cummings#Work