The Poetry of E. E. Cummings

Contributor: Melissa Kowalski. Lesson ID: 11972

"Here is a poem; it has to rhyme. Or so they tell me all the time." E. E. Cummings didn't care; he wrote what and how he wanted and changed the world of poetry. Learn what made him uniquely unique!

categories

Literary Studies

subject
Reading
learning style
Visual
personality style
Beaver
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

Audio:

Do you know what is unique about the way Edward Estlin Cummings wrote his name? It had a lot to do with his poetic style!

Edward Estlin Cummings, also known as E.E. Cummings, chose to write his name in all lowercase letters as "ee cummings."

His move was revolutionary because it broke with writing traditions considered fundamental to the English language — a person always capitalized the first letter of his or her name. Cummings's choice to write his name in lowercase letters signaled his break with literary tradition and a quest for a new, modern form of expression in poetry.

Read the following biography on E.E. Cummings. As you read E. E. Cummings, courtesy of the Poetry Foundation, answer the following questions on a separate sheet of paper:

  • What type of training did Cummings have in his childhood to prepare him for his later career as a poet?
  • How did Cummings's use of wordplay and literary experimentation result in his imprisonment during WWI?
  • What originality did Cummings display in the poetry of his first anthology, Tulips and Chimneys, in 1923?
  • What was Cummings's one-word description of poetry?
  • How does Cummings's unusual syntax (word order), irregular spacing, nontraditional word choices, and use of lowercase letters force readers to look at a poem with fresh eyes?
  • What subjects and themes did Cummings frequently use in his poetry?
  • What were some of the criticisms that Cummings's poetry faced over the course of his career?
  • What do literary critics see as Cummings's greatest achievement as a poet?

Once you've answered the questions, share your responses with your parent or teacher, then check your answers below:

  • E. E. Cummings rigorously prepared himself for a career as a poet by writing a poem every single day from the age of eight to the age of 22.
  • When he worked as an ambulance driver during WWI, he was briefly imprisoned as a suspected spy because he wrote letters home that used creative wordplay in an attempt to slip material past the censors who would read all letters sent home from the war zone. The letters so confused the censors, that they assumed Cummings was writing in code and sending military secrets home.
  • In Cummings's first poetry collection, Tulips and Chimneys, Cummings displayed an innovative use of grammar and punctuation, although his word choice was still considered traditional.
  • Cummings described poetry as a process rather than a product.
  • By using creative syntax, spacing, capitalization, and unusual word choice, Cummings forced readers to reexamine their preexisting notion of poetry and language and closely read each poem, which resulted in a new method for looking at poetry and writing.
  • Ironically, despite Cummings's avant-garde approach to poetry, most of his subjects and themes were traditional, such as childhood, flowers, and love.
  • Some critics accused Cummings of failing to grow as a poet, since his style remained largely the same for the nearly four decades that Cummings wrote poetry. Critics also ridiculed the lack of new ideas in Cummings's poetry.
  • However, critics also praise Cummings for his originality and innovation in the way he used language and space on a page.

As you've learned, Cummings referred to poetry as a process rather than a product. What do you think he means by calling poetry a process? Discuss your thoughts with your parent or teacher, then move on to the Got It? section to read several of Cummings's poems.

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