E. E. Cummings grew up in a cultured home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He had a traditional upbringing and a classical education, which meant that when he entered Harvard in 1911, he knew the work of the great English poets, the writers of Rome and ancient Greece, and such established American literary figures as Longfellow and Emerson. He had started writing poetry as a child, and his verses took traditional forms.
Then he saw the Armory Show, the groundbreaking 1913 exhibition of painting and sculpture that brought abstract art, and especially Cubism, to the public's attention. Innovation in one artistic field influences trends in others, so while Picasso and Duchamp were experimenting on canvas, Stravinsky was composing The Rite of Spring and Stein was applying the ideas of abstraction to literature with mixed success.
Exposure to modernism opened a world for Cummings and set him on the path of innovation, yet throughout his career he drew on his traditional background. For example, when writing his prose work The Enormous Room, which chronicles his experiences in a French prison during World War I, he chose as his model The Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan's seventeenth-century Christian allegory. Later in his career, he found the title of his book on the Soviet Union, Eimi (promounced A-mee, and meaning "I am"), in classical Greek. He also continued to write in established verse forms. (The poem that begins, "the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished soul"s is a sonnet--check it out.) In fact, traditional cadences and rhymes are often a signal that Cummings is about to deliver a powerful emotional punch.
Cummings loved the poetry of John Keats, the great English Romantic who died in 1821, on the brink of life. Keats's ringing vowels inspired Cummings to write lines such as "mOOn Over tOwns mOOn." And it was in one of Keats's letters that Cummings found what might be termed his world view, at least as it pertains to his writing. Keats wrote, "I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart's affections, and the truth of the Imagination." When Cummings read these words, "an unknown and unknowable bird began singing," he said. For Cummings, "the holiness of the Heart's affections" translated to the need to follow his heart, particularly as an artist. It meant believing that if he were honest with himself, then his feelings were true and good and deserved to be expressed honestly through his art. Being certain of the truth of the imagination indicated a great respect for and dedication to the creative process. Keats's statement would serve any writer well.
E. E. Cummings permitted no radio in his home, and no vacuum cleaner either, because their noise distressed him. He mistrusted technology, and even science, believing that too much awareness of the workings of the world sullies our wonder at its beauty. As he so bluntly asked, "who cares if some oneeyed son of a bitch / invents an instrument to measure Spring with?"
When I was writing E. E. Cummings: A Poet's Life, and my word-processing program silently "corrected" Cummings's capitalization and marked as errors his stretched and broken words, I understood that he would have hated computers, too. Cummings's ideosyncratic use of capital letters and punctuation, his tearing apart and jamming together of words can seem capricious, as though he broke rules simply for the sake of doing so, but in fact he was deliberate. Like a gardener coaxing bulbs to blossom at Christmas, he forced words to bloom unexpectedly, to communicate more than they might have if left alone.
In the style that he developed for his poetry, a capital letter could indicate the start of a new idea, so that the word rendered "mys / teriouSly" is both mysterious and sly. A capital could also signify a sound to be emphasized when the poem is read aloud:
hing had,ever happ
That final "D" is like the solid, concluding chord of a musical work. The reader has reached the poem's end, there's no mistaking it. Of course, Cummings's used the lower case intentionally, too. His lower-case personal pronoun--the "i" so familiar to his readers--stands for his private self.
For Cummings, the placement of words on a page mattered much. How much space separated words (or did not separate them) had to do with the flow of language, or how the poem sounded when read aloud:
who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
he was a handsome man....
Can't you just hear the old eyewitness describing Buffalo Bill's feats of marksmanship?
Cummings also had no fear of taking words apart and inserting phrases inside them to present two actions that were occurring at the same time or were to be considered simultaneously:
pigeons fly ingand
whee(:are,SpRiN,kLiNg an in-stant with sunLight
Here are pigeons wheeling in the sky and briefly sparkling in the sunlight, all at once. And what are we to make of Cummings's treatment of sprinkling? It seems to me that this might have been a way to communicate through typography what this speckling with light looked like. Cummings was a painter as well as a poet, and poetry was a visual as well as a literary medium for him.
Recently someone asked me about Cummings's significance to poetry. I responded that although he gave readers much joy through his writing, his significance to poetry refers to how he broke new ground, or moved poetry forward. His significance therefore has to lie in his use of language, in his exploration of what might be possible on the page.