Edward Estlin (E.E.) Cummings, an American poet known for his innovative and unconventional approach to poetry, was born on October 14, 1894, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Cummings attended Cambridge Latin High School, where he studied Latin and Greek, and later earned both his BA and MA from Harvard University. While at Harvard, Cummings’ earliest poems were published in the anthology Eight Harvard Poets (1917), which has since been translated by Ali Salami.
Cummings’ poetic style is marked by his experimentation with form and language, resulting in a distinct personal style. His poems are characterized by their spare and precise language, with a few key words that are often eccentrically placed on the page. Cummings invented many of his own words by combining two common words to create a new synthesis. He also revised grammatical and linguistic rules to suit his purposes, often using words such as “if,” “am,” and “because” as nouns or assigning his own private meanings to words. Despite their nontraditional form, Cummings’ poems became popular with many readers. According to Randall Jarrell, “No one else has ever made avant-garde, experimental poems so attractive to the general and the special reader.” By the time of his death in 1962, Cummings held a prominent position in 20th-century poetry. John Logan described him as “one of the greatest lyric poets in our language,” while Stanley Edgar Hyman wrote that “Cummings has written at least a dozen poems that seem to me matchless. Three are among the great love poems of our time or any time.” Although Malcolm Cowley acknowledged that Cummings “suffers from comparison with those [poets] who built on a larger scale,” he remains “unsurpassed in his special field, one of the masters.”
Cummings’ interest in poetry began at a young age, and he wrote a poem a day between the ages of eight and twenty-two, exploring many traditional poetic forms. By the time he attended Harvard in 1916, modern poetry had caught his interest, and he began writing avant-garde poems that ignored conventional punctuation and syntax in favor of a dynamic use of language. Cummings also experimented with poems as visual objects on the page.
In April of 1917, with the First World War raging in Europe and the United States just becoming involved, Cummings volunteered for the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Service in France. Along with fellow American William Slater Brown, he was soon stationed on the French-German border and the two young men became fast friends. To relieve the boredom of their assignment, they inserted veiled and provocative comments into their letters back home, trying to outwit and baffle the French censors. They also befriended soldiers in nearby units. Such activities led to their being held on suspicion of treason in September of 1917 and sent to an internment camp in Normandy for questioning. Cummings and Brown were housed in a large, one-room holding area along with other suspicious foreigners. Cummings’ father’s outraged protests finally secured his release in December of 1917, while Brown was not released until April of the following year.
In July of 1918, Cummings was drafted into the U.S. Army and spent some six months at a training camp in Massachusetts. Despite the challenges he faced during his time in the military and as a result of his political views, Cummings continued to write and publish his poetry throughout his life, becoming one of the most celebrated and innovative poets of the 20th century.