資料彙整   /   作家  /  Edward Estlin  Cummings  艾德華.艾斯特林.康明斯
Edward Estlin  Cummings
資料提供者:Fr.Pierre E.Demers/談德義神父;Dr. Edward Vargo
關鍵字詞:Modern American Poetry

Edward Estlin Cummings



 Cummings' Technique

  1. Use of Capitalization & Parenthesis
  2. Use of Adverbs & Verbs as Nouns - Word Order
  3. Creative Use of Cliches
  4. Use of Typographical Design
  5. Use of Space
  6. Use of Telescoped words
  7. Combined Use of Devices
  8. Use of Punctuation



mOOn Over tOwns mOOn
less creature huge grO

whO perfectly whO
newly alOne is


     The mere typography, of this poem identifies it as the work of e e cummings (as he liked to print his name). Yet this is one of the more tame of his poems. Another begins:





One of the most famous, entitled "r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r," on a grasshopper, is a typographical orgy of spacing, punctuation, capitals, small letters, line divisions, and anagrams of the grasshopper, not to mention the chaos of grammar and word order. Cummings the poet was also a professional painter and gave extreme care to the visual format of his poems. He was also a rabid circus fan and wished his playful use of words and their physical appearance on the page to be as clever as the pratfalls of a clown. He meant to surprise and to amuse. He always surprised but did not always amuse the staid critics of poetry. Some he infuriated.

     Cummings began his adult life as a prankster who soon suffered from those who did not enjoy his sense of humor. After gradating with an M.A. from Harvard in 1916, the son of a well-known Congrationalist minister, he left for France in 1917. In the company of another prankster from Columbia University, William Slater Brown, he joined an American ambulance corps during World War I. Brown began writing letters home asserting a widespread despondency in the French army. His prediction of imminent mutiny and even revolution failed to amuse the official censors of mail who soon had the two young men arrested as spies. Since the irresponsible prank was the work of Brown, Cummings could have been immediately released if he had been willing to swear, to the satisfaction of the French authorities, that he only felt hatred for all Germans without exception. Cummings was already a worshipper of true individual feelings and refused to comply to such a condition for his liberation. He spent three months in prison for treasonable correspondence after which he sailed for home. From this experience came his first work, a novel he called The Enormous Room foreshadowing the literature of the absurd that was to spread after the second world war.

     After publishing a volume of poems, Tulips and Chimneys, in 1923, he returned to Paris to study painting while still writing poetry. When he returned to America two years later he found that his novel and book of poems had already made him famous, and the Dial prize for poetry was offered to him. From then on he devoted all his time to poetry and painting, always playful, the complete individualist, a lover of life and art. Besides Tulips and Chimneys his collections of poems include &[AND](1925), XLI Poems (1925), is 5(1926), W [ViVa](1931), no thanks (1935), 50 POEMS (1940), 1*1 (1944), Xaipe (1950). All these were collected by definite choice in a book entitled, Poems 1923-1954. In 1927, he wrote his first play, Him; it might well be considered "one of the first successful attempts at what is now called the theater of the absurd," with a Beckett-like dialogue:

Him: What are the audience doing?
Me: They're pretending that this room and you and I are real.
Him: I wish I could believe this.
Me: You can't.
Him: Why?
Me: Because this is true.

     Anthropos followed in 1930. It is a criticism of what people call progress at the expense of real life. Tom (1935) is a ballet based on Uncle Tom's Cabin. Santa Claus (1946) is a blank verse play written after Hiroshima; it attacks science and scientific habits of thought: "Knowledge has taken love out of the world/and all the world is joyless joyless joyless." In 1952, he delivered a series of lectures at Harvard, later published under the title i: six nonlectures.

     In all these works there is real delight in the absurd, the comical, even the clownish. Yet a closer look into the content of the poems reveals a more serious purpose than mere amusement. By distorting the physical appearance of the words and phrases of a tired language, Cummings forces the reader's attention back to their real meaning. As appears in the "mOOn" poem above, by relating the appearance of words and their meaning, he achieves a sort of impact on the reader's consciousness not unlike the impact of Chinese ideograms.

     When the door of meaning has once been opened for us, quite an attractive interior is revealed. Already in The Enormous Room, the main themes of Cummings' poetry are present. It is a celebration of the joy of life in the midst of the waste land of modern times. The novel relates how in conditions degrading the human, striving to extinguish the personal, stifling the individual, etc, life is still made liveable by the "triumphant survival of distinctiveness, of idiosyncrasy, of all those elements of character and behavior that separate the individual from the 'unperson'." Cummings' poetry is a celebration of the triumph of life. The freshness of language mirrors the freshness of apprehension, of spontaneity, of instinctive response to existence:

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 a
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 rasting 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)

Fullness of life means fullness of awareness of the present, forgetting the past, ignoring the future; it is a full dedication to what he repeatedly calls the "illimitable Now and Here." His philosophy is that of an unconditional yes said to the present. Any other way of living is a nonlife:

Wherelings whenlings
(daughters of ifbut offspring of hopefear
sons of unless and children of almost)
never shall guess the dimension of 

him whose
foot likes the
here of this earth
whose both


this now of the sky

The "wherelings whenlings" are the dead afraid to be born; in other words, the unpeople, and "mostpeople" are unpeople: "by some fatal, some incomparably fatal accident" only a few men have a soul; only these can live their souls. His anti-intellectualism verges on the fanatic: "The more we know the less we feel," he writes in one of his letters, while one of his poems begins "he does not have to feel because he thinks." The human body, and essential element of the person, must be absolutely, fearlessly alive. Naturally then, Cummings wrote the greatest number of erotic poems of all 20th-century poets. He also wrote some of the most musical lyrics of the age:

All in green went my love riding
on a great horse of gold
into the silver dawn.

     Of course the speaker in Cummings' poems, the celebrater of life, of joy, of love, of the illimitable now is a Persona, a creation of Cummings' imagination. Yet, like Whitman, Cummings tried to live his Persona. His letters often refer to his anxiety over financial problems and to his depressions, the "dying night" of his soul at the time of the failure of his marriage. But he would soon bounce back to life, joy, and love. His determination to BE, to live his soul, always won. As he wrote in the introduction to his collection, New Poems:

The poems to come are for you and for me and
are not for mostepeople.... Take the matter of
being born. What does being born mean to
mostepeople?... If mostpeople were to be born
twice they'd improbably call it dying... you and
I... we can never be born enough. We are
human beings; for whom birth is a supremely
welcome mystery, the mystery of growing:
the mystery which happens only and whenever
we are faithful to ourselves.

     Because of the novelty and experimental nature of his poems. Cummings will always remain a controversial poet. His prominence is assured, though, because his ideosyncrasies are purposeful, his apparent illogicality meaningful, and his language clear, precise, and melodic. 


Cummings' Technique
   Cummings' strange technique may perhaps be best explained by examining it progressively from the poems which depart only slightly from traditional verse to the most idiosyncratic and puzzling forms.


     A. Use of Capitalization & parenthesis
       "My Sweet Old Etcetera" contrasts the abstract, conventional idealism of the speaker's family towards war and the realism of his actual dying in the mud dreaming of love and conception of life. The stanzas are arranged in love and conception of life. The stanzas are arranged in a 2-3-2-4-2-5-2-6 (3-3) line pattern. The pronoun "i," the proper name "isabel," the first letter of each line are not capitalized while "Your" and "Etcetera" in the last two lines use the upper case. Cummings' use of capital letters for stress or other effects preclude their conventional use - "Your smile" and "your Etcetera" achieve thus an impact on the reader's consciousness. Furthermore, this unconventional use of capitals contribute to the theme of the poem which mocks the conventional attitude towards death in the field of honor. The parentheses enfold the secret thoughts of the speaker as opposed to the objective scene of the rest of the poem. The separation of "et" and "cetera" which both divide and unite the 3-3 line pattern of the last stanza slows down the rhythm and suggests either the breaking off of life of the last gasp of the dying.


  B. Uses of Adverbs & Verbs as Nouns - Word Order  

     "Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town" with its conventional enough four line stanzas and occasional rhymes intensifying the rhythm of the stanzas where they appear, presents a peculiar use of the parts of speech. Expressions like "how town," "he sang his didn't," "he danced his did," "they said their nevers," where adverbs and verbs are used as nouns, give freshness, force, and new life to worn out words. They are clear in spite of, or rather because of, their deliberately faulty grammar. In the context of the whole poem the how-town is the community where what counts is how to conform to the requirements of society and become somebody, and not how to live fully from the spontaneous springs of love and life within us. In the larger context of Cummings' poetry, to live in the fullness of one's possibility for intense living, sensations, and feelings is perhaps the most frequent and profound theme. Cummings always equates success in life with a life lived in harmony with the deepest natural instincts of man; to chose to be in his uniqueness and become "anyone" rather than to play the social game and become "someone." This is the only way man can feel alive and enjoy the gift of life in an industrial, conformist culture. In his other writings, Cummings exalts the being that is, what he calls "an IS," one that exists fully, the realizes the full potentialities of life within oneself. In such a context, expressions like "they sowed their isn't," "they said their nevers" applied to the someones and the everyones in the how-town, acquire concentrated force. The theme of the poem is really to be or not to be, that is , in Cummings' parlance, to be an "is" or an "isn't."

     "Anyone" is an "is" because he can love, and consequently be loved, his life is a dance in harmony with the rhythm of nature. The contrasts between life and death are carefully arranged in the poem. "Anyone" lived in the dead how-town, "noone" loved him, while women and men in the town cared for "anyone" not at all. "Anyone's" any was all to "noone"; she laughed his joy and cried his grief, while loveless "someones" laughed their "everyone's" crying; "anyone" danced his did, the "someones" did their dance, and so on.

     Another peculiarity of the poem is the syntax of a line like "with up so floating many bells down" in which the order of words seems to be that of a foreign language. Cummings often distorted the normal order of words to force attention by having the reader re-order the words properly in his mind and to preserve a fitting rhythm. The normal order, with so many bells floating up and down, would be a flat insignificant statement.


     C. Creative Use of Cliches

     A third remarkable device used by Cummings in this poem is the renewal of cliches. "Little by little" is refreshed by the use of "more by more," a pattern of speech he prolongs into "when by now," and "tree by leaf," in which "more" is multiplied by "more"; "when," suggesting sometime in the past or the future is replaced by the "now"; the tree is always with leaf in a permanent spring of renewed life for "anyone" and "noone." Further on, the poem has a similar enumeration in which it progresses from cliches to original expressions - side by side, little by little, was by was, all by all, deep by deep, earth by april, wish by spirit, if by yes - a veritable litany of praises for those buried there who have truly lived. "Anyone" and "noone" have truly lived (was by was), fully (all by all), deeply (deep by deep), in harmony of desire and spirit, unconditionally, a spontaneous yes said to life (if by yes).

     "My Father Moved through Dooms of Love" may very well be described as an elaboration of the life of the "anyone" in the poem just treated. The poem has the same stanza form, makes a similar use of rhyme, and of parts of speech - "through sames of 'am' through haves of 'five'" which, in a single line, suggest much the father's constant fidelity and enrichment of himself through giving in love. He offers immeasurable "is," he "lived his soul."


     D. Use of Typographical Design

    "L(a" illustrates another device of Cummings' to refresh the meaning of worn out words and enrich them with further meanings. The theme of the poem is simple enough - the correspondence between an external scene and a state of mind - loneliness (a leaf falls). This poem cannot be read aloud, it has to be seen. Furthermore, the typographical presentation is a design suggesting a falling leaf. To the traditional combination of sound and sense Cummings adds sight.

     The insertion of the parenthesis in the middle of the word suggests the simultaneity of the scene and the feeling. Cummings often tries to do away with the sequence of time and suggest the present in all its complex now. Of course a poem will always be a sequence in time; yet, the typographical design and the inserted parenthesis do achieve a suggestion of the instantaneous and simultaneous.

     This device also allows the poet to break up words and wring all kinds of connotations out of them. Modern language is a tired language so overused by propaganda, publicity, cheap novels, and songs that words have lost much of their strength and freshness. In this poem, Cummings breaks the word loneliness into one, 1 (the letter, "1," and the number, "one," being the same symbol ["1"] on the typewriter), and "iness" which could be interpreted as "i-ness," the preoccupation with the I, the ego, or in-ness in the sense of introversion.

     Often in Cummings' poems the unusual and idiosyncratic is framed in a rather formal pattern; in this case, the 1-3-1-3-1 stanza pattern. Cummings' individualism is never wild but based on certain constants of human nature: his poems almost always reveal, on lose analysis, some kind of regular pattern, mostly in their stanzaic forms.


     E. Use of Space
    Cummings, who was a painter and an admirer of Picasso, learned a further device from modern painting, namely, the artistic use of empty space. "In Just-" offers a clear example of it. The poem presents the dynamic image of children at play just when springtime appears while the balloon-man approaches from afar; he is rushed to by the children and then vanishes in the distance. In this renewal of life in Spring, the balloonman is goat-footed like Pan, the god of forests, pastures, and flocks. His coming, passing, and vanishing is suggested by the various arrangements of space between the words "whistles far and wee," a refreshed use of the old cliches "far and wide" or "far and away." These spaces are like musical rests controlling the speed of the reader's voice. The stanzaic pattern is again regular: 4-1-4-1-4-1-4, but each stanza uses various means of stressing certain words. "Just" is capitalized; "spring" isolated three times; the importance of "goat-footed" and all its implications is impressed upon us by its splendid isolation, followed by the capitalization in "balloonMan." This provokes all sorts of considerations on the decay of life from the sacred to secularization. It makes the whole scene a kind of consecration of Spring, from which the dead adults of the poem "Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town," are absent and which only the children are apt to understand.


     F. Use of Telescoped Words

     In this poem Cummings also uses a device that is the obverse of breaking-up words as he did in "1(a": he telescopes several words into one (eddieandbill, bettyandisbel) to convey a single impression. Cummings was a creator of fresh word-clusters of extreme suggestive power: "mudluscious," "puddle-wonderful" bring back to us the joys of our childhood at play.

     "Buffalo Bill" uses the same devices to create effect-capitalization (Buffalo Bill, Jesus, Mister Death), word isolation (defunct, stallion, Jesus, Mister Death), word-telescoping (onetwothreefourfive, pigeonsjustlikethat), word-clusters (watersmooth-silver), word spacing (and what i want to know is), all contribute to a complexity of image, feeling, and tone.


     G. Combined Use of Devices

     A more extreme example of the combined use of the devices seen so far, plus further sophistications of technique, is offered in "R-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r," the poem on the grasshopper:



a)s w(e loo)k










rIvInG .gRrEaPsPhOs)




Here not only the word order of a phrase, as in previous poems,but even the letter order of a word is distorted in a series of unpronounceable anagrams of the word grasshopper. Again the poem is for the eyes only. The various letter order of the word grasshopper and their capitalization suggest the various impressions that fill the brief instant it takes to pass from the first impression of a long jumping thing to the realization that it is a grasshopper. The use of hyphens and capitals transmits this sequence of impressions - the hyphens suggest a long indefinite thing and the solid capitals, something too near and big to be distinguished; the alternation of small and capital letters, the zigzagging flight; the proper order of small letters, the final recognition.

     The word puzzle is easily solved, especially if one realizes that the letters of three words ("r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r," "PPEGORHRASS" and "gRrEaPsphOs), when unscrambled, all spell "grasshopper." The poem may be laid out in a more conventional way thus:

r-p-o-h-e-s-s-a-g-r [an unidentifiable motion]
who as we look up now, gathering into a
The PPEGORHRASS [some peculiar thing],
leaps, arriving
gRrEaPsPhOs [the letters of the thing scrambled again]
to become rearrangingly a

The parentheses may have several interpretations: isolating the speaker's reaction(a, e, 1oo, o-a, The [(a definite article showing the beginning of the recognition of something definite]); describing with small and capital letters his impression of the motion together with a scraping sound, or expressing simultaneity ("become rearrangingly").

     "Leaps" is a key word whose every letter is isolated for stress. The whole typographical design of the poem is not so much, as in "L(a," an ideogram of a hopping grasshopper, but rather an abstract representation of the observer's sense impressions.


     H. Use of Punctuation

     A new device to be observed in this poem is the peculiar use of punctuation. Since space between words is significant, the punctuation marks themselves are not accompanied by spaces as in the conventional way. Space itself is a sort of punctuation. Here the colon isolates "leaps" and the exclamation mark does suggest an exclamation in the middle of the leap. The comma seems to take the place of the indefinite "a" which would destroy the effect of the previous "The." The final colon suggests that this motion is not the end, but that another will follow. The period before "gRrEaPsPhOs" seems to make of the anagram a parenthesis within a parenthesis. This poem may have little poetic value, but it does illustrate all the devices of a technique which aims at conveying, through the medium of the written language, fullness of awareness.

     Cummings' rather peculiar use of so many unusual techniques in his concise poems, makes them particularly difficult to explain in a brief way. For this reason, many of the annotations are necessarily long and somewhat cumbersome.

     Unfortunately, our analyses tend to leave out what is most important and charming is Cummings: humor, which is a form of joy. Cummings is basically a humorous poet and to look upon his poems with academic seriousness is to miss their delightful flavor. But if the Study Guide treatment runs the risk of obscuring this lively and subtle quality, we rely on our reader's own good sense of humor to compensate.



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