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Elizabeth Neoman
Mrs. Morrell
English III HN
21 May 2015
E.E. Cummings as a Modern-Concrete Poet
Poetry is a creative use of language to express thoughts or feelings. Poems have
historically had a set structure and number of stanzas to make a clear distinction between
different ideas. Defying traditional poetry, modern American poet Edward Estlin Cummings,
who named himself "e.e. cummings," did not employ distinguishable stanzas within his writings.
Instead, cummings organized his poems into certain shapes that reflected and enhanced the
meaning of the poems--a technique known as concrete poetry. E.E. cummings was inspired by
the painters and other concrete poets of his time, was revolutionary in his subject matter, and was
inventive in the form of his poetry, making him a monumental addition to modern-concrete
poetry in America.
E.E. cummings had a variety of influences, ranging from poets to painters. Michael
Hathaway, a poet-editor of Chiron Review, described cummings' distinctive style of poetry as
being "more like paintings than poems" (Locklin 46). Indeed, cummings incorporated visual
elements in his poetry. He cited Picasso's abstract art as an influence (Academy of American
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Poets, "E.E. Cummings" 1) and was a widely known painter himself (Catherine Reef 49).
Cummings also embraced Modernism in the mid-20th-century, but adapted it to create his own
style. Modernism was a movement categorized by an emphasis on the sounds of words, an
acceptance of adversity, and a focus on form and structure (Cheever 1). Cummings exemplified
Modernism's emphasis on sound through his widespread use of onomatopoeia, words that imitate
the source of the sound they describe. Secondly, cummings encompassed Modernism's
acceptance of adversity through the discussion of the fleeting nature of life in his poetry.
Additionally, cummings embraced Modernism's emphasis on form and structure through his
distortion of syntax and rearrangement of words. Cummings also was influenced by the growing
movement of concrete poets in America. Author of Types of Shape, John Hollander, categorizes
concrete poetry as any poem whose outline creates a recognizable shape. According to the
Academy of American Poets, however, concrete poetry can be defined as any poem that holds its
meaning in the visual art it makes (Academy of American Poets, "A Brief Guide to Concrete
Poetry" 1). E.E. cummings incorporated the technique of concrete poetry by creating a visible
shape with his poems to reflect the meaning. Through incorporating a combination of techniques,
cummings was able to develop a unique style based heavily on structure.
In relation to his time, e.e. cummings was revolutionary in the subject matter he
discussed within his poems. In his poetry, cummings debunked anything or anyone in power and
criticized the idea of conforming to societal standards (Cheever 1). Cummings' rejection of
traditional ideas most probably stemmed from his strict upbringing. His father was a minister,
who embodied the kind of structure that cummings hated. Cummings demonstrated his disdain
for the established by dismissing politicians as inhuman and encouraging one to question one's
beliefs. In "the Cambridge ladies," Cummings mocks the blind acceptance of traditional ideas at

the time: "the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls/ are unbeautiful and have
comfortable minds/ (also, with the church's protestant blessings/ daughters, unscented shapeless
spirited)" (Kirsch 1). Cummings also wrote explicitly about love and sex (Cheever 1).
Cummings' discussion of sexuality within his poems marked a departure from Victorian ideas
and a true entrance into Modernism. Like many poets of the time, cummings used folk-lore as an
influence. However, cummings was the only poet of his time to acknowledge the sexual themes
contained in the these tales (Haines 17). "may i feel..." demonstrates his frankness with sexual
topics: "may i feel said he/ (i'll squeal said she/ just once said he)/ it's fun said she..." (Kirsch 1).
Cummings' rejection of the traditional ideas of the time by covering topics such as love and sex,
the corruption of people in power, and conformity of the age was unique. He further established
his position as a unique poet by radically changing the form and style in his poetry.
Cummings' form and style made him an invaluable asset to modern-concrete poetry in
America. Cummings experimented radically with syntax, spelling, punctuation, and form
(American Academy of Poets, "E.E. Cummings" 1). He utilized incomplete lines, in which the
completing word is obvious and unnecessary or supplied in a later context which makes the
reader carry the meaning of the line into the later line. He also employed the device of
parenthesis which grouped two events together and created the realization that the events
occurred simultaneously. Cummings assorted his poems with prefixes such as "un" and suffixes
such as "less" to differentiate the complacent and those who are sensitively alive. By using these
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cummings was able to convey ideas and feelings that seem hopelessly incommunicable (Haines
18). Cummings' unique form contributed to a sense of movement, freedom, and fresh perception

(Tate 72). Primarily reliant on form and sounds to convey its meaning, poem 52 from Collected
Poems illustrates cummmings' structural techniques: "ta/ ppin/ g/ toe..." (Baum 115). The poem
is discussing a jazz performer who is absorbed in the music he is playing. Cummings suggests
the tempo of the music by beginning the poem with short, staccato syllables that are similar to
the rhythm to which the musician is following. Cummings then continues with an isolated letter
"g" (3) to mimic a single harsh movement. (Baum 116). The whole poem reflects Cummings'
visual techniques to demonstrate movement and a natural progression between actions.
Cummings' distortion of syntax, form, and spelling made him fundamentally different from other
writers of the time, leading to a growing number of poets to become inspired by his work.
E.E. cummings' colorful use of language had a great influence on other poets and made
him an important pioneer of modern-concrete poetry. Indeed, many critics have acknowledged
that cummings' chief contribution to poetry was his innovative use of language through distorting
grammar and syntax (Friedman 4). The reason why cummings' syntactical innovations were of
great importance was because no poet had ever attempted to do so before. Poetry had always
been considered silent, written word. Therefore, cummings' reliance on visual techniques
expanded poetry to include a wider range of artistic expression. Through Cummings' choice of
words and their arrangement on the page, he was able to convey the meaning of his poems
(Haines 17-24). His chaotic visual expression reflected the natural disorder of life. By writing his
poetry this way, cummings was able to show the disorganization of the thought process. His
visual experimentation had a great influence on concrete poets who took poetry in a visual
direction. Writer Denise Duhamel adapted cummings' hyphened adjectives and visual style of
poetry. New York poet, Billy Collins, cited cummings' typographical violations as a great
influence on his work because it "broke the mold" of traditional poets such as Alfred Lord

Tennyson (Locklin 44-46). In addition to poets, other writers were possibly inspired by
Cummings' free-form style. These writers adopted a similar style known as "stream-ofconsciousness writing" that tried to reveal a character's thoughts and feelings as accurately as
possible by using natural speech patterns, pauses, and recollections. This type of writing shows a
definite influence from cummings and his free style of writing. While no poet or writer has tried
to directly immitate cummings' work, his widespread influence on future works was evident. By
abandoning techniques and forms of traditional poetry, cummings inspired many to put an
emphasis on individualism and freedom within their work. In this way, cummings shaped the
future of modern-concrete poetry in America. E.E. cummings was certainly a notable addition to
concrete poetry in the modern age.
E.E. cummings' contributions to modern-concrete poetry in America were of great
significance. By abandoning traditional syntax, he created a new kind of poetry that expressed
the meaning of the poem through its form. His poems involved subject matter that had never
been dealt with before. The creativity and free-form style of cummings' poetry allowed for a
revolution in thought. Although I was already familiar with e.e. cummings' poems, I had never
fully understood all of the literary devices he used. While I had always appreciated these devices
as playful, I became more aware of their purpose and connection to the subject he was
discussing. My research also showed me how unusual cummings' was for his time. Before my
research, I did not realize that cummings' techniques had never been utilized before. The research
I conducted helped answer my questions about cummings' background and how this influenced
his work. My research, as a whole, helped support my thesis about cummings' position as a
revolutionary poet.

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Works Cited
Academy of American Poets. A Brief Guide to Concrete Poetry. www.Poets.org. Academy of
American Poets, 2004. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.
Academy of American Poets. E.E. Cummings. www.Poets.org. Academy of American Poets,
n.d. Web. 5 Apr. 2015.

Cheever, Susan. The Prince of Patchin Place. Vanity Fair Culture Mar. 2014: n. pag. Print.
Friedman, Norman. E.E. Cummings: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs: PrenticeHall, n.d. Print.
Kirsch, Adam. The Rebellion of E.E. Cummings. Harvard Magazine Mar.-Apr. 2005: n. pag.
Locklin, Gerard. The Influence of Cummings on Selected Contemporary Poets. Spring: The
Journal of the E.E. Cummings Society (1993): 40-47. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.
Reef, Catherine. E.E. Cummings: A Poets Life. N.p.: Clarion Books, 2006. Print.