The best E. E. Cummings poems selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
E. E. Cummings – or, following the American poet’s own idiosyncratic way of styling himself, ‘e. e. cummings’ – was one of the greatest and most original voices in twentieth-century American poetry. He also wrote some of the most intense and remarkable erotic love poems in the English language. Here are ten of E. E. Cummings’ very best poems.
To own all of Cummings’ amazing poetry, we recommend E. E. Cummings: Complete Poems, 1904-1962.
One of Cummings’ best-known poems, ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’ is, like Emily Dickinson’s ‘I’m Nobody! Who are you?’, a poem about anonymity and obscurity. A man named anyone lives in an average town, gets married to no one, and eventually dies: the poem captures the ordinariness of the life of the average American, but in Cummings’ trademark style.
Of course, part of the fun of the poem is the fact that ‘noone’, the lover and wife of ‘anyone’, isn’t simply his complement (they’re both anybody, and therefore, also, nobody in particular): writing that ‘noone loved him more by more’ (with ‘more by more’ cunningly joining together ‘little by little’ with ‘more and more’) makes it sound as if ‘anyone’ is unloved; but there is a world of difference between the women and men ‘car[ing] for anyone not at all’ (not caring for this particular anyone, or just anyone in general: either works here) and ‘noone lov[ing] him’.
In other words, the poem is a celebration of anonymity and the fact that it is perfectly possible to live a full and exciting life, to love and be loved, without being anybody special. Being ‘anyone’ is enough. The poem was made into a short film by George Lucas. We discuss this iconic poem here.
This poem is one of Cummings’ famous takes on the sonnet form, although as we’d expect from a technical innovator like E. E. Cummings, he plays around with the rhyme scheme (rhyming his poem ababccdefgfeg), spacing (‘deafanddumb’), and line endings (‘beaut- / iful’ spans two lines).
The poem summons a number of earlier patriotic poems about the United States, such as Francis Scott Key’s ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ (better known as the US national anthem) and, perhaps, Felicia Dorothea Hemans’ poem about the landing of the Pilgrim Fathers. Is the poem patriotic or critical of blind patriotism?
It appears to be both, suggesting that if one loves one’s country, one should hold it up for rebuke when it does something reprehensible (such as getting involved in foreign wars: Cummings was, famously, a pacifist).
Another variation on the sonnet form, but even less regular in its rhyming than the poem above. Here, Cummings takes aim at those New England women with the stiff, prim, pre-arranged lives – the same sorts of people T. S. Eliot had earlier criticised in his early poetry – arguing that they are overly traditional and even old-fashioned in their beliefs and attitudes.
Poets have often turned to classical mythology to shine a light on erotic feeling, and Cummings – who wrote some of the best erotically charged poetry of the twentieth century – was no different.
Here, he retells the myth of Diana and Actaeon: the latter spies the former bathing naked, and is torn apart by his own hounds as punishment. Cummings here sees himself as a latter-day Actaeon, knowing the hounds are preparing to devour him for catching a glimpse of such beauty.
The male gaze and the sensual power of the scene are captured through the enticing use of colour throughout, as well as the suggestive language (‘Horn at hip’, for instance). We’ve analysed this poem here.
One of the hallmarks of E. E. Cummings’ poetry is his interest in taking traditional ideas and forms and subverting them. Here, Cummings offers an innovative take on the spring poem, but instead of uncritically praising spring as a time of rebirth and new life, Cummings describes spring as ‘slattern of seasons’ with ‘dirty legs’ and a ‘muddy / petticoat’.
As if that isn’t enough, she has a ‘whiskey-voice’. Not so much drunk on the joys of spring, as drunken spring herself after one too many bourbons? Watch out for that final comma, suggesting we’ve merely caught Cummings mid-rant…
Some of Cummings’ best poems are love poems, and this is one of his very finest. It might almost be seen as a companion-piece to Sir Philip Sidney’s ‘My true love hath my heart’, or perhaps a modern updating of Sidney’s poem: a sonnet (again – a sonnet of sorts) in which Cummings declares that he carries his love’s heart with him – within his heart. The poem shows his distinctive talent for using parentheses in poetry.
A slender thing, this poem comprising a single sentence (if it can be called a sentence), with the phrase ‘a leaf falls’ placed parenthetically within the word ‘loneliness’.
Probably inspired by the Japanese haiku form, this beautiful E. E. Cummings poem suggests a link between the eternal concept of loneliness and the fleeting motion of a falling leaf. alling leaves suggest death, decline, the coming of winter: despondent and melancholic images of frailty and transience.
These feelings sit well alongside the concept of loneliness, which may well be accompanied by such moods. And is it significant that the word ‘one’ appears on a line, appropriately, by itself? We offer a commentary on the poem here.
If you’re young, then ‘whatever life you wear’ will ‘become you’: like Philip Pullman’s concept of the daemon, which shifts when children are young but settles into a specific creature when they reach adulthood, Cummings suggests in this poem that youth is a space where ‘anything goes’, as it were. Learning is also more valuable than teaching, as the final (brilliant) couplet succinctly and poetically expresses.
The poem is notable for its playing around with opposites and its use of oxymoron (girlboys, boygirls, foetal grave), as well as its suggestive neologisms (undoom). But its form is also interesting: Cummings hints at the sonnet form with this 14-line poem, but the poem does not follow the rhyme scheme of the sonnet – in fact, it cannot really be said to rhyme at all.
9. ‘may i feel said he’.
Another of E. E. Cumming’s most famous poems, and one of his most playful, detailing the to-and-fro between a man and a woman engaged in a fling (the man’s wife is mentioned, so the female speaker here must be his mistress). It’s one of Cummings’ more straightforward and easily comprehensible poems, so a good way into the unique world of his work.
Or is it that straightforward? The poem is unusual among E. E. Cummings’ poetry, in that it contains – gasp! shock horror! – a CAPITAL LETTER. We have to wait until the final line of this most joyously teasing of poems, but when we come to that capitalised ‘Mine’, the shock for those who know Cummings’ poems is palpable. Is this a hint of sexual jealousy? Surely the man is his wife’s, in so far as he ‘belongs’ to anyone.
‘may i feel said he’ is a fun poem, but the two people in the poem aren’t just having fun with each other, although there is a sense of their enjoyment in teasing each other, engaging in foreplay, and talking as well as touching.
We have analysed this poem here.
10. ‘Buffalo Bill’s’.
Focusing on the Wild West hero Buffalo Bill, this short poem is one of Cummings’ most experimental in terms of its use of spacing. It also offers an individual view of an American legend. What does it mean to describe Buffalo Bill as defunct rather than dead?
About E. E. Cummings
Edward Estlin Cummings (1894-1962), self-styled as e. e. cummings, was born in Massachusetts, and much of his philosophy was rooted in that part of the United States, particularly his interest in New England Transcendentalism. His poetry, especially his love poetry (which can be highly sensual and erotic), bears the influence of early Tudor love lyrics, but his typography and form (including his eschewal of capital letters) reveal his affinities with modernism.
His first poetry collection, Tulips and Chimneys, came out in 1923, when modernist poetry was becoming established in the United States. A year before, Cummings had published an autobiographical novel, The Enormous Room, about his experiences in the First World War and in a French detention camp.
He sometimes struggled to get his poetry published by the leading publishers, and self-published his 1935 volume No Thanks with a dedication-page explaining the title: the book had been published ‘no thanks’ to Farrar & Rinehart, Simon & Schuster, and so on. His idiosyncratic style, it is sometimes said, hides what are often quite conservative and traditional themes and meanings in his poetry, but his reputation as one of the finest twentieth-century American poets is secure.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.