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EEC . . . A Major Modernist Poet?

cummings2Should EEC be considered as a Major Modernist poet?

Yes, by all means. Wallace Stevens thought modern poetry had “To construct a new stage” (Stevens 240). Cummings constructed his new stage through the modernist principle of fragmentation.

Indeed, in “From a Play,” William Carlos Williams articulates his desire to make the “sensuous / qualities” of a poem—the poem’s gestures—“express / as much as / or more // than the merely / literal / burden of the thing / could ever tell” (II:45). Cummings brings this seed to fruition more than any other modernist poet. His poems are PLAYS in that the actors (the shapes of letters, fragments, words, lines, stanzas) constantly perform.

In “The Poem as a Field of Action,” Williams calls for “sweeping changes from top to bottom of the poetic structure” (51). Cummings did this through the modernist principle of fragmentation like no other modernist poet.

Yes, whereas T. S. Eliot tells us “Words strain, / Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, / Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, / Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, / Will not stay still” (Eliot 180)–Cummings shows us, time and time again, through his “precision which creates movement” (CP 221).

He even has a meta-poem about how each broken piece of a mirror is “whole with sky”–and that breaking a mirror, or breaking language, ought to be considered lucky (CP 623). His fragments are whole with poem.

Like the hydra, a word cut in half instantly grows two or more semiotic possibilities. The possibilities emerge not only through the semiotic connotations of the fragments, but also through the ways that the fragments gesture on the page.

Yes, because like all great modernist poets, he is difficult. He also has his long, difficult work, EIMI, that rivals James Joyce’s Ulysses. EIMI integrates multiple languages as it celebrates fragmentation and typographical experiment in a blending of multiple genres (travelogue, diary, narrative prose, poetry).

Moreover, Cummings’ poetics have roots in Whitman, one of the headwaters for Modern American Poetry. In “A Backward Glance o’er Travel’d Roads,” Whitman suggests that the three pervasive themes throughout Leaves of Grass are “Sex and Amativeness, and even Animality—though meanings that do not usually go along with those words are behind all, and will duly emerge; and all are sought to be lifted into a different light and atmosphere” (Whitman 1891–92, 436). Those three themes pervade Cummings’ oeuvre as well, and he contributes to the process of exploring the meanings that do not usually go along with those words.

Cummings’ poetics are also very Emersonian. In “The Poet,” Emerson calls for a poem’s “architecture” to be “alive” and to move with the “spirit of a plant or an animal” (290). Whitman did this as his poems partake in the organic agency of plants, highlighted by the way he morphed the letters Leaves of Grass into a sprawling vegetation (scroll down on Folsom’s “Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman”). Cummings continues this process. Countless poems are Protean as the form—the “architecture” of letters, words, lines, stanzas, poems, and the spaces between these constellations—shapeshifts into leaves, snow, grasshoppers, cats, bees, flies, flowers, petals, seedlings, smoke, bird calls, moons, confetti, and more. The bottom line?—Cummings brings one of the seeds of modern poetry to full fruition. His poems morph into iconic shapes just like Whitman’s letters in Leaves of Grass morph into plants.

BUT THEN AGAIN, Cummings should NOT be considered a major modernist poet. His life’s work explores, revisits, and sustains all things concerning the lowercase i. To cast Cummings as a Major Modernist poet misunderstands the point of a “nonhero,” and inflates the i to being that which Cummings eschewed: the ego-filled I.

True, Cummings is a trickster. Tricksters flourish in the margins, not in the center. Even if one tried to place Cummings in the middle of the modernist movement, his work would undo that centered-placement in order to get back “home” to the margins.

This is to say that Cummings is like Feste in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Feste, who thrives in the margins and in the instability of language—(“A sentence is but a chev’ril glove to a good wit—how quickly the wrong side may be turned outward” [III.i.10–12])—could NEVER marry Olivia, who lives in the stable center of society. Even though Olivia appreciates Feste’s wit, he could never live with her. It would suffocate him.

Ah, but this is precisely why Cummings should be considered a major modernist poet just as Feste is seen one of the CRUCIAL characters who, as the wise-fool, illuminates even as he plays with the dungeon of darkness (Shakespeare IV.ii.20 ff.).  

Hold on. Major modernist poets often gravitated toward high modernism. Cummings based his poetics on circus tents and rollercoaster rides, as shown by “The Adult, the Artist, and the Circus” and “Coney Island” (Miscellany 109–114; 149–153). He is not SERIOUS ENOUGH to be a major modernist poet.

Oh, so you suggest that Cummings reveled in “low culture,” you mean like postmodernists?

I guess.

True, Cummings thought the “AUDIENCE IS THE PERFORMANCE” (Miscellany 151), which anticipates the postmodern principle that the dynamic between the reader and the text is one of creation. And yes, he implies his poems are “competing” with the roller coasters at “Coney Island” (CP 221)—talk about low culture! His point is well taken, though. Why should someone read a poem when they could ride a rollercoaster?—unless the poem takes the reader’s imagination on a rollercoaster of movement. But I digress. My point is that being a proto-postmodern poet ought to further the case that Cummings is a major modernist poet. In many respects, he was ahead of his contemporaries and more at home in avant-garde ecopoetics of today’s writers like Brenda Hillman and Evelyn Reilly.

Additionally, when Cummings made a poem, the process of poiesis often entailed 30 to 40+ drafts. Even as a trickster at play, he took his makings very, very seriously—not unlike Feste.

But even if the play hinges on Feste, he will never garner more applause than Viola, Olivia, or the Duke. That’s just not how it works. He just cannot be a major actor in the play.



Aaron M. Moe

Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, IN



Works Cited

Cummings, E. E. A Miscellany Revised. Ed. George J. Firmage. New York: October House, 1965. Print.

—. Complete Poems, 1904-1962. Ed. George J. Firmage. New York: Liveright, 1991. Print.

Eliot, T. S. Collected Poems, 1909-1962. New York: Harcourt  Brace & Company, 1991. Print.

Emerson, Ralph. The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. Brooks Atkinson. New York: Modern Library, 2000. Print.

Folsom, Ed. “Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman: A Catalog and Commentary.” The Walt Whitman Archive. N.p., 2005. Web. 31 Aug. 2011.

Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1986. Print.

Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems. New York: Vintage Books, 1982. Print.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass in the Walt Whitman Archive. Lincoln: Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, University of Nebraska, 1995. Web.

Williams, William Carlos. “The Poem as a Field of Action.” Twentieth-Century American Poetics:  Poets on the Art of Poetry. Ed. Dana Gioia, Meg Schoerke, and David Mason. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004. 51–57. Print.

Williams, Willian Carlos. The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams. Ed. Christopher MacGowan. 2 vols. New York: New Directions, 1988. Print.


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1 Comment

  1. Aaron,

    I like the way you see how Cummings’ trickster qualities make him difficult to pin down. And that’s good. As I said in my article “Cummings, Kennedy, and the Major / Minor Issue” [Spring 6 (1995)], “putting a poet’s work into boxes labeled ‘major’ and ‘minor’ may unnecessarily limit the ways in which we can approach it” (81). [This article may be found here: . My essay was a response to Richard S. Kennedy’s “E. E. Cummings, a Major Minor Poet,” which appeared in 1992, in the first issue of the new series of Spring. Kennedy’s essay can be found here: . ]


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