E E Cummings: “Poetandpainter”



“A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feeling through words.
This may sound easy. It isn’t.”

Many people do not know that E E Cummings’, the well-known poet who lived part of the year near Silver Lake, in Madison, NH, first ambition was to become a painter, not a poet. Born on October 14, 1894, most people know E.E. Cummings the writer. As a poet, Edward Estlin Cummings was very popular throughout the 20th century and received widespread critical acclaim. Less well-known is Cummings’ accomplishment as a visual artist.

Born to a pair of genteel Cambridge parents, Estlin’s parents (he preferred being called this) were anxious that he have the best education and environment he possibly could to be a successful and happy man. Schooled at home nearly until he enrolled in Harvard at sixteen, his parents were willing participants in enacting plays, costumed, with great drama. Many of the drama props are on view at the Madison Historical Society.

Cummings thought endlessly about visual art and its relation to the other arts. He devoted a tremendous amount of time to his art, writing copious notes on his ideas about painting, color theory, the human body, the ‘intelligence’ of painting, and the Masters. He spent several years in Europe and studied all forms of art in museums.

His father was a minister of the Unitarian Church and a teacher at Harvard, where Estlin always had access to the best educators of the times. Estlin himself never became a devout churchgoer, but more of a transcendentalist in the tradition of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who constantly apprehended spiritual truth through intellect, nature, and reading. His numerous studies of Mount Chocorua, while in the tradition of Cezanne, suggest an endless search for the truth—that of the ultimate ‘eyeball’—seeing and understanding all—which Emerson referred to in his essays.

At an early age he showed promise as a writer and an illustrator, creating his own storybooks that he also illustrated. These “ twin obsessions”—painting and poetry—were the focus of his life, but by the 1930s, he was recognized most for his poetry.

There were four major aesthetic concerns of Cummings’ adult work: perception, three-dimensional form, motion, and the interrelation of the arts were his focus in the early part of his life. Expert biographer Milton Cohen characterizes him as a ‘poet, cerebral aesthetician, and lifelong painter.’ Cummings was always struggling to earn a living, and owes much to a group of wealthy supporters who were happy to commission him to paint.

Cummings painted primarily in oils on canvas, canvas board, particleboard, cardboard, and sometimes burlap. His painting is generally divided into two phases. Between 1915 and 1928, he produced large-scale abstractions that were widely acclaimed.

Noise #13

Noise #13

Some of his early successes were a series entitled “Sounds” in which he portrayed sounds. These intrigued his cerebral friends. He was fascinated with color and often counterbalanced the colors of the color wheel in his landscapes. One of his favorite gifts as a young man was his own color wheel.

Then a tectonic shift in the focus of his art was near simultaneous with the deadly car accident that his parents experienced one winter night at a railroad crossing in Ossipee, NH, in November of 1926. His mother survived but his father did not. This is not to suggest causation, but often great trauma does signal dramatic change in a person’s life. His life, once he retired to Silver Lake, was generally divided into two parts during the day: painting in the morning, and poetry in the afternoon.

Between 1928 and 1962, Cummings created primarily representational works including still lifes, landscapes, nudes, and portraits.

cummings oil on board note reflection

cummings oil on board note reflection

He produced highly popular drawings and caricatures that were published in “The Dial” journal, printed by the Dial Press, a publishing house founded in 1923 by Lincoln MacVeagh. Dial Press shared a building with The Dial and Scofield Thayer worked with both. Both were friends of Cummings.

Known for cutting a dramatic though small figure when he swept through Silver Lake, his long duster swirling about him, gloves on hands, hat on head, he made an impressive figure. The gloves, of course, were to cover his highly chapped hands which were exposed daily to turpentine.

Once he settled in Silver Lake, his painting routine took the form of Mount Chocorua studies in its many attitude, poses, color, shade, and angles. They are a delight to the Chocorua lover.

E.E. Cummings-Chocorua

E.E. Cummings-Chocorua

Cummings’ touchstones of expression were his erotic poetry and line drawings which are favorites of the collector. They are inspirational, illustrating the depth of his emotion and understanding of the nature of life and the human form.

MM-Gray-GreenLater in his life, he was an invited speaker and found great success with the dramatic delivery of his poetry. These were a terrific effort for him, but he enjoyed the attention and money that they brought him.

Cummings spent the last ten years of his life traveling, and producing speaking engagements, and living at his summer home, Joy Farm, in Silver Lake, New Hampshire. He died on September 3, 1962, at the age of 67 in North Conway, New Hampshire of a stroke.

His line drawings and aphorisms highlight his resistance to instruction of any kind:

“The Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself.”

Get to know E E Cummings through the Friends of Madison Library’s Cummings at Silver Lake Celebration Weekend, July 10 & 11, 2015. On Saturday, visit his favorite landscapes and see the view from his beloved Joy Farm. View the Cummings’ Family Collection at the Madison Historical Society and the Mount Washington Valley Arts Association art show and silent auction at the Madison Library. On Friday night at 7 pm enjoy the “nonlecture” of music, art, readings and discussion at the Madison Elementary School. All proceeds from the weekend benefit the Madison Library. Tickets are available through the Madison Library or through the Friends’ website http://www.cummingsatsilverlake.com.

Cynthia Melendy, PhD.

Cynthia lives in the Mount Washington Valley of New Hampshire and has a MA degree in American Studies and a PhD in History.

What is a well sweep and how does it work?



well-sweep-watering-at-the-well-sweep-1927A well sweep is an ingenious device used to bring water up from a well. The only materials needed to construct a well sweep were wooden poles, usually obtained locally, and a heavy weight of stone or clay. A vertical post, often with a Y notch at the top, was mounted by the well hole. The post held a horizontal pole, or sweep, which was heavier at one end and rested on the ground. A long, thin pole with an attached bucket or pail was placed at the other end. A person would pull the thin pole and bucket down into the well and fill it with water, and the sweep’s weight would then lift the bucket up. The term, “sweep” refers to the long pole which is lowered until the bucket on the end goes down into the well and fills with water. Because the pole is anchored in the middle on another pole, creating a fulcrum, it can be counter balanced, thus making it easier to raise the pole, and lift the bucket from the well. When correctly balanced, the counterweight will support a half-filled bucket, so some effort is used to pull an empty bucket down to the water, but only the same effort is needed to lift a full bucket.


Zhuangzi, Chapter Twelve: Heaven and Earth, in Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy

Originally developed in Ancient Egypt, a drawing of such a device appears on a Sumerian seal of c.2000 BCE.  Well sweeps are still used in many areas of Africa and Asia to draw water. Also called a “shadoof” or “shaduf”, they remain quite common in Hungary’s Great Plains, where they are known as “gémeskút” (literally, “ heron wells”) and are symbols of the region. In France, where sweeps were still widespread in the countryside in 1986, they are called “balancing wells”.

In Gascony-silent witnesses to the past- old wells.

In Gascony-silent witnesses to the past- old wells.

The bucket ( or skin bag or coated reed basket) can be made in many different styles, sometimes having an uneven base or a part at the top of the skin that can be untied. This allows the water to be immediately distributed rather than manually emptied. The short end carries a weight (clay, stone, or similar) which serves as the counterpoise of a lever. When used for irrigation, with an almost effortless swinging and lifting motion, the waterproof vessel is used to scoop up and carry water from one body of water (typically, a river or pond) to another. At the end of each movement, the water is emptied out into runnels that convey the water along irrigation ditches in the required direction. Well sweeps in New England were more common one hundred years ago or more and came to be replaced by pulleys and cranks and eventually by mechanical pumps.Joy Farm  

  The well sweep in clearly visible in this 1905 photo of Joy Farm, summer home of the American poet, author and painter, E.E. Cummings.   Buddy well sweep at Joy Farm

Bud Shackford and his brothers, Meyhew and Loren, replace the Y shaped fulcrum pole at Joy Farm sometime in the 1950s. Cummings also had an iron hand pump in the kitchen. Joy Farm_038

The well sweep at Joy Farm has been repaired many times over the intervening years, most recently by the current owners, although they no longer use water from the well.

Visit Joy Farm and 7 other locations in the Silver Lake area as part of the Cummings at Silver Lake Celebration Weekend, July 10 & 11, 2015. Tickets are $15 per person prior to July 1st and $20 after that date.

Advice to a student poet from E.E. Cummings


This is E.E. Cummings’ reply to a letter from a high-school editor asking how to become a poet.

“A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feeling through words.
This may sound easy. It isn’t.
A lot of people think or believe or know they feel-but that’s thinking or believing or knowing; not feeling. And poetry is feeling-not knowing or believing or thinking.
Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.
To be nobody-but-yourself-in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else-means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.
As for expressing nobody-but-yourself in words, that means working just a little harder than anybody who isn’t a poet can possibly imagine. Why? Because nothing is quite as easy as using words like somebody else. We all of us do exactly this nearly all of the time-and whenever we do it, we’re not poets.
If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you’ve written one line of one poem, you’ll be very lucky indeed.
And so my advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something easy, like learning how to blow up the world-unless you’re not only willing, but glad, to feel and work and fight till you die.
Does this sound dismal? It isn’t.
It’s the most wonderful life on earth.
Or so I feel.”

from the October 26th, 1955 edition of the Ottawa Hills High School Spectator (Grand Rapids, Michigan).

NOT “ee cummings”


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“It must be said once and for all that his name should be written and printed with the usual capital letters in their usual places: “E. E. Cummings.” So insists the late Norman Friedman, Cummings scholar and co-founder of the E.E. Cummings Society.

Oh, isn’t Cummings the poet who never uses capitals?

“Even a casual look at his poems shows that of course he uses capitals—he uses them frequently, albeit not always conventionally. The same goes for spacing, word and line breaks, parentheses, and punctuation, not to mention grammar and syntax. What probably accounts for the common misperception that he is a lowercase poet is his usual printing of “I” as “i.”

Interestingly, he wrote in a letter to his mother on September 3, 1925, “I am a small eye poet.” Notice that he capitalizes the first-person singular, distinguishing between the writer of the letter and the writer of the poetry”.

Well, didn’t he always sign his name ee cummings?

No, not that either. In his letters, which were usually typed, he most frequently used the uppercase form, with his signature at the bottom in caps.

EE letter to Mr. Jess

This September 1942 letter was written by Cummings while he was at Joy Farm, his summer residence in Silver Lake, New Hampshire. It was written to Jesse Shackford, Sr., the first of many Shackfords to work for Cummings and Marion Morehouse. Mr. Shackford, as Cummings respectfully addressed him, was apparently ill at the time and the letter was sent to the Memorial Hospital in North Conway–the same hospital where E.E. Cummings died in September 1962.

Note the return address typed as EECummings SilverLake. Both the letter and the envelop demonstrate Cummings’ typical practice of omitting spaces and combining words, but he uses capital letters where appropriate in his name.

Another letter written to Ruth and Jesse Shackford, Jr., known as Bud, refers to his beloved Chocorua mountain, capitalizes the letter “I”, and is signed simply Estlin.

Estlin card

Visit Joy Farm and the Jesse Shackford farm, enjoy the Cummings’ Family Collection at the Madison Historical Society and take a self-guided tour of 4 other locations related to E.E. Cummings (with capital letters) during the Cummings at Silver Lake Celebration Weekend presented by Friends of Madison Library on July 10 & 11, 2015. Order will call tickets now.

ee signature

signature on letter to Norman Friedman January 13, 1949

Quotes from Norman Friedman
[Spring 1 (1992): 114-121]

With many thanks to Ruth Shackford, Silver Lake, NH

Where did E.E. Cummings write “The Enormous Room”?


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Enormous roomIn the fall of 1920 Edward Estlin (E.E.) Cummings completed the manuscript of his autobiographical novel, The Enormous Room, in a tree house built among three pine trees on Hurricane Point along the shore of Silver Lake in Madison, New Hampshire.

Cummings served as an ambulance driver during World War I. In late 1917 he and his friend and colleague, William Slater Brown (known in the book only as B.), were arrested by French authorities as a result of anti-war sentiments B. expressed in some letters. When questioned, Cummings stood by his friend and was also arrested. After four months in prison, Cummings was released due to U.S. diplomatic intervention instigated by his father.

The book is written as a mix of Cummings’ well-known “unconventional grammar and diction and the witty voice of a young Harvard-educated intellectual in an absurd situation”.

At Hurricane Point, a short easy walk along a trail cleared in 1996 by Muriel Hughes and Lynn Jones , Master Gardeners and members of the Madison Garden Club, leads to the top of the ridge. Three pine stumps and a rotting trunk inclining down-slope toward the lake mark the site of the tree house. The water laps the shore below the ridge, and Cummings’ beloved Chocorua mountain stands sentinel to the west.

Hurricane Point Natural Area is one of the 8 sites around Silver Lake that will be featured during the Cummings at Silver Lake Celebration Weekend offered by the Friends of Madison Library July 10th and 11th , 2015.

Tickets for the weekend at $15 per person if purchased before July 1st and $20 per person after July 1.

Thanks to Carol L. Batchelder and Wikipedia.

Tea at Joy Farm SOLD OUT

Due to space constraints at Joy Farm, there is limited seating for the Friday afternoon TEA AT JOY FARM.

This event is now SOLD OUT.

Please join us for the Friday night “nonlecture” at 7pm at the Madison Elementary School and for the Saturday Tour of 8 locations around Silver Lake. The Saturday tour includes Joy Farm.

Tickets for the weekend are $15 if purchased before July 1, 2015 and $20 after July 1.

The News from Joy Farm~Poetry of E.E. Cummings



Boulder Joy Farm.

Boulder at Joy Farm photo by Marion Morehouse in Adventures in Value

E.E. Cummings’ letters from a summer spent at Joy Farm “are crammed with news about raccoons, deer, a red fox who chased crickets, a grey fox, a porcupine who taught her young ones to eat apples, woodchucks, chipmunks who were threatened by a marauding cat.”


& sun &




is exc





(E.E. Cummings-Complete Poems 830)

Quote from  Dreams in the Mirror, Richard S. Kennedy 1980



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In an interview for the Poetry Foundation author Susan Cheever talked about poet E. E. Cummings’ use of lower case letters. What she calls his “lowercaseness”.

“I’m not sure I can make a sweeping statement about lowercaseness. With Cummings, the lowercase “i” is partly because it looks Greek, it’s partly what he got from Sam Ward [a handyman who worked for the Cummings family and who used the lower-case “i” in letters]. We have to assume that Sam Ward used the lowercase “i” because he felt somehow that he was the handyman. I think also Cummings felt that he, Cummings, had to make up in energy and liveliness what he lacked in bulk and sportsmanship and all these masculine attributes that he just didn’t have. I think what he meant by the lowercase “i” was a sort of humble playfulness.

I don’t want to say he was a humble guy. Obviously, no poet is a humble guy. I mean, one of the big questions in his life is why did he leave Harvard so angrily. “The Cambridge Ladies” is an angry poem about Cambridge, where he grew up and where he stayed until he was 23. So when he left Cambridge, it was a real breakup. One of the reasons he left is that uppercaseness of Cambridge. I think the uppercaseness of Cambridge, especially when Cummings was there… in 1916 and 1917, was really harsh.”

Susan Cheever on E. E. Cummings and the state of biography.
by Claire Luchette
Originally Published: April 8, 2014