What is the key to reading E.E. Cummings poetry?

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E. E. Cummings, the famous American poet, author and painter, confounded editors and typesetters with his punctuation, spacing, run-on and made up words, and seemingly strange rules of capitalization. He often signed his work ee cummings, and rarely capitalized the letter “i”.

Former high school English teacher, Silver Lake resident and Cummings expert, the author is also the great-niece of Frank Lyman, a frequent subject of Cummings’ poetry and prose.

“Cummings often arranges the lines of his poems in seemingly strange ways:

un(bee)mo

vi
n(in)g
are(th
e)you(o
nly)

asl(rose)eep

(Cumming Complete Poems 691)

The key is to read everything within the parentheses first, then to begin again at the top with the remaining words: Bee in the only rose, unmoving. Are you asleep? If that is all he meant to say, why didn’t he write it that way? He wants us to discover the bee for ourselves as perhaps a bee surprised him when he peered into the heart of a rose. Why the “only” rose? Because our attention is completely focused at the moment on one particular blossom, it is as though no other rose exists. Why isn’t the bee moving? Is he dead? Is  he sleeping the sleep of the sated?”

-From Nobody-But-Himself by Carol L. Batchelder in SPRING, the Journal of the E.E. Cummings Society, New Series Number 6, October 1997.

Cummings Family Collection

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During the Cummings at Silver Lake Celebration, July 10 & 12, 2015, be sure to see the new “Cummings Family Collection” exhibit at the Madison Historical Society, including two paintings by E.E. Cummings recently donated by the Shackford Family.

Among the memorabilia are a pair of Edward Cummings’ red leather sandals from a Julius Caesar costume, photos of the family at Joy Farm, and some of Estlin’s baby clothes.

E.E. Cummings ~ A picture in print

April was poetry month. In celebration, the Madison (NH) Library set out a “poet tree” where anyone could write out and hang a poem on a leaf. Reading a leaf with one of E.E. Cummings’ poems, a middle school student asked, “Why did he write it like that?”

“Even readers who seldom read poetry recognize the distinctive shape that a Cummings poem makes on the page: the blizzard of punctuation, the words running together or suddenly breaking part, the type spilling like a liquid from one line to the next:

one

t
hi
s

snowflake

(a
li
ght
in
g)

is upon a gra

v
es
t

one

Cummings was not the first poet to use a typewriter, but as this poem shows, he was the first to take advantage of its power to control the exact spacing and shape of every line, and thus to make a poem’s visual appearance as important as its musical rhythms. What looks like a thin trickle of letters becomes, to a reader who has learned Cummings’s tricks, a picture in print: the snowflake “alighting” in a twirl, the severe vertical of the “gravestone.” This playful tinkering with language is the most obvious and appealing sign of Cummings’s originality; as he once wrote, it is “such minutiae as commas and small i’s,in which…my Firstness thrives.”

The Rebellion of E.E. Cummings
The poet’s artful reaction against his father—and his alma mater
by Adam Kirsch
Harvard Magazine
March-April 2005
http://harvardmagazine.com/2005/03/the-rebellion-of-ee-cumm.html

JOY FARM ~ Over the barn

Joy Farm, the much loved summer retreat of the poet, E.E. Cummings, sits at the top of a long uphill drive and commands a stunning view of Mount Chocorua and the Sandwich Mountain Range in Carroll County, New Hampshire. The barn was more than 100 years old when Cummings’ father, Edward Norton Cummings, bought the property in 1898, just before Estlin’s fourth birthday.

“For many years there was no electricity. They read by kerosene lamplight, and heated water, pulled from the well by an old-fashioned sweep, on the woodstove in the kitchen. But the screened porch faced Chocorua Mountain. And north was over the barn.”

Moon
‘s whis-
per
in sunset

or thrushes toward dusk amount whippoorwills or
tree field rock hollyhock forest brook chickadee
mountain. Mountain)
whycoloured worlds of because do

not stand against yes which is built by
forever & sunsmell
(sometimes a wonder
of wild roses

sometimes)
with north
over
the barn

E.E. Cummings Complete Poems 512

-from Nobody-But-Himself by Carol L. Batchelder in Spring The Journal of the E.E. Cummings Society, new series Number 6

What is Art~E.E. Cummings ?

One of the greatest meditations on what art is and isn’t, on the pleasures and perils of the creative life, comes from E.E. Cummings, whose lesser-known prose enchants very differently and yet by the same mechanism that his celebrated poetry does — by inviting the reader to “pick his way toward comprehension, which comes, when it does, in a burst of delight and recognition.”

A miscelleny

E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised is, sadly, out of print — but it’s well worth the hunt. Complement it with Susan Cheever’s biography of Cummings and the unusual story of the fairy tales he wrote for his only daughter,

Thanks to Maria Popova and her amazing weekly newsletter: Brain Pickings. If you love books, you must read her pages.

Open the window on E.E. Cummings

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The Friends of Madison Library open the window on E.E. Cummings at Silver Lake with a Weekend of Celebration.

Join us for a weekend of art, music, poetry and history exploring the relationship between the American poet and artist, E E Cummings, and the people and town of Madison, New Hampshire. Friday night will feature a “nonlecture”, art show, Cummings’ poetry set to music and discussion. On Saturday visit 8 local sites, including the Cummings’ Family Collection at the Madison Historical Society and the poets’ beloved “Joy Farm”.

Tickets include both the Friday night events and the Saturday tour. Box lunches will be available for sale at the Madison Library on Saturday. Tickets are $20 per person or $15 if purchased before June 30, 2015. All proceeds benefit the non-profit Friends of Madison Library.

Joy Farm will host an afternoon tea with limited seating by separate additional ticket purchased in advance. Tickets for the tea are an additional $10.

Mr. Cummings, “Your poems are so hard to understand….”

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Best known as a poet, E.E. Cummings was also an accomplished artist.  While his early work was often abstract, later in his life he frequently painted the view of the mountains from Joy Farm. “Many of the landscapes are either weirdly surreal and muted or else bursting with mad swirls of brilliant colors. His favorite (or at least most frequent) landscape subject by far was Mt Chocorua in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, which often either dominates the canvas or at least makes its presence known (á la Mt Fuji in traditional Japanese painting).”  quote from Ken Lopez Bookseller.

 

In a “conversation” with himself, Cummings’ compares his paintings with his poetry.

“Your poems are rather hard to understand, whereas your paintings are so easy.
Easy?
Of course—you paint flowers and girls and sunsets; things that everybody understands.
I never met him.
Who?
Everybody.
Did you ever hear of nonrepresentational painting?
I am.
Pardon me?
I am a painter, and painting is nonrepresentational.
Not all painting.
No: housepainting is representational.
And what does a housepainter represent?
Ten dollars an hour.
In other words, you don’t want to be serious—
It takes two to be serious.

E.E. Cummings in “Forward to an Exhibit: II” (1945)

Some E.E. Cummings must be sung

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E.E. Cummings, the poet of the “little i”, was also a poet of the EYE.

According to Billy Collins, himself a poet, Cummings broke “down words into syllables and letters”, employed eccentric punctuation”, and indulged “in all kinds of print-based shenanigans”.

Famously, Cummings wrote, “not all my poems are to be read aloud-some are to be seen and not heard.”

And, some were clearly must be sung, as Natalie Merchant sings maggie and millie and molly and may.