E.E. Cummings: Defender of Individualism and Non-Conformity

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  • Topic: Poetry, Ralph Waldo Emerson, E. E. Cummings
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E.E. Cummings-
Defender of Individualism and Non-Conformity

E. E. Cummings established himself as one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century, triumphing in hundreds of poems that struck his readers with a sense of awe and imagination. Cummings' poems stand out among other poems as amazingly unique. Cummings was a staunch advocator of the individual, going against the grain of traditional, conformist poet. Cummings experimented with words on a page to make pictures and called it poetry; imaginably, it was controversially received at the time. But Cummings refused to mold into what every other poet was writing and always strived to stand out. He once wrote that, "so far as I am concerned, poetry and every other art was and is and forever will be strictly and distinctly a question of individuality…"

Cummings was still a staunch individual as he aged, but his work slowly started to resemble, (not imitate) New England Transcendentalism. Initially, Cummings was a "…scornful artist, skillful punster, and staunch defender of the noncomformist.", later, he picked up "a mode…that…represents the artistic development and the most mature expression of his personal philosophy." (Bloom 59). The "mode" that Mr. Bloom mentions was Cummings' gradual use of transcendental ideas, a philosophy pioneered by Ralph Waldo Emerson asserting that high truth is not tangible, but rather complex and abstract in nature (Bloom 59). E. E. Cummings wrote concerning his position on transcendentalism through the concept of love that:

"I am someone who profoundly and humbly affirms that love is the mystery-of-mysteries and that nothing measurable matters ‘a very good God d_____': that ‘an artist, a man, a failure' is no mere…automaton, but a naturally and miraculously whole human being…whose only happiness is to transcend himself, whose very agony is to grow."(Bloom 59)

Literary criticism also recognizes his lenience towards transcendentalism by noting that, "Cummings…resembles New England Transcendentalism and English Romantics in his championing of individuality and artistic freedom" (Young 68). However, it is absolutely reiterating that Cummings was not a transcendentalist, he merely resembled one. He was more individualistic and could not categorize himself or his poetry.

Cummings individualism also stood out in his role as a farceur, frequently attacking "[c]onformity, mass psychology and snobbery…" (Young 68). His satires were ofttimes humorous, while others were caustic in their criticism. While some praise his transcendental values and admire his taste for farce, others assert that Cummings' work is monotonous and cliché in his use of poetic themes (Young 69). Randall Jarrel, a harsh critic of Cummings (and poetry in general) writes that,"…[his] poems [are] spoiled both by filling-in, the automatic repetition of technical novelties…and by the willing shallowness of attitude which produces them." (Young 81). Despite such common criticism over Cummings' over-use of traditional poetic themes, even Cummings' harshest critics agree that his poems are uniquely his. Jarrel, in his critical essay on Cummings, sums up his work by stating that "…how wonderfully individual, characteristic, [and] original all his poems are."(Young 81).

E. E. Cummings is best exemplified by such individualism in his championing of arranging words on a page to highlight the point he conveys to his readers. Critical essayists point out that,"[h]e placed equal stress on the meaning of words and the evocative shapes they formed on the page" (Young 69). For example, in one of his poems, he scrambled the word "grasshopper" to form a tangible picture of a grasshopper leaping across the page, jumping through wordy vegetation. He later rearranged the mumbled letters into "grasshopper" as if the grasshopper finally came into the reader's view. Cummings' experimentation with words, surprisingly, are not new. Critical essayists note that, "[m]any of...
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