The Poetry of E.E. Cummings
The American poet E.E. Cummings (yes, capitalized) was an accomplished painter, and in that vein his poetry is very much a verbal painting written for both the eyes and the ears. He was not the most critically acclaimed poet of his time, but his works were enormously popular; At the time of his death in 1962, he was the second most widely read poet in the United States, after Robert Frost.
Cummings was an inventor. Not unlike his Modernist contemporaries T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams, Cummings experimented with traditional punctuation, syntax, and even spelling. What makes his approach unique—practically an usher of Postmodernism—is his tangible sense of playfulness, that language is merely a game to be played and not a set of rules to be obeyed (or cautiously, deliberately, and occasionally disobeyed).
For middle and high school students, these qualities make much of Cummings' work remarkably accessible. You'll find that students—who are themselves confronting the oppressive realities of norm and convention as they enter adulthood—find Cummings' approach quite liberating and perhaps even hopeful.
The Life of E.E. Cummings
In this lesson your students will learn about Cummings and experience the joy of his poetic paintings.
Knowing about an artists life and experiences often gives insight into that individual's approaches to art. That's certainly true of Edward Estlin Cummings. Begin your study of Cummings by having students read the two biographies at the Modern American Poetry site. The first is by Nicholas Everett, published from The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-century Poetry in English. The second biography by Richard Kennedy (from American National Biography Online) is quite a bit longer and includes additional commentary on Cummings' art.
Ask students to consider (and perhaps list) some of the influences on Cummings' art and literature. Answers may include his commencement address, his experiences in the war, his cubist paintings, the works of Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and Amy Lowell, his visits to Paris, and his relationship with fashion model Marion Morehouse.
Selected Poems of E.E. Cummings
Before getting too bogged down with interpretation and commentary, introduce students to some of Cummings' works and let them read and confront them on their own, without any external influences. After all, if Cummings was such a popular poet in his day, his works must certainly be accessible.
Students can find a nice collection of Cummings' poetry exhibits at Poets.org. You'll see them listed on the right. They should be able to read them all rather quickly, but encourage them to spend time studying, pondering, and re-reading. Don't give in to explanations; let students work through it. Encourage them to look for playfulness and experimentation, and to appreciate it when they recognize it.
The last two poems are links to audio files, one of Cummings reading and another of a jazz interpretation performed by Susanne Abbuehl. Students can find a few more audio recordings of Cummings' readings at Ubuweb.
The Art of E.E. Cummings
As an accomplished (if somewhat unremarkable) painter, Cummings was a very visual writer; something that distinguishes his poetry. You may want to consider introducing older students to some of his paintings, a collection of which is available online at Paintings by E.E. Cummings, also at the Modern American Poetry site. Additional works can be viewed at The Paintings of E.E. Cummings.
Teachers, please note that this collection includes some nude figures, albeit highly impressionistic. If appropriate, direct students' browsing or print a few selected paintings to share with the class.
Now that students have read some of Cummings' poems, listened to readings, and viewed his paintings, help them understand and articulate some of the recurring themes in his art. If necessary, review the biographies and commentary at Modern American Poetry site. Specifically, have students read "Forward to an Exhibit: II" (second section on the page). Ask students to comment on the playful suggestion that Cummings' painting and his writing "love each other dearly." Or, have them comment on his assertion that he has been writing poetry "as long as [he] could remember."
Modern American Poetry – E.E. Cummings http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/a_f/cummings/cummings.htm
Poets.org – E.E. Cummings http://www.poets.org/poets/poets.cfm?prmID=157
The Paintings of E.E. Cummings http://www.eecummingsart.com/
Ubuweb – Sound Poetry http://www.ubu.com/sound/cummings.html