E.E. Cummings is a giant in American poetry. But this wasn’t always the case. It took him years to gain recognition and, in the end, he came in second. In the mid-twentieth century, he was the second most widely-read poet in the United States, according to the Academy of American Poets. Who was Numero Uno? The folksy crowd-pleaser Robert Frost.
For those who love free verse, unorthodox poem shapes, and lowercase letters, Cummings will always win first place. If you’re ready to shake off the shackles of conventional rhyme and meter, but don’t know where to begin, there’s no better place to start than learning to write like E.E. Cummings.
Who is E.E. Cummings?
Edward Estlin Cummings was born Oct. 14, 1894, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He began writing poetry as a small child and went on to earn a master’s degree from Harvard University, where his father was a professor, in 1916.
After a tour of duty during World War I, Cummings loitered around Paris and studied art. He published his first novel in 1922 and his first book of poetry a year later in 1923. Cummings went on to write twelve books of poetry, self-publishing a number of them. He gained a reputation as an avant-garde poet due to his unconventional punctuation, capitalization, and word placement within his verse.
In the decades following the war, Cummings moved to New York, bought a farm in New Hampshire, and spend much of his time travelling. He became a guest professor at Harvard in 1952. He died ten years later on September 3, 1962, in New Hampshire.
How to write like E.E. Cummings
You can’t learn to write like E.E. Cummings without looking at his poems. Hearing them read aloud will give you the impression that he’s a pretty traditional poet who writes about childhood, love, and the natural world. To that end, let’s take a look at one of his most famous works, the 1920 poem about “Wild West” showman Buffalo Bill Cody.
First, let’s see how the poem would appear if presented in a standard layout:
Now, let’s apply three of Cummings’s key stylistic attributes to the verses, transforming it into one of his most famous poems in three easy steps.
1. don’t capitalize and don’t punctuate
Well, not quite. Though much of his text, including his name, is often rendered in lowercase letters, his work is not completely devoid of capital letters. We can see this in his capitalization of “Buffalo Bill’s,” “Jesus,” and “Mister Death.” However, in this and many other poems, he places traditionally uppercase words like “I” in lowercase.
His use of punctuation, meanwhile, is erratic and, at times, completely absent.
So, it might be better to say, capitalize and punctuate for effect only. Following Cummings’s style, we now have the following:
2. Play with the syntax
Jam words together, separate them at will, and restructure each verse to give maximum impact to the mood and rhythm of the poem. While you’re at it, get rid of the title and the byline.
Here’s what we’re left with:
3. Make your poem concrete
Concrete (or visual) poetry is all about the emotional and artistic impact of the arrangement of words on the page. Whether they form an identifiable shape, like a cross or a tree, or force the reader to search out the next word in an unexpected place, this type of poem was irresistible to Cummings.
Add some unconventional line breaks and tabs to your verse; bonus points if you can create a subtle picture related to the theme of the poem using the words alone.
And here we have the poem, rendered in Cummings’s style:
Ready to write your own poem? Take a look at this example, “e.e. cummings reviews a candy bar,” written using all the tips from this post, then give it a try!
Katherine Luck is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom and In Retrospect. Her latest book, False Memoir, combines the high stakes of a gritty psychological thriller with the guilty pleasure of a sensational true crime tell-all. You can read more of her work, including the “Dead Writers and Candy” series, at the-delve.com.