Among the American poets who stayed at home, Wallace Stevens–a mild-mannered executive at a major insurance firm in Hartford, Connecticut–had a flair for the flashiest titles that poems have ever had: “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle.” Stevens, the aesthete par excellence, exalted the imagination for its ability to “press back against the pressure of reality.”
What was new in Marianne Moore was her brilliant and utterly original use of quotations in her poetry, and her surpassing attention to the poetic image. What was new in E. E. Cummings was right on the surface, where all the words were in lower-case letters and a parenthesis “(a leaf falls)” may separate the “l” from “oneliness.”
William Carlos Williams wrote in “plain American which cats and dogs can read,” to use a phrase of Marianne Moore. “No ideas but in things,” he proclaimed. In succinct, often witty poems he presents common objects or events–a red wheelbarrow, a person eating plums–with freshness and immediacy, enlarging our understanding of what a poem’s subject matter can be. Unlike Williams, Robert Frost favored traditional devices–blank verse, rhyme, narrative, the sonnet form–but he, too, had a genius for the American vernacular, and his pitiless depiction of a cruel natural universe marks him as a peculiarly modern figure who is sometimes misread as a genial Yankee sage.
Of the many modern poets who acted on the ambition to write a long poem capable of encompassing an entire era, Hart Crane was one of the more notably successful. In his poem “The Bridge,” the Brooklyn Bridge is both a symbol of the new world and a metaphor allowing the poet to cross into different periods, where he may shake hands in the past with Walt Whitman and watch as the train called the Twentieth Century races into the future.
E. E. Cummings Edward Estlin Cummings was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, October 14, 1894. He began writing poems as early as 1904 and studied Latin and Greek at the Cambridge Latin High School. He received his B.A. in 1915 and his M.A. in 1916, both from Harvard. His studies there introduced him to avant garde writers, such as Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound.
In 1917, Cummings’ first published poems appeared in the anthology Eight Harvard Poets. The same year, Cummings left the United States for France as a volunteer ambulance driver in World War I. Five months after his assignment, however, he and a friend were interned in a prison camp by the French authorities on suspicion of espionage (an experience recounted in his novel, The Enormous Room) for his outspoken anti-war convictions.
After the war, he settled into a life divided between houses in rural Connecticut and Greenwich Village, with frequent visits to Paris. He also traveled throughout Europe, meeting poets and artists, including Pablo Picasso, whose work he particularly admired.
In his work, Cummings experimented radically with form, punctuation, spelling and syntax, abandoning traditional techniques and structures to create a new, highly idiosyncratic means of poetic expression. Later in his career, he was often criticized for settling into his signature style and not pressing his work towards further evolution. Nevertheless, he attained great popularity, especially among young readers, for the simplicity of his language, his playful mode and his attention to subjects such as war and sex.
During his lifetime, Cummings received a number of honors, including an Academy of American Poets Fellowship, two Guggenheim Fellowships, the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship at Harvard, the Bollingen Prize in Poetry in 1958, and a Ford Foundation grant.