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Modernism and Avant-Garde in Edward Estlin Cummings’ Poems Essay


Thesis Statement

Literature is an ever evolving field of art. Its respective fields are characterized by scholars who advance changes to ensure the evolution is sustained. In this essay, dynamism in poetry emerges as an integral aspect of the evolution premised.1 The discussions in this paper revolve around E.E. Cummings and his contributions to the evolution of poetry through modernism.

Three of his poems will be used for this purpose. They are “The Cambridge Ladies”, “La”, and “Dim”. The issue of whether Cummings is a minor modernist or a radical is reviewed in the essay. A critical analysis of Cummings’ works reveals that the techniques of modernism found in his poems are illustrations of the constant change in poetry. The ‘word tricks’ employed by this poet indicate a departure from traditional modernism.

Visual Devices

Modernism is one of the elements prevalent in Cummings’ poetry. A number of scholars have examined this writer for his prowess in poetry and in art at large. Cummings was both a painter and a poet. He exhibited tremendous skills in bringing about change and modernity in the two fields of art.1 In this regard, modernism in his works is best illustrated through the eyes of an ‘artistic activist’. The role of this poet with regards to modernism and the dynamic nature of literature is discussed in detail in various texts.

Cummings was both a painter and a poet. As a result, his poems were inspired by visual effects from his artistic world.2 At the beginning of modernism, imagery was seen as a major technique in literature. The technique was a shift from previous imagism of the romantic era. However, critics have questioned how the poems by Cummings bring about imagery given his unique use of language. For example, his works exhibit some sense of satire. The element is drawn from the poet’s ability to blend aural and visual nuances in his works. However, the visual devices used in the poems ‘l(a’ and ‘Dim’ are a bit subtle. Nevertheless, when compared to notable modernists like George Grosz, the visuals used by Cummings appear to be inadequate. Such a perspective acts as an avenue to criticize his form of modernism.

Cummings developed visuals based on his painting analogies. The poet is known for his preference of aesthetics. In a way, he was able to integrate his painting ideas into the poems.1 however, in most cases, his works fall short of the imagism exhibited by his peers. For instance, Cummings draws most of his visual devices from famous poets. Such figures include Guillaume Apollinaire. His imagism is skewed in favor of painting. As a result, poets find it hard to accept it. Consequently, Cummings’ peers perceive his works as the products of an amateur emerging from his life as a painter.

Cummings the Poet

Cummings was a notable artist of his time. However, his credibility as a modernist emerged from his peers. For instance, there are many scholars who disagree with regards to the poet’s name and his general existence. Controversy surrounds the need to capitalize and punctuate the name.2 In addition to this debate around his person, Cummings’ poetry has been the subject of intense criticism from major figures in the field. The extent of his role in modernism has made many critics label the poet as inferior to his contemporaries.

Comparison of modernism in poetry with respect to Cummings is made alongside notable poets, such as Stein and Williams. In this regard, critics suggest that Cummings lacked the ambition that is common among his peers.2 At the time, there was a general consensus among poets on the need to reshape poetry as a field in literature. In addition, modernism had already gained traction within the literary circles. However, with time, many poets began to appreciate Cummings’ works. They cited his use of humor and expression of outrage towards exploitation. In addition, the critics made reference to Cummings’ sense of boldness of an artist. The poem “The Cambridge Ladies” was especially acclaimed in respect to this.

The poetry of Cummings may not be used with confidence to outline modernism. However, this does not mean that the techniques associated with modernism as a concept are missing altogether from his poetry.1 Cummings’ uniqueness is evident given the manner in which visualization becomes an integral part of his poetry. The criticisms leveled against this artist act as an affirmation of the fact that he was a revolutionary in his own rights. If he this was not the case, the critics would not have noted him in the first place.

Modernism and Poetry

Evolution of Modernism and its Impacts on Poems

At this juncture, it is important to appreciate the history of poetry in terms of the various movements discernible in this sector. Modernism is one of these movements. It is one of the stages that characterize poetry.2 There is also the prehistoric movement. The period is characterized by over-reliance on oral forms of communication. Another stage is the Castilian Band.2 The stage was a common movement in the 16th century. The 17th century saw a different kind of poetry. The period was associated with metaphysical,2 cavalier, and Danrin poetry. The classical movement was common in the 18th century.

The 19th century saw a more robust nature of poetry compared to the previous periods. During this time, such movements as the pastoralism emerged.2 Notable features of this movement include the idea of romanticizing a lot of rural issues that were common at the time. The period was largely inspired by the classical era. Romanticism and symbolism were other movements that emerged in the 19th century. In addition, modernism emerged during this era. It started from around 1890 and persisted all the way to 1970.1 The notable features of this movement were imagism and the need to re-awaken British poetry. Poets felt that it was their duty to carry poetry into the new millennium.

Imagism was an attempt by poets at the time to rebel. They used it to reject the ideas of romanticism and Victorian era symbolism. The mental pictures painted by the two movements were regarded to be unrealistic in one way or the other.1 There was a lot of exaggeration, which eroded the elegance associated with poetry. In this modernist approach, the poets came up with distinct imagery and a language that embodied clarity. The elevated languages of previous movements were shunned in favor of imagism, which provided more depth to content. Cummings’ “The Cambridge Ladies” and “La” are a clear indication of this attempt.

Modernism in Cummings’ Poetry

The critique of Cummings’ works and its place in contemporary poetry reveals exceptional representation of modernism. The symbolism is distinct from that of his peers. Cummings is known for a number of revolutionary techniques. Such strategies include punctuations and line break.2 The techniques are in line with the poet’s deliberate shift from the language used in previous movements. The literary icon is also known for developing poems that have neither a beginning nor an end. Such a move is achieved through the use of fragmentary lines.

The criticism that Cummings is an inferior modernist stems from the language used in his works. The use of common speech is a phenomenon that is unique to Cummings every time he begins a given piece.1 The criticisms may be valid in spite of the fact that they tend to agree with the essence of modernism. The phenomenon can be described as the manner through which a specific piece of art is subjected to change in all means possible. To this end, all techniques, contents, and forms inherited from previous movements should be replaced with new ones.2

Cummings often experimented with language in his poetry. Something that may appear as mere play with words led to the emergence of puzzles and tricks. The developments were critical to the imagism characterizing post 18th century era.1 The language experimentation resulted in the development of imagery in a unique manner. The poem “The Cambridge Ladies” is an example of the form of imagery associated with this modernist poet. The excerpt below clearly illustrates this concept:

the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls
are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds
(also, with the church’s protestant blessings
daughters, unscented shapeless spirited)
they believe in Christ and Longfellow, both dead
are invariably interested in so many things-2

In the excerpt above, Cummings’ paints a clear picture of a conventional Cambridge lady. Their affiliation to Christianity is made apparent. The lady occupied a special place in modern society. As such, the reference to such characters (which is made through imagery) is an indication of the modernist element of Cummings poetry. The imagery and modernism is further illustrated in the lines below:

at the present writing one still finds
delighted fingers knitting for the is it Poles?
perhaps. While permanent faces coyly handy
scandal of Mrs. N and Professor D
… the Cambridge ladies do not care, above
Cambridge if sometimes in its box of
sky lavender and cornerless,
the moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy2

Cummings achieves imagery by making reference to ‘furnished souls’ and ‘comfortable minds’. Such techniques are well within the boundaries of imagery as advanced by other modernists. However, Cummings goes on to abstract imagery by using words like ‘unbeautiful’ and ‘permanent faces’. Such abstractions notwithstanding, the impression of the Cambridge ladies created on the mind of the reader. The poem suggests that the Cambridge fraternity is dull. In terms of syntax, the language is straight forward. The complex English of the Victorian era is nowhere in the poem. Cummings is able to achieve imagery without this antiquated language.

Modernist Techniques Applied by Cummings

As already mentioned in this paper, modernism is mainly concerned with the execution of imagism of the 19th century. In this regard, syntax and general imagery become essential techniques.1 For instance, the language used towards the end of a poem is meant to bring about closure to the message. However, the one used in “The Cambridge Ladies” creates new scenery. The language takes the reader to the ‘sky’ and away from the misery at Cambridge. Cummings achieves this without the use of the complex language of the time.

In “La”, Cummings displays his prowess as a word-smith. The language of a poem is meant to create an illusion of the central message.2 In the poem ‘La’, a visual trick is created between the word ‘loneliness’ and the phrase ‘the leaf falls’. The idea is to illustrate the movement of a leaf as it falls. The word trickery is as follows:


In the poem, the lower case ‘l’ is identical to the numeral ‘1’. Such an impression is meant to illustrate the singularity of the leaf. The singular illusion is reinforced by the use of the article ‘a’, which is infinitive. The poem is intended to create a picture of loneliness. To this end, alienation is meant to be a key theme. Cummings realizes this goal by isolating the lower case ‘l’.

The length of a poem is one of the many techniques employed in modernist poetry. Conservatives feel that poems need to be lengthened. Cummings observes this requirement by using trickery to realize brevity.2 In the poem ‘Dim’, less space is used given that punctuation is involved. The abstraction developed by the language is effective, which is illustrated below:

e this park is e
mpty (everyb
ody’s elsewhere
e except me 6 e

nglish sparrow
s) a
utumn & t
he rai


The poem breaks down the word ‘diminutive’ to illustrate its actual meaning. Imagery is meant to create a mental picture in the reader.2 To this end, Cummings creates a visual illustration of what the word means by breaking it down. Like in “La”, Cummings is seen as using one letter to bring about ‘double meaning’. In this poem, ‘dim- i’ allows the reader to understand the mood portrayed in the narrative. At the same time, the lower case ‘I’ acts as a key element of the word being broken down (diminutive).

The letters are all elements of the word ‘diminutive’. However, Cummings places them at specific sections to create a feeling of the happenings in the poem.2 For instance, the letter ‘E’ is used to explain the loneliness that was in the park. The same is realized by truncating the ‘e’ meant to be in the word ‘emptiness’. Such a technique can be described as abstract. However, the ‘lonesome’ feel of the park is implied through the use of parentheses. The words placed in the parentheses paint an image of emptiness. In addition, the word ‘everybody’ is broken down into several pieces. The same helps to illustrate that at one point, the park was occupied by people. However, these occupants had left. The poem ‘Dim’ is meant to outline the emptiness of this place. In this regard, the poet gives a ‘census’ of the people in the park. Such a technique is humorous in the sense that only 6 sparrows provide companionship to the narrator lamenting of emptiness.

Another technique used in this poem is juxtaposition.1 The poem talks of the small size of the park and refers to the amount of rain in autumn. Juxtaposition in this case results from the haiku created in the natural image as seen from the speaker’s perspective. It is also seen in how the speaker introduces the autumn season. At first, the phrase ‘the rain’ is staggered. However, it culminates into a crammed up line with the same word.

Based on the three poems analyzed above, it is clear that Cummings makes use of the various techniques associated with modernism. His modernism has a lot of abstraction. The observation explains why critics view him as a minor modernist.2 However, it is clear that the imagism sought after in modernism is clearly defined in the poems by Cummings regardless of the abstractions.

Avant-Garde in Cummings’ Poetry

An overview of history in relation to poetry reveals an interesting aspect of the changes that have taken place. Avant-garde is the means through which new methods are introduced to various forms of literature.1 The different movements outlined in this essay affirm the prevailing changes in the methods used in poetry. The rise of a new movement comes with a different set of techniques to be applied. The modernist movement points out to a departure from earlier methods of poetry to more advanced techniques. Avant-garde is present in all movements of poetry. It suggests that change in literature is permanent. In “The Cambridge Ladies”, “La”, and “Dim”, Cummings clearly illustrates this concept. The poems are illustrations of modern poetry, which is a culmination of various movements.


Modernism illustrates the constant change evident in poetry and literature at large. The different movements have their unique techniques and styles. A shift from one movement to another is associated with a change in writing strategies. Literature will continue to progress into the future as illustrated by the modernist approach. Modernism is a clear departure from the traditional techniques of poetry in terms of language, imagism, and length. A critique of Cummings’ modernism points out that he is also departing from traditional modernism. Additional research is required in this field to highlight these issues more clearly. However, it is already apparent that poetry will continue to witness changes in techniques.


Kennedy, R. E.E. Cummings Revisited. New York: Macmillan, 1994.

Ren, Y. A Pragma-Cognitive Approach to E.E. Cummings’ Visual Poem l (a. Tianjin Foreign Studies University Journal. 2008. 5.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Modernism and Avant-Garde in Edward Estlin Cummings' Poems." July 11, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/modernism-and-avant-garde-in-edward-estlin-cummings-poems/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'Modernism and Avant-Garde in Edward Estlin Cummings' Poems'. 11 July.

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