21 pages • 42 minutes readE. E. Cummings
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First published in 1939 at the height of his popularity, E. E. Cummings’s playful “love is more thicker than forget” captures the dizzying free style and unconventional formal intricacies of a poet whose more than 2500 poems published across five decades came to define a genre of Modern poetry unto itself, a poetry unmistakably his. On its face, a poem that simply, unabashedly, unironically celebrates the wonders, agonies, and ironies of love, the poem nevertheless upends expectations of how a poem, indeed how language, is supposed to work. Each line is a careful experiment in reimagining how words come together, how ideas are shaped and then shared. In every line, Cummings defies grammatical assumptions, rules of punctuation, and syntactical constructs and even coins neologisms with cheerful pluck—and, as with all of Cummings’s poems, in the end, the poem is a celebration of the resiliency and defiant energy of language itself, the serious business of wordplay that gained Cummings a wide readership and, ultimately, invited subsequent generations of poets who both admired and studied Cummings’s poetic line to reinvent poetry for themselves.
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Edward Estlin Cummings was born 14 October 1894 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His father was an internationally respected minister and professor at Harvard. Cummings, a precocious child, grew up encouraged by both parents to pursue his love of books and drawing. When he completed both his bachelor and master of arts in language studies at Harvard, Cummings, although a pacifist, volunteered for the ambulance corps in 1917, when America joined the Allies in World War One, which had been grinding on for more than six years. He served briefly in France before he was detained by the Allied command and actually imprisoned for nearly five months for refusing to disavow a friend who had expressed in letters home doubts over the war’s purpose. Cummings’s first publication, The Enormous Room (1922), drew on that difficult and harrowing experience and, with its complex experiments with narrative chronology and its dense wordplay, introduced Cummings as a brash, new voice.
A year later, Cummings’s first volume of poetry, Tulips and Chimneys, was released to lukewarm critical praise but significant popularity. Readers responded to Cummings’s spare and minimalist poems that celebrated simple joys: romantic and sexual love, the happiness of childhood, the beauties of nature, and the power of poetry itself, themes that establishment critics disdained as cheap and sentimental, although they found Cummings’s avant-garde wordplay, which drew on Cummings’s fascination with the disjointed and jarring angles of Cubist paintings, both intricate and engaging.
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Although Cummings initially struggled to find a publisher for his unique poetry, across the next two decades, he would emerge as one of the most popular poets in America, really second only in sales and name recognition to Robert Frost. His productivity was singular, his readers more like fans, although critics continued to bristle over what they dismissed as Cummings’s bald sentimentality and, as his idiosyncratic poetic form became more known and, consequently, less shocking, his predictability. Indeed, it was only 1952 when Cummings was invited by his alma mater to deliver a series of lectures on the craft of poetry (which Cummings typically titled nonlectures) that Cummings’s reputation as one of the foremost practitioners of Modernist poetry began to emerge. A new generation of artists, known collectively as the Beats, poets and painters and academics disaffected by American post-war conformity with its embrace of consumerism and its satisfaction with the status quo, found in Cummings’s offbeat and slyly subversive poetry inspiration to pioneer daring expressions in individual creativity and vision. In 1958, Cummings received the $10,000 Bollinger Prize, a kind of lifetime achievement award in American poetry presented by the Yale University Library.
When Cummings died at the age of 67 in September, 1962, The New York Times celebrated him as a poet who stood for stylistic liberty and creative freedom. His simple grave in Forest Hills Cemetery in Cambridge quickly became a pilgrim site for fans and admirers of his simple yet daring verse, attesting to his position as one of the most important and beloved American poets of the 20th century.
Cummings, E. E. “love is more thicker than forget.” 1939. Poetry Foundation.
The poem is a meditation, a philosophical “Big Picture” reflection on the wonderfully contradictory nature of love. Although the poem has a speaker consistent throughout its four stanzas, that speaker is never specifically defined. The poem lacks the conventional storyline aspects of a such an anatomy of love where the assumption would be someone speaking to another: There is no narrative context, no speaker is identified, no one is identified as the person being spoken to, and no relationship status is defined. Age, gender, race, ethnicity, economic status—nothing is specified. Thus, the poem offers the broadest possible investigation into the impact of real love and suggests as well that love, when it is authentic, is in the truest sense both a personal experience and a universal experience.
In the first stanza, the speaker suggests that love is at once unforgettable and yet hard to remember. That appears to be a contradiction. Those who fall in love, after all, are humans, not machines with perfect recollection databases. Consider the difference between memories and recollections. The poem argues that, certainly, moments in a relationship will inevitably be forgotten, inevitably shade into forgettable details: particular meals, particular films shared or particular dates, even particular gifts, the day-to-day busyness that defines any relationship. Those bits will be lost, inevitably. The love, however, that particular emotion, it will never be forgotten; that is, love is “thicker than forget” (Line 1). In addition, the speaker reassures that real love does not, cannot be expected to happen frequently (it is as infrequent as “a wave is wet” [Line 3]). The speaker also acknowledges that, more often than not, love fails. The speaker recognizes love is fragile, love is rare.
The speaker also acknowledges in the second stanza that love can make a person “mad” like those who cavort in the moonlight (Line 5), but nevertheless, love cannot, will not be denied or ignored. It exists as certainly as the wide and deep sea exists. Love, the speaker argues, is also not a contest, a chance to win something or someone. Love is not about gaining. That sort of selfishness, the speaker cautions, is not love at all. Love, on the other hand, when it is real, is alive. It grows, it evolves, it is never less than alive (Line 10). The speaker, however, cautions not to expect pyrotechnics when love first starts. The reality is that love is not terribly stunning when it begins. Indeed, love often begins almost unnoticed, only just “bigger than the least” (Line 11). Yet love when it takes hold when it is real, impacts, directs, feels—that reality, the speaker reassures, cannot be wrong, does not need to be forgiven (Line 12)—it is not a mistake, it cannot be. Love does not need to be interdicted or ignored or even delayed.
Although love, because the heart, not the intellect, drives it, can make a person do the unexpected and the illogical, love is supremely “sane” (Line 13), working to its own eccentric protocols. In that way, love is both logical madness and mad logic. Because it stirs the heart and is not driven solely by the body and by its limited, very specific needs and itches, love as a compelling emotion “cannot die” (Line 14). In fact, love can no more die than the sky itself cease. The closing two lines introduce a sense of transcendence to love by comparing it not just to the pedestrian, ordinary sky overhead but rather to the sky above the sky, the greater sky, the transcendent sky. It is as if love is both natural and supranatural, both of the sensual and sensuous world and at the same time above it, beyond it. Love, for the speaker, is the sky above the sky, the extraordinary ideal that defies understanding.
By E. E. Cummings