What fiction writers can learn from E.E. Cummings

Warning: This isn’t an in-depth, academic poetry analysis full of symbolism and themes. This is a more practical look at what E.E. Cummings’ style can teach authors about writing.

E.E. Cummings is well known for playing with words, putting them together in unconventional ways. He also used unusual grammar for a wonderful dramatic effect. These poems pay particular attention to the way words sound and look, as well as their specific meanings. A great example is his poem Buffalo Bill’s.

BuffaloBills

Wordplay

onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat

Cummings has taken away the usual pauses we might put between these words, and in doing so, he’s given the phrases a breathless immediacy, a sense of speed and urgency. By playing with the look and feel of the language, he’s created a new meaning for words we’ve heard before.

Punctuation

how do you like your blueeyed boy

Mister Death

EECummings_pd4
Self portrait by E.E. Cummings

The lack of punctuation at the end of this sentence, and the construction of the sentence itself, gives the poem an abrupt ending that almost makes it feel incomplete. This grammar emphasizes the meaning of the final words. By ending the poem so quickly when we don’t expect it, Cummings has brought out this idea of death, an unexpected, abrupt death. He’s augmented the meaning of the words with the shape and syntax.

What can be learned from E.E. Cummings?

Fiction writers who want to master their prose need to pay close attention to the meaning of each word they choose, and the way those words fit together with the other words in the sentence. Within the constraints of the novel format, it’s important to consider the impact of the punctuation and sentence construction. While I don’t employ as dramatic and unconventional tactics as E.E. Cummings’, his poems inspire me to be playful with my prose, to think outside the box and consider the subtleties of meaning.


EECummings pd4” by E. E. Cummings. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Buffalo Bill’s by E. E. Cummings. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikisource

Featured image: “Wet leaf” by Faustas L.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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