How To Write Poetry: Five Pieces of Advice from E.E. Cummings

You will seldom find poetry that slips off the tongue as well as E.E. Cummings’. Writing some of his best verse at the height of the more serious modernist movement, he defied the popular conventions of his era and created an idiosyncratic and playful poetic that has inspired all types of poets. In his introduction to his own Collected Poems, as well as e.e. cummingsA Miscellany Revised, he teaches us–in his own unique way–how to weave a poem worthy of memory and whimsy.

1. On Technique: “I am abnormally fond of precision that creates movement “

Cummings uses more than just language to enliven the scene he creates. By scattering the verse into disorderly stanzas and unexpected caesuras, his poetry is less concerned with the meaning of words, and more concerned with the action it creates in your head. Consider this section from “Chansons Innocentes”:

picker of buttercups
And the big bullying daisies
through the field wonderful
with eyes a little sorry
Another comes
also picking flowers

The lines that descend like a staircase literally create the action of picking. Not only do we see the “tumbling hair” bending down to pick each specific flower, but the way that they are picked–spontaneously and sporadically–emphasize the subject’s enthusiasm.

2. On Creating Images: “[a poet] is somebody to whom things made matter very little-somebody who is obsessed by Making.”

Cummings is aware that a poem creates an image, and that an image is, well, simply a suspended presence in your head. He would rather show how it is created, and how a combination of images can create a further impression. His poem “i thank You God for this most amazing” captures the process of experiencing spiritual pleasure, one line at a time:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

Cummings precedes the trees and the sky with respective metaphors. Here, he connects the process of an emerging day with its beauty, demonstrating that its unravelling is more important than its maintaining. The beauty of nature is better communicated in how we perceive it than how it “is” outside of our view.

3. On ignoring popular opinion: “Life, for mostpeople,simply isn’t” 

Cummings insists that you shouldn’t worry about what other people think, as “mostpeople”, that unit of people brought together by consensual consensus, will not understand the artistic pursuit that is poetry. You need to take pleasure in the “mystery of growing: the mystery which happens only and whenever we are faithful to ourselves.” Do not write for others. Write with merely your vision in mind. He states that poets must adopt their own way of living, as mostpeople simply fail to do so:

What do mostpeople mean by ‘living’? They don’t mean living. They mean the latest and closest plural approximation to singular prenatal passivity which science, in its finite but unbounded wisdom, has succeeded in selling their wives.

Not exactly a poetic muse if I’ve ever seen one. In response, he suggests that individuality, or to be nobody but yourself, “means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”

4. On Inspiration: “Everywhere tints childrening, innocent, spontaneous, true.”

Poets like William Wordsworth have insisted that it is in childhood that we are most perceptive and creative, but Cummings responds to such an adage in his own way. Cummings’ poetry is not about what is known, but about what is worth knowing, what is worth being curious about. Such is the process that amazes that child. Such is the process that best affirms our humanity.

His poem “may i feel said she” beautifully defines love without belittling his subject to a series of images already recycled ad nauseum by Renaissance love poets. In fact, it is the childlike curiosity within the courtship process that is most true:

may i feel said he
(i’ll squeal said she
just once said he)
it’s fun said she

(may i touch said he
how much said she
a lot said he)
why not said she

(let’s go said he
not too far said she
what’s too far said he
where you are said she)

The poem uses a literary device known as stichomythia–a point/counterpoint dialogue that emphasizes the similarities and differences of each person’s opinion–and it creates an image of innocence fleeting more quickly than they can keep up. While I do not always agree with the expression “less is more”, the “childrening” of the conventional love poem makes the experience all-the-more universal.

5. “To all young people who wish to become poets is:”

“…do something easy, like learning how to blow up the world–unless you’re not only willing, but glad, to feel and work and fight until you die.”

Why Magazines Need Fiction in the Digital Age

With the landscape of online news publications rapidly changing, how will large publications keep up with the democratization of articles? Perhaps the answer is not as obvious as people think. 

Much has been said about the changes that print media has undergone since the rise of the internet, but two major changes in recent years have prompted another minor media revolution. The rise of news aggregators, for one, has caused many newspapers to end their reign as the primary portals to local and global events. Reddit and applications like Flipboard have changed the landscape completely, moving audiences to a central base where a seemingly-limitless trove of information can be accessed. Secondly, Twitter has changed how news is disseminated, rewarding those who provide immediate coverage with the loudest voice, regardless, at times, of their overall credibility. While this is advantageous for consumers, magazine publications are put in great danger. Suddenly, they must rely on loyalty, unique content and most alarmingly of all, chance to maintain an audience. While some will thrive, others will lose out. It is a time of great change, and alternative solutions need to be considered.

There are few publications that actually combine news, commentary and fiction. The New Yorker is the one significant exception, but other than them, you will be hard-pressed to find an online news magazine that does little more than frame fiction as a special featurette, and even then the stories will rarely transcend the themes of local color or seasonal escapism.

Considering the sheer volume of capital put into news aggregators on computers, smartphones and tablets, the ubiquity and accessibility of magazine journalism should not be overlooked as a mere bonus of the digital age. The now-dated model of physical magazine subscriptions is already as luxuriant as an analog wristwatch for our generation of readers, making the contract between exploratory, crusading journalists and their readers much more ineffective. We must therefore offer more credit to the accommodating voices of this new medium, and readers should not settle for limited voices or distant speculation. ImageNeither should they divine the most precious airtime to those away from the fray—sudden protests from Brazil to Turkey in this month alone, for example, speak to the ease of citizen mobilization, to the need that movements have to foster identities in little to no time.

Fiction offers a solution to such problems. With the incessant barrage of information being collected on Twitter turning seemingly one-sided events into theaters for conflicting interests, what major publications need to recognize is just how fiction can communicate to large audiences without confirming anything. You are now able to read dozens of articles about events that occur halfway around the world in a matter of minutes, but the sheer accessibility of such information does not increase the density of such news. Only through acts of transcendence can journalists now defeat the accumulation of information, and the result of such bravura has some people wondering about the limits of journalism.

There are many solutions that magazines should consider when thinking about implementing fiction. The sheer amount of freelance writers populating virtually every country on earth is staggering and self-evident, but instead of sequestering the next generation of journalists to a mere 150 characters, perhaps using writers with an ability to show both sides of a story while presenting a personal account of life in a crisis-ridden area is not only a more effective way to capture an audience, but also a more interesting one.

Now before you contend that the divide between journalism and fiction is a false dichotomy, those who disregard fiction as a domain for non-truths or mere mind-wandering need to consider its more relevant purposes. Not only can fiction suggest without pointing fingers and give voice to the voiceless, it can also incite debate about a topic without disseminating erroneous information. Consider the incessant tumult of global protest as an example for my argument. Magazines may pursue the loudest voices or those representing secondary groups in a struggle, but it is still difficult to capture the middle-point, where the average protester, with all their good and bad qualities, can become a suitable representative of external scrutiny.


It should no longer be about the most aggrandized or marginalized, but about the voice that is neither. The most important protester is the one that will not stand out, that will, in their lack of identity, be they that will connect with the reader. Those writing in the 21st century should, in my opinion, use this social and personal aspect or analysis as the most prescient subject of reflective scrutiny.

Such an approach can also change how opinion is formulated by the news and magazine readers. With the breadth of information for major events often too large for a single article to encapsulate, fictional texts have the ability to make such issues irresolute, or rather, charge the reader to create their own opinion on the topic. Literature has long celebrated its ability to empower the reader instead of just feeding them information; this relationship, I believe, will prevent news stories from losing their relevance because of an excess of speculation or a lack of information on their part. I’m not saying that fiction is an easy way out for publications behind on pressing international news, but I’m contending that an alternative route inciting deeper reflection is just as if not more effective when information spreads much more quickly than it can be summarized and commented upon.

Let’s go back to the example of the protesters. What we know about protesters in Turkey and Egypt is that they’re disenchanted with frivolous authoritarianism, but what many audiences abroad want to know is what day-to-day experiences bring together such groups and what simple struggles become symbols of oppression. Fiction could be implemented by publications wanting to communicate such answers without threatening to become sentimental, as the stories could expose both the virtues and the flaws of both fighting causes.

There was never a gilded age where fiction became equally or more prominent than news, but the law-reforming effects of Dickens’ famous novels or Upton Sinclair’s harrowing The Jungle demonstrate that such an alternative to journalism is not only available but also dynamic. The serious study of sociology and urban living would not be taken so seriously were it not for works that are technically “untrue”. Fiction is of course just as untrue as it chooses to be, and if written with the same conviction and tact as today’s finest journalism, it will have the same poignancy as the many great articles lost in the incessant aggregation process.

The Jungle (1906) was a watershed for its candid exposure of early 20th century factory conditions, leading to the Meat Inspection Act and Pure Food and Drug Act to be passed

Ideal journalism is usually viewed as brash, fearless work that shows both sides of the coin, but fiction writing promises a more totalizing experience. Fiction is a form of rhetoric that can provide not just one but every perspective to the reader. Magazines need to exercise such empowerment, lest they want to lose out to the bells and whistles of sensationalism or speculation. I like to see these stories as footnotes, not as extra tidbits of information, though, but rather as works that give a humanizing dimension of events, for better or for worse. Big publications will lose poignancy if they cannot communicate what those in the fray of turmoil can explain with their smartphones, so it’s best not to play catch-up, and instead approach news with a novel mode of scrutiny.