EEC Society Blog

for the leaping greenly spirits of trees

Author: Aaron M. Moe

An Ethic of Care: A Look at Cummings’ Bee Poem

A bee very much awake among innumerable peony buds, Photograph by Rebecca Stull, Used with Permission.

Cummings does not have a swarm of bees like Sylvia Plath nor the intoxicated bumbles of Emily Dickinson. And his bee poem includes just one species, unlike John Clare’s “Wild Bees” that demonstrates an acute attentiveness to several. Whereas Audre Lorde critiques gender norms in her bee poem and Jean Toomer finds momentary respite from racial conflict in his hive, Cummings’ poem is just a pastoral elegy for one curled up inside the petals of a rose. In her recent book of poems The Bees, Carol Ann Duffy writes in the context of colony collapse, but Cummings, of course, wrote long before this crisis. Brenda Hillman clearly echoes Dickinson’s dwelling in possibility in her daring statement on bees: “If bees can detect ultraviolet rays, there are surely more possibilities in language & government. The possible is boundless” (33)—but if we pick up EEC along the arc from Dickinson to Hillman, we get an additional sliver of that boundlessness.

No doubt about it, his bee poem contributes to the attentiveness necessary to develop an ethic of care. (To see the poem, click here and scroll down.)

Drafts of “un(bee)mo” (CP 691), Houghton Library, Harvard University, Used with Permission, Copyright © by the Trustees for the E.E. Cummings Trust

Cummings has openly admitted his “Making obsession” (CP 221), and even without seeing the 240+ drafts of “un(bee)mo” (CP 691), one gets the sense of the little poem’s exquisite architecture—its making by someone utterly attentive to the minute particulars of every letter, parenthesis, and blank space.

This past semester, I had the chance to engage students with EEC’s drafts of several poems. Doing so encourages and emboldens students to keep at it. I mean, who else would place 9 words, 7 lines, 3 stanzas, and a fluttering of parentheses through 240+ drafts? EEC’s “Making obsession” becomes contagious. It prompts. It defies. It makes us slow down and linger. What did EEC see and hear and feel and think that we might be missing?

Teaching EEC with the drafts gives students confidence to make breakthroughs rather than second-guessing their hunches. Do you think it’s possible that the middle stanza of “un(bee)mo” is in the shape of a bee, nestled between the petals of the first and seventh line? Yes, I do. Especially because the parentheses fold in the “(bee)” and the “)you(” on a smaller scale with exquisite precision.

What are the implications of such visual metaphors?

Gary Snyder has written about the connection between the wildness of Gaia and the wildness of language:

Without conscious device we constantly reach into the vast word-hoards in the depths of the wild unconscious. We cannot as individuals or even as a species take credit for this power. It came from someplace else: from the way clouds divide and mingle, . . . from the way the many flowerlets of a composite blossom divide and redivide, from the gleaming calligraphy of the ancient riverbeds, . . . from the wind in the pine needles, from the chuckles of grouse. (177)

For Snyder, semiosis precedes human language and human consciousness, a view supported by the emergent field of biosemiotics. More on that another time.

The point, here, is that Cummings’ visual metaphors explore the originary energy of this wildness of Gaia—and of semiosis—to split, then merge, then split (not unlike cellular mitosis). Part of the “Making obsession,” it seems to me, involves playing with language on a minute level, and being surprised by what it can do, and where it goes.

The more I read EEC, the more I am intrigued by the idea that semiosis is its own force, that it has its own agency that interacts with human consciousness in mystical ways to give us such poems like the pastoral elegy to a bee as well as the dizzying skyscapes of clouds, to echo Snyder.

And if readers can move through the initial disorientation of EEC’s typography, they have a greater potential of developing empathy, respect, and an ethic of care for the nonhuman. I am thinking of Donna Haraway’s articulation of respecere (respect), the act of looking and looking again when and where species meet (19), and how this can bring about a sea-change in how we coexist with other species on this shared planet. We look, and look again, at the raw materiality of the printed page, with all of the strange, squiggly, tortuous print-marks there-in, which may prompt a looking-and-looking-again at the bees nestled in petals beyond the poetic page.

We can become someone who, like Cummings, stopped to notice a bee in the only rose. The pastoral elegy, in its tension of a complex simplicity, nudges us to move beyond the human to recognize the more-than-human life flourishing and yet dying in their own ways, in their own spaces.

It prompts us to understand, on a deep level, that the little bee matters.


Aaron M. Moe, Ph.D.
Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame

Note: Many of these ideas emerged during the symposium “Texts, Animals, Environments: Zoopoetics and Environmental Poetics,” organized by Frederike Middelhoff, Sebastian Schönbeck, Catrin Gersdorf, and Roland Borgards in Hannover Germany, October 12-14, 2016. I am thankful for Kate Rigby’s keynote address “‘Piping in Their Honey Dreams’: Bee-Speaking and Ecopoetics in the Anthropocene,” as well as Susan McHugh’s “Cross Pollinating: Zoo-Eco-poetics in Honeybee Fictions,” and the discussions that followed, all of which prompted the first paragraph of this post. In the closing remarks, Bernard Malkmus articulated the idea of “language as an exterior alien cybernetic system that shapes our neural mapping,” which, as one can tell, resurfaces near the end of this post.


Works Cited

Cummings, E. E. Complete Poems, 1904-1962. Ed. George J. Firmage. New York: Liveright, 1991. Print.

Gary Snyder. The Gary Snyder Reader: Prose, Poetry, and Translations, 1952-1998. Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1999. Print.

Haraway, Donna. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008. Print.

Hillman, Brenda. Practical Water. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2009. Print.


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CFP: “What about It?”: Science, Nature, Self, and Cummings’ Modernist Aesthetics

(deadline 9/5/16; Louisville, 2/23-25/17)

The E. E. Cummings Society and the Society’s journal, Spring, invites abstracts for 20-minute papers for the 45th annual Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture since 1900, February 23-25, 2017, at the University of Louisville ( This session welcomes papers on elements of Cummings’ modernism, cultural aesthetics, genre issues and visual effects, critical reception, and interactions with other modernists. We particularly welcome papers on Cummings’ aesthetic and poetic modernism as a response to modern science, its theories of matter, space, and time, and its impact on so-called progress, in addition to his avant-garde testament to the radical changes of twentieth-century visual culture. To what extent does Cummings’ asyntactic poetic style and continued typographic experimentation respond to the post-Einsteinian understanding of “space-time” and to what extent does Cummings find the new science problematic? We are interested in papers that examine Cummings’ reaction to science, as well as his perception of a dynamic relationship between nature and self (his lower case “i”) amid what he considers the mechanized “anaesthetic” science-worshipping unworld.

Please send 300-word abstracts (double-spaced and titled) and a brief bio by September 5, 2016 to:

Gillian Huang-Tiller
Professor of English
Dept. of Lang. & Lit.
128 Zehmer Hall
University of Virginia-Wise
Wise, VA 24293

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Cummings’ *WARNING* from the Program of his Play


Playbill for the first production of Him at the Provincetown Playhouse, New York City, 1928.

Michael Webster recently uploaded an image of the program from the first production of Him to the Spring website.

Cummings often provides glimpses into the thinking behind his poetics in uncanny places, and here, we find a *WARNING* that points toward his thinking on play and how he hopes his audience will engage his work.

Though the warning is for his play, the advice seems very appropriate for new and seasoned readers of his poetry as well:  “Relax, and give this PLAY a chance to strut its stuff—relax, don’t worry because it’s not like something else—relax, stop wondering what it’s ‘about’—like many strange and familiar things, Life included, this PLAY isn’t ‘about,’ it simply is.”

In my work in Animal Studies, play emerges again and again, and it resonates with ontological innovation. The *WARNING* uses animal tropes (“pounce,” “creep”) to characterize the PLAY, which points yet again to this animalist perception in language, almost as if language itself has its own agency.

And so, I see this program as a gem-of-a-find as it gives us a glimpse into Cummings thoughts on play.



Cummings’ “WARNING” is reprinted in Charles Norman’s biography The Magic-Maker (222-223, see 3rd edition).

Kennedy quotes this bit from the “WARNING”: ”Relax and give the play a chance to strut its stuff—relax, stop wondering what it is all ‘about’—like many strange and familiar things, Life included, this Play isn’t ‘about,’ it simply is. . . . Don’t try to enjoy it, let it try to enjoy you. DON’T TRY TO UNDERSTAND IT, LET IT TRY TO UNDERSTAND YOU” (quoted in Kennedy, Dreams 295).

Kennedy, Richard S. Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E. E. Cummings. New York: Liveright, 1980.

Norman, Charles. The Magic-Maker: E. E. Cummings. 1st ed. New York: Macmillan, 1958.

—. E. E. Cummings: The Magic-Maker. Rev. ed. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1964.

—. E. E. Cummings: The Magic-Maker. 3rd ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1972.

See Spring for more information on Him



Aaron M. Moe, Ph.D.
Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame


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“onetwothreefourfive” . . . “justlikethat”?; or, The Tension between the Performances of the Page and Body

IMG_20160114_132527118When Cummings reads “Buffalo Bill ’s” during a 1937 recording session through the Library of Congress (Funkhouser 221), he did not race through the famous line “and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat” (CP 90). It took him 4.2 seconds to read it (Funkhouser 223). Compellingly, when he reads it for the Caedmon recording in the 1950s, it took him even longer. I clock it at 6.2 seconds.

These two recordings suggest that the performance of the poem evolved over his career of reading it. I can’t track down the 1937 recording, but when he reads it in the 1950s, his voice modulates and the tempo fluctuates. He lingers on the “one” for a moment before falling, it seems, into the two and then accelerating into the “three” and on into the “four” and “five.” The numbers seem to pop, but they are not an isolated staccato; instead, a hum or a drone vibrates beneath the phrase, linking it all together. As he enters the “justlikethat,” the speed dramatically decreases, as if the speaker of the poem imagines the fragments of the shattered clay pigeons  floating to the ground. There are no silent pauses, but he lingers on each word while droning into the next, giving the feel of a “connected pause.”  EEC’s vocal performance creates an arc across the line that suggests an attentiveness to each number and each word. Not rushed. Not hurried. But a paradox of a precise and fluctuating rapidity yet marked by a sense of lingering.

To punctuate the line seems impossible as there are too many modulations and fluctuations of the gesture of speech, and though the non-spacing is no doubt innovative and brilliant, it seems out-of-step with EEC’s vocal performance. It fails, but it succeeds. (The tension between the body/page is similar to the tension between the movie/book. It may not be fair to use the categories of “failure” and “success,” for there are things one can do in either medium that cannot be accomplished in the other.)

When Cummings scholar Roi Tartakovsky learned of my interest in the pacing of “onetwothreefourfive,” he shared an interesting article by Linda Funkhouser. In it, Funkhouser discusses her findings of how literary professors and a control group of adults (who don’t read poetry) read “Buffalo Bill ’s” differently. Concerning the line “and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat,” Cummings read the slowest, taking 4.2 seconds in full at a rate of 2.9 syllables per second. The professors read the fastest, averaging 2.961 seconds in full at a rate of 4.1 syllables per second. The control group read slower than the professors but faster than Cummings at an average of 3.711 seconds in full at a rate of 3.2 syllables per second (221–23). Funkhouser points out, though, that Allen Ginsberg and Robert Creeley interpreted the pauses of each line break quite differently (227), as I am sure did each of the adults in the control group. (We will never all agree about the length of a pause). She concludes that “Cummings and the control group are not following the spacing cue of the run-together words” (235), which suggests that the professors “knew better” than Cummings and the nonspecialists.

But what if the run-together words signal a different cue? Or better, what if the performance of the body trumps the performance of the page?

Before proceeding, I emphasize that I am not arguing for only one way to read the poem. In other words, EEC does not provide, necessarily, the “right” way to read his poem (especially as his reading of it evolved). That is not what I am getting at; rather, his readings provide us with a glimpse into the tension surrounding the performance of the poetic page and the performing body. (These two performances are influenced by a third—Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show—but here I am concerned with the page/body tension. For more on Buffalo Bill’s performance, see Michael Webster’s recent post.)

In what follows, I give further context to grapple with the tension between the page and the body before returning to a discussion of “onetwothreefourfive. . . .”

EEC’s poetics are thoroughly informed by gesture. In the archives (and discussed in my book), Cummings argues “There is no such thing as the spoken word. To read is words. We speak a gesture.” He sees disembodied “words” to be the “antithesis to gesture, the IS . . . . ‘Words’ are like 2 x 6 or 3 x 4.” They can be reduced. He pushes his thought further by equating “the completeness of gesture” to a “prime number”: “A gesture is like 11 or 13” (bMS Am 1823.7 [25], folder 4, sheet 74; see also Moe 63–65).

And so, part of the richness of punctuation, for EEC, is that it, too, is a gesture, a prime number, as is the blank space (or lack thereof) surrounding text.

Michael Webster shared archival material with me that adds another layer to this discussion of (the absence of) punctuation. In a 2011 presentation at the Louisville Conference on Literature & Culture since 1900, he discusses a letter from 1916 Cummings wrote to Scofield Thayer concerning punctuation. Webster draws out how “Cummings . . . asserts he has ‘made real progress in The Work’ by ‘definitely’ denying himself ‘all punctuation.’” Webster observes how “this comment is startling, especially in light of his later inventive iconic use of all punctuation marks and his heavy reliance on parentheses” and he gives Cummings scholars a slight nudge: “This temporary punctuation embargo should make the Cummings scholars look yet again at certain early poems like ‘Buffalo Bill ’s’ that lack those characteristic marks” (Webster).

In looking again at “Buffalo Bill ’s” (which has that uncanny space between the “l” and the apostrophe in the first line)—we discover a rich tension between translating the performance of the vocal body into the performance of the poetic page. Like all translation, it fails (in order to succeed). It is approximate, especially because we are dealing with the “prime number” of gesture. Gestures are difficult to describe without becoming wordy in the same way that 11 or 13 can only be described by using more numbers (10 + 1 or 15 – 2), but the tension between the page and the body invites us to try to translate anyhow.

As we know, Cummings had a “Making obsession” (CP 221) that includes making things out of the materiality of language, out of paint and canvas, but also, I suggest, out of the performing body. I suggest that this making obsession drove him to refine and revise his reading of “Buffalo Bill ’s,” which, surprisingly, slowed down over time. Like Whitman, I see Cummings tending toward the origin of all poems found in the body and the body’s interaction with the elemental forces of the earth.  Such are the “prime numbers” his poetry gravitates toward.

I can only surmise, but I think Cummings, driven by the making obsession, was rarely satisfied.  I imagine him looking at “Buffalo Bill ’s” somewhat pleased, but, at the same time, unsatisfied, knowing that there exists other possibilities through which the gestures of speech can find a home in the gestures of the poetic page. Or perhaps he was content with the page’s performance, but wanted to push his vocal performance further. Perhaps it was his dissatisfaction that drove him to discover innumerable, vertiginous breakthroughs.

Though there is no one way to read the line, I argue, nonetheless, that the gestures of no-spaces-between-numbers may not be a cue to simply read rapidly. Perhaps, instead, they point toward a continuous moment punctuated by surprises of precise gun-fire. A moment that is its own whole, a moment that lingers much longer in the body’s performance, and a moment that found a new possibility, nonetheless, regarding what can happen in print.


Audio file from The Voice of the Poet, a re-release of the Caedmon recording from the 1950s.

For more on Cummings’ Audio, see Michael Webster’s recent post.


Aaron M. Moe
Assistant Professor, Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame


Works Cited

Cummings, E. E. Complete Poems, 1904-1962. Ed. George J. Firmage. New York: Liveright, 1991. Print.

Funkhouser, Linda Bradley. “Acoustical Rhythms in ‘Buffalo Bill’s.’” Journal of Modern Literature 7.2 (1979): 219. Print.

Moe, Aaron. Zoopoetics: Animals and the Making of Poetry. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2014. Print.

Webster, Michael. “Learning to Be Modernist: Some Cummings Letters to Scofield Thayer.” Louisville Conference on Literature & Culture since 1900. February 2011.

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Call for Papers: Louisville Conference, February 2016

The Modernist Muse: Visual Culture and E.E. Cummings’ Aesthetics (deadline 9/10/15; Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture since 1900, February 18-20, 2016)

The E. E. Cummings Society and the Society’s journal, Spring, invites abstracts for 20-minute papers for the 44th annual Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture since 1900, February 18-20, 2016, at the University of Louisville ( This session explores dimensions of Cummings’ modernist aesthetics through aural, visual, and verbal media as a response to the visual culture of the twentieth century. To what extent is Cummings’ radicalism in language, genre, poetic devices, and typography motivated by the new avant-garde art? To what extent is Cummings’ modernist muse motivated by his contemporaries and little magazines? To what extent is Cummingsism (organicism or animism) a reaction to visual culture, such as clichés, advertisements, and propaganda? And to what extent is Cummingsism understood or misunderstood by his time? We invite abstracts that explore Cummings’ beginnings (his development, influences) for thematic and aesthetic provocations, as well as critical reactions to Cummings’ radicalism that have shaped and reshaped modern and contemporary perceptions of Cummings the poet, painter, essayist, novelist and playwright.

Please send 300-word abstracts (double-spaced and titled) and a brief bio by September 10, 2015 to Gillian Huang-Tiller at:

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“Each Age a Lens”: Cummings and Ecopoetics

The Poets light but Lamps –
Themselves – go out-
The Wicks they stimulate
If vital Light
Inhere as do the Suns –
Each Age a Lens
Disseminating their
Circumference – 
Emily Dickinson

(available on Poetry Foundation)

In the 1930s, not all readers knew what to do with Cummings, let alone appreciate the “vital Light” of his poems. In 1931 for instance, R. P. Blackmur compared Cummings’ innovations to nothing more than “baby talk” (340). Ironically, Blackmur’s scathing essay on Cummings ended up in his book titled Language as Gesture (published 1952)—he just did not see the ways in which Cummings’ poems gesture in all of their materiality. Nor did he revise his stance over the course of 20 years of thought.

However, Blackmur did recognize that future readers may value Cummings’ work more than he:

Excessive hyphenation of single words, the use of lower case “i,” the breaking of lines, the insertion of punctuation between the letters of a word, and so on, will have a possible critical importance to the textual scholarship of the future; but extensive consideration of these peculiarities today has very little importance, carries almost no reference to the meaning of the poems. (320, italics added)

Now that we are in that future age, Cummings, so it seems, may hold a crucial place in ecocritical scholarship.

A growing number of Cummings scholars see this age of ecopoetics to be the lens that gives us traction in Cummings’ most avant-garde moments. The challenge, though, for many of us Cummings people is to write and teach in such a way so as to invite readers into the shapeshifting acrobatics of Cummings’ ecopoetics.

In order to invite readers into the world of happenings in Cummings’ poems, I draw on Scott Knickerbocker’s 2012 Ecopoetics: The Language of Nature, The Nature of Language. Amongst the emergent definitions of ecopoetics, Knickerbocker’s concept of sensuous poiesis helps pinpoint the dynamic in Cummings’ craft: “the process of rematerializing language specifically as a response to nonhuman nature” (2). Knickerbocker provides an in-depth exploration of the sensuous poiesis of four poets, thereby leaving room for other readers to explore the dynamic elsewhere.

Though a hearty claim, I suggest that no other American poet so thoroughly “rematerialized language in response to nonhuman nature” than Cummings. His poems shapeshift into rain, moons, grasshoppers, cats, leaves, snowflakes, bees, stars, air, hummingbirds, seedlings, and many more species and forces in the more-than-human life environing us.

Precisely the same dynamic that made Cummings unreadable to Blackmur opens up infinite possibilities for a textual scholarship attuned to the materiality of language and its dynamic relationship to the earth.

To illustrate and substantiate these claims would take much more space than a blog post, but lively discussions are taking place formally and informally as we unleash at the vital light of Cummings’ poems that inheres as do the suns when a community of readers disseminate its circumference.

The starting place, though, is recognizing how Cummings’ poetics undergo a thorough rematerialization of language. This rematerialization has and continues to alienate some readers (like Blackmur), but during today’s turn to new materialisms and ecopoetics, Cummings seems to have found a home.



Aaron M. Moe

Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame


Works Cited

Blackmur, R. P. Language as Gesture: Essays in Poetry. New York: Harcourt  Brace & Company, 1952. Print.

Cummings, E. E. Complete Poems, 1904-1962. Ed. George J. Firmage. New York: Liveright, 1991. Print.

Knickerbocker, Scott. Ecopoetics: The Language of Nature, the Nature of Language. U of Massachusetts P, 2012. Print.

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Shatter a Mirror: Teaching EEC in a Survey Course

20141114_123534Sometimes, to teach a poem, you just have to go outside and shatter a mirror. For Cummings, shattered mirrors, and shattered language, are not unlucky. Far from it. More on this in a moment.

Teaching a survey of American literature has its pros and cons, to be sure. In order to provide a survey of the literature from 1865-1945, one ends up spending only a day on T.S. Eliot—and maybe only half-a-day on Gertrude Stein—in order to allow the space and time for novels and short stories (and perhaps one play). Most modernist writers are difficult, and even the “more accessible” writers like Robert Frost have their own “vast chaos” that ought to be explored (12). It is beyond challenging to do justice to the difficult poetry and poetics throughout modernism, and EEC is no different.

Unfortunately, Cummings often gets pushed aside. Anthologies may include only one (or two) of his more avant-garde pieces because of their strangeness, their difficulty, and the sense of WTF do we do with that? The Norton anthology I use includes only some of his “more accessible” experiments like “Buffalo Bill’s” which is a marvelous poem, but it does not quite demonstrate the way that Cummings brings to fruition the modernist principle of fragmentation. The selection of poems in an anthology often do not give students a chance to venture into Cummings’ difficult poetics, and as a result, his work is often overlooked or dismissed.

This year, I decided to end our unit of Modernist poets with Cummings. As we explored Stein, Eliot, Williams, Stevens, I intentionally foregrounded their statements about what modern poetry is all about—especially the statements that had to do with words breaking apart (Eliot), and the poem being a new stage (Stevens), and the need to undergo a complete recasting of poetic structure (Williams) and so forth (for details and citations, see EEC—A Major Modernist Poet?).

And then, in the last ten minutes of the class before our day on Cummings, we went outside and shattered a mirror. I placed a mirror in a box, and then placed a rock over it. For safety, we taped the box shut. This way, no one gets injured and no one sees their face in the mirror the moment that it shatters. I suggest to students that it is only unlucky to break a mirror if you actually see your face in the mirror the moment it breaks, because then you see your reflection shatter, and that could give you bad luck for seven years.

Outside, a brave volunteer, who vows not to sue me if she gets bad luck anyway, picks the box up and drops it. Then we open it up, and see each fragment, and read “pieces(in darker” (CP 623). Here, Cummings wonders why people think it is “un / lucky” to shatter a mirror, for each piece, each fragment, is “whole with sky” (CP 623).

I encourage students, then, as they read Cummings’ more difficult poems, to pay attention to the ways that the fragments are whole with their own poem, so to speak. To use Etienne Terblanche’s phrase, each fragment becomes its own “micro-ideogram” (Terblanche 73)—full of a wild semiosis.

William Blake’s “Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand” helps draw out the implications of Cummings’ use of fragmentation. The fragments become their own “sky” full of infinite potential. Instead of having “one sky,” we now, through the fragments, have multiple skies and multiple infinities. How? The fragments often generate several semiotic possibilities not only through connotations but also through their material gestures on the page.

I assure students that I know they can “get” the metaphor of “shattered language” and “shattered mirror” without going outside and seeing it in action, but there is something existential and phenomenological about actually experiencing the metaphor. Seeing the sky reflected in several fragments is uncanny and refreshing.

The exercise not only gives students traction as they venture into the difficult world of EEC, but it also serves to bring our discussion of fragmentation in Modernist poetry to full fruition. It shows that EEC is not an anomaly, or a break, from modernism, but much the opposite. He is the one who brings the principle of fragmentation to fullest fruition.


Aaron M. Moe

Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame



Works Cited

Cummings, E. E. Complete Poems, 1904-1962. Ed. George J. Firmage. New York: Liveright, 1991. Print.

Frost, Robert. “The Figure a Poem Makes.” Twentieth-Century American Poetics:  Poets on the Art of Poetry. Ed. Dana Gioia, Meg Schoerke, and David Mason. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004. 11–12. Print.

Terblanche, Etienne. E. E. Cummings: Poetry and Ecology. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2012. Print.

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In Memoriam: Norman Friedman (1925-2014)

Norman Friedman, 1960

Norman Friedman, 1960

Anyone who begins a rigorous study of Cummings soon realizes the crucial contributions of Norman Friedman. In a spirit of celebration of his life, and in memory of his death, Michael Webster has created a webpage, which can be found here.

The links and tributes below (which are also included on Spring’s website) help give an indication of the extensive and generous life’s work of this beloved scholar.


A Norman Friedman Bibliography

From Spring 14 & 15 (2005 / 2006) [Special Norman Friedman Double Issue]:

Tributes to Norman Friedman.” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 14-15 (October 2006): 9-30.

Friedman, Norman. “The Other Cummings: The Private Side.” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 14-15 (October 2006): 31-45.

—. “Cummings, Oedipus, and Childhood: Problems of Anxiety and Intimacy.” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 14-15 (2006): 46-68.

Lewis Turco, “The Passing of Norman Friedman

Michael Dylan Welch, “Tribute to Norman Friedman

Tributes to Norman Friedman

Here are some tributes to Norman, in reverse order in which they were received (e-mail fashion):


I never met Norman Friedman, but his books, his deep understanding of Cummings’ spirit greatly helped me to translate the poems of “our nonhero”.
My sympathy to his wife, family and friends.

jacques demarcq


I never had the chance to meet Norman, but in reading through your emails, I have been struck by how his spirit of generosity lives on in the Cummings Society. I gave my first conference presentation at a Cummings panel in 2008, and I felt very much welcomed and encouraged by Mike, Gillian, Etienne, and everyone in a way similar to how many of you shared how Norman welcomed you and your work. The Cummings Society has been a major influence in where I am today, and I now have a much clearer understanding as to why the Cummings Society is so unique: Norman was and is a nonhero, and like EEC, a nonhero’s spirit contagiously affects the people around him.

for the leaping greenly spirits of trees,

Aaron Moe


I was shocked and dismayed to learn of Norman Friedman’s death. He has been very important to me as I have in recent years continued my work on the writings of E. E. Cummings. I recently reviewed all my past correspondence with him and realized that I did not always respond to his suggestions – and even invitations! I plan to remedy that, partly as a thank you for his invaluable service to all of us for many years.

Bethany Dumas


Yes, I agree, we are all obviously uniting our voices here to remember Norman as a philanthropist and great lover of people and literature.

Personally, I’ll always remember his enthusiasm and warmth when welcoming me in New York as a PHD student on EEC. That day gave a new and truer dimension to my work as Norman had known EEC and had been there till his last day. I hope that Zelda can be reassured as now it is EEC in turn who is welcoming him over there, their fingers not writing or painting but uniting and dancing,

“the impressed fingers of sublime
Memory,of that loveliness receiving
the image (all our) proud heart(s) (will forever) cherish as fair”

(Sonnets, Unrealities, II, 137).

Claudia Desblaches


Zelda and Norman have been in my thoughts all week.  It was a shock to be in the middle of a conference last week and hear about Norman’s passing.  It took me back to my first ALA conference in the late ‘80s and all the ALA Cummings sessions after that.  I felt welcomed by them both—even when I was a very young, awkward scholar of perhaps 23 years.  Norman was always helpful and encouraging.  I am so proud to tell everyone that I meet that I am part of this wonderful group of EEC scholars. Even if I have been absent in recent years, Norman, Zelda and all of you are part of who I am.
I too look forward to many reflective pieces in Spring. He cared deeply about this work, so it is time for me to return to EEC in his honor.  I will think of him as I write!


Taimi Olsen


Norman was the Chair of the Cummings Society when I started attending ALA as a graduate student in the 1980s.  He and Zelda took me under their wings immediately and made me feel like my fledgling work was valued.  They set the welcoming tone that characterizes this group to this day.  What fine founders all of those early Cummings scholars were.

Rai Peterson


From Madrid in Euroland,

I think that we all should write something about our relationship with Norman and Zelda for the next issue of Spring. That’s the best tribute for a generous person who, in my case, helped so much with my PhD and later publications and, considering the time difference, patiently woke up in the middle of the night when in the 1990s I sent him faxes asking questions about Mr. Cummings.

Thanks a lot, Norman.

Teresa González Mínguez


Norman was a fine scholar and a gentle, kind man.  It says something about your scholarship when you write not only the first critical monograph on a major poet, but one that remains, after many decades, the best single study of Cummings’s poetry.  I had the honor and pleasure of meeting Norman and Zelda several times at Cummings sessions of conferences and when we each lectured at the other’s university during the Cummings centennial.  Each meeting, professional or social, reinforced my feeling that they were a gracious, charming couple.  Many of you know that Norman (and Zelda too, I believe) was a practicing psychologist.  I had a chance to see and benefit from this side of his wisdom when he kindly advised me on some problems I was having with my adolescent daughter.  The advice, like all of Norman’s insights, was offered gently–and gratefully received.  That was Norman.  We’ll miss him.

Milt Cohen


I have never been more grateful for a friendship or more honored by one than that with Norman and Zelda. I’m happy to have expressed that to them while Norman was still with us, and it was always with the greatest sincerity. I know that Zelda will be sustained now by the bonds shared in those final years, even as I offer my sympathy for the inevitability of her loss. I hope she finds comfort in the outpouring of shared memories and tributes that I read online this evening, as I add my voice to that chorus.

Gerry Locklin


Thanks for letting me know, Mike.  Very sorry to hear.

After finding out about Norman, I had a yen to read up on him at Wikipedia and was shocked to be unable to find an entry on him.  Is there one?  I’m not a big admirer of Wikipedia but it can be handy for surface views of various subjects, so I’d like it to have entries on all the writers I admire–including, for certain, Norman.     Would any of our society’s younger admirers of Cummings be interested in making an entry on him?  I wish I had time to myself, but . . .

all best, Bob Grumman


Like Todd, Norman was my first connection to the Cummings Society, and he became a sort of mentor to me, as I’m sure he was to many. I always felt honored to be part of the society and to have the great Norman Friedman comment on my work. Through his encouragement I was able to accomplish and achieve more than I ever thought I could.  He was not only a brilliant scholar but an inspiring teacher, a generous colleague, and an unforgettable person.

Millie Kidd


Norman was the editor of Spring when I submitted my first work on E. E. Cummings.  He was very encouraging and supportive.   I only met him once during a conference panel that I participated in, but as so many others have noted, his work and its influence is indisputable.

Todd  Martin


In Memoriam Norman Friedman

a great

gone. (#14 73 Poems  CP 786)

how generous is that himself the sun

(never a moment ceasing to begin
the mystery of day for someone’s eyes)

with goldenly his fathering
nearness awakened
and our night’s thousand million miracles (#84 95 Poems  CP 756)

over us if(as what was dusk becomes
darkness)innumerably singular
strictly immeasurable nowhere flames

to call the stars, Norman and Cummings,  (#69 95 Poems  CP 741)

whose absence would have made your whole life and my
(and infinite our)merely to undie  (#45 73 Poems  CP 817)

“i carry your books with me(i carry them in my heart”; you’re with stars now and we remember.  Our thoughts and prayers are with Zelda and family,

Gillian Huang-Tiller and Ken Tiller
University of Virginia-Wise


Norman’s influence extends across boundaries here into South Africa, where I’ve been carrying him, carrying him in my heart. To read his work has been one of those turning-point experiences. To have met him in Boston was the most gentle mind-blow. He and Zelda like that, beautifully smallish within a very tangible aura of living well, in touch with each other and life. You could feel his big, gentle, clear heart from a distance. I will never forget him, and it actually hurts, stings, to think that he won’t be lightly treading this Earth with us any further. Not to mention missing his further writing on our non-hero.

Words fail, and so they should.

Etienne Terblanche


Dick Bailey, who hired me at the University of Michigan in 1985 and also died just recently, was Norman’s student.
Over my 27 years here of teaching at Michigan, before I retired last year, this lead to many spirited conversations between us about Norman, E.E, etc.
So sorry to hear of Norman’s passing.

I admire everything Norman wrote about E.E.


The body of work is beautiful.

On this point, what more can you say?


–Rich Cureton


Norman once told me he wanted “forgetting me, remember me” to be thought of at his passing. So, I imagine, would most of us.

David V. Forrest


Thanks for your input on Norman. We were colleagues for years. As you say
He lives on.
George Held


Thanks, Michael.  N. lived the EEC spirit.
Bill Harmon

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Cummings as a Descendant of Whitman

Image from Ed Folsom's "Whitman Making Books"

Image from Folsom’s “Whitman Making Books”

Quite awhile ago, Michael Webster learned that I was exploring the connections between Cummings and Whitman, and he shared with me a sheet from the Cummings archive. At an early time in Cummings career, he took a handful of Whitman’s lines, scanned their rhythmic stresses, and yet also arranged them typographically on the page. Provocatively, Cummings experiments with both visual and aural dynamics all while using Whitman’s lines.

In Zoopoetics: Animals and the Making of Poetry, I provide an image of the sheet and I discuss it further (see 60 ff.). I also point out that Whitman saw “Sex, Amativeness, and Animality” to be the three overarching themes of Leaves of Grass (Whitman 1891–92, 436; Moe 60)—three themes that pervade Cummings’ oeuvre as well.

Here, I want to explore further the connections between Whitman and Cummings. Directly or indirectly, the seed for Cummings’ Protean poetics can be found in the way that Whitman morphed the letters Leaves of Grass. As Ed Folsom observes in “Whitman Making Books / Books Making Whitman,” Whitman hand stamped the letters Leaves of Grass so that the letters morph into luscious vegetation. In another version, Whitman drew the letters so that they morph into sperm (see image above). There is this erotic and organic energy in language—almost an agency—that Whitman celebrates. The alphabetic forms of letters seem to want to shapeshift into something more not unlike sperm joins with an egg to become a zygote, then explodes into millions of cells and several systems and organs. Whitman foregrounds how this kind of energy exists in language as well.

As an aside, I am reminded of Ronald Johnson’s “earthearthearth” poem. He places three earth’s together in each line, for six lines, and the organic, erotic, and Protean energy of language takes over. Several words and phrases suddenly emerge: art, hear, hearth, ear, hear the earth, heart, heart the earth.

I suggest it is helpful to see Cummings’ Protean poetics—where letters shapeshift into seedlings, snowflakes, flowers, bees, flies, grasshoppers, leaves, confetti, and so much more—in the context of Whitman’s poetic vision. This suggestion calls for several pages of close reading in order to substantiate, which is beyond the scope of this blog post. Suffice it to say that Whitman took seriously Emerson’s call for the “architecture” of a poem to be “alive” like the “spirit of a plant or an animal” (290). He revolutionized poetic form by returning to the elemental forces of the earth and of the body.

And Cummings’ work—far from being an anomaly to the poetic tradition—continues that work.



Aaron M. Moe

Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, IN



Works Cited

Emerson, Ralph. The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. Brooks Atkinson. New York: Modern Library, 2000. Print.

Folsom, Ed. “Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman: A Catalog and Commentary.” The Walt Whitman Archive. 2005. Web. 31 Aug. 2011.

Johnson, Ronald. Songs of the Earth. Presented by Kaligram Magazine, Kaldron On-Line, and Light and Dust Mobile Anthology of Poetry, 2000. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.

Moe, Aaron. Zoopoetics: Animals and the Making of Poetry. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2014. Print.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass in the Walt Whitman Archive. Lincoln: Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, University of Nebraska, 1995. Web.

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“SOME [of my poems] are to be seen & not heard”—EEC

Retro Microphone

Retro Microphone

SOME of them. This quote comes from a letter Cummings wrote late in his life—July 4, 1960—to Miss Lawrence, and has often been cited in explorations of Cummings’ visual poems. In the letter, Cummings provides a brief gloss of several of his poems that hinge on the visual dynamic (Letters 267–68).

Now, Cummings will most likely always be thought of the poet of the EYE (and the i), and I agree. Cummings did, though, appreciate Gertrude Stein’s work (see “The New Art” in Miscellany 5–11), and his oevree suggests he gave much more than a passing glance at what is possible with language and the ear. My point? Cummings’ poetics of the eye should not overshadow his avant-garde-poetics-of-the-ear.

Some of his poems ought to be heard—and then some should be heard and seen together.

Take “ygUDuh” for instance—otherwise written as you gotta (CP 547). Cummings’ phonetic spellings, combined with the visual spaces of the indentations and stanza breaks, encourage the reader to perform the poem with the full body. The line “ydoan o nudn” is normally written as you don’t know nothing. The line “LISN bud LISN” is normally listen, bud, listen—but the capitalization calls for more emphasis by the performing reader, and the following stanza break calls for silence before the speaker utters his bigoted statement. One sees the gestures of the poem, but those gestures are translated into gestures of the performing body—as if seeing is part of listening. And make no mistake about it. This poem must begin in the mouth for the strange “spellings” to begin to make sense.

Larry Chott has helped circulate another of Cummings’ avant-garde-poems-for-the-ear through many audiences: “oil tel du woil doi sez” (CP 312), that is, I’ll tell the world I says. In “The Sight of Sound: Cummings’ ‘oil tel du woil doi sez’” Chott contextualizes the poem as taking place at a bar. I won’t recap his brilliant close reading except to say that that the bar falls silent, all faces turn toward the speaker, who, becoming increasingly exasperated, hollers out “HAI / yoozwidduhpoimnuntwaiv un duhyookuhsumpnruddur / givusuhtoonunduhphugnting,” which reads HEY! you with the permanent wave and the uku-something rather . . . give us a tune on the fucking thing.

Chott applies Rai Peterson’s insight that Cummings’ blank spaces often generate an “audible silence” or a “chaotic white noise,” and he sees such a dynamic in the way the final three lines are spaced (see his article for the typography of the poem). The visual dynamic is important in this poem, but the poem, like “ygUDuh,” begins in the mouth. True, we look at the letters first, but the letters do not make sense until the mouth begins performing them. It must be heard.

Many more examples of Cummings’ avant-garde-poetics-of-the-ear exist, including, for instance, a poem about a super-moon rising. In “!” (CP 722), the assonance of the diphthong r-O-U-n-d crescendos in various forms until the mouth is full of roundness.

But even in his more “accessible” poems, the ear matters. Poetry, by and large, must be read aloud in order to understand the texture and tone of the language. “‘next to of course god america i” is one such poem (CP 267). If read in monotone, all seems lost. Many readers will discover and emphasize various dynamics of the poem—and there are, of course, multiple ways to envision the poem’s speaker. I see the speaker begin in sarcasm which augments into hysteria and desperation. The phrase “even deafanddumb” comes like an epiphany.  Here is a link to my reading of Cummings’ “next to of course god america i.” Students often “get” the poem much more readily when it is performed rather than read, even if “read aloud” in monotone. Hearing the poem leads one back into seeing it, into tracing the instability throughout the sonnet: broken words, missing periods, and so forth.

(I should mention that The Poetry Foundation launched an online project to house audio files of people reading poetry aloud. Concerning Fair Use, they set the precedent that circulating audio files of one’s reading of a poem is all good.)

The EAR and the EYE ought not to be seen as oppositions. Rather, they can be profoundly related in the reading of Cummings’ poetry. Etienne Terblanche, for instance, explores the sounds in one of Cummings’ most visual poems: “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r” (see “’That Incredible Unanimal/Mankind’”).

What other poems (or passages from EIMI) epitomize Cummings’ avant-garde-poetics-of-the-ear?

In what other provocative places in Cummings’ oeuvre do the EAR and the EYE merge?



Aaron M. Moe

Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, IN




Works Cited

Chott, Larry. “The Sight of Sound: Cummings’ ‘oil tel du woil doi sez.’” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 6 (1997): 45–48.

Cummings, E. E. Complete Poems, 1904-1962. Ed. George J. Firmage. New York: Liveright, 1991. Print.

Nuez, Jessie. “Retro Microphone on Stage.” 24 Jan. 2013. Web Image. 17 Nov. 2014.

Terblanche, Etienne. “That ‘Incredible Unanimal/Mankind’: Jacques Derrida, E. E. Cummings and a Grasshopper.” Journal of Literary Studies 20.3-4 (2004): 218–247. Print.


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EEC . . . A Major Modernist Poet?

cummings2Should EEC be considered as a Major Modernist poet?

Yes, by all means. Wallace Stevens thought modern poetry had “To construct a new stage” (Stevens 240). Cummings constructed his new stage through the modernist principle of fragmentation.

Indeed, in “From a Play,” William Carlos Williams articulates his desire to make the “sensuous / qualities” of a poem—the poem’s gestures—“express / as much as / or more // than the merely / literal / burden of the thing / could ever tell” (II:45). Cummings brings this seed to fruition more than any other modernist poet. His poems are PLAYS in that the actors (the shapes of letters, fragments, words, lines, stanzas) constantly perform.

In “The Poem as a Field of Action,” Williams calls for “sweeping changes from top to bottom of the poetic structure” (51). Cummings did this through the modernist principle of fragmentation like no other modernist poet.

Yes, whereas T. S. Eliot tells us “Words strain, / Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, / Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, / Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, / Will not stay still” (Eliot 180)–Cummings shows us, time and time again, through his “precision which creates movement” (CP 221).

He even has a meta-poem about how each broken piece of a mirror is “whole with sky”–and that breaking a mirror, or breaking language, ought to be considered lucky (CP 623). His fragments are whole with poem.

Like the hydra, a word cut in half instantly grows two or more semiotic possibilities. The possibilities emerge not only through the semiotic connotations of the fragments, but also through the ways that the fragments gesture on the page.

Yes, because like all great modernist poets, he is difficult. He also has his long, difficult work, EIMI, that rivals James Joyce’s Ulysses. EIMI integrates multiple languages as it celebrates fragmentation and typographical experiment in a blending of multiple genres (travelogue, diary, narrative prose, poetry).

Moreover, Cummings’ poetics have roots in Whitman, one of the headwaters for Modern American Poetry. In “A Backward Glance o’er Travel’d Roads,” Whitman suggests that the three pervasive themes throughout Leaves of Grass are “Sex and Amativeness, and even Animality—though meanings that do not usually go along with those words are behind all, and will duly emerge; and all are sought to be lifted into a different light and atmosphere” (Whitman 1891–92, 436). Those three themes pervade Cummings’ oeuvre as well, and he contributes to the process of exploring the meanings that do not usually go along with those words.

Cummings’ poetics are also very Emersonian. In “The Poet,” Emerson calls for a poem’s “architecture” to be “alive” and to move with the “spirit of a plant or an animal” (290). Whitman did this as his poems partake in the organic agency of plants, highlighted by the way he morphed the letters Leaves of Grass into a sprawling vegetation (scroll down on Folsom’s “Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman”). Cummings continues this process. Countless poems are Protean as the form—the “architecture” of letters, words, lines, stanzas, poems, and the spaces between these constellations—shapeshifts into leaves, snow, grasshoppers, cats, bees, flies, flowers, petals, seedlings, smoke, bird calls, moons, confetti, and more. The bottom line?—Cummings brings one of the seeds of modern poetry to full fruition. His poems morph into iconic shapes just like Whitman’s letters in Leaves of Grass morph into plants.

BUT THEN AGAIN, Cummings should NOT be considered a major modernist poet. His life’s work explores, revisits, and sustains all things concerning the lowercase i. To cast Cummings as a Major Modernist poet misunderstands the point of a “nonhero,” and inflates the i to being that which Cummings eschewed: the ego-filled I.

True, Cummings is a trickster. Tricksters flourish in the margins, not in the center. Even if one tried to place Cummings in the middle of the modernist movement, his work would undo that centered-placement in order to get back “home” to the margins.

This is to say that Cummings is like Feste in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Feste, who thrives in the margins and in the instability of language—(“A sentence is but a chev’ril glove to a good wit—how quickly the wrong side may be turned outward” [III.i.10–12])—could NEVER marry Olivia, who lives in the stable center of society. Even though Olivia appreciates Feste’s wit, he could never live with her. It would suffocate him.

Ah, but this is precisely why Cummings should be considered a major modernist poet just as Feste is seen one of the CRUCIAL characters who, as the wise-fool, illuminates even as he plays with the dungeon of darkness (Shakespeare IV.ii.20 ff.).  

Hold on. Major modernist poets often gravitated toward high modernism. Cummings based his poetics on circus tents and rollercoaster rides, as shown by “The Adult, the Artist, and the Circus” and “Coney Island” (Miscellany 109–114; 149–153). He is not SERIOUS ENOUGH to be a major modernist poet.

Oh, so you suggest that Cummings reveled in “low culture,” you mean like postmodernists?

I guess.

True, Cummings thought the “AUDIENCE IS THE PERFORMANCE” (Miscellany 151), which anticipates the postmodern principle that the dynamic between the reader and the text is one of creation. And yes, he implies his poems are “competing” with the roller coasters at “Coney Island” (CP 221)—talk about low culture! His point is well taken, though. Why should someone read a poem when they could ride a rollercoaster?—unless the poem takes the reader’s imagination on a rollercoaster of movement. But I digress. My point is that being a proto-postmodern poet ought to further the case that Cummings is a major modernist poet. In many respects, he was ahead of his contemporaries and more at home in avant-garde ecopoetics of today’s writers like Brenda Hillman and Evelyn Reilly.

Additionally, when Cummings made a poem, the process of poiesis often entailed 30 to 40+ drafts. Even as a trickster at play, he took his makings very, very seriously—not unlike Feste.

But even if the play hinges on Feste, he will never garner more applause than Viola, Olivia, or the Duke. That’s just not how it works. He just cannot be a major actor in the play.



Aaron M. Moe

Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, IN



Works Cited

Cummings, E. E. A Miscellany Revised. Ed. George J. Firmage. New York: October House, 1965. Print.

—. Complete Poems, 1904-1962. Ed. George J. Firmage. New York: Liveright, 1991. Print.

Eliot, T. S. Collected Poems, 1909-1962. New York: Harcourt  Brace & Company, 1991. Print.

Emerson, Ralph. The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. Brooks Atkinson. New York: Modern Library, 2000. Print.

Folsom, Ed. “Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman: A Catalog and Commentary.” The Walt Whitman Archive. N.p., 2005. Web. 31 Aug. 2011.

Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1986. Print.

Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems. New York: Vintage Books, 1982. Print.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass in the Walt Whitman Archive. Lincoln: Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, University of Nebraska, 1995. Web.

Williams, William Carlos. “The Poem as a Field of Action.” Twentieth-Century American Poetics:  Poets on the Art of Poetry. Ed. Dana Gioia, Meg Schoerke, and David Mason. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004. 51–57. Print.

Williams, Willian Carlos. The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams. Ed. Christopher MacGowan. 2 vols. New York: New Directions, 1988. Print.


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