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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