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
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.