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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.

“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.


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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