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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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Estlin Cummings, “Animal Emperor” and Wild West Impresario

Cummings_wildwest_detail_lgIn the News, Notes, & Correspondence section of Spring 19 (2012), we reported the recent discovery of a number of Cummings’ childhood drawings and letters, which are part of the Cummings-Clarke Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society. We quoted a portion of a news release from the Historical Society:

Among the writings found is a story about life on Joy Farm, his family’s retreat in New Hampshire, a 1907 report on “Our Visit to the Public Library,” and the 1914 poem “From a Newspaper.”  A sketch of a rhinoceros and soldier drawn about 1902 also includes several lines of text. Cummings writes, “THIS. RHINOCEROUS. IS. YOUNG. MARCHING BY. A. SOLDIER. He TELLS-TALES TO-HIM”. Keepsakes include a self-portrait entitled “Edward E. Cummings, the animal emperor, famous importer, trainer, and exhibitor of wild animals” and three penmanship exercise books from about 1902.  Other drawings and paintings include ink blots, watercolors, and sketches in pen and pencil of cowboys and Indians, boats, the “world’s tallest tower,” wild west shows, hunting expeditions, locomotives, zoos, circuses, elephants, and house plans. (165)

In his account of his trip to the Soviet Union, EIMI (1933), Cummings looks back with amusement at his childhood fantasy of being an “Animal Emperor.” The passage begins with a reminiscence about visiting the show of Frank Bostock, “The Animal / King” [note: WordPress allows for an approximation of the typography printed in EIMI. Please see printed publication of EIMI for more accurate quotation]:

. . . . My miracleprodigy father toted me there & we spent a stupendous day(tiny I rode an elephant)when we came home the family smelled us and wept . . . Then during years I was–not The Animal King,O no;that didn’t satisfy me:
The Animal Emperor
& I drew and drew pictures(& hundreds of pictures)and thousands & millions(of me)pictures,of myself(of 1 tall big high strong man with a mighty cap which always said(that. Which never said anything during years but that,just(during years)that only)” (EIMI 429/410)

Since the Historical Society news release mentions only one “Emperor” drawing, we may speculate that Cummings’ claim that he drew “thousands & millions” portraits of himself as an Animal Emperor is somewhat exaggerated. Indeed, a subsequent MHS blog post prints a photo of the soldier and rhinoceros drawing that makes no imperial claims. This post pointed me to a brief announcement of an exhibition of Cummings’ childhood creations with the curious title of “Estlin Cummings Wild West Show.” This page reproduces a poster in which the young Estlin Cummings portrays himself playing the role of a “tall big high strong” rifle-toting Buffalo Bill. The drawing on this page is of more than usual interest to those of us who are fans of one of Cummings’ most famous poems, “Buffalo Bill ’s” (CP 90). (For a larger photo of Cummings’ childhood “Wild West” poster, see Rebecca Onion’s post on, “E. E. Cummings’ Colorful Imaginative Childhood Drawings.” The poem may also be found online here.)

In her account of her early childhood (called When I Was a Little Girl) Cummings’ sister Elizabeth told how her brother conceived of his childhood art as play and performance:

[He] used to make different kinds of drawings, too, sometimes ones (a little like the ones in the funny papers) that he mounted on strips of cardboard to use with the “Magic Lantern.” They told stories about us, our animals, and all sorts of other things. (23)

An early sort of document or slide projector, the Magic Lantern allowed Cummings to make slide shows of his art and literally project his imaginative appropriation of the wild west show. His wild west poster seems clearly influenced by at least two other posters, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, Col. W.F. Cody (1890), by British artist Alick P. F. Ritchie, and I Am Coming (Courier Lithography, 1900). Ritchie’s composite portrait, with its hat made of a lariat and a teepee, eyebrows of belts, snowshoe moustaches, and buffalo head goatee, is clearly echoed in Cummings’ poster, especially the buffalo head at the bottom of the golden circle drawn around Estlin/Bill. (Notice that the “T” in “ESTLIN” pierces the buffalo’s goatee.)

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While it may seem unlikely that the young Cummings, born in 1894, would have seen a British poster from 1890, we should remember that in the years 1888-1890, Cummings’ father Edward was abroad finishing his graduate work in sociology, “making a comparative study of the social and economic conditions of workers in Italy, Germany, France, and Great Britain” (Kennedy, “Father” 440). In addition, Cummings’ godfather, J. Estlin Carpenter, a British Unitarian minister and theologian, corresponded extensively with Edward Cummings from 1889 to 1925), and easily could have sent the poster as a present to his godson. (See the Guide to the Collection to the Cummings-Clarke Family Papers.)

Although the golden circle enclosing the presence of the hero/saint may ultimately derive from Christian iconography, the young Cummings probably filched it from the many depictions of Buffalo Bill’s determined and beatific head inside a circle-halo, a motif that appears most prominently in the I Am Coming poster. The religious connotations of the second coming of Christ cannot be ignored in this poster, though young Estlin may have been unaware of them. (We should remember, however, that Cummings went every Sunday to hear his Unitarian minister father preach.) Certainly the I Am Coming poster helps us see that the word “Jesus” in the poem is more than an exclamation of astonishment—it also points to the sainted nature of Cummings’ hero, who, aside from the cowboy hat, mustache, and goatee, looks quite like conventional representations of Christ. In contrast, the halo in Cummings’ childhood drawing, surrounds a manly hero at ease with his rifle, confident in his abilities as marksman and emperor of animals and men. (This pose derives from depictions of Buffalo Bill’s early life as a scout and buffalo hunter like this one from 1870.)

With its depiction of the gun and animal heads, Cummings’ childhood poster emphasizes (perhaps unconsciously) Estlin/Bill’s power of life and death over animals, while the poem emphasizes Buffalo Bill’s incredible marksmanship (despite the reader’s initial uncertainty as to whether the “pigeons” are animals or clay targets). But the childhood poster exists in the realm of play—for example, while Cummings’ father hunted and mounted trophies of his kills, young Estlin never seems to have participated in these hunting expeditions. [Kennedy reports that even the father ceased his killing at some point when Cummings’ mother made him “exchange his gun for a camera” (Dreams 21).] B_Bill_horse_3_pigeon_1907a higher resolutionThough the young Estlin admired the power of someone who could tame and kill animals, the speaker of the poem admires skill and showmanship rather than power. We can see evidence of that skill in an extraordinary publicity photo that shows Buffalo Bill shooting a clay pigeon out of the air while riding his “watersmooth-silver/ stallion.” If we look closely at the Native American riding beside Buffalo Bill, we can see a bag on the pommel of his horse’s saddle. The draft of the poem tells us that this bag held the “pidgens / one two / three four five / tossed by / an indian”—or alternatively, “by a Comanche brave” (see Kidder 378, 382-83). (The white horse’s name, the New York Times obituary tells us, was Isham, “which the Colonel always rode at the exhibition of his rough riders.”)

Cummings never wrote an essay on Buffalo Bill, but in the mid-twenties, he did write two humorous pieces for Vanity Fair on closely-related popular entertainments, the circus and Coney Island. [In fact from 1913 to 1916, the cash-strapped Buffalo Bill did perform “as an attraction with other shows” (Fees). Cummings’ sister Elizabeth ends her account of childhood visits to the circus by telling how Buffalo Bill rode into the tent and “did amazing shooting tricks” (39).] In both “The Adult, the Artist and the Circus” and “Coney Island,” visiting these popular spectacles is seen in Freudian terms as a return to what might be termed the childhood unconscious—and as a clear threat to the adult personality. Indeed, Cummings writes that “at the very thought of ‘circus,’ a swarm of long-imprisoned desires breaks jail. Armed with beauty and demanding justice and everywhere threatening us with curiosity and Spring and childhood, this mob of forgotten wishes begins to storm the supposedly impregnable fortifications of our Present” (“Adult” 109). This restorative childhood id is presented as a panacea for modern anxieties, a sure bet to lessen the crime rate and to keep the artistic class from committing suicide (“Coney” 149). The circus essay even contends that “a periodic and highly concentrated dose of wild animals . . . is indispensable to the happiness of all mature civilized human beings.” Requiring adults to visit the animals at the circus would close down insane asylums, heal the “lame, halt and blind,” and put “millions of psychoanalysts” out of work (111).

If the childhood poster shows young Estlin identifying with a hero and master showman, in the 1917 poem their relationship is more fraught with Freudian contention. Critics like Thomas Dilworth have seen the poem as depicting childhood hero-worship being supplanted by rhetorical mastery over a symbolic father figure. Dilworth writes that “the question ‘how do you like your blueeyed boy’ sarcastically belittles Buffalo Bill and conveys the speaker’s sense of superiority over him” (174). Furthermore, “Buffalo Bill once rode a silver stallion, and his supremacy over the impressive animal signified his stature. Now the speaker rhetorically rides Buffalo Bill, verbally elevating himself and performing at Buffalo Bill’s expense” (175). Etienne Terblanche sees the stallion somewhat differently. While he agrees with Dilworth that the poem severely diminishes Buffalo Bill’s hero status, Terblanche argues that far from riding Buffalo Bill, the speaker identifies with the real hero of the poem, the lower-case stallion, who “is lyrical, flowing, and aquatic . . . unlike the clipped and mechanistic features associated with the three apparent heroes,” the capitalized Buffalo Bill, Jesus and Mister Death (306). Surely the lower case i speaker, Terblanche argues, would identify “with this lowercase protagonist . . . who is a hero precisely by being a nonhero” (306).

We know from quite a few other Cummings poems that he identified strongly with animals. [For two examples, see “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r” (CP 396) and “i / never” (CP 820).] And it is not only animals that the poet identifies with. As I wrote in a recent paper, “the lower case ‘i’ persona finds . . . its selves in and through the many selves . . . of animals (a grasshopper, a hummingbird), trees, leaves, twilight, stars, the moon, and even certain buildings” (“Cummings” 499). It would seem from this reading that Cummings’ childhood fantasies of becoming a Buffalo Bill-like “Animal Emperor” gave way to a more modest lower-case urge to identify with nature and deprecate the upper-case buffalo hunter. However, readers of the poem know that the mocking of Buffalo Bill exists side by side with admiration for his skill. And even in his “Animal Emperor” phase, the young Estlin could identify with the animal while at the same time asserting supremacy over his “miracleprodigy” father. Kennedy relates an anecdote in which the young blue-eyed boy took on the father role by identifying with the animal:

Estlin had a singular liking for elephants, which he came to associate with his father (who carried him about, who had big ears). Drawing pictures of elephants became a repeated pastime. At length, the situation became reversed in the role-playing with his father, so that Estlin became in imagination Kipling’s elephant Kala Nag, and his father became little Tomai, the elephant boy who took care of him. “Take me with you, O Kala Nag,” his father would say at bedtime. (Dreams 32)

After the passage in EIMI in which Cummings remembers his “Animal Emperor” phase, he goes on to reminisce about the “Death Defying” dangers faced by loop-the-loop cyclist Diavolo, and even mentions Buffalo Bill. His interior monologue turns towards death: “(a graveyard ‘New York’ &)what fire-flies among such gravestones(afterwards mai and the chevaux de bois & death)” (430/411). I will skip over some coded references here to Cummings’ divorce from his first wife so as not to stray from the point. Which is: the passage immediately turns from death to rebirth:

we have arisen,who were dead ; having died we are as only Animal Emperors of the imagination shall be(and as only poets arise : again possibly to die,impossibly again & even out of hell ascending who shall keep our circus hearts against all fear). (EIMI 430/411)

The “hell” mentioned here is the Soviet Union, governed by fear. In this passage, I think “Animal Emperors” are not human emperors of animals, but rather, childlike humans who, in becoming one with animals, become emperors of the imagination. The poetic imagination and the authentic self are reborn through the childhood unconscious of the “circus heart.”[1]



Michael Webster

Grand Valley State University



Works Cited

Col. Wm. F. Cody, ‘Buffalo Bill,’ Dead.” New York Times (11 Jan. 1917). Web.

Cummings-Clarke Family Papers, 1793-1949: Guide to the Collection.” Massachusetts Historical Society Call Number Ms. N-1058. Web.

The Cummings-Clarke Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society.” Spring 19 (2012): 164-165. Print and Web.

Cummings, E. E. “The Adult, the Artist and the Circus.” Vanity Fair (October 1925). Rpt. E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised. Ed. George J. Firmage. New York: October House, 1965. 109-114.

—. “Coney Island.” Vanity Fair (June 1926). Rpt. E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised. Ed. George J. Firmage. New York: October House, 1965. 149-153.

—. EIMI. New York: Covici, Friede, 1933. Reprinted. New York: William Sloane, 1949. Reprinted with an introduction by EEC, New York: Grove Press, 1958.

—. EIMI: A Journey Through Soviet Russia. 1933. Ed. George James Firmage. New York: Liveright, 2007.

Dilworth, Thomas. “Cummings’s ‘Buffalo Bill ’s’.” Explicator 53.3 (Spring 1995): 174-175.

Discovery of Early E. E. Cummings Works at the Massachusetts Historical Society.” MHS News Massachusetts Historical Society, 8 November, 2012. Web.

Estlin Cummings Wild West Show.” Massachusetts Historical Society July 2013. Web.   (with photo of drawing of same)

Fees, Paul. “William Frederick Cody.” Buffalo Bill Center of the West 2015. Web. Accessed 29 July 2015.

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

—. “Edward Cummings, the Father of the Poet.” Bulletin of the New York Public Library 70 (1966): 437-449.

Kidder, Rushworth M. “ ‘Buffalo Bill ‘s’: An Early E. E. Cummings Manuscript” Harvard Library Bulletin 24.4 (October 1976): 373-383.

Lowell, Laura. “A Rhinoceros Tells Tales to a Soldier: The Childhood Imaginings of E. E. Cummings.” Object of the Month Massachusetts Historical Society, July 2013. Web.   (with photo of drawing of a soldier and a rhino)

Onion, Rebecca. “E. E. Cummings’ Colorful, Imaginative Childhood Drawings.” The Vault: Historical Treasures, Oddities, and Delights, 17 June 2013. Web.

Qualey, Elizabeth Cummings. When I Was a Little Girl. Ed. Carlton C. Qualey. Center Ossipee, NH: Carroll County Independent, 1981.

Ray, David. “The Irony of E. E. Cummings.” College English 23.4 (Jan. 1962): 282, 287-290. [Ray sees “Buffalo Bill ’s” as “an assault on everything held dear by a sentimentalist or a hero-worshipper” (289).]

Terblanche, Etienne. “Is There a Hero in this Poem? E. E. Cummings’s ‘Buffalo Bill ’s / defunct’.” The Explicator 70.4 (Dec. 2012): 304-307.

Webster, Michael. “Lugete: The Divine Lost and Found Child in Cummings.” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 19 (2012): 37-49.

—. “E. E. Cummings.” A Companion to Modernist Poetry. Ed. David Chinitz and Gail McDonald. Chichester, U.K. / Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014. 494-504.



[1] For more on Cummings’ view of the child as the source of rebirth and creativity, see my “Lugete: The Divine Lost and Found Child in Cummings.”

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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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