EEC Society Blog

for the leaping greenly spirits of trees

Audio Cummings 2

In 2015, I made a page of links to Cummings readings available on the web called “Audio Cummings.” Most notable among these is a link to an October 1949 recording of Cummings reading at the 92nd Street Y. [See the “Audio Cummings” post for a track list.] Since 2015, a few more publicly available readings have appeared, most notably the following.

  1. The first Caedmon LP

The sound recordings from E. E. Cummings Reads His Poetry (1953) may be found at The listing of the links to individual tracks on this page has a glitch, beginning at track 15, where one does indeed hear “o by the by,” but then at 1:10 on the track, we hear “hate blows a bubble of despair into” and, after that poem, one hears “Yes is a pleasant country.” Track 16, which is labelled “hate blows a bubble of despair into,” actually features the beginning of “i thank you God for most this amazing” which is completed on track 17. And the mislabeling of tracks continues until the end. [See track 15.]

Here is a revised version of the track list:

  1. Him (The Acrobat Passage)
  2. Eimi (Lenin’s Tomb)
  3. Santa Claus (Scene Three)
  4. when serpents bargain for the right to squirm (XAIPE) [CP 620]
  5. dying is fine)but Death (XAIPE) [CP 604]
  6. why must itself up every of a park (XAIPE) [CP 636]
  7. when god decided to invent (One Times One) [CP 566]
  8. nothing false and possible is love (One Times One) [CP 574]
  9. Hello is what a mirror says (One Times One) [CP 570] 
  10. who were so dark of heart they might not speak (XAIPE) [CP 649]
  11. i say no world (50 Poems) [CP 523]
  12. life is more true than reason will deceive (One Times One) [CP 592]
  13. what if a much of a which of a wind (One Times One) [CP 560]
  14. one’s not half two. It’s two are halves of one (One Times One) [CP 556]
  15. o by the by (One Times One) [CP 593]; hate blows a bubble of despair into (50 Poems) [CP 531]; yes is a pleasant country (One Times One) [CP 578]
  16. i thank You God for most this amazing [octave] (XAIPE) [CP 665]
  17. i thank You God for most this amazing [sestet] (XAIPE)
  18. “sweet spring is your (One Times One) [CP 591]
  19. true lovers in each happening of their hearts (One Times One) [CP 576]
  20. when faces called flowers float out of the ground [stanzas 1-2] (XAIPE) [CP 665]
  21. when faces called flowers float out of the ground [stanza 3] (XAIPE)

2. Readings available at Harvard

The Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard University has constructed a Listening Booth where one can hear readings from over two hundred writers, among them modern poets such as T. S. Eliot, Edna St. Vincent Millay, W. H. Auden, and, of course, E. E. Cummings.

At the Cummings page, one finds the complete i: six nonlectures, as well as a reading of selections from XAIPE given on April 25, 1953. Cummings reads twelve poems, mostly from the beginning or the end of the book, in the following order, with poems numbered as they are in the book:

    1. this(let’s remember)day dies again and (CP 599)

    3. purer than purest pure (CP 601)

    5. swim so now million many worlds in each (CP 603)

    6. dying is fine)but death (CP 604)

    22. when serpents bargain for the right to squirm (CP 620)

    41. whose are these(wraith a clinging with a wraith) (CP 639)

    59. the little horse is newlY (CP 657)

    65. i thank You God for most this amazing (CP 663)

    67. when faces called flowers float out of the ground (CP 665)

    69. now all the fingers of this tree(darling)have (CP 667)

    66. the great advantage of being alive (CP 664)

    71. luminous tendril of celestial wish (CP 669)

Another reading recorded on April 18, 1953 is listed on the Harvard Cummings page, with the following disclaimer: “Due to copyright restrictions, this recording is available only to Harvard users. To access the recording, click here. A Login will be required.” Despite this note’s dire warning, the link at “click here” takes one to a page titled “Selections from Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll / Cummings, E. E. (Edward Estlin), 1894-1962 [speaker]”—where no log in as a “Harvard user” is required. Clicking on the button “Online Access” takes one to a page where the listener can hear Cummings reciting these Lear and Lewis Carroll poems:

    Calico Pie (Edward Lear)

    The Owl and the Pussy Cat (Edward Lear)

    The Pobble Who Has No Toes (Edward Lear)

    The Jumblies (Edward Lear)

    Beautiful Soup (Lewis Carroll)

    Jabberwocky (Lewis Carroll)

    Father William (Lewis Carroll)

    The Walrus and the Carpenter (Lewis Carroll)

Plus, we find this example, from Harvard University, a 4:17 clip from the third of the six nonlectures: (47-48). At the end of the clip, Cummings sings bits of songs popular around 1915 or so.)

Despite the Woodberry’s disclaimer that “due to the transition to a new library platform, this site was discontinued in 2018,” the page functions quite well. The page further advises: “For more recent videos, please visit the WPR YouTube channel. For additional archival recordings, you can search HOLLIS under the author’s name and recording date.”

3. A Cummings Poetry Reading at Eastern Michigan University [1959]

Despite some annoying electronic screeches from time to time, this double album of readings preserved at is well worth a listen. Track lists follow, along with some marginal comments.

Track list,part 1, 31:50]:

  1. [0:00-2:35] Introduction by anonymous announcer
  2. [2:50-3:55] Introduction by Cummings
  3. [4:00] in Just- / spring (CP 17)
  4. [5:45] nobody loses all the time (CP 237)
  5. [8:25] Memorabilia (CP 254) [EEC pronounces “Thos. Cook” as “Those Cook.”]
  6. [10:55] a man who had fallen among thieves (CP 256) [“banged with terror”]
  7. [13:05] next to of course god america i (CP 267) [He acts the voice well.]
  8. [14:35] since feeling is first (CP 267)
  9. [16:00] somewhere i have never travelled (CP 367)
  10. [18:35] if there are any heavens my mother will(all by herself )have (CP 353)
  11. [20:15] kumrads die because they’re told) (413) [He pronounces the word “comrades”]
  12. [21:40] this mind made war (CP 440) [Note Boston accent.]
  13. [25:24] (of Ever-Ever Land i speak (CP 466)
  14. [28:00] anyone lived in a pretty how town (CP 515)

Track list, part 2, 27:53

  1. of all the blessings which to man (CP 544)
  2. [2:10] ygUDuh (CP 547)
  3. [2:50] a salesman is an it that stinks Excuse (CP 549)
  4. [3:46] a politician is an arse upon (CP 550)
  5. [4:10] rain or hail (CP 508)
  6. [5:50] darling!because my blood can sing (CP 580)
  7. [8:28] “sweet spring is your (CP 591)
  8. [10:40] o by the by (CP 593)
  9. [12:25] when serpents bargain for the right to squirm (CP 620)
  10. [14:05] maggie and milly and molly and may (CP 682)
  11. [15:30] that melancholy (CP 697) [no 3 taps at “t,a,p,s”]
  12. [17:30] what Got him was Noth (CP 702)
  13. [18:35] THANKSGIVING (1956) (CP 711) [He says “the UN,” rather than “the you enn”]
  14. [21:25] my father moved through dooms of love (CP 520)

4. Cummings on You Tube

Readings of Cummings poems on the web can sometimes be disappointing. From the vast wilderness of You Tube, I choose Cummings reading “A Poet’s Advice to Students” (1955).


CFP: E. E. Cummings Sessions at the American Literature Association’s 35th Annual Conference, Chicago, May 23-26, 2024

The E. E. Cummings Society will sponsor two sessions at the 2024 American Literature Association conference in Chicago. We invite proposals for papers on any aspect of Cummings’ life and/or work. Proposals that touch upon the following topics will be especially welcome:

  • Political Cummings [e.g., “plato told,” “o to be in finland”]
  • Cummings the Modernist: Making it New (and Now)
  • Cummings’ “philosophy of life”— “transcendental, romantic, prelapsarian, organicist, and individualistic”? (Friedman, Art 66). Discuss.
  • Tulips and Chimneys at 100 (and 101).
  • Cummings’ art during and after WWII [Cummings’ pacifism, his attitudes towards Roosevelt, and works in 50 Poems (1940), 1 x 1 (1944), and XAIPE (1950)]
  • Cummings’ prose (The Enormous Room, A Miscellany, EIMI, i: six nonlectures, Letters) and theatre works (Him, Tom, Santa Claus)
  • Cummings and Re-Vision [For some drafts of poems, see the Cummings Archive:

Send 250-400-word abstracts to Michael Webster ( by January 28, 2024.

For further information, consult the web page of the American Literature Association conference.

The E. E. Cummings Paintings at SUNY Brockport

Sky over Paris (c. 1933) Photo courtesy SUNY Brockport  (The Hildegarde Lasell Watson Collection of Artworks by E. E. Cummings)

In Spring 14-15 (2005-2006), Jonathan Senchyne published “Revisiting E. E. Cummings’ Paintings at Brockport,” a preliminary report on the sad state of preservation of these Cummings paintings. And even though, as Milton Cohen noted, Brockport houses the “largest and most valuable single collection of Cummings’ paintings,” Senchyne found that the collection was stored in

a nondescript room in a cement block hallway that could easily be confused for a janitor’s closet from outside. Inside, the room is just large enough for a few tables, a vertical shelf full of oils and large paintings leaning on one another. The room is neither protected from harmful light, nor climate-controlled, a problem for preservationists.

“Revisiting E. E. Cummings’ Paintings” 233

The collection includes some of Cummings’ most notable paintings, including Sky over Paris (c. 1933) and Flowers and Hat: Patchin Place (c. 1950), as well as the abstract paintings, Noise Number 1 (1919) and Sound Number 5 (1920). (Brockport offers two different titles for Sky over Paris and Sound Number 5. I follow the titles given in Cohen, PoetandPainter, pages 56 and 104-05.)

When Senchyne wrote this article in 2004 and 2005, the paintings and drawings were sadly neglected. However, even as I was preparing Spring 14-15 for print, I received an e-mail from Frank Short, Dean of the School of Arts & Performance at SUNY Brockport, that detailed his project to restore the collection of 72 paintings and drawings. As Short put it in his e-mail, “Essentially we are asking patrons to ‘adopt’ Cummings by financing the restoration of a piece of their choosing” (269). This e-mail is reproduced at the beginning of the News, Notes, & Correspondence section in Spring 14-15.

On October 12, 2007, two days before Cummings’ birthday, a reception was held at SUNY Brockport’s MetroCenter to launch the restoration project. In the Wall Street Journal, Judith Dobrzynski noted that “a few enterprising Brockporters are hoping that arts-lovers will beat a path to their door this month to help them restore the works of the painter E. E. Cummings, which are torn, dusty, stained and otherwise in pitiful condition” (D8). In his letter, Dean Short alerted potential donors to a now-defunct web site, “Restoring the Art Works of E. E. Cummings,” where potential patrons could view “images of the works, descriptions of necessary restorations, and estimated costs for the restoration of each piece” (269). And in March 2008, reporter Brenda Tremblay’s piece, “College Restores Artwork by Poet E. E. Cummings,” aired on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday.  

Sometime between then and now, SUNY Brockport launched a page that that described and reproduced photos of all the artworks in the “Cummings Collection.” This blog post began when I was searching for a page that featured all of the Cummings Collection at Brockport and instead happened upon Meghan Finnerty’s article in Brockport Today, “E. E. Cummings Art Collection Restoration Completed.” Finnerty relates how in 1978, “James Sibley Watson, Jr., a Rochester native” and life-long friend of Cummings donated the collection in memory of his wife Hildegarde.

These days, Finnerty reports, the artworks are stored “in an unmarked room in the basement of Tower Fine Arts Center . . . in a temperature-controlled room designed to protect the work.” Of the quality of Cummings’ work, Brockport gallery director Tim Massey says “All along we’ve recognized these works as historical documents maybe more so than artistic artifacts. Cummings made the right career choice.” Cummings would beg to differ: as Milton Cohen notes, “he considered—and called—himself a ‘poet & painter’ from the outset of his career.” Cohen quotes Cummings’ catalogue statement from a 1954 exhibition: “For more than a half a hundred years, the oversigned’s twin obsessions have been painting and writing” (Cohen, PoetandPainter 14). 

Works Cited

Cohen, Milton A. “E. E. Cummings’ Sleight-of-Hand: Perceptual Ambiguity in His Early Poetry, Painting, and Career.” University of Hartford Studies in Literature 15.1 (1983): 33-46.

—. PoetandPainter: The Aesthetics of E. E. Cummings’s Early Work. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1987.

—. “E. E. Cummings: Modernist Painter and Poet.” Smithsonian Studies in American Art 4.2 (Spring 1990): 54-74.

—. “The Dial’s ‘White-Haired Boy’: E. E. Cummings as Dial Artist, Poet, and Essayist.” Spring 1 (1992): 8-27.

—. “Disparate Twins: Spontaneity in E. E. Cummings’ Poetry and Painting.” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 4 (1995): 83-94.

Dobrzynski, Judith H. “Restoration Job: E. E. Cummings and His Works in Paint.” The Wall Street Journal Eastern Edition (11 Oct. 2007). D8.

Finnerty, Meghan. “E. E. Cummings Art Collection Restoration Completed. The story of how the renowned poet’s artwork made its way to SUNY Brockport’s Liberal Arts Building.” Brockport Today (1 Nov. 2021). Web.

“Restoring the Hildegarde Lasell Watson Collection of Artworks by E.E. Cummings.” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 14-15 (2006): 269-270. [Features a 2007 letter from Frank Short, Dean of the School of Arts & Performance at SUNY Brockport, on beginning the restoration project.]

Senchyne, Jonathan William. “Revisiting E. E. Cummings’ Paintings at Brockport.” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 14-15 (2006): 233-246. Stable URL:  

Tremblay, Brenda. “College Restores Artwork by Poet E. E. Cummings.” National Public Radio (2 March 2008). Web.

Cummings’ Escape to the Woods: Theorizing Modernism during the 1918 Influenza Pandemic

Grey troops at drill spliced into a colorized field in front of the woods at Camp Devens, Mass., circa 1917.

Much later in his life, when E. E. Cummings was typing up the notebooks that he kept during basic training at Camp Devens, Mass., he wrote that the notes made him feel uneasy: “into me,as I perceive these hieroglyphics,is coming once again whatever it was that drove me almost crazy” (quoted in Rosenblitt 225). My May, 2020 post, “E. E. Cummings at Camp Devens: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918,” reported how Cummings describes this “almost” craziness in an October 1918 letter to John Dos Passos as “an interior struggle, a spiritual combat, an invisible war, enormous and tiny,” that nevertheless was “very good for one’s health.” Cummings tells his friend and fellow writer that the source of this “interior struggle” is “fear, still, always, and every day, fear.”

The conclusion of the May, 2020 post makes clear that besides experiencing a sort of nameless existential dread, Cummings mainly feared death, whether from combat at the front or from the influenza pandemic. Certainly the more pressing fear was the flu, which “by the end of September [1918]” had infected “about one-quarter of the total camp, resulting in 757 deaths” (CDC timeline). Elizabeth Outka points to a telling difference between the fear of death in a war and a similar fear during a pandemic:

[T]he ideological structures that both the state and its citizens could build around a war corpse— it’s heroic / it’s barbaric / it’s a meaningful sacrifice / it’s a pointless horrific death caused by corrupt governments— were not structures that could typically work when death came from an invading virus rather than an invading army. Flu corpses presented instead a crisis of representation. Difficult to spin politically or narratively, the flu death was more pointless, less understandable, and less preventable than one from the war.

Outka, Viral Modernism 33

On September 29, Doctor Roy N. Grist reported that the draftees were “demoralized and all ordinary work is held up till it [the influenza] has passed. All assemblages of soldiers taboo” (“Letter”). On November 12, Cummings wrote to Scofield Thayer about this period of enforced idleness:

a poker-circle invades my lit [bed–also literature?]. The buttox of a player (who had the politeness to manually remove my leg from a place which impeded his complete comfort as he sits) rubs my upper leg. . . .  The player lays his fuming cigarette with its moist butt on my blanket.  He spits on the floor right at the foot of my bed, for he is emotionally stressed or something.  little buttons of green mucous—.  to sleep in.

Letter to Scofield Thayer, November 12, 1918 [Beinecke Library, Yale University (YCAL MSS 34 Series IV, Box 30, folder 786)]

No wonder Cummings escaped to the surrounding woods in order (as he wrote in the letter to Dos Passos) to “bathe in the superior blood of Thought. Martyred Goddess!” We may assume that the blood of Thought was preferable to possibly infected droplets of green mucus. Also, writing solo in the woods would allow him to escape from the overcrowded camp. (See photo below of the “Writing and Reading Room.”) But during his sojourns in the woods, rather than observing and taking notes on the local flora and fauna like Thoreau, Cummings explored his aesthetic and emotional responses to modernist art and literature. Cummings went to the woods to think about aesthetics.

The “Writing and Reading Room” at Camp Devens, circa 1917 [U. S. Army photo]

Before reporting for duty at the camp on July 24, he had lived in New York for four months, writing sonnets like “my girl’s tall with hard long eyes” (CP 133) and being transfixed by the Cézanne paintings he saw in uptown art galleries (Kennedy 163-171, Cohen 43). While at Camp Devens, Cummings’ reading of the installments of James Joyce’s Ulysses then being published in The Little Review inspired him to draft an essay on modernist art that outlined an aesthetic that envisions artwork, creator, and audience as a living totality. In that same November 12 letter to Scofield Thayer that mentions the smoking, spitting poker player, Cummings singled out for praise a passage from the “Hades” chapter of Ulysses, in which Leopold Bloom meditates on death during the burial of Paddy Dignam:

“Monday he died.  Three days.  Rather long to keep them in the summer.  Just as well to get shut of them as soon as you are sure there’s no.

*The clay fell softer.  Begin to be forgotten.  Out of sight.  The caretaker moved away — –”

E. E. Cummings to Scofield Thayer, November 12, 1918; MS at the Beinecke Library, Yale University (YCAL MSS 34, Series IV, Box 30, folder 787). [Cf. Ulysses, 111; 6.870-73.]

Cummings does not comment directly on Joyce’s depiction of a burial. Rather, he tells Thayer: “Sco, that * [asterisked] line is as good as anything ever done by any body in any world.  Nor am i unsure, by god.   will the Dial print my crit of Joyce?  will it?  if it will, i will write it.” The essay that Cummings drafted actually says rather little about Ulysses, striving instead to place the new prose work into a larger aesthetics of modern artistic production. As in his graduation “part” of three years earlier, “The New Art,” the poet sought to define what was common in his response to the “many branches—painting, sculpture, architecture, the stage, literature, and music” of the new modernist arts (5).

To find connections among the many arts of modernism, Cummings classified them as melodic, harmonic, or orchestral “gestures.” (This sort of synesthetic approach to relating the arts was common at the time–see Cohen, pp. 196-203.) Here is Cummings’ chart of works of modernist art classified as musical “gestures”:

[melodic] Brancusi (especially the polished brass Mlle. [Pogany] at the last Independent)
Ezra Pound (Δώρια) [(Doria)]
[harmonic] Gleizes (skyscraper motifs)
The best of Matisse (before he imitated Matisse)
[orchestral] T. S. Eliot (Preludes and Rhapsody on a Windy Night)
Schoenberg (Five Orchestral Pieces)
The Woolworth Building [See “at the ferocious phenomenon of 5 o’clock“]
The Russian Ballet (Parade, Till [Eulenspiegel], L’Après Midi [d’un Faune], and Petrouska [sic]

MS at Houghton Library, Harvard University, bMS Am 1892.7 (70) folder 1, s. 1. (Reproduced also in Kennedy 179)

Although Cummings’ three categories imply a movement from the first to second to third person [I, you, we], unlike Stephen Dedalus’ exclusively literary categories of lyric, epic, and dramatic (Portrait 232-233), any of the seven arts may be placed in any of the categories. For example, sculpture by Brancusi is classified as melodic; the “best of Matisse (before he imitated Matisse)” is harmonic; and T. S. Eliot’s “Preludes” and “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” share the crowded orchestral category with Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, the Woolworth Building, and various dances by the Ballets Russes. At the bottom of the chart, Cummings wrote an addendum to the orchestral gestures: “to these the months latterly have added, James Joyce (Ulysses).” Cummings is a bit flippant about why he declines to call these art-gestures “modern,” saying that he prefers “the adjective ‘musical,’ if only because it is a favorite with the many’s mindlessness” (s. 1).

By adding the term “gesture” to his musical metaphor, Cummings shows that the synesthesia of modernist art is more than mere high culture fashion—rather, it engages the body more than the mind. The most complex of Cummings’ orchestral gestures also mix the sensations of various arts in various ways. Both of the Eliot titles are musical metaphors and the ballets Petrushka and Parade are products of choreographers, dancers, musicians, and scene and set designers. Joyce’s Ulysses is of course written in a variety of styles and introduces the stream of consciousness technique that presents how the brain feels and reacts to the five senses.

By invoking synesthesia, gesture, and music, Cummings points not to the totality of the artwork, but to the totality of an aesthetic experience that engulfs the entire being. Combining a military metaphor with his own feelings of “interior struggle, a spiritual combat, an invisible war,” Cummings asserts that aesthetic experience shatters the “shells of identity” [(39), s. 208]; the experience of art knocks him out, like “the contact of a naked fist with the lower jaw” (s. 41). This overwhelming kayo of perception, this identity death, claims much more for poetry and art than the diminished romanticism of a Robert Frost, who says that the poem provides the harried reader with “a momentary stay against confusion” (2). The psychological experience of Cummings’ reader / spectator is far more harrowing than the soothing pop psychology of I. A. Richards, who blandly claims that “poetry balances the warring impulses of the reader” (Tompkins 220). For Cummings, a peak aesthetic experience is disorienting, shattering, and terrifying, and it results in a newer self and greater sense of being.

Cummings’ reading in Willard Huntington Wright’s Modern Painting: Its Tendency and Meaning (1915) gave him a way of understanding Cézanne, who, Wright said, sometimes “deformed nature’s objects . . . in order to make form voluminous” (156), thus creating a kind of sculpture in line and color. Cummings was fascinated by the notion of sculpted, solid form that nevertheless pulses and moves with the light and color of nature. In a 1922 letter to his mother, Cummings wrote of painting “chasms . . . and bumps . . . [and] ‘getting form by colour’ ” (quoted in Cohen 122). But this formal understanding was preceded by the actual experience of seeing Cézanne’s paintings.

Cézanne is not mentioned among the modernist artists and their works classified in Cummings’ three-fold chart of musical gestures, most likely because Cézanne was seen as a precursor, and a misunderstood one at that. Cummings tells us that at first, he “threw his belief” into the “dislocated nature” of Cézanne’s paintings. Wright had taught Cummings to see only the formal, anti-realistic aspects of Cézanne’s dislocations:

Like an excited very little dog I barked furiously at these discomforting still-lives. What apples! they ought to roll and fall off this tilting table, and they don’t. Quelle table! It has legs and doesn’t rest on them. Wonderful. Hooray! What an insult to reality!

Houghton Library, Harvard University, bMS Am 1892.7 (70) folder 5, s. 44

So, when Cummings was in New York in the spring and summer of 1918 before being called up for the draft, he rushed off to a Fifth Avenue gallery to see some Cézannes for himself. There, in “a tastefully upholstered twilight,” he was met by the painting of La Montagne Ste. Victoire “whose reproduction in colours was the frontispiece” to Willard Huntington Wright’s Modern Painting: Its Tendency and Meaning (1915).

Before the painting itself, he was confronted with something he didn’t and couldn’t know: his senses and knowledge obliterated, his being realized a destabilizing sort of enlightenment in one overwhelming aesthetic experience:

As my eyes explored, a curious sensation of fearful nausea came over me.  I felt.  I was being skillfully sucked into the picture’s accuracy!  I stood, perfectly helpless, dead with terror.  Out of this frame a slow swiftness surely was, reaching, for my mind.  The sense of hearing quickly deserted me.  Then sight – – – –  Suddenly: easily splashes of hideous sensual electricity drenched my completely nervous concentration.  Touch.  The sensation that I can only describe by saying that the picture had Touched me.

Houghton Library, Harvard University, bMS Am 1892.7 (70) folder 5, s. 45

At Camp Devens, Cummings began to organize his rather nebulous effusions about Touch into a theory of aesthetic response. He even created a “ladder” that attempts to understand and rank various aesthetic experiences, starting from the photographic Real at the bottom and moving upward to the vital Actual or Tactile:

categoryArtist / examplequalities
Actual, Tactile (art, truth)Cézanne; Joyce, Ulysses; Petrushka (Ballets Russes)vitality, “a new dimension” “instigation of the actual by the real” (ss. 35, 48)
impossibleRedondreams, mysticism
possible (the perhaps)Renoirmusical
probable (normal)Monetnormal (life)
the Real (truthfulness, the subnormal)Rodinphotography (“a positive of the developed negative: life”)
Houghton Library, Harvard University, MS Am 1892.7 (70) folder 5, s. 47
and MS Am 1892.7 (69), folder 1, sheet 3.

Cummings states the short form of this chart at the beginning of quite a few drafts of his essay:

It took photography to assert the real, the subnormal. Photography is truthfulness,reality.

Life is normal.

Art is vital.

Houghton Library, Harvard University, [MS Am 1892.7 (69) folder 1, s. 3]

Art exists on a vital plane of being that Cummings called the Actual or the Tactile. The overwhelming aesthetic experience of art reduces the self to Touch and then rebuilds a new self. He describes leaving the gallery in New York like this:

As I staggered from the gallery, there formed in my mouth gradually the terrific syllable: sum [“I am” (Latin)]. As I whispered it to the elevator, I found on my lips an electric taste, as if I were tasting the picture’s Touch. Sum. I went out, very dizzy, into the normal rumpus of the Avenue— .

Houghton Library, Harvard University, bMS Am 1892.7 (70) folder 5, s. 45

In the gallery, Cummings found a confrontation that changed him, that made him an “I am,” a Sum. The process of self-becoming is thus nearly identical with the processes of experiencing and making art. In the woods, Cummings recalled this moment of self-making in New York as a way to defy and confront the “almost” craziness and fear of death (and thus loss of self) that plunged him into an “interior struggle” at Camp Devens.

Works Cited

Cohen, Milton A. PoetandPainter: The Aesthetics of E. E. Cummings’s Early Work. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1987.

Cummings, E. E. Letter to John Dos Passos [Camp Devens, MA: September-October, 1918] [Houghton Library, Harvard University, MS Am 1892.13 (111), folder 3, letter 13 (MS. 2 sheets)]

—. Letter to Scofield Thayer, [Camp Devens, MA: 12 November 1918] [MS 1918 Nov 12, Beinecke Library, Yale University (YCAL MSS 34 Series IV, Box 30, folder 787)]

—. “The New Art.” The Harvard Advocate 99.10 (24 June 1915): 154-156.
Rpt. E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised. Ed. George J. Firmage. New York:
October House, 1965. 5-11.

—. Drafts of an essay on modern art, Paul Cézanne, Igor Stravinsky, and James Joyce’s Ulysses, ms. and ts. 1918. bMS Am 1892.7: (69) folder 1 and (70) folders 1-5. bMS Am 1823.7 (39), folder 4, sheets 208-210. E. E. Cummings papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

—. “certain vital musical gestures.” MS 1918. E. E. Cummings Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University, bMS Am 1892.7 (70) folder 1, s. 1. (cf. Kennedy 179)

Frost, Robert. “The Figure a Poem Makes.” 1939. Selected Poems of Robert Frost. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1963. 1-4.

Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. 1916. Ed. Seamus Deane. New York: Penguin, 1993, 2003.

—. Ulysses. New York: Random House, 1934, reset and corrected 1961.

—. Ulysses. The Corrected Text. Ed. Hans Walter Gabler. New York: Random-Vintage, 1986.

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

Outka, Elizabeth. Viral Modernism: The Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature. New York: Columbia UP, 2019.

Rosenblitt, J. Alison. The Beauty of Living: E. E. Cummings in the Great War. New York: W. W. Norton, 2020.

Tompkins, Jane P. “The Reader in History: The Changing Shape of Literary Response.” Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism. Ed. Jane P. Tompkins. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980. 201-232.

Wright, Willard Huntington. Modern Painting: Its Tendency and Meaning. New York: John Lane, 1915. Rpt. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1922.

CFP “)one’s eye / / perceives”: New Approaches to E. E. Cummings (deadline extended to 9/15/21; Louisville, 2/24-26/22)

Subject: CFP “)one’s eye / / perceives”: New Approaches to E. E. Cummings (deadline extended to 9/15/21; Louisville, 2/24-26/22)

The E. E. Cummings Society and the Society’s journal, Spring, invite abstracts for 20-minute papers for the 49th annual Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture since 1900, February 24-26, 2022, at the University of Louisville ( Recent criticism of the works of Cummings has gone beyond his well-documented engagement with modernist aesthetic and poetic innovations. From Cummings’ visual and temporal poetics, to iconic meta-sonnets and rhythmic portraiture, to iconicity and ecology, and even to disability studies, the iconoclasm of Cummings in art and language presents a multi-dimensional i/eye that perceives and receives. The recent Norton Critical Edition of E. E. Cummings: Selected Works (2020) further highlights Cummings’ virtuosity in various genres. In addition to his primary vocations of poet and painter, Cummings also wrote plays, memoir-novels, a ballet, lectures (which Cummings called “nonlectures”), fairy tales, and numerous essays, satirical articles, along with “A book without a Title.” Although only a selection, this edition has opened Cummings from aesthetic to cultural and even interdisciplinary approaches (art, history, linguistics, literature, philosophy, economics, nature, science, political theory, sociology, performing arts, visual culture, and media studies, etc.), motivating ongoing study from different critical and theoretical perspectives. We welcome studies that examine ways that other disciplines can illuminate Cummings’ experimental and typographical modernism, and methods of incorporating his poetry, prose, and art work into dialogues between aesthetic and interactive/intersectional cultural space and time. Studies that examine Cummings’ poetry, prose, drama, and visual art across genres are also welcome.

Please send 300-word abstracts (double-spaced and titled) and a brief bio by September 15, 2021 to:

Gillian Huang-Tiller Professor of English Dept. of Language & Literature University of Virginia-Wise Wise, VA 24293

Let’s Touch the Sky: Sojoy and Tin Hat Perform Cummings

Sojoy Performs “if up’s the word”

Jonny Peiffer and his jazz septet Sojoy have released a soulful talk-recitation-jazz version Cummings’ poem “if up’s the word;and a world grows greener” (CP 769—number 95 of 95 Poems). (The poem is recited by Stu Dias.) The track is streaming on Sojoy’s webpage.

the rain is a handsome animal: Tin Hat Performs Cummings

We take quite belated notice here of a digital album and CD by the avant-jazz and classical group Tin Hat—the rain is a handsome animal: 17 songs from the poetry of E. E. Cummings (2012). The members of Tin Hat are Carla Kihlstedt (violins, viola, voice), Mark Orton (acoustic guitar, dobro), Ben Goldberg (clarinets), and Rob Reich (accordion, piano). The album may be streamed at Tin Hat’s page.

Here’s a track list:

  1. a cloud on a leaf [“speaking of love(of” (CP 365)] 04:01
  2. the rain is a handsome animal [instrumental] 04:23
  3. sweet spring [“sweet spring is your” (CP 591)] 04:23
  4. if up’s the word [“if up’s the word;and a world grows greener” (CP 769)] 04:50
  5. open his head [“open his head,baby” (CP 637)] 02:49
  6. unchanging [“one // t” (CP 833)] 03:40
  7. buffalo bill [“buffalo bill ’s” (CP 90)] 03:32
  8. the enormous room [instrumental] 07:15
  9. so shy shy shy [“so shy shy shy(and with a” (CP 685)] 01:41
  10. 2 little whos [(CP 832)] 04:40
  11. yes is a pleasant country [“yes is a pleasant country:” (CP 578)] 02:46
  12. grapefruit [instrumental] 06:09
  13. human rind [“this is a rubbish of a human rind” (CP 647)] 04:42
  14. anyone lived in a pretty how town [(CP 515)] 04:30
  15. diminutive [“dim” (CP 696)] 02:28
  16. little i [“who are you,little i” (CP 824)] 03:49
  17. now(more near ourselves than we) [(CP 760)] 03:19

My favorite track is “buffalo bill’s”:

E. E. Cummings at Camp Devens: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918

On January 1, 1918, E. E. Cummings arrived at the port of New York, thin and a bit dispirited from his experience of imprisonment in the French detention camp at La Ferté Macé (Kennedy, Dreams 159).

E. E. Cummings’ “emergency passport photograph taken in December 1917, so that Cummings could obtain the papers he needed to sail back to America on the Espagne, departing on Dec. 22, 1917.” From Alison Rosenblitt’s “Photo Gallery” of Cummings photos related to WWI. [E. E. Cummings Additional Papers, 1870-1969, Houghton Library, Harvard University, MS Am 1892.11 (92).]

After recuperating at home in Cambridge, Mass., Cummings left for New York in late February. His fellow-prisoner at La Ferté Macé, William Slater Brown, soon joined him and some other friends from his days at Harvard, as well as one new friend, the sculptor Gaston Lachaise. [In February 1920, Cummings would publish an essay on Lachaise in The Dial.] In New York, Cummings wrote and painted, dined at Khoury’s restaurant and at a place called the Romanian Hall, and frequented Minsky’s National Winter Garden, which featured burlesque shows and comedians, particularly Jack Shargel, “whom Cummings ranked above Chaplin” (Kennedy, Dreams 163-164). Although the possibility of being drafted loomed in the background, the freedoms of a bohemian painter and poet very much occupied the foreground of Cummings’ life.

The Epidemic Begins

In early March, the first wave of the great influenza epidemic of 1918 began in rural Kansas, quickly spread to nearby Camp Funston, and from there through army camps across the country that were full of men training to fight in WWI. American soldiers carried the flu to Europe, and by the end of April it had spread throughout the Western Front. John M. Barry reports that this first wave “set off few alarms, chiefly because in most places it rarely killed, despite the enormous numbers of people infected” (“Horrific”). Also, because of wartime censorship, few realized the extent of the outbreak. Indeed, the disease was called the “Spanish flu” because in non-combatant Spain, the infection was widely reported.

On May 6, 1918, Cummings received a draft notice “that he was placed in Class 1, ‘Subject to call for service’ ” (Kennedy 170). By the end of July 1918, when he left for basic training at Camp Devens, Massachusetts, the influenza epidemic seemed to be over.

“Physical drill at Camp Devens,” 1917. [U. S. Army Center for Military History, The WWI Era, Training at Camp Devens, MA]
Camp Devens after Completion (1918-1919) [U. S. Army Center for Military History, The WWI Era, Camp Devens, MA]

However, in late August, a secret naval intelligence memo reported that influenza had re-emerged in Switzerland in a more virulent and deadly form (Barry, “Horrific”). According to the CDC’s “1918 Pandemic Influenza Historic Timeline,” this second wave of the virus first appeared in the United States “at Camp Devens, a United States Army training camp just outside of Boston, and at a naval facility in Boston.” In the third week of August, about a month after Cummings arrived at the camp, an increase in pneumonia cases was noticed at Camp Devens. In his book, The Great Influenza, Barry reports that

on September 1, four more soldiers were diagnosed with pneumonia and admitted to the hospital. In the next six days, twenty-two more new cases of pneumonia were diagnosed. None of these, however, were considered to be influenza. (Great 186)

At first, the doctors at the camp diagnosed all of these pneumonia cases as meningitis. According to Alfred W. Crosby, “a definite diagnosis of influenza was made” only on September 12. Daily hospital admissions grew throughout the month, reaching “a peak of 1,176 on the eighteenth” (Crosby 5). Barry gives an even higher number: “At the outbreak’s peak, 1,543 soldiers reported ill with influenza in a single day.” The peak admissions statistics do not tell the whole story, however, since the “overwhelmed” hospital “ceased accepting patients, no matter how ill, leaving thousands more sick and dying in barracks” (Barry, “Horrific”). The CDC’s timeline page on the epidemic reports that “by the end of September, more than 14,000 flu cases are reported at Camp Devens—equaling about one-quarter of the total camp, resulting in 757 deaths.”

On September 23, a delegation of distinguished medical professionals sent by the Surgeon General arrived at Camp Devens to investigate the extent and severity of the outbreak (Crosby 4). On September 25, they recommended that the number of men at the overcrowded camp be reduced from 45,000 to 35,000 and that each individual be allotted “50 square feet of floor space” (Crosby 10). Needless to say, these recommendations were not followed. While the delegation visited, Cummings was reading Scofield Thayer’s recently published Dial article on James Joyce. On the same day the delegation’s recommendations were made, Cummings wrote a letter to Thayer, critiquing the style of his article and appending at the end the following comment on the pandemic:

The Spanish Flu has claimed so many that there is some talk of one’s being introduced to the hook-worm and Dixie. Je m’en fous, comme toujours [“As always, I don’t give a crap”] – feeling well enough to die anytime
À toi,
E. E.

To Scofield Thayer, September 25, 1918, Beinecke Library, Yale University (YCAL MSS 34 Series IV, Box 30, folder 787)

The talk of moving troops south—or, as Richard S. Kennedy writes, “closing [the camp] down altogether” (174)—came to nothing, possibly because the delegation recommended sending no more troops from Devens to other camps—or more probably because other Army camps were soon swept with the disease. The bravado in Cummings’ comment that “as always, I don’t give a crap” is leavened by the reality that lurks in the second half of the sentence: “feeling well enough to die anytime.” Four days after Cummings’ letter to Thayer, Roy Grist, a doctor at the camp, wrote of the mental and physical exhaustion caused by seeing so many deaths:

It is horrible. One can stand it to see one, two or twenty men die, but to see these poor devils dropping like flies sort of gets on your nerves. We have been averaging about 100 deaths per day, and still keeping it up. (“Letter”)

N. roy Grist, “A Letter from Camp Devens.” (29 Sept. 1918) Influenza 1918. American Experience [PBS].
Treating a flu patient at Camp Devens, 1918 [Photo from “Influenza 1918 Timeline: Influenza Across America in 1918” (American Experience, PBS)]

Social Distancing

Even though, as Kennedy writes, “In Cummings’ company, a large number of men were stricken and six of them died” (174), somehow Cummings remained healthy. We cannot be sure why he did not get sick. He may have avoided infection because he practiced social distancing, spending a great deal of time reading in the surrounding woods. In a letter written in French to John Dos Passos, another of his classmates at Harvard, Cummings describes his life at Camp Devens:

Meanwhile, I share an enclosed and surrounded existence with vengeful troops, escaping sometimes up to the forest (there is a forest; they say before the war there were only forests here) to bathe in the superior blood of Thought. Martyred Goddess! I lose myself so much that way that I find some courage for the following day, it’s only yesterday that I slept; (because my todays are dead.)

[Cependant je partage l’existence enceinte des troupeaux vengeurs, en me sauvant [sautant?], quelques fois, jusceque à la forèt (il y a une forèt ; on dit avant la guerre il n’y avait que des forèts ici) me laver dans le sang supérieur de la Pensée, Déesse martyrisée! Tellement je me perds ainsi, que j’ai du courage pour le lendemain, ce n’est que hier qui m’endorme ; (parceque mes aujourdhuis sont mortes.)]

Undated Letter to John Dos Passos, Camp Devens, Mass, circa September-October 1918 [Houghton Library, Harvard University, MS Am 1892.13 (111), folder 3, letter 13 (MS. 2 sheets)]

One reason Cummings felt “enclosed” or “surrounded” was that the influenza epidemic necessitated a lockdown of the camp, taking away even its regimented routine. Dr. Grist notes in his letter that the camp had all but shut down during the epidemic:

This epidemic started about four weeks ago, and has developed so rapidly that the camp is demoralized and all ordinary work is held up till it has passed. All assemblages of soldiers taboo. (“Letter”)

N. roy Grist, “A Letter from Camp Devens.” (29 Sept. 1918) Influenza 1918. American Experience [PBS]

Escaping the “vengeful troops” — most likely those who uncritically accepted “the constant indoctrination of hatred for the Germans” (Kennedy 173) — and seeking a natural antidote to (literally in French, “saving myself [from]”) the camp, Cummings also escaped from his enclosed and surrounded self, one that experienced sleep only in retrospect. He saved himself by retreating to the woods and losing himself in “the superior blood of Thought”–thus salvaging some courage to face the daily waste land of the camp.

But he also needed to face his fears. In the letter to Dos Passos, after the imagery of seeking courage in “Thought,” Cummings confesses that he is experiencing within himself an “an interior struggle, a spiritual combat, an invisible war, enormous and tiny,” that causes “an imperceptible and gigantic misery” that nevertheless is “very good for one’s health.” This misery, Cummings says, is caused by fear: “Listen. It is fear, still and always and every day, fear,” a declaration that sounds even more ominous in French: “Écoutes-moi.  C’est la peur, encore la peur, toujours et tous les jours la peur.”

He makes clear the nature of this fear by quoting two lines from a poem by Alfred de Musset: “Mes chers amis, quand je mourrai, / Plantez un saule au cimetière.” [“My dear friends, when I die / plant a willow in the graveyard.”] The fear of death, whether from influenza or combat at the front, is very real, but as it begins to edge into a bathetic literary fear, Cummings pushes it over the edge into parody. He asks Dos Passos to write a mock epitaph “on my relatively banal tomb”: “ATTENTION PILGRIMS / Not pissing is forbidden!/ I think I’ll rot quickly / He who doesn’t know how to live, / How then will he know how to die?” [“ATTENTION PELERINS / Défense de ne pas pisser! / J’ai l’idée de vite pourrir / Ne pas vivre celui qui sait, / Comment donc saura-t-il mourir?”]

Fear dissipates in a comic rhyme: “pisser / qui sait.” However, the “Thought” that Cummings explored in the woods to overcome his fears is perhaps more lasting, and I will explore that subject in my next post.

Works Cited

Barry, John M. The Great Influenza. The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. London and New York: Penguin, 2004.

—. “How the Horrific 1918 Flu Spread Across America.” Smithsonian Magazine (Nov. 2017): Web.

Crosby, Alfred W. America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918. 1989. 2nd Ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.

Cummings, E. E. Letter to John Dos Passos [Camp Devens, MA: September-October, 1918] [Houghton Library, Harvard University, MS Am 1892.13 (111), folder 3, letter 13 (MS. 2 sheets)]

—. Letter to Scofield Thayer, [Camp Devens, MA: 25 September 1918] [MS 1918 Sep 25, Beinecke Library, Yale University (YCAL MSS 34 Series IV, Box 30, folder 787)]

[Grist, N. Roy]. “A Letter from Camp Devens.” (29 Sept. 1918) Influenza 1918. American Experience [PBS]. Web.

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

Thayer, Scofield. “James Joyce.” The Dial 65 (18 Sept. 1918): 201-203.

Forthcoming: The Beauty of Living: E.E. Cummings in the Great War.

J. Alison Rosenblitt’s new book, The Beauty of Living: E. E. Cummings in the Great War, is scheduled to be published by W. W. Norton July 21, 2020. The publisher’s description reads in part:

“In The Beauty of Living: E. E. Cummings in the Great War, writer and historian J. Alison Rosenblitt reexamines the formative early years of Cummings’s life, from his idyllic childhood and complex relationship with his father, to his education at Harvard where he began to write poetry, up through his time in France during World War I as an ambulance driver and his subsequent imprisonment in a French camp.”

As Rosenblitt details on her personal page for the book, the title comes from one of the thousands of pages of notes found in the Cummings collection at the Houghton Library at Harvard University:

“When you and I consult these hearts and minds of ours, what do we learn? That there actually exists a deeper beauty even than the beauty of death–the beauty of living.”

from “Armistice,” E. E. Cummings Additional Papers, 1870-1969, MS Am 1892.6 (9), Houghton Library (Harvard)

Rosenblitt notes that even though “Cummings grew up in a world that aestheticized death and glorified war,” his response to a world of war, death, and imprisonment was “to choose to be alive.”

Pre-publication reviews of the book have been positive. Publisher’s Weekly writes that “Rosenblitt argues that Cummings’s exposure in France to a new artistic atmosphere and to wartime brutality indelibly shaped his poetry and pacifism.” In a starred review, the Library Journal states that “with grace and intelligence, Rosenblitt brings the worlds of Harvard, Cambridge, and ‘the Front’ to vivid life.” And in another starred review, Kirkus Reviews says that the book is a “perceptive, captivating portrait. . . . A graceful, sympathetic biography of an innovative
American poet.”

Link: Rosenblitt’s “Photo Gallery” of archival images from the Houghton Library at Harvard University. The Gallery is divided into three sections:

1. E. E. Cummings in France.
2. E. E. Cummings — Sketches, Paintings, and Poetry.
3. E. E. Cummings and Scofield Thayer.

J. Alison Rosenblitt is also the author of Rome after Sulla (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019) and E. E. Cummings’ Modernism and the Classics: Each Imperishable Stanza (Oxford UP, 2016).

The Enormous Room and the Petit Séminaire at La Ferté-Macé

When the United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917, many young men chose to volunteer as noncombatant ambulance drivers rather than face military conscription. E. E. Cummings was among them. At the front by June, Cummings and his friend Slater Brown soon alienated their superior with their “insolence” and their “unshaven, unwashed, and generally unkempt” appearance (Kennedy 145). In September, after Brown sent letters home saying that “the French soldiers are all despondent and none of them believe Germany will be defeated” (qtd. in Kennedy 147), both Cummings and Brown were arrested for treason and sent to a “Dépôt de Triage,” a detention camp at La Ferté-Macé, Orne, Normandy, France. In his biography of Cummings, Dreams in the Mirror, Richard S. Kennedy describes the camp as “a kind of waiting station for aliens who were suspected of espionage or whose presence was generally undesirable during time of war” (148). Cummings later chronicled his experience of arrest and imprisonment in his book The Enormous Room (1922). Before this “Dépôt de Triage” was a detention camp, however, it was a “Petit Séminaire,” a “little seminary.” Recently M. Didier Joly, the webmaster of the site “La Ferté-Macé, hier,… par les cartes postales anciennes,” sent me a photo of a lithograph of the Petit Séminaire that dates probably from the late nineteenth century.

Figure 1: “Petit Séminaire St. Joseph à la Ferté-Macé (Orne)” (lithograph, circa 1880-1900)

The lithograph shows the familiar outlines of the buildings we have come to know chiefly through the aerial view reproduced in Kennedy’s Dreams in the Mirror (150) and on the page “Aerial Views of The Enormous Room.” (Our Enormous Room photo page, “Views of La Ferté-Macé,” reproduces more photos of the buildings, as does M. Joly’s page petit séminaire / lycée des Andaines, which presents some exterior photos, along with recently-discovered views of the interior that date from February 1916.)

The lithograph (fig. 1) shows the three connected buildings of the complex, with the chapel on the right and the building that was to house the Enormous Room on the left. Behind the chapel is an exercise area enclosed by high walls—a space that, with the addition of barbed wire and a sentry post, was to become the men’s cour where the male detainees took their morning and afternoon “promenades” (Enormous Room 63-64). One can just make out in the lithograph a pommel horse and parallel bars, both missing in Cummings’ day. Not visible in the lithograph is the “horizontal iron bar” that “projected from the stone [wall] at a height of seven feet” (57). By 1917, the trees visible at the end of the exercise area had deteriorated to become “a dozen mangy apple trees, fighting for their very lives in the angry soil” (57).

Behind the building on the left is an outdoor pavilion called “le parapluie” [“the umbrella”], which is not mentioned by this name in The Enormous Room. However, this structure certainly should have been visible from the back windows of the Enormous Room (the only ones in the room that were not boarded up). Cummings comments on the rationale for boarding up all but the back windows:

The blocking of all windows on three sides had an obvious significance:les hommes were not supposed to see anything which went on in the world without;les hommes might,however,look their fill on a little washing-shed,on a corner of what seemed to be another wing of the building,and on a bleak lifeless abject landscape of scrubby woods beyond—which constituted the view from the ten windows (51-52).

In Cummings’ drawing of the layout of the buildings (fig. 2), this “washing-shed” is located behind the Enormous Room building on the left (labeled “A”), and is sketched as a simple backwards L-shaped half-rectangle rather than a sixteen-spoked umbrella pavilion.

Figure 2: Cummings’ plan of the Dêpot de Triage at La Ferté-Macé
Figure 2a: Our modern redrawing of the plan

(For some discussion of this drawing, see “Cummings’ Plan of the Dêpot de Triage” in Spring 16.)] As Cummings indicates, this half-rectangle depicting the “blanchissage [washing] shed” is located in the plan just a bit to the left of “the corner” of the middle building (labeled “C”), precisely where the “parapluie” appears in the lithograph of the seminary. Among the photographs one finds on the “La Ferté-Macé, hier” site’s petit séminaire page are a group of twelve extraordinary photos of the interior and exterior of the detention camp taken on February 20, 1916, some eighteen months before Cummings’ arrival. One photograph clearly shows the “parapluie” right behind the Enormous Room building and just off the corner of the center building where a guard poses watchfully (fig. 3).

Figure 3: Photo of the “parapluie” behind the Enormous Room (1916)

The mystery remains why Cummings would draw an L-shaped half-rectangle when the shape of the “washing shed” or “parapluie” was clearly circular. Indeed, as the evidence presented in the 1984 history of the site, “L’Histoire extraordinaire du Lycée des Andaines,” shows, the “parapluie” existed until 1938, when it collapsed after a November snowstorm (40).

Figure 4: The collapse of the “parapluie” (1938)

Still other photographic evidence (undated, but after Cummings’ detention) shows that the pavilion was probably intact when Cummings was a prisoner at La Ferté. We can only conclude that either this umbrella pavilion was dismantled in 1917 (and later rebuilt), or that “the little washing-shed” that Cummings refers to is the same as the “parapluie.” We must remember that Cummings probably never saw the shed/umbrella from the ground, since the women’s promenade cour behind the middle building was enclosed by some sort of fence.

Works Cited

Cummings, E. E. The Enormous Room: A typescript edition with drawings by the author. 1922. Ed. George James Firmage. New York: Liveright, 1978.

Collin, Jean-Claude, et al. “L’Histoire extraordinaire du Lycée des Andaines: Projet d’Action Educative réalisé par les élèves de Terminale G2’.” La Ferté Macé, Normandy, 1984. [Parc Naturel Régional Normande-Maine, Études et Documents numero 6] Web.

Gill, John M. “The Enormous Room and ‘The Windows of Nowhere’: Reflections on Visiting La Ferté-Macé.” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 7 (1998): 94-123.

—. “The Enormous Room Remembered.” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 11 (2002): 159-182.

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

Webster, Michael and Philip Persenaire. “Cummings’ Plan of the Dêpot de Triage at La Ferté Macé.” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 16 (2007): 99-102.

Cummings’ Definition of IS as an Intransitive Verb, to Feel

 Gillian Huang-Tiller

Todd Martin’s article “ ‘IS’ as an Action Verb: Cummings and the Act of Being” describes how he uses Cummings’ definition of IS to familiarize his students with Cummings’ poems. Martin’s source was Richard S. Kennedy’s biography of Cummings, Dreams in the Mirror, where we find reproduced these three lines that Cummings jotted down, according to Kennedy, sometime in 1921:

IS = the cold 3rd singular of the intense live verb, to feel.

Not to completely feel = thinking, the warm principle.

incomplete thinking = Belief,the box in which god and all other nouns are kept. 

(Kennedy 217; qtd. in Martin 80) [emphases mine]

  Martin relates how he used the three lines to direct his students to an understanding of Cummings’ concept of “IS.” He and his class discussed “IS” as “an existential state of being” and as the “third person singular of the ‘verb of being’” (80). Martin then guided his students from a “review of the verb ‘to be’ and its forms” to a consideration of “the implications of Cummings’ description of ‘IS’ as a ‘live’ verb, which Cummings equates to “feeling,” as opposed to “belief” (81). Contrasting IS (a higher state of being) with Belief (second-hand ideas) through an examination of two poems, “i sing of Olaf” and “the Cambridge ladies,” Martin makes a good case for comprehending Cummings’ poems through IS. He further shows how an understanding of Cummings’ IS can be extended to the study of other forms of the verb “to be.” An especially notable example is the “am” found in Cummings’ elegy for his father, as well as related images such as “awakening,” “creation,” “spring,” and Cummings’ purposeful uses of “which” and “who” (83).

Kennedy cites the source of the three lines he quotes as Houghton Library, MS Am 1823.7(23), 107 (cf. Dreams 502). Given the importance of understanding Cummings through this definition, I felt the need to locate his original copy. However, what I found at the location in Kennedy cites was a fragmented set of irrelevant notes on a torn half-page. The notes Kennedy transcribed appeared to have been either missing or misfiled. Upon further examination, however, I uncovered a typescript of the notes in question [MS Am 1823.7(27), f.3, s.60] (fig. 1).

Fig. 1: “IS.” E. E. Cummings Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University [MS. Am 1823.7 (27), folder 3, sheet 60].

  Examination reveals two substantive disagreements between the typescript and Kennedy’s transcription. The discrepancies indicate that Kennedy must have transcribed a different, probably handwritten, version of the lines. The typescript’s variants from Kennedy’s version point to a different definition of Cummings’ conception of IS:

 IS=the third singular of the intransitive Verb, to Feel

not to completely feel=Thinking, the participle

incomplete thinking=Belief, the box in which god and all other nouns are kept                                      

[emphases mine]

In his transcription, Kennedy puts down intense live for intransitive in the first line, and writes principle instead of participle in the second line. Kennedy also includes two value descriptions: “cold” for IS and “warm” for “thinking,” neither occurring in Cummings’ typescript version. The uncovered typescript shows that Kennedy may have mis-transcribed Cummings’ often indecipherable handwriting, which can be challenging to decipher when a typescript version is not available.

In correspondence with me, Michael Webster remembered seeing from his previous archival research at the Houghton a handwritten version of Cummings’ lines. Looking up Webster’s reference confirmed that Kennedy mis-transcribed the manuscript version reproduced in figure 2:

Fig. 2: “IS.” Cummings papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University [MS. Am 1823.7(25), folder 5, sheet 107].

  This handwritten copy is probably the text used by Kennedy. If Kennedy transcribed from this note alone, his reading of “intense live” is plausible. However, close examination of this handwritten version clearly shows the word “intransitive” (note the crossed “t” in the upper right-hand corner). Kennedy’s mis-transcription of “principle” for “participle” is less explicable, as the word “participle” seems unambiguous here. Nonetheless, given the number of first-hand sources Kennedy had to deal with at the Houghton Library, the accuracy of most of what he transcribed for his biography of Cummings remains remarkable. It is worth noting further that even without the typescript copy, Kennedy’s transcription and Martin’s article, based on Kennedy’s (mis)transcription, do not depart greatly from Cummings’ intended meaning of IS— that is, an “intense live” verb, which Martin rightly characterizes as “an action verb.” However, the correct version of these three lines opens up new grammatical and linguistic implications for Cummings’ definition of IS.

First, defined as an intransitive Verb, Cummings’ IS expands its grammatical function from a copular verb to a verb conveying what Martin interprets an “action verb.” In his 1898 English Grammar, John Collinson Nesfield writes that “a verb is Intransitive, if the action or feeling denoted by the verb stops with itself, and is not directed towards anything else” (7).[1]

Cummings’ designation of IS as an “intransitive Verb” similarly implies that the “action or feeling denoted by the verb stops with itself,” needing neither a complement nor an object for its meaning (emphasis mine). Cummings stresses this concept of IS in his early experimental prose work, The Enormous Room (1922):

There are certain things in which one is unable to believe for the simple reason that he never ceases to feel them. Things of this sort—things which are always inside of us and in fact are us and which consequently will not be pushed off or away where we can begin thinking about them—are no longer things;they,and the us which they are,equals A Verb;an IS. (168)

Cummings’ typescript appears to anticipate this self-transcendent state of IS by assigning a copular verb as an “intransitive” verb, connoting the act of being and becoming, which cannot be measured, but is felt within its essential self, standing on its own. As one of his ViVa sonnets sings: “who standest as thou hast stood and thou shalt stand” (CP 352).

   When he omitted the words “cold” and “warm” from his typescript, Cummings emphasized grammatical configuration over value attributes. Given this emphasis on grammar, the typescript version that equates IS to “the third singular of the intransitive Verb, to Feel” should be regarded as the final authoritative version. In the typescript, the grammatical emphasis in line one (IS as an “intransitive Verb, to feel”) continues in line two where Cummings equates “not to completely feel” with “thinking, the participle.” Further, the liminal status of the participle as a verbal maintains a fluid situation and keeps open the possibility of a transformation manifest in the steps from “not to completely feel” (“thinking”) to completely “feel” (“IS”). According to A Grammar of Contemporary English, “the name ‘participle’ reflects the fact that such a form participates in the features both of the verb (‘The girl is sitting there’) and of the adjective (‘The sitting girl’)” (48). Would Cummings deliberately consider “thinking” as the “participle,” derived from a verb (denoting incomplete action), also anticipating a thinking self transformed to a feeling self, as an adjective? [2] The third line calls attention to the equation of “incomplete thinking” to “Belief,” synonymous with “god and all other nouns”: “incomplete thinking = Belief,the box in which god and all other nouns are kept.” Had Kennedy not missed Cummings’ grammatical reference to the participle, he probably would not have substituted “intense live” for “intransitive.” With the exception of a space before and after a comma, Kennedy’s transcription of the third line of the manuscript agrees with the typescript. The three lines together clearly form a significant grammatical and linguistic relationship to signify an action-to-stasis (or vice versa) movement that Kennedy’s transcription misses. From the first line with a verb of fullness of potential movement and being and feeling (an intransitive “to feel”), Cummings moves to a participle in the second line of partial feeling and movement (“thinking”), and then to an all-noun world (stasis) in the third line where even the second-best “thinking” is kept in a box called “Belief.”

In his introduction to Cummings’ notes, Kennedy eloquently articulates Cummings’ conception of IS through a brief overview of its literary context:

In The Enormous Room, Cummings is quite explicit about what that essential being of each person is. Different words have been used for centuries to describe an essential self—Socrates called it a daimon, Plato called it a psyche, Duns Scotus called it thisness, Shelley called it genius, Bernard Shaw called it life force, Freud called it id. Cummings called it an “IS.” (217)

Kennedy continues:

Once we recognize the pejorative coloration that he throws over the word “belief,” we can understand more clearly his description of the IS as he applies it in The Enormous Room to the character named Zulu, who exhibits “an effortless spontaneity.” (217)

  By placing Cummings’ IS in context with other great minds, Kennedy recognizes the unique quality of Cummings’ IS (cf. Dreams 217, 220, 353), thus underscoring the need to get Cummings’ notes right. From IS as an “intransitive verb” to “thinking” as “not to completely feel” and “believing” as nouns in the final note, the typed version exhibits a much more cohesive connection than Kennedy’s rendering in his Dreams in the Mirror. It appears that Cummings’ definition of IS ultimately calls for a re-configuration of the self through the language of grammar (“intransitive”) before the language of metaphor (“intense live”). The typescript, I propose, should be afforded precedence as Cummings’ final authorial intent in the early years of re-conceiving the self via re-conceiving “IS” as an intransitive verb, as IS.

Works Cited

  • Cummings, E. E. Complete Poems 1904-1962. Ed. George James Firmage. New York: Liveright, 1994.
  • —. The Enormous Room. A typescript edition with drawings by the author. 1922. Ed. George James Firmage. Introduction Richard S. Kennedy. New York: Liveright, 1978.
  • —. Notes on “IS.” ms. [circa 1921] MS. Am 1823.7(25), folder 5, sheet 107. E. E. Cummings Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University.
  • —. Notes on “IS.” ts. [circa 1921] MS. Am 1823.7 (27), folder 3, sheet 60. E. E. Cummings Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University.
  • —. i: six nonlectures. 1953. Harvard UP, 1996.
  • Kennedy, Richard S. Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E. E. Cummings. 2nd ed. New York: Liveright, 1994.
  • Martin, Todd. “ ‘IS’ as an Action Verb: Cummings and the Act of Being.” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 17 (2010): 80-83.
  • Nesfield, John Collinson. English Grammar, Past and Present. London: Macmillan, 1898. Rpt. BiblioLife, 2009.
  • Quirk, Randolph, Sidney Greenbaum, et al. A Grammar of Contemporary English. New York: Longman, 1972.


[1]  J. C. Nesfield’s English Grammar: Past and Present (Macmillan 1898) was a widely circulated grammar text at the turn of the twentieth century.  Cummings would have been familiar with a definition of an intransitive verb such as this one. 
[2]  I thank Michael Webster for help with the PDF files of the manuscripts and feedback on this note, especially for a helpful discussion of grammar. Cummings’ idiosyncratic equation of “not to completely feel” to “thinking, the participle” in contrast to “IS” as Cummings’ “intransitive verb” could raise the question of the grammatical form of “thinking,” derived from a verb, albeit not a transitive verb.  However, a differentiation of “thinking, the participle” from IS as the “intransitive verb” appears deliberate. A Grammar of Contemporary English (Randolph Quirk, Sydney Greenbaum, et. al.) further sheds some light on the use of the participle, noting that “the participle interpretation focuses on the process, while the adjective interpretation focuses on the state resulting from the process” (244).  Cummings’ emphasis on participial “thinking” as “not to completely feel” enacts both the process and the state this process leads to.

Call For Papers, Louisville Conference, February 21-23, 2019

CFP: E. E. Cummings Sessions at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture since 1900, University of Louisville, February 21-23, 2019 (deadline 9/8/2018)

“god america i”: Nation, Form, and Cummings’ Poetics of the Self

The E. E. Cummings Society and the Society’s journal, Spring, invite abstracts for 20-minute papers for the 47th annual Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture since 1900, February 21-23, 2019, at the University of Louisville (  In his Foreword to the first edition of A Miscellany (1958), Cummings comments on his own growth: “whereas times can merely change, an individual may grow.”  Taking up Cummings’ self-confidence in his own development, this panel invites abstracts that explore the extent of Cummings’ modernist growth as a poet-painter and as an individual. How does his poetic/aesthetic stance of an individual grow through his engagement with his own experimental, typographic modernism (as opposed to just the new art or the new poetry / vers libre, or the organicism of the Romantics)? How does Cummings’ poetics of the self grow in ways in which he responds to the world of UN- (both to “an established order” and to “an established disorder”)?  We invite abstracts that examine Cummings’ thematic and aesthetic provocations, not only as an artist but also as a poetic ironist working through a cultural i/eye. Topics ranging from -isms, nature, ecology, science, machinery, war, propaganda, race, gender and papers discussing critical receptions of Cummings’ iconic or iconoclastic radicalism in language and poetic genres and other literary forms are all welcome.

Please send 300-word abstracts (double-spaced and titled) and a brief bio by September 8, 2018 to:

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

E.E. Cummings’ ‘All in green went my love riding’

Cummings’ medieval ballad-inspired ‘All in green went my love riding’ (CP 15) has been a firm favourite among readers. The composition dates to his Harvard undergraduate years and the poem was collected in Tulips and Chimneys (1923); the preferred text is now Tulips & Chimneys (1922 ms), which returns to Cummings’ authorial selection and ordering of the poems.

‘All in green went my love riding’ narrates a hunt, with ‘my love riding / on a great horse of gold’. The chase is accompanied by four hounds, and pursues four deer at a white water, across meadows, into a gold valley, and up to a mountain. The poem has occasioned a fair bit of discussion (Sanders 1966; Jumper 1967; Robey 1968; Gidley 1968: 194; Davis 1970; West 1973; Lane 1976: 59-63; Frosch 2002; some further references are given by Frosch). One notable point of disagreement concerns the gender of the speaker and of the rider. Sanders (1966), Robey (1968), and Davis (1970) argue that the rider is female. Jumper (1967) argued that the rider was male and the speaker female, on the grounds that Cummings depicts a medieval hunt and that: ‘No woman, in her daintiness, would ride “a great horse.”’ Jumper adds that the narrative ‘is, of course, being reconstructed by the speaker of the poem, the “lady” back at the manor’, waiting in hopes of the return of a successful hunt. Other readers have disagreed in strong terms, and have often read the hunter as a Diana/Artemis figure (especially Sanders and Davis).

Frosch (2002) has challenged the whole framing of this debate over gender. Frosch observes that the gender of speaker and rider are not textually resolvable and, moreover, that this unresolvable gendering of the persons in the poem builds on a thematic ambiguity of gender, ‘as we see in the case of the deer, which actually change gender, starting out as “Four red roebuck,” then becoming “Four fleet does,” and then becoming “Four tall stags”’ (2002: 67). Our reading of the poem ought, in Frosch’s view, to embrace this ambiguity.

What Frosch says is certainly a salutary step towards a more light-footed reading of the poem, but there are perhaps a few further observations which could usefully be offered.


‘All in green went my love riding’ is situated in Tulips & Chimneys (1922 ms) within a tightly structured, self-reflexive sub-section consisting of nine poems titled ‘Songs’, where it stands as the exactly middle poem, Songs V. The imagery of that section is consistently reworked across poems. To give just one example (my own emphasis in bold), Songs I (CP 9-10) describes the ‘ghosts’ (souls) of the underworld as

but a rain frailly raging whom the hills
sink into and their sunsets,it shall pass.
Our feet tread sleepless meadows sweet with fear”)

while Songs III (CP 12-13) reworks this image into a reference to death,

(whose hand my folded soul shall know
while on faint hills do frailly go
The peaceful terrors of the snow,

It is tightly connected reworking: souls, hill, ‘frailly’, rain/snow, ‘sweet with fear’/‘peaceful terrors’.

Not only do these nine ‘Songs’ rework imagery and themes intra-textually; they also reply to each other. In ‘Songs III’, the speaker asks why he

Expects of your hair pale,
a terror musical?

and is implicitly answered by the hair of the beloved in Songs IV (CP 14) ‘which / sings’ (cf. ‘musical’) ‘do not fear’.

I have said more about the interwoven nature of ‘Songs’ as a section in E.E. Cummings’ Modernism and the Classics: Each Imperishable Stanza (Oxford University Press 2016). My point for now is that the ‘Songs’ section verges on a poem sequence, by which I mean a set of poems intrinsically connected and presented textually (e.g. via the text’s apparatus or other means of authorial and editorial comment—here, via the section headings) to signal that the individual poems are not a textual unit to be isolated from their sequence setting.

These textual circumstances encourage us to read some consistency into the speaker of the Songs. Most of the gendering in Songs is implicit and based on conventional markers of a male speaker and a female beloved. At a few points the gendering is more explicit: there is a reference to ‘her head’ (the beloved) in Songs II (CP 11) and in Songs IV the beloved asks the poetic speaker ‘for which girl art thou flowers bringing?’. Reading from Songs I-IV forward, there is a clear expectation that the speaker is male and that the beloved—that is, in Songs V, the rider—is female.

It is all the more surprising, then, to find that in early drafts of ‘All in green went my love riding’, the rider is unambiguously male.

Forth went my lord to hunt
Into the dawn my lord rode,
In green
And a merry deer ran before

These drafts represent the very first efforts towards the poem. They lie in a notebook dating to Cummings’ Harvard undergraduate years and now held at the Harry Ransom Center (University of Texas at Austin), among the E.E. Cummings papers, call number 6.1. The figure remains explicitly male in the poem’s early evolution, e.g. ‘Spurs of gold at his heels sparkled’. These drafts also show that Cummings’ first structural concern was the colour scheme of green, gold, and silver, which he lays out in a schematic.


a        green
b        gold
c         silver


a        green




b        gold




c         silver

In other words, the plan was to start with green, gold, and silver, then a stanza themed on green; then gold, green, silver, followed by a stanza themed on gold; then silver, gold, green, and a final stanza themed on silver. (Thus stanzas 2, 4, and 6 are themed on the first of the colours to appear, respectively, in 1, 3, and 5.)

At this point in its composition, the overall structure of the poem as we now have it and the rhythms which make it so memorable lie in its future, and so does the ambiguity of gender.

One other aspect of the poem came later: its Swinburnian feel. To repeat here briefly a few sentences from my book:

Swinburne’s ‘Itylus’ (from Poems and Ballads) draws on the myth of Philomela and Procne: in Swinburne’s poem, Philomela, transformed into the nightingale, calls out to her sister Procne, transformed into the swallow. ‘Itylus’ begins, ‘Swallow, my sister, O sister swallow’. Variations on that line become a refrain in Swinburne’s poem: ‘Sister, my sister, O fleet sweet swallow’; ‘O swallow, sister, O fleeting swallow’; ‘O sweet stray sister, O shifting swallow’. The music of these lines is very similar to the shifting refrains used by Cummings in ‘Songs V’. Swinburne’s alliterative tones (‘O sweet stray sister’) are recognizable in Cummings’ phrases: ‘the sleek slim deer / the tall tense deer’. The ‘fleet sweet swallow’ is echoed in Cummings’ ‘swift sweet deer’ and ‘fleet flown deer’. Both poems also end with a sheer, dead weight: ‘But the world shall end when I forget.’; ‘my heart fell dead before.’ (Rosenblitt 2016: 154)

Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads also contain notable explorations of gender ambiguity, including the hermaphroditic subjects of ‘Hermaphroditus’ and ‘Fragoletta’. In the end, Frosch is right in his essential point that the poem as we have it, at least if considered outside of the ‘Songs’ context, is ambiguous as to the gender of speaker and beloved. Indeed, his point about the gender-shifting nature of the deer stands however much the ‘Songs’ context might be deemed otherwise to fix the gender of speaker and beloved. Cummings is not often so ambiguous in gender. It is interesting that a rare exploration of gender ambiguity in Cummings coincides with a Swinburnian moment in his poetry. Kennedy was savagely disparaging about the Decadent influence on Cummings’ poetry (Kennedy 1976: 290; cf. 290-1, 295-6 and Kennedy 1994: 67-71). But Kennedy’s attitude is itself influenced by what Cassandra Laity (1996: 1-28) has exposed as a male modernist construction of an anti-Romantic, anti-Decadent self, generated in particular by Eliot, Pound, and Yeats, who narrativized themselves as male poets who had overcome a dangerous adolescent phase in which they were temporarily seduced by feminized Decadence. It is time to re-value Cummings’ productive dialogue with Decadence, and the beloved ‘All in green went my love riding’ is a good place to start.


Alison Rosenblitt, Ph.D.
Regent’s Park College, University of Oxford


For the opportunity to spend time with the Cummings papers at the Harry Ransom Center (University of Texas at Austin), I owe enormous thanks for a 2016 Research Fellowship in the Humanities, supported by the Frederic D. Weinstein Memorial Fellowship.


Works Cited

Cummings, E.E. 1994. Complete Poems 1904-1962: Revised, Corrected, and Expanded Edition Containing all the Published Poetry. ed. George J. Firmage. New York: Liveright.

Cummings, E.E. 1976. Tulips & Chimneys. The original 1922 Manuscript with the 34 additional poems from &. ed. and afterword George James Firmage and intro. Richard S. Kennedy. New York: Liveright.

Cummings, E.E. 1923. Tulips and Chimneys. New York: Thomas Seltzer.

Davis, William V. 1970. ‘Cummings’ “All in Green Went My Love Riding”.’ Concerning Poetry 2: 65-7.

Frosch, Thomas R. 2002. ‘Eros and Ambiguity in “All in Green Went My Love Riding”.’ Spring 11: 66-70.

Gidley, Mick. 1968. ‘Picture and Poem: E.E. Cummings in Perspective.’ Poetry Review 59: 179-95.

Jumper, Will C. 1967. ‘Cummings’ All In Green Went My Love Riding.’ Explicator 26: no.6.

Kennedy, Richard S. 1994. Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E.E. Cummings. 2nd ed. New York: Liveright. (1st ed. 1980.)

Kennedy, Richard S. 1976. ‘E.E. Cummings at Harvard: Studies.’ Harvard Library Bulletin 24: 267-97.

Laity, Cassandra. 1996. H.D. and the Victorian Fin de Siècle: Gender, Modernism, Decadence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lane, Gary. 1976. I Am: A Study of E.E. Cummings’ Poems. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Robey, Cora. 1968. ‘Cummings’ All in Green Went My Love Riding.’ Explicator 27: no.2.

Rosenblitt, J Alison. 2016. E.E. Cummings’ Modernism and the Classics: Each Imperishable Stanza. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sanders, Barry. 1966. ‘Cummings’ All in Green Went My Love Riding.’ Explicator 25.3: no. 23.

Swinburne, Algernon Charles. 2000 [1866/1865]. Poems and Ballads & Atalanta in Calydon. ed. Kenneth Haynes. London: Penguin.

West, Philip J. 1973. ‘Medieval Style and the Concerns of Modern Criticism.’ College English 34: 784-90.




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.

Silver Lake Revisited

Photos by Gillian Huang-Tiller and Ken Tiller unless otherwise noted
Click here for the Spring version of this piece

In 1997, Spring published Norman Friedman’s and David V. Forrest’s “Our Trip to Silver Lake,” a brief account (with many good photos) of the Cummings Society’s 1996 trip to New Hampshire to visit to Cummings’ summer home, Joy Farm. In this post, we chronicle a return visit nineteen years later, sponsored by the Friends of Madison Library (FOML). Besides visiting Joy Farm, we were able to make outdoor visits to “Abenaki,” the Cummings cottage on Silver Lake, as well as Ruth Shackford’s farm, old Mr. Lyman’s house and barn, Sam Ward’s house, and (almost) Hurricane Point. In addition, we spent a morning and part of an afternoon viewing the Cummings paintings and memorabilia collected at the Madison Historical Society Museum.

The visitors from the Cummings Society were Gillian Huang-Tiller, her husband Ken Tiller, Steven Katz, and Michael Webster—five fewer in number than those who made the 1996 journey. Our hosts were numerous, and generous with their time, advice, performances, and conversation. Chief among them are Susan Lee (Madison Library), Peter and Joyce Stevens, Peter and Becky Mattison (Joy Farm), Ann and David Wilkins (Madison Historical Society), Carol Batchelder, Ruth Shackford, and her son, Jesse Shackford, III.

Early Friday afternoon, Joyce Stevens and her husband Peter led a group consisting of David and Ann Wilkins, Gillian Huang-Tiller, Ken Tiller, and Michael Webster up a rutted two track path through the woods to “Abenaki,” the house that the Reverend Edward Cummings and Sam Ward built on Silver Lake, with a view of Mount Chocorua.[1] The property today is some 75 acres, but back then, Edward Cummings owned even more—almost the whole east side of the lake. The house is three stories, plus a large livable attic space. Since the current owner had not yet opened for the season, we could only view the house from the outside.

Figure 1: Abenaki

Figure 1: Abenaki

In the winter of 1909-1910, Sam Ward and others transported all the building materials for the house across the frozen lake via sledge. Cummings’ sister Elizabeth noted in her memoir that when the Cummings family arrived in the summer of 1910, “the cellar, walls, roof, and sides of the house were made, but there were only very rough floors, there were no windows in the window frames, and the stairs were not finished. My brother and I were delighted to be living by the lake and to be able to swim and go out in boats, and to help build our house. The whole family turned to and helped” (87).

The Reverend Cummings was something of a developer of the east side of Silver Lake: he designed and helped build at least two other houses there: the Smith-Ettinger-Foerster house on Hurricane Point and the Winter Road Hill house, built in the style of a Norwegian country house for English professor and editor William D. Howe. (See Bubb 29-34, 69-73 and Pfeffer 116-120.) A visit to the Foerster house is briefly discussed in Friedman and Forrest’s article (9) and Margaret Foerster herself writes of the house in Spring 6. Another source of information on Abenaki and Edward’s house-building is Roy Bubb’s Among the Giant Pines: The Century-Old Summer Houses of Silver Lake.[2}

Figure 2: view of Mount Chocorua from Abenaki

Figure 2: view of Mount Chocorua from Abenaki

Later Friday afternoon we followed Joyce Stevens’ car up High Street and North Division Road to a turn-off on a kind of one-lane dirt logging road (what we in Michigan call a “two-track”) and bumped along through the dense woods for maybe a mile until we emerged in a clearing to see Joy Farm at the top of the hill. The current owners, Peter and Becky Mattison, hosted a marvelous tea for the visitors and locals, served on the first and second floor porches with a view of Mount Chocorua and the White Mountains.[3]

Figure 3: View from the first floor porch at Joy Farm

Figure 3: View from the first floor porch at Joy Farm

(By the way, the natives of Madison, NH and environs pronounce “Chocorua” like this: “Sho – KOR – u (oo) – wa”—with the accent on the second syllable.) Joy Farm was bought in 1899 from one Ephraim Joy and refurbished and expanded by Cummings’ father, with extensive help from a local carpenter with the resonant name of Zantford Savary.

Additional photo: Zantford Savary (courtesy of Joyce Stevens)

Additional photo: Zantford Savary (courtesy of Joyce Stevens)

In our “Cummings at Silver Lake” brochure, Joyce Stevens had transcribed some notes in which Cummings describes how his father transformed the house:

When my New Hampshire father bought what was variously known as the Hatch place or the Joy farm (after successive owners Hatch and Ephraim Joy) its primitive hilltop house faced a painfully made clearing. Not for nothing is New Hampshire nicknamed the Granite State; that clearing was ringed with gigantic rocks: boulders of all imaginable shapes yanked from the earth, year after year, by sweating men and horses. . . . All the ramshackle house’s crazy windows gave on to that clearing—not even a peephole graced the opposite side. [H]ad the back of the house contained a single aperture some Hatch or Joy might have found herself or himself confronted by some of the seven loveliest mountains in the world. . . . My father’s first deed was, by cutting windows and building a porch on the side toward the seven mountains, to turn his newly purchased house around without moving it.

Figure 4: Joy Farm now

Figure 4: Joy Farm now

Figure 5: Joy Farm then

Figure 5: Joy Farm then

Six of these seven peaks are marked in the photo of “Joy Farm then.” Comparing this photo with one of the present-day house, we can clearly see how Mattisons’ addition on the right has replaced a much smaller kitchen area. (Peter Mattison told me that a massive fireplace in the kitchen collapsed and had to be rebuilt.) Of course, the large windows that Edward added on the mountain side of the house are not visible in the “then” photo, but we can see on the left of the photo how the second story extends over the first floor porch. Elizabeth Cummings’ memoir describes these renovations:

Later my father made the house still bigger by building a full second story that extended out over the porch. . . . After the house was made bigger, the roof had a long flat part with a railing around it. There were stairs leading up to the roof, we used to have lots of fun on that flat roof. From it you could look out to the mountains and to the woods and fields all around. (110)

In the photo, we can clearly see the stairway to the flat roof between the first and second dormer windows. (All the dormer windows were also added by Edward Cummings.) As he did at Silver Lake some 10-15 years later, Cummings’ father sold or donated some of his large land holdings around Joy Farm. His brother John lived just north of Joy Farm, and in 1900, Edward gave ten acres of land just to the south to the Reverend Samuel Crothers, a fellow Unitarian minister. The “Crothers Croft” was also built by Zantford Savary.

Cummings’ father opened up the interior of the house by removing some partitions and constructing a large open staircase in the middle of the house. The railings and risers on the staircase, as well as the shelves he built for books, are constructed of 2″ x 6″ boards. The extensive renovations and solid construction of the house are the marks of a confident man: the Reverend Edward Cummings was no meek little preacher. The stairway in particular reminds me of his son’s description of Picasso as a “Lumberman of The Distinct” chopping “hughest inherent / Trees of Ego” to “hew form truly” (CP 95).

Figure 6: Downstairs sitting room, with the stairway in the foreground

Figure 6: Downstairs sitting room, with the stairway in the foreground

Additional photo: Top of stairs at Joy Farm

Additional photo: Top of stairs at Joy Farm

Additional photo: Antlers and bust at the top of the stairs

Additional photo: Antlers and bust at the top of the stairs

At the top of the stairs was very large (2-3 feet high) plaster bust of Zeus—a sort of unwearable mask. Downstairs there were many books on the shelves— almost all of them Edward’s or Rebecca’s. The Mattisons has set out many old magazines out on tables and chairs—some Outlook magazines circa 1903-1910, some fashion mags and New Yorkers from the ’30s and ’40s, a few Paris Matches from the ’40s and ’50s, and the 1953 LIFE magazine with the complete publication of Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. Cummings’ palettes were on display, as well as two quite good small portraits—one of himself and one of Anne.

Figure 7: Cummings’ sweater and Hemingway issue of LIFE

Figure 7: Cummings’ sweater and Hemingway issue of LIFE

Figure 8: Portraits of Cummings and Anne

Figure 8: Cummings’ self-portrait and his portrait of Anne

On Friday evening, the FOML presented a “Cummings at Silver Lake” program at Noyes Hall in the Madison School. David Wilkins began with a short nonlecture impersonation of E. E. Cummings, followed by Wilkins (as Cummings) and Peter Stevens (as his questioner) reading the short dialogue called “Foreword to an Exhibit: II” (Miscellany 316-317), which was followed by a reading of “A Poet’s Advice to Students” (Miscellany 335). Next, the Silver Lake Singers performed six musical versions of Cummings poems, including Vincent Persichetti’s setting of “purer than purest pure” (CP 601), Ellen Mandel’s setting of “when faces called flowers float out of the ground” (CP 665), and Dexter Harding’s setting of “I’m very fond of / black bean / soup” (CP 1023), performed on guitar by the composer himself. Jesse Shackford III and Ruth Shackford then read some of Cummings’ letters written to Ruth when she was caretaker of Joy Farm. (Excerpts from these letters may be read in Norman Friedman’s article in Spring 6.) The program concluded with a round table of reminiscences of Cummings and Marion by Jesse Shackford, Ruth Shackford, Henry Forrest, Linda Drew Smith, and Carol Batchelder.

Figure 9: Jesse and Ruth Shackford (photo by Duane Dale)

Figure 9: Jesse and Ruth Shackford (photo by Duane Dale)

Jesse talked of the time when Marion called him to Joy Farm to help her after Cummings suffered the massive stroke that ended his life. Carol Batchelder spoke of how Cummings would stand by the memorial light looking out at the lake while Marion went to the post office or the store. (See Carol’s article in Spring 6, “Nobody-But-Himself.”) One can hear Ruth and Jesse Shackford discuss the Cummings they knew in this audio postcard from New Hampshire Public Radio.

On Saturday at the Historical Society Museum, Steven Katz gave an excellent talk on Cummings’ art, concentrating on the Silver Lake / Joy Farm / Mt. Chocorua works.

Figure 10: Steven Katz presenting

Figure 10: Steven Katz presenting

In the Museum gallery were several of Cummings’ oil sketches, as well as two fine landscapes of Mount Chocorua donated by Ruth Shackford.

Figure 11: E. E. Cummings, Mount Chocorua (1949; photo: FOML)

Figure 11: E. E. Cummings, Mount Chocorua (1949; photo: FOML)

Also on display were early photos of Elizabeth and Estlin and their father, Elizabeth’s (quite large) doll, and a shield that the 10-year old Cummings made from the bottom or top of a sugar barrel. With his wood-burning kit, he incised in the middle of the shield his totem animal, an elephant. Around the edge of the shield “are 10 rather abstracted animals, including a goat, a snake, a tiger, a leopard, a dog, a rhinoceros, and an alligator or crocodile” (Wilkins).

Figure 12: Cummings’ elephant shield

Figure 12: Cummings’ elephant shield

On Saturday afternoon, with the help of an excellent map provided by our hosts, we went on a self-guided tour of outdoor sights around Silver Lake. We drove first to the Depot, Post Office, and Memorial Lighthouse at the head of Silver Lake. Frank Lyman’s place is just down the road: Mr. Lyman would supply Cummings and Marion with fresh vegetables, and of course, he is the wise protagonist of “old mr ly” (CP 567). Another Cummings poem, “now comes the good rain farmers pray for(and” (CP 754), depicts Frank and his son Reg and daughter-in-law Lena standing in “the barn’s immense / doorway,” watching the rain fall. When we were there, the barn was filled with antiques, and outside was a small exhibit showing the photo of Mr. Lyman from Adventures in Value. A grasshopper alighted and Gillian snapped a photo.

Figure 13: Grasshopper and Frank Lyman

Figure 13: Grasshopper and Frank Lyman

North of the Lyman place on High Street is Jess Shackford’s farm, while to the south on Plains Road on the west side of Silver Lake is Sam Ward’s farm. Ruth Shackford showed us a small landscape that Cummings painted, with a view of Mount Chocorua.

Ruth Shackford and painting

Figure 14: Ruth Shackford and painting

At Sam Ward’s place, current owner Joyce Stevens had displayed on the porch some photos of Sam and his wife Mame, a composition board with Cummings’ elegy for Sam, “rain or hail” (CP 568), and copies of letters (from the Houghton Library) to and from Cummings and Sam.

Our last stop was a visit to Hurricane Point Natural Area. In the summer and autumn of 1920, Cummings finished writing the bulk of The Enormous Room at his tree house on the point. (He would paddle a canoe from Abenaki to the point, work all day, then paddle back for supper.) The Friends of Madison Library web site Cummings at Silver Lake notes that “Three pine stumps and a rotting trunk inclining down-slope toward the lake mark the site of the tree house.” Despite the excellent trail leading to the end of the point, Gillian, Ken, and I cravenly retreated after seeing masses of poison ivy lining the pathway. We missed the remnants, but the wonderful site reminded us that even while writing of his incarceration in a French prison camp, Cummings remained close to nature.

Figure 15: Searching for Hurricane Point

Figure 15: Searching for Hurricane Point


Michael Webster
Grand Valley State University


[1] Sam Ward is eulogized in Cummings’ poem “rain or hail”: “sam was a man / grinned his grin / done his chores / laid him down” (CP 568).

[2] Among the Giant Pines may be purchased from the Madison Historical Society Museum. (Chapter two, titled “Reverend Edward Cummings Family—Joy Farm and Abenaki,” also has a brief consideration of Sam Ward.)

[3] Some photos of the tea at Joy Farm have been posted on the FOML Cummings at Silver Lake site.

Works Cited

Batchelder Carol A. “Nobody-But-Himself.” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 6 (1997): 26-44.

Bubb, Roy. Among the Giant Pines: The Century-Old Summer Houses of Silver Lake. Madison, NH: RB Press / Madison Historical Society, 2013. [Chapter two is titled “Reverend Edward Cummings Family—Joy Farm and Abenaki.”]

Cummings, E. E. “Foreword to an Exhibit: II.” Memorial Gallery, Rochester, NY (May 1945). Rpt. in E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised. Ed. George J. Firmage. New York: October House, 1965. 316-317.

—. “A Poet’s Advice to Students” Ottawa Hills Spectator (26 Oct. 1955). Rpt. in E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised. Ed. George J. Firmage. New York: October House, 1965. 335.

Donahue, Molly. “Audio Postcard: A Celebration of E.E. Cummings.” Word of Mouth, New Hampshire Public Radio, 20 July 2015. Web and Radio.

FOML. “E. E. Cummings at Silver Lake.” Madison, N.H.: Friends of Madison Library, 2015. Brochure.

—. “Where did E. E. Cummings write The Enormous Room?” Cummings at Silver Lake, Friends of Madison Library, 31 May 2015. Web.

—. “Tea at Joy Farm.” Cummings at Silver Lake, Friends of Madison Library, 16 July 2015. Web.

Foerster, Margaret. “A Note on Cummings and My Family at Silver Lake.” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 6 (1997): 22-25.

Friedman, Norman. “Letters from the Cummingses to Ruth Shackford.” Spring: The Journal of the E .E. Cummings Society 6 (1997): 18-21.

Friedman, Norman and David V. Forrest. “Our Trip to Silver Lake.” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 6 (1997): 9-17.

Pfeffer, W. Tad. The Hand of the Small Town Builder: Summer Homes in Northern New England, 1876-1930. Boston: David R. Godine, 2013.

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

Stevens, Peter. “Sam Ward.” Cummings at Silver Lake, Friends of Madison Library, April 2015. Web.

Wilkins, David G. and FOML. “Madison Historical Society: The Cummings Family Collection at the Madison Historical Society.” Cummings at Silver Lake, Friends of Madison Library, April 2015. Web.



Stephen Scotti and ViVa Cummings!


Stephen Scotti was a musician and composer who set many of Cummings’ poems to music and organized a musical review of his settings called ViVa Cummings! [later revised and retitled as “E. E.! (Viva Cummings)”]. In 1990, at the end of the run of the old series of Spring, Scotti wrote of his work on ViVa Cummings: “I was overwhelmed with joy . . . with all the feeling that was in the Mazur Theatre that night brought about because of the love we all have for this most remarkable of men, E. E. Cummings. . . . I put this work together out of love for this poet. I had no commission or underlying motive to put in the amount of time it took to realize these songs and [arrange] the order of the poems to create the experience of the spirit of the poet as if bringing him back to life in a darkened theatre” (“Scotti Discusses” 12). David Forrest’s review of that performance amply supported Scotti’s feelings:

The twenty or so of us from the E. E Cummings Society who heard and saw VIVA CUMMINGS! . . . were unanimously enthusiastic and praising as we met afterwards with Mr. Scotti and the actors. We especially appreciated the great care that had gone into the order of the poems. The first act deals with Cummings’ bawdy and political satire, the second with the big themes of love and death. The three actors were brilliant effective and creative. (10)

Throughout the review, Scotti performed at the piano, giving, Forrest reported, “virtuoso renderings of many of the most sardonic dialect pieces, such as ‘next to of course god america i.’ The rendering of ‘Jimmie’s got a goil goil goil,/ Jimmie’ in successive versions in the style of the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and 50’s, with everything from Durante to rock, torch and double-time, was a crown jewel of the evening” (10-11). Forrest added: “Every college English teacher should have as a fondest wish that students see this production.” Forrest’s review concludes: “this night nothing disappointed, and the production set a standard showing what such musical settings can do when the composer is at one with the lyrics and the poet’s spirit. I shall always hear some of the poems Mr. Scotti’s way” (11).

Stephen Scotti was born in Somerville, Massachusetts, raised in the North End of Boston (where he learned to play piano and accordion), and educated at Rindge Technical School in Cambridge, and at Boston University, where he received a degree in music. His obituary in the Gloucester Times reports that “Mr. Scotti taught music at the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut and also the Lawrence Vocational School of Lawrence, Mass.” Scotti later became a piano technician and tuner, a job that allowed him time to pursue his vocation as a musician. After tuning a piano, Scotti would often sit down and play. In her memorial piece on Scotti, Gail McCarthy quotes Gloria Stanton: “he . . . started playing these incredible pieces of music. I came out of the kitchen, and what he was playing brought tears to my eyes.”

In addition to the poems of Cummings, Scotti also set to music the works of William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, and Bertolt Brecht (Goodwin 163). In Spring 5 (1996), Rufus Goodwin reported that

Scotti has performed his arrangements of the poetry of William Butler Yeats and the lyrics and limericks of Edward Lear in England, in St. George’s Hall in Glastonbury. . . . Also in the ’80s, Scotti performed the Irish poet’s poems at the Yeats summer school in Sligo. He had to tune the old German grand piano at the annual summer program himself. (163-164)

Scotti also wrote and produced at least one other musical revue, Songs and Stories of Cape Ann and Cape America (McCarthy). One can hear Scotti performing two of the songs from the review here. He also set some of his own lyrics to music, among them a little ditty called “Burn All the Flags,” whose chorus goes: “Burn all the flags / from here to Xanadu / Undrape the world / to free me and you” (quoted in Goodwin 164).


Cover of Program for the Provincetown Theater Company production of ViVa Cummings, May, 1990.

As noted in Norman Friedman’s bibliography in The Theatre of E. E. Cummings, ViVa Cummings! was first presented in Gloucester, MA, October 1984, with direction and choreography by William A. Finlay. The review was also performed at the Provincetown Inn, May 1990, and presented by the Blue Heron Theatre Company at the Mazur Theatre in New York City, October 1990, as well on tour in April 1992 in Bogota, Columbia and Caracas, Venezuela (here’s the complete program for the May 1990 production). To Friedman’s list, Rufus Goodwin adds performances on Martha’s Vineyard and Boston University in October 1994. Goodwin also notes that William Finlay directed a “circus” version of the show, including “trapezes, clowns, and stilts,” produced “for summer theatre at Union College, Schenectady, New York, in 1995.” Finlay reported that the circus version was “even ‘more magical’ than the concert version” (Goodwin 163).

In Spring 8 (1999), Forrest reviewed a new production of the slightly renamed E.E.! (Viva Cummings) performed in April of that year at the Blue Heron Arts Center, New York City. Forrest noted that Norman Friedman “greatly enjoyed” the performance while also pointing out in typical Norman fashion “that Scotti’s selections emphasize Cummings’ earlier works, especially the lyrical and satiric ones, which lend themselves to theatrical presentation, at the expense of the philosophical” (180). The “News, Notes, Correspondence” section of Spring 11 (2002) reported that “Stephen Scotti and Kristine Stott gave a very successful concert of Cummings poems set to music at the ALA Conference in Cambridge, MA, May 24-27, 2001 (228). Like Forrest, I vividly remember the performance of “Jimmie’s got a goil” (CP 233) in the successive pop styles of the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. In 2006, Kristine Stott recorded a CD of Scotti songs, including some Scotti originals, eight Cummings songs, and two settings of Dorothy Parker’s poems. (Among the Cummings songs on the album are “May I Feel,” “Maggie and Millie and Mollie and May,” and “Jimmie’s Got a Goil.”) Although this CD is out of print, one can listen to each track individually on You Tube. Or the entire CD may be downloaded electronically from Apple iTunes, Great Indie Music, or CD Baby.

As I reported in Spring 17 (2010), Scotti sent me a homemade CD of his own performances of settings of three Cummings poems: “O the sun comes up-up-up in the opening” (CP 773), “(of Ever-Ever Land i speak” (CP 466), and “i thank You God for most this amazing” (CP 663). (Clicking on these links downloads the file.)  These three tracks long remained unplayable on any device that I possessed, but now that technicians at my university have restored them, we can hear Scotti’s own (somewhat scratchy) performances. I hope that, despite the imperfect restoration of the three songs, one can hear in them what Rufus Goodwin called Scotti’s “showbiz sound, as if Scotti were an old hoofer, a tap dancer, a former carnival man, maybe a barker” (165). In a note to me that accompanied the three-song CD, Scotti wrote:

I learned everything I know about Cummings from Slater Brown who lived in Rockport, MA with his amazing wife. I performed “i thank You God for most this amazing / day” at his memorial service in Rockport. He asked me to sing it for him before he died. (169)

In the manner of Cummings, Scotti’s circus-jazz-vaudeville style could serve serious purposes as well. Goodwin quotes Scotti as saying: “To me, the song . . . is the distillation of truth with the right selected words and the right selected melody. This is reality. The rest of the time is unreal” (161).


Michael Webster
Grand Valley State University

Works Cited

Goodwin, Rufus. “E. E. Poetry in Performance: Scotti and Cummings.” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 5 (1996): 161-168.

Forrest, David V. “Forrest Reviews ‘Viva Cummings’.” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society Old Series 10.2 (October 1990): 10-11.

—. “Review of E.E.! (Viva Cummings): A Musical Review Conceived and Composed by Steve Scotti.” (Blue Heron Arts Center, New York City, April 16, 1999) Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 8 (1999): 179-180.

McCarthy, Gail. “Stephen Scotti Recalled as Consummate Musician.” Gloucester Daily Times Wednesday, July 3, 2013. Web.

“News, Notes, Correspondence.” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 11 (2002): 169-171. Print and Web.

“News, Notes, & Correspondence.” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 17 (2010): 152-175. Print and Web.

Scotti, Stephen R. “Stephen Scotti Discusses Production and Review.” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society Old Series 10.2 (October 1990): 12-13.

—. “VIVA CUMMINGS! On the Road in South America (April 1992).Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 3 (1994): 97-101.

Stephen Scotti.” Gloucester Poet Laureate (dedicated to the poets and poetry of Gloucester MA), 2009. Web.

Stephen R. Scotti, 78.” Gloucester Daily Times July 1, 2013. Web.

Stott, Kristine. May I Feel: Songs by Stephen Scotti. CD. Swansong Productions, 2006. [Available on You Tube or download at Apple iTunes, Great Indie Music, or CD Baby]


Track List for Kristine Stott’s CD May I Feel: Songs by Stephen Scotti

  1. Come Gaze with Me 2:45
  2. Valentine for New York 2:17
  3. Interior 3:42
  4. Sweet Spring 2:16
  5. Modes of Attire 2:47
  6. Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town 4:53
  7. A Strand of Pearls 2:03
  8. Maggie and Millie and Mollie and May 2:23
  9. May I Feel 1:51
  10. This Little Pair 1:45
  11. I Thank You, God 2:57
  12. Unfortunate Coincidence/One Perfect Rose 2:30 [Dorothy Parker]
  13. The Satin Dress 2:17
  14. Resume 1:11 [Dorothy Parker]
  15. Jimmie’s Got a Goil 4:23



Cummings Centennials (1914-1915)

Thayer Hall, Image from

Thayer Hall, Image from

The school year 1914-1915 was Cummings’ senior year at Harvard, the year he moved the few blocks from 104 Irving Street to Thayer Hall in Harvard Yard. (In the fall of 1915, Cummings continued his education at Harvard, studying for his M.A.) Other residents of Thayer Hall included S. Foster Damon, John Dos Passos, and Robert Hillyer. According to Charles Norman, Cummings “adorned his mantelpiece with four or five elephants and his walls with ‘Krazy Kat’ comic strips” (34).

In his junior and senior years, Cummings’ studies shifted from a concentration on Latin and Greek to courses in English and Comparative Literature. Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno reports that though Cummings started out as a Classics major, he eventually graduated with an “AB in Literature with concentrations in Greek and English” (59). Among the courses Cummings took was the year-long Literary History of England and Its Relations to that of the Continent, which covered European literature up to the Renaissance. He also continued his Greek studies with Greek VI, which studied Greek drama, and he studied Chaucer with William A. Neilson.[1] In addition, Cummings took George Lyman Kittredge’s course that studied intensively six Shakespeare plays. Kennedy writes: “most student recollections depict [Kittredge] in the classroom as playing a well-rehearsed role of omniscient scholar: an imperious eagle-eyed old man hurling penetrating questions or answering queries with authoritative scorn as he lifted his well-trimmed white beard in the air” (Dreams 63).

In his senior year, Cummings took a couple of year-long courses that deserve special mention. The first, Kennedy asserts, was “a major educational experience” for Cummings, the “year of Dante under Charles H. Grandgent . . . the foremost Dante specialist in the English-speaking world.” Not only did Cummings read The Divine Comedy in Italian, but also studied “the culture of the Middle Ages, the history and politics of Florence, the nature of allegory, and . . . [read] Il Convivio, De Monarchia, [and] La Vita Nuova” (Dreams 60). Kennedy reports that Cummings was “intensely interested in the material of the course and sat, an alert figure, in the front row. He took extensive lecture notes [and] drew elaborate diagrams of Dante’s Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise with allegorical details minutely placed in the scheme” (60). The second year-long course Cummings took was Dean Briggs’ Advanced Composition.[2] Kennedy writes that “Briggs was no doubt the best-loved professor in the Harvard yard. He was a very kind, gentle, gracious human being,” who, like Cummings, was “slight of build, very boyish in appearance,” and who, also like Cummings, “had attended Cambridge Latin School and went on to study Greek at Harvard” (69). Students in the course wrote poetry, prose, and essays; probably one of Cummings’ first compositions was a sentimental war poem about a grieving mother, “From a Newspaper August 1914.” Kennedy informs us that “his father later had copies of it typed with a new title, ‘The Casualty List,’ and inserted into the pages of Eight Harvard Poets” (134).[3] Sentimentalism did not preclude aestheticism: one of Cummings’ essays from October 1914, “The Young Fawn,” is characterized by Kennedy as “an overwritten scenario inspired by the ballet ‘The Afternoon of a Faun,’ which drew Briggs’s polite rebuke ‘Now and then I suspect you . . . of putting in some details for sound’s sake—of indulging yourself in that for which English 5 is one of the best remedies’ ” (70). Later in the year, Cummings would write an essay on Chinese and Japanese poetry called “The Poetry of Silence,” which Kennedy sees as showing “an improvement in style and some appreciation for economy in expression” (72). Cummings also wrote for the class a children’s story, “The King,”—“about a little boy who takes a toy elephant to bed with him at night” (Kennedy 72). It was published in The Harvard Monthly in July 1915.

Cummings’ most substantial work for the class was his 27-page term paper, “The New Art,” which, in shortened form, the poet delivered as a “graduation part” at the Harvard commencement ceremonies on June 24, 1915. In the longer text, Cummings wrote that the essay traces “the continuous development [in painting] from Realism to Monet and from Monet to Duchamp-Villon” (qtd. in Kennedy 83). In addition, Kennedy writes, the essay undertook “to show the interconnections among the new tendencies in the visual arts, music, and literature” (83). The audience at the Sanders Theatre seemed to accept Cummings’ discourse on the aesthetics of the new music and painting, but when the speaker came to treat poetry, he ruffled the audience by quoting from the imagist verse of Amy Lowell, sister of Harvard’s president A. Lawrence Lowell. S. Foster Damon recorded the audience’s reactions: “Sanders Theatre shuddered in sibilant horror as he recited: ‘Why do the lilies goggle their tongues at me’ ” (qtd. in Norman 43). Damon continued:

One aged lady (peace be to her bones!) was heard to remark aloud: “Is that our president’s sister’s poetry he is quoting? Well, I think it is an insult to our president!” Meanwhile, the president’s face, on which all eyes were fixed, was absolutely unperturbed. (qtd. in Norman 43-44)

Maybe not entirely “unperturbed”: later, Cummings recorded in his notes that Lowell “turned to brick” (qtd. in Kennedy 84). After Amy Lowell, the young orator quoted from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, which functioned admirably, Cummings wrote later, as “comic relief” (cf. Kennedy 84-85). Whatever the audience reactions, the “New Art” speech showed, as Kennedy writes, a remarkably “discursive acquaintance with so much of the avant-garde activity in the arts” (83).


Damon and Cummings, circa 1914

This acquaintance was in part due to the tutelage of friends and mentors like S. Foster Damon and Scofield Thayer. As the previous “Cummings Centennials” article noted, it was Damon who introduced Cummings to much that was new in the arts, lending him copies of Poetry magazine and taking him to see the Boston version of the Armory Show in 1913. Much of the discussion in “The New Art” of art, dance, music, and literature is indebted to Damon’s influence. Cummings told Charles Norman: “Practically everything I know about painting and poetry came to me though Damon” (38).

Cover of Pound's Ripostes

Cover of Pound’s Ripostes

It was Damon who loaned to the young poet Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914) and Ezra Pound’s anthology Des Imagistes (1914) (Dreams 78-79). Damon also probably introduced Cummings to Alfred Kreymborg’s little magazine Others, which began publication in July 1915. Perhaps most importantly for Cummings’ future poetic career, Damon showed Cummings Ezra Pound’s Ripostes, which contained the poem “The Return.”[4] Years later in the mid-1950s, Cummings wrote in his notes that this poem “made me(for better or worse)the writer I am today.” He was impressed by the poem’s modern treatment of a classical subject, but he noted that the “inaudible poem—the visual poem,the poem for not ears but Eye—moved me more” (qtd. in Kennedy 106).[5] In 1957 Cummings wrote to Charles Norman that he would never “forget the thrill I experienced on first reading ‘The Return’ ” (Letters 241).

In addition, Damon and Cummings continued to explore cultural events and nightlife in Boston. Sometime in 1915, Cummings found a new girlfriend, whose name Kennedy gives (and only in his notes) as Doris.[6] Kennedy writes that

Her letters to Cummings in 1915 show her to be a warm, vivacious charmer, almost a character out of an early F. Scott Fitzgerald story. She was enthusiastic about parties, dances, clambakes, card games, tennis, boating, swimming, much pleased with her new roadster (a Scripps-Booth with bright red wire wheels) devoted to her new dog Scottie, and struggling to be a proper New England girl. . . . In her letters she would lapse into French whenever she touched on a delicate subject. (87)

Kennedy says they “drifted away from each other during 1916” (88).

Two days after Cummings delivered “The New Art,” Scofield Thayer embarked from Liverpool, returning from two years of study at Oxford (Dempsey 27). Sometime that summer, Thayer sent Cummings a copy of Blast II, the “Review of the Great English Vortex” edited by Wyndham Lewis (Kennedy 94-95). Thayer sent a great many books, apparently, among them perhaps Willard Huntington Wright’s Modern Painting: Its Tendency and Meaning (1915), which greatly influenced Cummings’ aesthetics. Milton Cohen writes that the book “virtually became Cummings’s bible in the teens and twenties . . . from which he typed out long paragraphs verbatim in his notes” (120). In his letter to Thayer thanking him for the books (“your weighty package from Brentano’s”), Cummings wrote: “ ‘Blast’ is a very important addition to my limited library. Could I procure the first number thru B.?”[7] Among the Vorticist etchings, essays by Lewis, and poems by Pound in Blast II, Cummings found most intriguing T. S. Eliot’s poems “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” and “Preludes.” (He copied out the entire “Rhapsody” in his 1916 term paper, “The Poetry of a New Era.”)

Despite his continued fascination with the new art, the poems that Cummings published in 1914-1915 in The Harvard Monthly show little evidence of this interest. With the exception of a few memorable phrases, most of the poems Cummings published are overloaded with Pre-Raphaelite imagery (“her hands / Hurting the dark with lilies”) and rather precious metaphors (“In green cloisters throng / Shy nuns of evening, telling beads of song”) (CP 867 and CP 868). The themes of love, longing, and twilight that predominate in these poems would reappear in better form in Cummings’ more mature work. And while Cummings’ intense craftsmanship is evident in these poems, it is somewhat obscured by the elaborate and outdated diction. However, a refrain in “Nocturne,” published in March 1914, presages one of Cummings’ earliest triumphs. The lines “All silently I loved my love / In gardens of white ivory” (CP 864) were given a bit more medieval spine some two years later when he wrote: “All in green went my love riding / on a great horse of gold / into the silver dawn” (CP 15). The shift from vague symbolist longing to the creation of a scene in indelible images is a measure of Cummings’ growth in these years. Kennedy writes: “Six well-scratched-up pages in his working notebook attest to the care which he devoted to this piece. When it was published in the Monthly [in March 1916], it met with praise from professors and fellow-students alike” (Dreams 83).

While some of the poems from this period not published in the Monthly exhibit similar Pre-Raphaelite or even Yeatsian diction (“The white rose of my soul / Is blown upon the ways” [CP 918]), others experiment with a rather tame free verse: “Moon-in-the-Trees / The old canoe awaits you. / He is not, as you know, afraid of the dark” (CP 921). This poem ends with Cummings reaching for a more personal extravagance: “In the nostrils of my nights / An incense of irrevocable mountains.” The sonnets written in appreciation for his friends and mentors Dory Miller, S. Foster Damon, J. Sibley Watson, and Scofield Thayer are often embarrassingly gushy. The one exception is Cummings’ attempt at humor in the poem dedicated to Watson (CP 927), but the wit is not well-controlled and falls flat.

However, Watson was at least partly responsible for a much more successful sonnet, “this is the garden:colours come and go,” (CP 144). In her memoir, Hildegarde Watson reports that in the summer of 1915, Cummings and her husband “motored to Rochester [N.Y.] to the Watson house, where Estlin wrote the now famous sonnet. . . . Mrs. Watson placed it in her guest book where, later, I came across it. It is arranged—and punctuated—differently from the published version; there is no “u” in “color,” and there are capitals at the beginning of each line!” (87). Here is the first stanza of this sonnet as transcribed by Hildegarde Watson:

This is the garden. Colors come and go:
Frail azures fluttering from night’s outer wing,
Strong silent greens serenely lingering,
Absolute lights like baths of golden snow.

The poem appears with the same punctuation and capitalization in Eight Harvard Poets (1917). When the sonnet was published in Tulips and Chimneys (1923), Cummings removed most capital letters, retaining only those in words that begin sentences, along with the two crucial capitals in the words “Death’s” and “They.” He also made two simple changes in punctuation in the first line—substituting a colon for the period after “garden” and a comma for the colon after “go”—adding more momentum to a line that nevertheless still lingers slightly.

In his role as one of the editors of The Monthly, Cummings was quite able to critique some of the excesses of Harvard aestheticism. Robert Hillyer remembered Cummings the editor: “Some aspirant handed in a poem that began with the line: ‘Thou hast faun eyes.’ Cummings’ comment took graphic form—a small horned deer with large and soulful eyes. On another poem he wrote, ‘Good but poor.’ This always seemed to me an excellent phrase, accurately descriptive of much that is published” (qtd. Norman 33). Much of Cummings’ Harvard poetry could be described the same way: “Good but poor.” However, even though “All in green” and “this is the garden” show that Cummings’ reading of Dante and Chaucer was helping to focus and discipline some of his belated romanticism, it was only after he received his MA in 1916 and left Harvard that he began to experiment with creating his own poems “for not ears but Eye.”


Michael Webster
Grand Valley State University

Works Cited

Cummings, E. E. Complete Poems, 1904-1962. Ed George J. Firmage. New York: Liveright, 1994.

—. “The New Art.” The Harvard Advocate 99.10 (June 24, 1915): 154-156. Rpt. in E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised. Ed. George J. Firmage. New York: October House, 1965. 5-11.

—. Letter to Scofield Thayer. [July 1915?] Dial / Scofield Thayer Collection. Beinecke Library, Yale University. YCAL MS 34, Box 30, Folder 794.

Dempsey, James. The Tortured Life of Scofield Thayer. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 2014.

Firmage, George J. E. E. Cummings: A Bibliography. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan UP, 1960.

Huang-Tiller, Gillian. “A Note on George Firmage and E. E. Cummings’ Copy of Eight Harvard Poets.” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 14-15 (2006): 274-275.

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

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

Pound, Ezra. Ripostes of Ezra Pound: whereto are appended the complete poetical works of T. E. Hulme, with prefatory note. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1913. [Cummings’ copy of the book is now at the Harry Ransom Center.]

Sawyer-Lauçanno, Christopher. E. E. Cummings: A Biography. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2004.

Watson, Hildegarde Lasell. The Edge of the Woods: A Memoir. Lunenburg, VT: Stinehour Press, 1979.

Webster, Michael. “Cummings Rewrites Eliot.” T. S. Eliot, France, and the Mind of Europe. Ed. Jayme Stayer. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015. 75-91.

Cummings’ contributions to The Harvard Monthly in 1914:

—. “Nocturne.” The Harvard Monthly 58.1 (March 1914): 18-20. [“When the lithe moonlight silently” (CP 864-65)]

—. “SonnetThe Harvard Monthly 58.3 (May 1914): 79. [“For that I have forgot the world these days” (CP 866)] [PDF 292]

—. “NightThe Harvard Monthly 59.2 (Nov. 1914): 69-70. [“Night, with sunset hauntings” (CP 867)]

—. “Out of the BengaliThe Harvard Monthly 59.3 (December 1914): 85.  [“I spoke to thee with a smile”—rpt. as “i spoke to thee” [Orientale I] (CP 32).]

—. “Sonnet.” The Harvard Monthly 59.4 (Christmas 1914): 115. [“No sunset, but a grey, great, struggling sky” (CP 868)]

Cummings’ contributions to The Harvard Monthly in 1915:

—. “Longing.” The Harvard Monthly 60.2 (April 1915): 37-38. [“I miss you in the dawn, of gradual flowering lights” (CP 869-70)]

—. “Ballad of Love.” The Harvard Monthly 60.3 (May 1915): 91-92. [“Where is my love! I cried.” (CP 871)]

—. “The King.” The Harvard Monthly 60.5 (July 1915): 132-136. [Short story, not reprinted.]

—. “Ballade of Soul.” The Harvard Monthly 60.5 (July 1915): 141-142. [“Not for the naked make I this my prayer” (CP 872)]

Contribution to The Harvard Advocate (1915):

—. “The New Art.” The Harvard Advocate 99.10 (June 24, 1915): 154-156. Rpt. E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised. Ed. George J. Firmage. New York: October House, 1965. 5-11.

Addenda: Cummings’ contributions to The Harvard Monthly in 1916:

—. “Sapphics.” The Harvard Monthly 61.4 (January 1916): 101. [“When my life his pillar has raised to heaven” (CP 873)]

—. “Ballad.” The Harvard Monthly 62.1 (March 1916): 8-9. [“All in green went my love riding” (CP 15)]

—. “Sonnet.” The Harvard Monthly 62.1 (March 1916): 9. [“I dreamed I was among the conquerors” (CP 874)]

—. “Sonnet.” The Harvard Monthly 62.2 (April 1916): 34. [“It may not always be so; and I say” (CP 146)]

—. “Hokku.” The Harvard Monthly 62.2 (April 1916): 55. [“I care not greatly” (CP 875)]

—. “W. H. W., Jr. In Memory of ‘A House of Pomegranates’.” The Harvard Monthly 62.4 (June 1916): 123. [“Speak to me friend! Or is the world so wide!” (CP 877)]


[1] Information on Cummings’ coursework at Harvard was gleaned from Kennedy 60-71 and Sawyer-Laucanno 59-62 and 76-79.

[2] LeBaron Russell Briggs (1855-1934), Dean of Men at Harvard and President of Radcliffe College from 1903 to 1923.

[3] See also Gillian Huang-Tiller’s “A Note on George Firmage and E. E. Cummings’ Copy of Eight Harvard Poets” in Spring 14-15, pp. 274-75.

[4] Sawyer-Lauçanno says that Damon showed Cummings the book in the fall of 1915 (72). Cummings’ copy of Ripostes, now at the Harry Ransom Center, is the 1913 American edition.

[5] Besides adding the first phrase, I have corrected Kennedy’s transcription by capitalizing “Eye.” The quote may be found in the Cummings papers at the Houghton Library, Harvard University, MS Am 1892.7 (90), “Notes for a nonexisting lecture (California),” folder 25, [labeled “Ezra”], sheet 258.

[6] Her full name was probably Doris Bryan. Perhaps the answer is found in these letters at the Houghton Library: MS 1892 (113) Bryan, Doris. 28 letters; 1915. No. 3, 9 & 10 with one photograph each; and MS 1892.1 (16) Bryan, Doris, recipient. 3 letters; [n.d.].

[7] Dial/Scofield Thayer Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University, YCAL 34, box 30, folder 794. For the influence of T. S. Eliot on Cummings’ poetry, see my “Cummings Rewrites Eliot.”

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


“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.

Audio Cummings

It is perhaps not surprising that Cummings has been rather badly served by the corporate entity (Harper-Collins) that controls the rights to the LP recordings he made for Caedmon Records in the 1950s. As far as I know, the six vinyl LPs of the six nonlectures have never be re-released, with the exception of a very fleeting appearance on in the pre-Jeff Bezos era. The first Caedmon LP, E. E. Cummings Reading His Poetry (TC 1017), was made in the studio on May 28, 1953. In 2001, Harper Audio/Caedmon released a three-cassette collection called E. E. Cummings Reads: A Poetry Collection that brought together all the Caedmon recordings of Cummings reading his own poetry and prose. (This collection included the first 1953 Caedmon album, as well as two subsequent albums, released in 1975 and ’77 as E. E. Cummings Reads his Collected Poetry & Prose: 1920-1958 / TC 2080/2081.) Then in 2007, Harper Audio re-released the original 1953 Caedmon LP in CD format under the name The Essential E. E. Cummings. Both the cassette and CD collections are now out of print. (While the production and sound quality were good, Harper Audio released both collections just when their respective media were beginning to be outmoded.) The only bright spot in this rather dismal recent history of Cummings’ audio (un)availability is the 2005 CD “E. E. Cummings: The Voice of the Poet,” which contains a few never-published poem recordings and is still relatively available.

Audio Cummings has fared a bit better on the web. By far the best news for fans of spoken-word Cummings is a recent web release of an entire Cummings reading at the 92nd Street Y, recorded in New York City, October 20, 1949. This reading can found in at least three places on the web:

  • As part of the “75 at 75” series, in which 75 contemporary authors write about the audio of 75 readers from the past 75 years of the 92nd Street Y series. (Cummings’ reading features comments by A. L. Kennedy.)
  • On the 92nd Street Y feed on Sound Cloud;
  • And in a You Tube version.

By noting the timing of the reading of each poem, one can construct a track list.
92nd Street Y Cummings Reading (1949) Track List (timings are approximate):

30: Cummings says that he will read first from 1 x 1, “then a few from XAIPE, and then finally from 50 Poems.”

55: pity this busy monster,manunkind, (CP 554)

2:18: of all the blessings which to man (CP 544)

4:50: one’s not half two. It’s two are halves of one: (CP 556)

7:00: when god decided to invent (CP 566)

8:00: Hello is what a mirror says (CP 570)

9:10: nothing false and possible is love (CP 574)

11:00: except in your (CP 575)

13:00: all ignorance toboggans into know (CP 579)

14:53: rain or hail / sam (CP 548)

16:50: dying is fine)but Death (CP 604)

18:25: so many selves(so many fiends and gods (CP 609)

20:25: jake hates / all the girls(the (CP 619)

21:30: when serpents bargain for the right to squirm (CP 620)

22:58: who sharpens every dull (CP 624)

24:30: open his head,baby (CP 637)

25:30: this is a rubbish of human rind (CP 647)

27:00: who were so(dark of heart they might not speak (CP 640)

28:50: if(touched by love’s own secret)we,like homing (CP 659)

30:38: when faces called flowers float out of the ground (CP 665)

33:50: as freedom is a breakfastfood (CP 511)

36:50: you which could grin three smiles into a dead (CP 522)

38:55: anyone lived in a pretty how town (CP 515)

43:10: love is more thicker than forget (CP 530)

44:50: my father moved through dooms of love (CP 520)

51:41: Moderator (probably John Malcolm Brinnin) presents EEC with a “bon voyage gift” (probably some sort of briefcase), asking him to bring it back “positively bulging with lyrics.” As A. L. Kennedy notes, Cummings’ “open and delighted laughter” makes a nice conclusion to the reading.

There are at least three more samples on the web of Cummings reading his poems:

  1. The Poetry Foundation’s podcast “E. E. Cummings: Essential American Poets” presents Cummings reading “anyone lived in a pretty how town” (CP 515), “as freedom is a breakfastfood” (CP 511), and “love is more thicker than forget” (CP 530). These tracks are from the 92nd Street Y reading, recorded October 20, 1949. (The “1959” note on the podcast page is in error.)
  1. The Poetry Archive presents Cummings reading one poem: ” ‘next to  of course god america i” (CP 267). Recorded by the BBC, date unknown.
  1. The UBU web Cummings sound page offers recordings of “that melancholy” (CP 697) and “let’s,from some loud unworld’s most rightful wrong” (CP 745).

There are many more recordings out there of Cummings reading his prose and poetry that remain unavailable to the public. He gave so many readings in the 1950s that Richard S. Kennedy said that he had embarked on what was really “a new career” for him (448). Those interested in exploring further Cummings’ reading career should start with chapter 30 of Kennedy’s biography Dreams in the Mirror (445-458).


Michael Webster
Grand Valley State University


Work Cited:

Cummings, E. E. Complete Poems, 1904-1962. Ed George J. Firmage. New York: Liveright, 1994.

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

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.)

EEC Blog

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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