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.