When 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 , 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
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.