for the leaping greenly spirits of trees

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.


  1. Mike Webster

    What do you think of the “rose” nestled in the parentheses between the two halves of the word “asl-eep”? Certainly in nature, death is no parenthesis, right?

    • Aaron M. Moe

      Love this insight. And it’s little gems like this that draw scholars, teachers, and students back to EEC’s poems.

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