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Tag: Cummings

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.”

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.

“Each Age a Lens”: Cummings and Ecopoetics

The Poets light but Lamps –
Themselves – go out-
The Wicks they stimulate
If vital Light
Inhere as do the Suns –
Each Age a Lens
Disseminating their
Circumference – 
Emily Dickinson

(available on Poetry Foundation)

In the 1930s, not all readers knew what to do with Cummings, let alone appreciate the “vital Light” of his poems. In 1931 for instance, R. P. Blackmur compared Cummings’ innovations to nothing more than “baby talk” (340). Ironically, Blackmur’s scathing essay on Cummings ended up in his book titled Language as Gesture (published 1952)—he just did not see the ways in which Cummings’ poems gesture in all of their materiality. Nor did he revise his stance over the course of 20 years of thought.

However, Blackmur did recognize that future readers may value Cummings’ work more than he:

Excessive hyphenation of single words, the use of lower case “i,” the breaking of lines, the insertion of punctuation between the letters of a word, and so on, will have a possible critical importance to the textual scholarship of the future; but extensive consideration of these peculiarities today has very little importance, carries almost no reference to the meaning of the poems. (320, italics added)

Now that we are in that future age, Cummings, so it seems, may hold a crucial place in ecocritical scholarship.

A growing number of Cummings scholars see this age of ecopoetics to be the lens that gives us traction in Cummings’ most avant-garde moments. The challenge, though, for many of us Cummings people is to write and teach in such a way so as to invite readers into the shapeshifting acrobatics of Cummings’ ecopoetics.

In order to invite readers into the world of happenings in Cummings’ poems, I draw on Scott Knickerbocker’s 2012 Ecopoetics: The Language of Nature, The Nature of Language. Amongst the emergent definitions of ecopoetics, Knickerbocker’s concept of sensuous poiesis helps pinpoint the dynamic in Cummings’ craft: “the process of rematerializing language specifically as a response to nonhuman nature” (2). Knickerbocker provides an in-depth exploration of the sensuous poiesis of four poets, thereby leaving room for other readers to explore the dynamic elsewhere.

Though a hearty claim, I suggest that no other American poet so thoroughly “rematerialized language in response to nonhuman nature” than Cummings. His poems shapeshift into rain, moons, grasshoppers, cats, leaves, snowflakes, bees, stars, air, hummingbirds, seedlings, and many more species and forces in the more-than-human life environing us.

Precisely the same dynamic that made Cummings unreadable to Blackmur opens up infinite possibilities for a textual scholarship attuned to the materiality of language and its dynamic relationship to the earth.

To illustrate and substantiate these claims would take much more space than a blog post, but lively discussions are taking place formally and informally as we unleash at the vital light of Cummings’ poems that inheres as do the suns when a community of readers disseminate its circumference.

The starting place, though, is recognizing how Cummings’ poetics undergo a thorough rematerialization of language. This rematerialization has and continues to alienate some readers (like Blackmur), but during today’s turn to new materialisms and ecopoetics, Cummings seems to have found a home.



Aaron M. Moe

Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame


Works Cited

Blackmur, R. P. Language as Gesture: Essays in Poetry. New York: Harcourt  Brace & Company, 1952. Print.

Cummings, E. E. Complete Poems, 1904-1962. Ed. George J. Firmage. New York: Liveright, 1991. Print.

Knickerbocker, Scott. Ecopoetics: The Language of Nature, the Nature of Language. U of Massachusetts P, 2012. Print.

Cummings as a Descendant of Whitman

Image from Ed Folsom's "Whitman Making Books"

Image from Folsom’s “Whitman Making Books”

Quite awhile ago, Michael Webster learned that I was exploring the connections between Cummings and Whitman, and he shared with me a sheet from the Cummings archive. At an early time in Cummings career, he took a handful of Whitman’s lines, scanned their rhythmic stresses, and yet also arranged them typographically on the page. Provocatively, Cummings experiments with both visual and aural dynamics all while using Whitman’s lines.

In Zoopoetics: Animals and the Making of Poetry, I provide an image of the sheet and I discuss it further (see 60 ff.). I also point out that Whitman saw “Sex, Amativeness, and Animality” to be the three overarching themes of Leaves of Grass (Whitman 1891–92, 436; Moe 60)—three themes that pervade Cummings’ oeuvre as well.

Here, I want to explore further the connections between Whitman and Cummings. Directly or indirectly, the seed for Cummings’ Protean poetics can be found in the way that Whitman morphed the letters Leaves of Grass. As Ed Folsom observes in “Whitman Making Books / Books Making Whitman,” Whitman hand stamped the letters Leaves of Grass so that the letters morph into luscious vegetation. In another version, Whitman drew the letters so that they morph into sperm (see image above). There is this erotic and organic energy in language—almost an agency—that Whitman celebrates. The alphabetic forms of letters seem to want to shapeshift into something more not unlike sperm joins with an egg to become a zygote, then explodes into millions of cells and several systems and organs. Whitman foregrounds how this kind of energy exists in language as well.

As an aside, I am reminded of Ronald Johnson’s “earthearthearth” poem. He places three earth’s together in each line, for six lines, and the organic, erotic, and Protean energy of language takes over. Several words and phrases suddenly emerge: art, hear, hearth, ear, hear the earth, heart, heart the earth.

I suggest it is helpful to see Cummings’ Protean poetics—where letters shapeshift into seedlings, snowflakes, flowers, bees, flies, grasshoppers, leaves, confetti, and so much more—in the context of Whitman’s poetic vision. This suggestion calls for several pages of close reading in order to substantiate, which is beyond the scope of this blog post. Suffice it to say that Whitman took seriously Emerson’s call for the “architecture” of a poem to be “alive” like the “spirit of a plant or an animal” (290). He revolutionized poetic form by returning to the elemental forces of the earth and of the body.

And Cummings’ work—far from being an anomaly to the poetic tradition—continues that work.



Aaron M. Moe

Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, IN



Works Cited

Emerson, Ralph. The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. Brooks Atkinson. New York: Modern Library, 2000. Print.

Folsom, Ed. “Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman: A Catalog and Commentary.” The Walt Whitman Archive. 2005. Web. 31 Aug. 2011.

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