for the leaping greenly spirits of trees

Tag: E. E. Cummings Society

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).


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.

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.

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


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.”

An Old Door, Cummings’ Personal Printer, and W [ViVa]

Title Page

Title Page

An online exhibit at the Harry Ransom Center Library in Austin, Texas, catalogues the signatures on a door that used to be in the Greenwich Village Bookshop, circa 1920-1924. The signature page of S. A. Jacobs, Cummings’ personal typesetter, reproduces a July 16, 1931 letter from Jacobs to Cummings about printing the title page of ViVa. Those patient enough to figure out how the slide show on this page works will be rewarded with a photo of the letter from Jacobs to Cummings and with the photo of the title page of W [ViVa] reproduced here (click on either image to view more closely). Jacobs’ letter complains bitterly of the difficulty in getting this title page to look right: “the photo engraver has failed me utterly: for three times in succession he made the reversed plate of VV wrong–not as ordered by you or me or [with] any sign of intelligence in himself. . . . I am rejecting the work as not  satisfactory.” (The writing in pencil at the top of the letter is Cummings’ draft of a telegram responding to Jacobs.)



The curious title of this collection of poems, W, represents two overlapping V’s, which refer to “a graffito commonly found on southern European walls, meaning ‘long live,’ as in ‘Viva Napoli’ or ‘Viva Presidente Wilson’ “ (Kennedy, Revisited 76). In critical and in ordinary discourse, the title is pronounced “Viva” and is written as “ViVa”–with two capital V’s. When both titles are used, the pronounceable title is written in brackets: [ViVa]. In her article “The Modernist Sonnet and the Pre-Postmodern Consciousness,” Gillian Huang-Tiller notes that the VV slogan “probably stems from ‘Viva V.E.R.D.I.‘ or Viva Vittorio Emanuele Re D’Italia, [Long live Victor Emanuel, King of Italy], slogan for patriotic Italians of the nineteenth century” (170).

In Dreams in the Mirror, Richard S. Kennedy says that ViVa “contains seventy poems; every seventh poem is a sonnet, except that the last seven poems are all sonnets” (319). This description is in general quite correct, but, as Huang-Tiller points out, Kennedy then makes an interesting and perhaps productive error. He writes: “That makes a total of fourteen sonnets, corresponding to the fourteen-line stanza of the sonnet” (Dreams 319). Actually, as Huang-Tiller astutely notes, “the  structure  of  the  collection  is  not  a  neat 7 + 7—there are nine embedded  sonnets, not  seven.” She further comments: “Kennedy apparently follows what his experience of the sonnet tells him should be in the text, rather than what is really in the text” (164). So the order of the poems in the text follows this mathematical pattern: 6 – 1 – 6 – 1 – 6 – 1 – 6 – 1 – 6 -1 – 6 – 1 – 6 – 1 – 6 – 1 – 6 – 1 – 7 = 70 poems. Or: 7 x 9 = 63 + 7 = 70.

What might this not-quite-sonnet pattern of sonnets tell us about Cummings’ intentions? Huang-Tiller speculates that perhaps “Cummings has another design in mind, as the nine embedded sonnets (each the seventh poem) along with the final set of seven sonnets could signal a perfect ten: 9 sonnets + 1 set = 10” (164). In the afterword to his translation of No Thanks, Jacques Demarcq sees ViVa as having a structure of ten weeks, “six poèmes et le dimanche un sonnet” [six poems and the Sunday of a sonnet] (“Un tournant” 112). This would make the final seven sonnets of ViVa a week of Sundays. In EIMI (published two years after ViVa), Cummings tells us that he was born on a Sunday (91/89), and several commentators have noticed that EIMI begins and ends on a Sunday (May 10 and June 14). Each chapter narrates one day, so the chapters follow a pattern similar to the one in ViVa, except that the implied days of the week metaphor is made explicit. EIMI has six Sundays with six days between each of them, making a total of five weeks and 36 days. [See EIMI note 91 / 89.]

Jacobs’ letter to Cummings and the mathematical patterning of poems and chapters in ViVa and EIMI show the immense care Cummings took with his work, both on the macro- (book) and micro- (individual poem and letter) levels. The macro-level patterns of ViVa and EIMI show something else, I think: a concern to give every part of his work significance. For example, the sonnets in ViVa are mostly love poems. Love and Sunday, then, represent birth and rebirth. The connection to rebirth is made clear in EIMI when Cummings mentions the Russian word for Sunday, “voskresaynyeh” (91/89), which means “resurrection.”


For more on Jacobs and Cummings, see Walker Rumble’s short piece “Reclaiming S. A. Jacobs: Polytype, Golden Eagle, and Typographic Modernism” as well as Rumble’s recent article from SpringThe Persian Typesetter: S. A. Jacobs, E. E. Cummings, and the Golden Eagle Press.”



Michael Webster
Grand Valley State University


Works Cited

Cummings, E. E. 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.

Demarcq, Jacques. “Un tournant” [Afterword]. No Thanks. By E. E. Cummings. Trans. Jacques Demarcq. Caen, France: Nous, 2011. 97-137.

Huang-Tiller, Gillian. “The Modernist Sonnet and the Pre-Postmodern Consciousness: The Question of Meta-Genre in E. E. Cummings’ W [ViVa] (1931).” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 14-15 (2006): 156-177.

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

—. E. E. Cummings Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1994. [Twayne’s United States Authors Series No. 637.]

Webster, Michael. “EIMI Notes.” SPRING: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society. Web.


CFP for ALA Conference | Boston, MA | May 21-24, 2015

E. E. Cummings Sessions at American Literature Association’s 26th annual conference at the Westin Copley Place in Boston, MA on May 21-24, 2015

Deadline January 25, 2015

The E. E. Cummings Society will co-sponsor one collaborative panel with the John Dos Passos Society at the American Literature Association conference in Boston on May 21-24, 2015. In addition, the Cummings Society will sponsor one to two sessions on E. E. Cummings.

Intersections of E.E. Cummings and John Dos Passos

This collaborative panel invites varied approaches to examining the intersections between E.E. Cummings and John Dos Passos. Their careers overlap and in striking ways: both authors went to Harvard, were visual artists, wrote experimental dramas, served in ambulance services during World War I, endured the horrors of warfare and the censorship of the government, and engaged in the activism of the radical political environment of the early 20th century and the resulting hardships of the literary marketplace. In the 1930s, Cummings and Dos Passos both visited the Soviet Union and wrote about their experiences and impressions of the culture, and both experienced drastic shifts in political beliefs during that period.

We welcome submissions related to form and genre, modernism and modernity, war, gender and sexuality, transnationalism, print culture, archival study, politics, activist writing, and related topics. Collaborative papers and pedagogical approaches are also welcome.

300-500 word abstracts and a brief CV to Victoria Bryan, President of the John Dos Passos Society ( and Michael Webster, President of the E.E. Cummings Society ( by January 25, 2015.

E. E. Cummings Sessions Honoring Norman Friedman

In memory of the first and finest Cummings scholar, Norman Friedman (1925-2014), we encourage everyone to relate their proposals and papers in some way to Norman’s work. (A Norman Friedman bibliography may be found here.) We invite proposals for papers on any aspect of Cummings’ life or work. Proposals on topics that Norman pioneered will be especially welcome:

  • Formal qualities of Cummings’ poems and prose, including manuscript studies
  • Cummings’ reputation in the academy and beyond
  • Teaching Cummings
  • The maturity of Cummings’ childlike vision
  • Cummings’ transcendental vision and its Asian and New England sources.
  • Psychological aspects of Cummings’ life and work

Submit 250-400 word abstracts to Michael Webster ( by January 25, 2015.

For further information on the American Literature Association conference, please consult the ALA conference website at

Natalie Merchant’s Performance of “maggie and milly and molly and may”

Here is a video of Natalie Merchant performing her setting of “maggie and milly and molly and may” (CP 682).  A studio recording of the song is one of the tracks on Merchant’s 2010 double CD Leave Your Sleep (Nonesuch), which contains her musical adaptations of poems both famous and quite obscure, many of them children’s poems.


Michael Webster

Grand Valley State University


In Memoriam: Norman Friedman (1925-2014)

Norman Friedman, 1960

Norman Friedman, 1960

Anyone who begins a rigorous study of Cummings soon realizes the crucial contributions of Norman Friedman. In a spirit of celebration of his life, and in memory of his death, Michael Webster has created a webpage, which can be found here.

The links and tributes below (which are also included on Spring’s website) help give an indication of the extensive and generous life’s work of this beloved scholar.


A Norman Friedman Bibliography

From Spring 14 & 15 (2005 / 2006) [Special Norman Friedman Double Issue]:

Tributes to Norman Friedman.” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 14-15 (October 2006): 9-30.

Friedman, Norman. “The Other Cummings: The Private Side.” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 14-15 (October 2006): 31-45.

—. “Cummings, Oedipus, and Childhood: Problems of Anxiety and Intimacy.” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 14-15 (2006): 46-68.

Lewis Turco, “The Passing of Norman Friedman

Michael Dylan Welch, “Tribute to Norman Friedman

Tributes to Norman Friedman

Here are some tributes to Norman, in reverse order in which they were received (e-mail fashion):


I never met Norman Friedman, but his books, his deep understanding of Cummings’ spirit greatly helped me to translate the poems of “our nonhero”.
My sympathy to his wife, family and friends.

jacques demarcq


I never had the chance to meet Norman, but in reading through your emails, I have been struck by how his spirit of generosity lives on in the Cummings Society. I gave my first conference presentation at a Cummings panel in 2008, and I felt very much welcomed and encouraged by Mike, Gillian, Etienne, and everyone in a way similar to how many of you shared how Norman welcomed you and your work. The Cummings Society has been a major influence in where I am today, and I now have a much clearer understanding as to why the Cummings Society is so unique: Norman was and is a nonhero, and like EEC, a nonhero’s spirit contagiously affects the people around him.

for the leaping greenly spirits of trees,

Aaron Moe


I was shocked and dismayed to learn of Norman Friedman’s death. He has been very important to me as I have in recent years continued my work on the writings of E. E. Cummings. I recently reviewed all my past correspondence with him and realized that I did not always respond to his suggestions – and even invitations! I plan to remedy that, partly as a thank you for his invaluable service to all of us for many years.

Bethany Dumas


Yes, I agree, we are all obviously uniting our voices here to remember Norman as a philanthropist and great lover of people and literature.

Personally, I’ll always remember his enthusiasm and warmth when welcoming me in New York as a PHD student on EEC. That day gave a new and truer dimension to my work as Norman had known EEC and had been there till his last day. I hope that Zelda can be reassured as now it is EEC in turn who is welcoming him over there, their fingers not writing or painting but uniting and dancing,

“the impressed fingers of sublime
Memory,of that loveliness receiving
the image (all our) proud heart(s) (will forever) cherish as fair”

(Sonnets, Unrealities, II, 137).

Claudia Desblaches


Zelda and Norman have been in my thoughts all week.  It was a shock to be in the middle of a conference last week and hear about Norman’s passing.  It took me back to my first ALA conference in the late ‘80s and all the ALA Cummings sessions after that.  I felt welcomed by them both—even when I was a very young, awkward scholar of perhaps 23 years.  Norman was always helpful and encouraging.  I am so proud to tell everyone that I meet that I am part of this wonderful group of EEC scholars. Even if I have been absent in recent years, Norman, Zelda and all of you are part of who I am.
I too look forward to many reflective pieces in Spring. He cared deeply about this work, so it is time for me to return to EEC in his honor.  I will think of him as I write!


Taimi Olsen


Norman was the Chair of the Cummings Society when I started attending ALA as a graduate student in the 1980s.  He and Zelda took me under their wings immediately and made me feel like my fledgling work was valued.  They set the welcoming tone that characterizes this group to this day.  What fine founders all of those early Cummings scholars were.

Rai Peterson


From Madrid in Euroland,

I think that we all should write something about our relationship with Norman and Zelda for the next issue of Spring. That’s the best tribute for a generous person who, in my case, helped so much with my PhD and later publications and, considering the time difference, patiently woke up in the middle of the night when in the 1990s I sent him faxes asking questions about Mr. Cummings.

Thanks a lot, Norman.

Teresa González Mínguez


Norman was a fine scholar and a gentle, kind man.  It says something about your scholarship when you write not only the first critical monograph on a major poet, but one that remains, after many decades, the best single study of Cummings’s poetry.  I had the honor and pleasure of meeting Norman and Zelda several times at Cummings sessions of conferences and when we each lectured at the other’s university during the Cummings centennial.  Each meeting, professional or social, reinforced my feeling that they were a gracious, charming couple.  Many of you know that Norman (and Zelda too, I believe) was a practicing psychologist.  I had a chance to see and benefit from this side of his wisdom when he kindly advised me on some problems I was having with my adolescent daughter.  The advice, like all of Norman’s insights, was offered gently–and gratefully received.  That was Norman.  We’ll miss him.

Milt Cohen


I have never been more grateful for a friendship or more honored by one than that with Norman and Zelda. I’m happy to have expressed that to them while Norman was still with us, and it was always with the greatest sincerity. I know that Zelda will be sustained now by the bonds shared in those final years, even as I offer my sympathy for the inevitability of her loss. I hope she finds comfort in the outpouring of shared memories and tributes that I read online this evening, as I add my voice to that chorus.

Gerry Locklin


Thanks for letting me know, Mike.  Very sorry to hear.

After finding out about Norman, I had a yen to read up on him at Wikipedia and was shocked to be unable to find an entry on him.  Is there one?  I’m not a big admirer of Wikipedia but it can be handy for surface views of various subjects, so I’d like it to have entries on all the writers I admire–including, for certain, Norman.     Would any of our society’s younger admirers of Cummings be interested in making an entry on him?  I wish I had time to myself, but . . .

all best, Bob Grumman


Like Todd, Norman was my first connection to the Cummings Society, and he became a sort of mentor to me, as I’m sure he was to many. I always felt honored to be part of the society and to have the great Norman Friedman comment on my work. Through his encouragement I was able to accomplish and achieve more than I ever thought I could.  He was not only a brilliant scholar but an inspiring teacher, a generous colleague, and an unforgettable person.

Millie Kidd


Norman was the editor of Spring when I submitted my first work on E. E. Cummings.  He was very encouraging and supportive.   I only met him once during a conference panel that I participated in, but as so many others have noted, his work and its influence is indisputable.

Todd  Martin


In Memoriam Norman Friedman

a great

gone. (#14 73 Poems  CP 786)

how generous is that himself the sun

(never a moment ceasing to begin
the mystery of day for someone’s eyes)

with goldenly his fathering
nearness awakened
and our night’s thousand million miracles (#84 95 Poems  CP 756)

over us if(as what was dusk becomes
darkness)innumerably singular
strictly immeasurable nowhere flames

to call the stars, Norman and Cummings,  (#69 95 Poems  CP 741)

whose absence would have made your whole life and my
(and infinite our)merely to undie  (#45 73 Poems  CP 817)

“i carry your books with me(i carry them in my heart”; you’re with stars now and we remember.  Our thoughts and prayers are with Zelda and family,

Gillian Huang-Tiller and Ken Tiller
University of Virginia-Wise


Norman’s influence extends across boundaries here into South Africa, where I’ve been carrying him, carrying him in my heart. To read his work has been one of those turning-point experiences. To have met him in Boston was the most gentle mind-blow. He and Zelda like that, beautifully smallish within a very tangible aura of living well, in touch with each other and life. You could feel his big, gentle, clear heart from a distance. I will never forget him, and it actually hurts, stings, to think that he won’t be lightly treading this Earth with us any further. Not to mention missing his further writing on our non-hero.

Words fail, and so they should.

Etienne Terblanche


Dick Bailey, who hired me at the University of Michigan in 1985 and also died just recently, was Norman’s student.
Over my 27 years here of teaching at Michigan, before I retired last year, this lead to many spirited conversations between us about Norman, E.E, etc.
So sorry to hear of Norman’s passing.

I admire everything Norman wrote about E.E.


The body of work is beautiful.

On this point, what more can you say?


–Rich Cureton


Norman once told me he wanted “forgetting me, remember me” to be thought of at his passing. So, I imagine, would most of us.

David V. Forrest


Thanks for your input on Norman. We were colleagues for years. As you say
He lives on.
George Held


Thanks, Michael.  N. lived the EEC spirit.
Bill Harmon

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.

Johnson, Ronald. Songs of the Earth. Presented by Kaligram Magazine, Kaldron On-Line, and Light and Dust Mobile Anthology of Poetry, 2000. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.

Moe, Aaron. Zoopoetics: Animals and the Making of Poetry. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2014. Print.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass in the Walt Whitman Archive. Lincoln: Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, University of Nebraska, 1995. Web.

EEC . . . A Major Modernist Poet?

cummings2Should EEC be considered as a Major Modernist poet?

Yes, by all means. Wallace Stevens thought modern poetry had “To construct a new stage” (Stevens 240). Cummings constructed his new stage through the modernist principle of fragmentation.

Indeed, in “From a Play,” William Carlos Williams articulates his desire to make the “sensuous / qualities” of a poem—the poem’s gestures—“express / as much as / or more // than the merely / literal / burden of the thing / could ever tell” (II:45). Cummings brings this seed to fruition more than any other modernist poet. His poems are PLAYS in that the actors (the shapes of letters, fragments, words, lines, stanzas) constantly perform.

In “The Poem as a Field of Action,” Williams calls for “sweeping changes from top to bottom of the poetic structure” (51). Cummings did this through the modernist principle of fragmentation like no other modernist poet.

Yes, whereas T. S. Eliot tells us “Words strain, / Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, / Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, / Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, / Will not stay still” (Eliot 180)–Cummings shows us, time and time again, through his “precision which creates movement” (CP 221).

He even has a meta-poem about how each broken piece of a mirror is “whole with sky”–and that breaking a mirror, or breaking language, ought to be considered lucky (CP 623). His fragments are whole with poem.

Like the hydra, a word cut in half instantly grows two or more semiotic possibilities. The possibilities emerge not only through the semiotic connotations of the fragments, but also through the ways that the fragments gesture on the page.

Yes, because like all great modernist poets, he is difficult. He also has his long, difficult work, EIMI, that rivals James Joyce’s Ulysses. EIMI integrates multiple languages as it celebrates fragmentation and typographical experiment in a blending of multiple genres (travelogue, diary, narrative prose, poetry).

Moreover, Cummings’ poetics have roots in Whitman, one of the headwaters for Modern American Poetry. In “A Backward Glance o’er Travel’d Roads,” Whitman suggests that the three pervasive themes throughout Leaves of Grass are “Sex and Amativeness, and even Animality—though meanings that do not usually go along with those words are behind all, and will duly emerge; and all are sought to be lifted into a different light and atmosphere” (Whitman 1891–92, 436). Those three themes pervade Cummings’ oeuvre as well, and he contributes to the process of exploring the meanings that do not usually go along with those words.

Cummings’ poetics are also very Emersonian. In “The Poet,” Emerson calls for a poem’s “architecture” to be “alive” and to move with the “spirit of a plant or an animal” (290). Whitman did this as his poems partake in the organic agency of plants, highlighted by the way he morphed the letters Leaves of Grass into a sprawling vegetation (scroll down on Folsom’s “Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman”). Cummings continues this process. Countless poems are Protean as the form—the “architecture” of letters, words, lines, stanzas, poems, and the spaces between these constellations—shapeshifts into leaves, snow, grasshoppers, cats, bees, flies, flowers, petals, seedlings, smoke, bird calls, moons, confetti, and more. The bottom line?—Cummings brings one of the seeds of modern poetry to full fruition. His poems morph into iconic shapes just like Whitman’s letters in Leaves of Grass morph into plants.

BUT THEN AGAIN, Cummings should NOT be considered a major modernist poet. His life’s work explores, revisits, and sustains all things concerning the lowercase i. To cast Cummings as a Major Modernist poet misunderstands the point of a “nonhero,” and inflates the i to being that which Cummings eschewed: the ego-filled I.

True, Cummings is a trickster. Tricksters flourish in the margins, not in the center. Even if one tried to place Cummings in the middle of the modernist movement, his work would undo that centered-placement in order to get back “home” to the margins.

This is to say that Cummings is like Feste in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Feste, who thrives in the margins and in the instability of language—(“A sentence is but a chev’ril glove to a good wit—how quickly the wrong side may be turned outward” [III.i.10–12])—could NEVER marry Olivia, who lives in the stable center of society. Even though Olivia appreciates Feste’s wit, he could never live with her. It would suffocate him.

Ah, but this is precisely why Cummings should be considered a major modernist poet just as Feste is seen one of the CRUCIAL characters who, as the wise-fool, illuminates even as he plays with the dungeon of darkness (Shakespeare IV.ii.20 ff.).  

Hold on. Major modernist poets often gravitated toward high modernism. Cummings based his poetics on circus tents and rollercoaster rides, as shown by “The Adult, the Artist, and the Circus” and “Coney Island” (Miscellany 109–114; 149–153). He is not SERIOUS ENOUGH to be a major modernist poet.

Oh, so you suggest that Cummings reveled in “low culture,” you mean like postmodernists?

I guess.

True, Cummings thought the “AUDIENCE IS THE PERFORMANCE” (Miscellany 151), which anticipates the postmodern principle that the dynamic between the reader and the text is one of creation. And yes, he implies his poems are “competing” with the roller coasters at “Coney Island” (CP 221)—talk about low culture! His point is well taken, though. Why should someone read a poem when they could ride a rollercoaster?—unless the poem takes the reader’s imagination on a rollercoaster of movement. But I digress. My point is that being a proto-postmodern poet ought to further the case that Cummings is a major modernist poet. In many respects, he was ahead of his contemporaries and more at home in avant-garde ecopoetics of today’s writers like Brenda Hillman and Evelyn Reilly.

Additionally, when Cummings made a poem, the process of poiesis often entailed 30 to 40+ drafts. Even as a trickster at play, he took his makings very, very seriously—not unlike Feste.

But even if the play hinges on Feste, he will never garner more applause than Viola, Olivia, or the Duke. That’s just not how it works. He just cannot be a major actor in the play.



Aaron M. Moe

Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, IN



Works Cited

Cummings, E. E. A Miscellany Revised. Ed. George J. Firmage. New York: October House, 1965. Print.

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

Eliot, T. S. Collected Poems, 1909-1962. New York: Harcourt  Brace & Company, 1991. Print.

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. N.p., 2005. Web. 31 Aug. 2011.

Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1986. Print.

Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems. New York: Vintage Books, 1982. Print.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass in the Walt Whitman Archive. Lincoln: Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, University of Nebraska, 1995. Web.

Williams, William Carlos. “The Poem as a Field of Action.” Twentieth-Century American Poetics:  Poets on the Art of Poetry. Ed. Dana Gioia, Meg Schoerke, and David Mason. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004. 51–57. Print.

Williams, Willian Carlos. The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams. Ed. Christopher MacGowan. 2 vols. New York: New Directions, 1988. Print.


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