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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.

love are in we

Heart IIAmong the myriad of textual operations E. E. Cummings performs so masterfully on every single imaginable level of language, a particularly elegant one is changing the word order of an otherwise “normal” sentence or phrase. Of course Cummings is not the first poet to take liberties with word order, but, as Norman Friedman remarked already in 1960, Cummings’s “distortion of the normal sequence of a sentence goes far beyond mere poetic inversion” (108). Linguist Irene Fairley, in a book devoted to Cummings’s ungrammaticality, deals extensively with his various “dislocations” or scramblings. And Richard Cureton cites scrambling of normal word order as “one of Cummings’s favorite iconic strategies,” iconic because it can convey “thematic disorder” (196).

Just taking one word out of its place and repositioning it within a sentence can have a dramatic effect, though in the best cases it is dramatic only in as much as it is subtle. The “original” unscrambled sentence is evoked, and the scrambled version does not so much conflict with it, but rather opens up new semantic possibilities. It also opens up the very possibility of reading new possibilities. In that sense Cummings celebrates not just a new order or a re-ordering, but the potential of dis-ordering an existing order.

I’d like to demonstrate the possibilities of this operation using one simple example, taken from the poem “the great advantage of being alive” (CP 664), a poem that celebrates loving and living, indeed loving-as-living. The poem is worth reading in its entirety, of course, but here I just want to focus on the locution “love are in we,” which recurs five times in the poem. To arrive at “love are in we,” we may surmise, Cummings switched the first and last words of the familiar and grammatical “we are in love,” a locution that is also found in the poem, in the second stanza:

we are in love (conventional order)

love are in we  (scrambled version)

What are some of the advantages, then, of “love are in we” over “we are in love”?

  1. First, perceptual freshness. This is always important to Cummings, but it is particularly important here because “we are in love” is so often used in everyday discourse that it is in real danger of being trite. Switching its words around invites us to stop and rethink each of the words that make up this string of words, rather than take it as a whole, which runs the risk of barely taking it at all.
  2. When we attempt to make sense of this fresh sentence, we note that “love” is positioned now as its subject. “We” is no longer the subject; the sentence is not about us (and even less about “me,” as in “I am in love” or “I love you”), but about love itself. Love is elevated syntactically to the position of subject, and this elevation is part of the way the poem celebrates love.
  3. Since the verb following “love” is “are,” we may be encouraged to understand the noun love as plural, suggesting that it is not a single thing but a plurality of possibilities, matching the plurality of “we.” This further freshens and elevates love.
  4. While “love” seems to be the subject, “we” is of course also a subject pronoun, and so maintains something of the subject status it had enjoyed in the original sentence (compare to the theoretical, and grammatically more correct “love are in us”). This new formulation thus cleverly keeps both “love” and “we” as potential subjects, and reinforces the relation, even equation, between “we” and “love.”
  5. Finally, ending with “we” leaves the sequence “love are in we” open-ended, amenable to receiving additions. Cummings uses this openness later in the poem when he adds to it and writes “love are in we am in i are in you.” In this well wrought sequence of words “we” doubles as both the ending of “love are in we” and the opening of “we am in i,” and the same is true of “i”:


love are in we am in i are in you =

love are in we

we am in i

i are in you

Cummings ends the poem with another variation, switching “you” and “we” to get: “love are in you am in i are in we.”[1] In these two longer strings, it is the intertwining of pronouns (you, I, we), and verbs (are, am), all (dis)organizing under the sign of love, which is foregrounded.

So, how can one still say, and say freshly and meaningfully, “we are in love”? Cummings shows us that by an alteration of word order, we can say that, and so much more, but differently.



Roi Tartakovsky

New York University



[1] Fairley analyzes the poem’s last line as an example of “repetition that involves the compounding of parallel sentences,” so that her reconstructed reading yields: You are in love; I am in love; We are in love.” Though I reconstruct the sentence differently, I am in complete agreement with Fairley when she writes that a secondary interpretation embedded in the sequence is for love is in us, and that the overall result “is a much more memorable statement than the standard ‘We are in love’” (32).


Works Cited

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

Cureton, Richard D. “E. E. Cummings: A Case of Iconic Syntax.” Language and Style 14.3 (1981): 183-215. Print.

Fairley, Irene R. E. E. Cummings and Ungrammar: A Study of Syntactic Deviance in His Poems. New York: Watermill Publishers, 1975. Print.

Friedman, Norman. E.E. Cummings: The Art of His Poetry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1960. Print.



Cummings as a Descendant of Whitman

Image from Ed Folsom's "Whitman Making Books"

Image from Folsom’s “Whitman Making Books”

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

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

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

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

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

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



Aaron M. Moe

Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, IN



Works Cited

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

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

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.

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