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Call for Papers, American Literature Association Conference

E. E. Cummings Sessions at American Literature Association’s 30th Annual Conference

Boston, MA, May 23-26, 2019 (deadline 1/15/2019)

The E. E. Cummings Society will sponsor two sessions at the 2019 ALA. We invite proposals for papers on any aspect of Cummings’ work or life. Proposals that touch upon the following topics will be especially welcome:

  • Cummings’ prose (in recognition of the 2018 republication of A Miscellany Revised)
  • Changes, shifts, and continuities in Cummings’ style(s)
  • Cummings in 1918-1919 (Cummings at Camp Devens and after)
  • Cummings and Dada
  • Cummings among the modernists
  • Readings of little-studied Cummings poems
  • Re-readings of much-studied Cummings poems

Submit a 250 to 400 word abstract to Michael Webster ( by January 15, 2019.

For further information, consult the web page of the American Literature Association conference.

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.



“Each Age a Lens”: Cummings and Ecopoetics

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

(available on Poetry Foundation)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Aaron M. Moe

Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame


Works Cited

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

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

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

“SOME [of my poems] are to be seen & not heard”—EEC

Retro Microphone

Retro Microphone

SOME of them. This quote comes from a letter Cummings wrote late in his life—July 4, 1960—to Miss Lawrence, and has often been cited in explorations of Cummings’ visual poems. In the letter, Cummings provides a brief gloss of several of his poems that hinge on the visual dynamic (Letters 267–68).

Now, Cummings will most likely always be thought of the poet of the EYE (and the i), and I agree. Cummings did, though, appreciate Gertrude Stein’s work (see “The New Art” in Miscellany 5–11), and his oevree suggests he gave much more than a passing glance at what is possible with language and the ear. My point? Cummings’ poetics of the eye should not overshadow his avant-garde-poetics-of-the-ear.

Some of his poems ought to be heard—and then some should be heard and seen together.

Take “ygUDuh” for instance—otherwise written as you gotta (CP 547). Cummings’ phonetic spellings, combined with the visual spaces of the indentations and stanza breaks, encourage the reader to perform the poem with the full body. The line “ydoan o nudn” is normally written as you don’t know nothing. The line “LISN bud LISN” is normally listen, bud, listen—but the capitalization calls for more emphasis by the performing reader, and the following stanza break calls for silence before the speaker utters his bigoted statement. One sees the gestures of the poem, but those gestures are translated into gestures of the performing body—as if seeing is part of listening. And make no mistake about it. This poem must begin in the mouth for the strange “spellings” to begin to make sense.

Larry Chott has helped circulate another of Cummings’ avant-garde-poems-for-the-ear through many audiences: “oil tel du woil doi sez” (CP 312), that is, I’ll tell the world I says. In “The Sight of Sound: Cummings’ ‘oil tel du woil doi sez’” Chott contextualizes the poem as taking place at a bar. I won’t recap his brilliant close reading except to say that that the bar falls silent, all faces turn toward the speaker, who, becoming increasingly exasperated, hollers out “HAI / yoozwidduhpoimnuntwaiv un duhyookuhsumpnruddur / givusuhtoonunduhphugnting,” which reads HEY! you with the permanent wave and the uku-something rather . . . give us a tune on the fucking thing.

Chott applies Rai Peterson’s insight that Cummings’ blank spaces often generate an “audible silence” or a “chaotic white noise,” and he sees such a dynamic in the way the final three lines are spaced (see his article for the typography of the poem). The visual dynamic is important in this poem, but the poem, like “ygUDuh,” begins in the mouth. True, we look at the letters first, but the letters do not make sense until the mouth begins performing them. It must be heard.

Many more examples of Cummings’ avant-garde-poetics-of-the-ear exist, including, for instance, a poem about a super-moon rising. In “!” (CP 722), the assonance of the diphthong r-O-U-n-d crescendos in various forms until the mouth is full of roundness.

But even in his more “accessible” poems, the ear matters. Poetry, by and large, must be read aloud in order to understand the texture and tone of the language. “‘next to of course god america i” is one such poem (CP 267). If read in monotone, all seems lost. Many readers will discover and emphasize various dynamics of the poem—and there are, of course, multiple ways to envision the poem’s speaker. I see the speaker begin in sarcasm which augments into hysteria and desperation. The phrase “even deafanddumb” comes like an epiphany.  Here is a link to my reading of Cummings’ “next to of course god america i.” Students often “get” the poem much more readily when it is performed rather than read, even if “read aloud” in monotone. Hearing the poem leads one back into seeing it, into tracing the instability throughout the sonnet: broken words, missing periods, and so forth.

(I should mention that The Poetry Foundation launched an online project to house audio files of people reading poetry aloud. Concerning Fair Use, they set the precedent that circulating audio files of one’s reading of a poem is all good.)

The EAR and the EYE ought not to be seen as oppositions. Rather, they can be profoundly related in the reading of Cummings’ poetry. Etienne Terblanche, for instance, explores the sounds in one of Cummings’ most visual poems: “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r” (see “’That Incredible Unanimal/Mankind’”).

What other poems (or passages from EIMI) epitomize Cummings’ avant-garde-poetics-of-the-ear?

In what other provocative places in Cummings’ oeuvre do the EAR and the EYE merge?



Aaron M. Moe

Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, IN




Works Cited

Chott, Larry. “The Sight of Sound: Cummings’ ‘oil tel du woil doi sez.’” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 6 (1997): 45–48.

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

Nuez, Jessie. “Retro Microphone on Stage.” 24 Jan. 2013. Web Image. 17 Nov. 2014.

Terblanche, Etienne. “That ‘Incredible Unanimal/Mankind’: Jacques Derrida, E. E. Cummings and a Grasshopper.” Journal of Literary Studies 20.3-4 (2004): 218–247. Print.


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