E. E. Cummings Assignment, Questions, and Notes
  • Selected Poems (Kennedy), the introductions and all poems in chapter 1,
  • chapter 2, "Spring," poems 2-5, "Other Seasons," all but poem 5;
  • chapter 3, poems on pp. 38-47; chapter 4, read all;
  • chapter 5 (love), poems 3-7, 9, 10, 12; chapter 6 (sex), poems 1-5, 9; chapter 7 (prostitutes), poems 1, 3, 5-7, 10, 11.
  • chapter 8, read all except poem 6; chapter 9, poems 1, 3-5, 9-11; chapter 10, read all.
  • chapter 11 (satire), read all except the first; chapter 12, read all.

E. E. C. Quotes:

In a 1920 essay on T. S. Eliot, Cummings wrote: "By technique we do not mean a great many things, including: anything static, a school, a noun, a slogan, a formula: These Three For Instant Beauty, Ars Est Celare, Hasn't Scratched Yet, Professor Woodbery, Grape Nuts. By technique we do mean one thing: the alert hatred of normality which, through the lips of a tactile and cohesive adventure, asserts that nobody in general and some one in particular is incorrigibly and actually alive" (Miscellany 27).

[Notes: Ars est celare [artem] = "Art is to conceal art" [Latin]; hatred of normality: presidential candidate Warren G. Harding called for a return to "normalcy" in 1919; Professor Woodbery = G. E. Woodberry published Literary Essays in1920. Cummings' definitive treatment of how writers adopt formulas that become tired like advertising slogans and thus avoid finding their own, "alive" forms occurs in "POEM, OR BEAUTY HURTS MR. VINAL" (SP 152).]

"At least my theory of technique,if I have one,is very far from original;nor is it complicated. . . . Like the burlesk comedian,I am abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement" --Foreword to Is 5 (1926)

In i: six nonlectures, Cummings says that "all [my poems] hope to do is to suggest that particular awareness without which no human spirit ever dreams of rising from such unmysteries as thinking and believing and knowing" (six 82).

"Poetry is what's different" (quoted in Kennedy 8).

[Compare: "false is alike. False teeth" (six 70).]

"Prose is if words are used by somebody to mean something.

Poetry is if they use each other to express themselves" (quoted in Heusser 222).

From these passages, the reader can gather what Cummings required of his techniques (if not his readers): they must create movement through various but precise forms of verbal play, making the poem "a tactile and cohesive adventure," an experience in "living" (six 68) that asserts to the reader that one individual (the poet) is alive. The passage from the Eliot essay also outlines what will not work as technique but only provide fodder for satire: normality, formulas, group thinking, and verbal deadness or stasis. The movement created when readers decode Cummings' precise (and not at all concealed) syntactical and visual constructions is designed to awaken readers from the collective "undream" of mass society into an aesthetic moment of being, selfhood, and vision.

Chapter I, Innocence (1-13): Why do you think the "balloonman" in "in Just-" is "goat-footed"? "who sharpens every dull" is a portrait of a knife-grinder or sharpener. In what ways could this poem also be seen as a portrait of a poet? How do you think each adventure of "maggie and milly and molly and may" illustrates the finding of "ourselves"? What (play, imagination?) do you think is so powerful about innocence? In "o by the by" what is "little you-i" doing (playing)? What is the "blue"? Why do you suppose the "child" has the name "little you-i"? (Hint: see stanza 4 of the next poem.) What do you think the last two lines mean? What do you think Cummings means by some of the impossible statements of "as freedom is a breakfastfood"? (Examples: "truth can live with right and wrong" and "hatracks into peachtrees grow") In what ways does the last stanza differ from the others? How do the four seasons mentioned in stanzas 1 and 2 of "what if a much of a which of a wind" relate to the messages in the last two lines of each stanza? What "season" does the last stanza describe?

Chapter II, Nature (15-29): In "O sweet spontaneous" why do you think Cummings says that the "lover" of earth is "death"? In "Sno" try to account for every deformation of syntax, punctuation, word integrity, and visual arrangement. In what ways do you think these "derangements" contribute to the meaning(s) of the poem? [stropping = sharpening a straight razor on a strip of leather.] What does the snow do? What does Cummings ask the reader to do? In what ways do rhythm, meter, spacing, and syntax contribute to the feelings and images expressed in "a wind has blown the rain away and blown"? What do you think the "mouse(Won" represents? (He "is / anyone else.") How has the mouse won (or is "one")? What message can you find in the capitalized words? Cummings placed this poem opposite the grasshopper poem (42, #8) in his book No Thanks. How do these two poems complement and contrast with one another? Compare "when god lets my body be" to the last section of Whitman's "Song of Myself" (Ellmann 15-16).

Chapter III, Visual Poems (31-49): Compare "l(a" to the following haiku by Basho: "Won't you come and see / loneliness? Just one leaf / from the kiri tree." Notice the "stanzas" in this and some other visual poems. How does the fact that this poem was numbered "I" in 95 Poems (1958) add to your interpretation? How many different words are contained in the word "loneliness"? In what ways does the visual arrangement of the letters and words imitate feelings, actions, and images described in the poem? (One can ask the same question for all of Cummings' visual poems.) In what ways could "r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r" and "n(o)w" be termed imagist poems? In what ways can you apply what Cummings says about his technique of movement to these visual poems? "sh estiffl" describes a striptease act. What would you say is Cummings' attitude towards the act? Why do you think the poet broke up the words "vast" and "are" in "birds("?

Chapter IV, Portraits (51-59): What would you say is the tone of voice in "the Cambridge ladies"? How does the etymology of the word "doom" (look it up) help you to understand "my father moved through dooms of love"? What sorts of concrete scenes or ideas can you attach to abstractions like "through sames of am through haves of give" and "motionless forgetful where"? What do you think Cummings wants the reader to realize about his father?

Chapter V, Love (61-71): (66) Paolo --a character from Dante's Inferno. Paolo fell in love with Francesca, his sister-in-law. Both were murdered by Francesca's husband, who caught them in the act. (66) "Ici?" French--"Here?"—"Ah, no, my dear, it's too cold." / chevaux de bois = "wooden horses." What happens to the poet’s selves in "your homecoming . . ."? (For the poet’s selves, read "so many selves" and "no man, if men are gods" [165-66].) In Plato’s Symposium, the comic poet Aristophanes tells a story in which he claims that in former ages, people used to be joined together (something like Siamese twins), but after the gods separated these pairs, each goes looking to find his or her lost twin, or soulmate. This amusing little tale explains why people fall in love with strangers and why some are unhappy in love: they never find their lost twin. It is also behind the first line of "one’s not half two." Why would "no death and any quantity" occur when two lovers are joined? In what ways do lovers "grow"? What do you think the last four words mean? In "hate blows a bubble of despair" how is love different from hate and fear, pleasure and pain? (Note images used to describe each.) How will the lover get spring and now from "madame death"? Compare with other poems on death, especially "what if a much of a which" (12-13), "since feeling is first" (99), "dying is fine)but Death" (105), "now does our world descend"(173), and "life is more" (181).

Chapter VI, Sex (73-82) Though these poems are mostly earlier (from the teens and 20s), do you see any similarities at all between these sex poems and the love poems? What sorts of contrasts does the speaker make or imply in the first three poems of this section? What do you think is the speaker's attitude towards women in these poems?

"she being Brand / -new" Notes: thoroughly oiled the universal / joint --a necessary operation with early motor-cars. For a discussion and illustrations, see Miller 60-61.

slipped the / clutch --like flooding the carburetor and "somehow" getting into reverse, this is a beginner's mistake.

i touched the accelarator --Miller writes that "the reference to the accelerator is not to the foot pedal but to the button-tipped hand throttle," which beginners were advised to use "for the first few days until the other details of driving had been mastered" (62-63).

Chapter VII, Prostitutes (83-95): What do you think is the speaker's attitude towards women in these poems? (Compare / contrast with the poems in the "Shadows" section of Sandburg's Chicago Poems [65-68].) Do you see any themes in these poems that are similar to themes in the love poems? What do you make of the contrast between love and death that appears in poems #2, 3, 4, 5? Compare these poems to "the trick of finding" (100).

Chapter VIII, "Is"--Feeling and Knowing (97-122): See generic questions 1 and 3 above. What sorts of "things" do you think Cummings is talking about in the quote at the top of page 98? Why do you suppose feeling precludes believing? In other words, why are feelings "incredible"? In "since feeling is first" notice that Cummings does not say that feeling is the best or the only way to perceive. Do you think Cummings pays any attention to syntax in his poems? (Notice the last two line of this poem.) In "all ignorance toboggans into know" what do you think "spring" could stand for? Notice that "know" rhymes with "snow." What do you think "toil the scale to shrillerness" (10) could mean? Why do you think Cummings contrasts "tomorrow" and "now" with history's "shrill collective myth"? In what ways are the thought and images about thinking in the first two stanzas of "the trick of finding what you didn't lose" similar to those in the first stanza of "all ignorance . . ."? What are some possible interpretations of the last two lines? In "what time is it?it is by every star" what do you think Cummings means by "timelessness"? According to "conceive a man,shall he have anything" what is a man? Compare with "my father moved" (54-56), "so many selves" and "no man,if men are gods" (165-166). How is the pun on the word "conceive" important to the poem? In "sonnet entitled how to run the world)" (SP 104) examine the logical paradoxes set forth in the octave. What sense can you make of them? In the sestet, can you connect the images of "grass" and "flesh" and "swim" and "bathe" and snow and rain with abstract terms like "dream" and "sleep" and "know" and "guess"? Why do you think "dream" and "guess" mean more than "sleep" and "know"? (See poems 2 & 3 in this section.) In what ways does this poem summarize Cummings’ ideas on loving living, feeling, and dying? Here is Cummings' "paraphrase" of lines 6-8:

G . . . never be guilty of self-pity;if you once had a little but now have least,forget the earlier time gladly;& when you have least,remember gladly the time when you had most

H . . . treat your true(highest)self as something sacred--never flaunt it in public,like a flag,for everyone to see (Letters 271).

grass is flesh --inversion of Isaiah 40:6: "All flesh is grass / and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. / The grass withers, the flower fades, / when the breath of the Lord blows upon it." Cummings writes: lines 9 10 11 say that the subject of the sonnet's 2nd part is not "flesh is grass"(i.e. living is dying)as the Bible tells you, but dying is living("grass is flesh") (Letters 271). Interested readers will want to consult Cummings' entire commentary on this poem (Selected Letters 270-271). Notice how the terms guess, sleep, dream, and the imagery of children, snow, and rain re-appear in "anyone lived in a pretty how town."

Chapter IX, Allegories (107-122): In "anyone lived in a pretty how town" name some the differences between anyone and the someones, and between noone and the everyones. How do you think the children fit into this poem? The poem "the Noster was a ship of swank" depends on the reader knowing some Latin words: Noster = "Our"; Sum = "I am"; mine = besides an explosive device, the possessive pronoun; also, "mind";

Ergo = "Therefore" (as in Descartes' famous maxim, "Cogito ergo sum" or "I think, therefore I am"); and Pater = "Father" (i.e., God the Father). Pater may also refer to English aesthete Walter Pater. In addition, "when joined to Noster [Pater] becomes Pater Noster, not only 'our [Walter] Pater,' 'our [literary] Father,' but also the Lord's Prayer" (Luedtke). For "here is little Effie's head" you might want to look up the subjunctive mood in a good grammar. Why do you suppose little Effie's head has only six crumbs of subjunctive gingerbread in it? Perhaps the poem "suppose / Life is an old man" should be displayed prominently at Afterwards Coffeehouse. [Life speaks French of course: les / roses les bluets = "roses, bachelor's buttons"; Les belles bottes = "pretty bunches"; pas chères = "not expensive."] How is the poem "it's over a(see just" like and unlike the Adam and Eve story? Why do you suppose the poet chose "gravensteins" as the apple variety rather than, say, "red delicious"?

Chapter X, Urban Glimpses (123-135): It what ways is "a man who had fallen among thieves" (130-131) like and unlike the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-42)? [leal = "loyal"] Lou Rus (letter, July 22, 1998) suggests we read this poem in the light of a passage from Henry David Thoreau that occurs towards the end of the first chapter of Walden ("Economy"): "I never dreamed of any enormity greater than I have committed. I never knew, and never shall know, a worse man than myself."--a statement often quoted with approval by EEC. Cummings usually quotes this passage to Pound when EP is ranting about the necessity of knowing economics and changing the world (cf. Pound / Cummings 140-143; 145; 364-365 and Selected Letters 243). In a similar vein, Ann R. Morris has suggested that the subject of the poem "is not man's social responsibility but rather every man's potential divinity" (39). How do you interpret the last two lines? (Same question for "that melancholy")

Chapter XI, Satire (137-161): The poem "ygUDuh" is a dramatic monologue written during World War II. For "plato told" it helps to know that lao tsze is the name of the legendary founder of Taoism, a Chinese philosophy, and that nipponized means "japanized" and refers to the sale of scrap metal to Japan before the war. The el refers to an elevated train or subway line. Besides "the way to hump a cow is not", Cummings wrote another short epigram attacking politicians: "a politician is an arse upon / which everyone has sat except a man". In what ways could "(of Ever-Ever Land i speak" also be about the United States? "kumrads" = "comrades," i.e., communists. "flotsam and jetsam" (154) are British writers Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden (Ellmann 408-427). Note: neck and senecktie refers to Horace, Odes, II.14: "Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume, / labuntur anni nec pietas moram / rugis et instanti senectae / adferet indomitaeque morti" ["Ah, Postumus, Postumus, how fleeting / the swift years--prayer cannot delay / the furrows of imminent old-age / nor hold off unconquerable death." The "BALLAD OF AN INTELLECTUAL" parodies the transition that many American intellectuals made from being supporters of the new modernist art in the 20s to being supporters of social revolution and communism in the 30s. Some references: Jerse = James Joyce, author of Ulysses; Prused = Marcel Proust, French author of Remembrance of Things Past; the es of a be = S.O.B.; Gay Pay Oo = G.P.U., Soviet secret police; Eddie Gest = Edgar Guest, popular poet; Mike Gold = editor of socialist newspaper, The New Masses. What do you think of the reasons Cummings gives for the intellectual's move from art to politics? In "pity this busy monster, manunkind," the "electrons" are those of an electron microscope, and curving wherewhen probably refers to Einstein's theory of curved space-time (see next poem). Name some differences between a "world of made" and a "world of born." In "Space being(don't forget to remember)Curved" (159-160), the speaker discusses the curvature of space, one aspect of Einstein's theory of relativity. See Richard B Vowles, "Cummings' 'Space being . . . Curved'." Explicator 9.1 (1950), item 3. At the end of the following issue of The Explicator (after item 37) the editors print this interesting response from Cummings:

Dear Sir--
please let your readers know that the author of
"Space being(don't forget to remember)Curved"
considers it a parody-portrait of one scienceworshipping
supersubmoron in the very act of reading(with
difficulties)aloud,to another sw ssm,some wouldbe
explication of A.Stone&Co's unpoem

--thank you

E. E. Cummings
December 11 1950
earth's most terrific / quadruped = the elephant, Cummings' favorite animal, his "totem."

Chapter XII, Endings (163-181): In what ways is Cummings' definition of a poet "no man,if men are gods" different from and similar to his definition of a man, "so many selves(so many fiends and gods"? Count the number of times each word is repeated and the number of letters in each word in "BrIght"--compare with "l(a" (39).

Works Cited

Cummings, E. E. Complete Poems 1904-1962. Ed George J. Firmage. New York: Liveright, 1994. Abbreviated CP.
- - -. E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised. Ed. George J. Firmage. New York: October House, 1965.
- - -. E. E. Cummings Papers. Houghton Library, Harvard U, Cambridge MA.
- - -. i six nonlectures. 1953. New York: Atheneum, 1962.
- - -. Selected Letters of E. E. Cummings. Ed. F. W. Dupee and George Stade. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969.
Miller. Lewis H. "Sex on Wheels: A Reading of 'she being Brand / -new'," Spring 6 (1997): 55-69.

Intertexts and Allusions for "Poem, Or Beauty Hurts Mr. Vinal" (152-3)


Old loveliness has such a way with me,
That I am close to tears when petals fall
And needs must hide my face against a wall,
When autumn trees burn red with ecstasy.
For I am haunted by a hundred things
And more that I have seen on April days;
I have held stars above my head in praise,
I have worn beauty as two costly rings.

Alas, how short a state does beauty keep,
Then let me clasp it wildly to my heart
And hurt myself until I am a part
Of all its rapture, then turn back to sleep,
Remembering through all the dusty years
What sudden wonder brought me close to tears.

—Harold Vinal

This poem is from Harold Vinal's first book, White April (1922), published in the Yale Younger Poets Series. In the 1920's, Vinal was editor of Voices, a short-lived ("radically defunct") poetry quarterly that did not publish modernist poetry like Cummings'. Vinal seems to have survived Cummings' attack. In 1944, when the Poetry Society of America presented Cummings with its Shelley Memorial Award, the prize was announced by the Society's president, Mr. Harold Vinal.

Boston Garter: In pre-elastic days, men used garters to keep their socks up.

Lydia E. Pinkham: Manufacturer of cure-all remedy for "women's" ailments. Her "Vegetable Compound" was made of roots, seeds, and 18% alcohol.

Just Add Hot Water And Serve --" From a Campbell Soup ad.

merde = shit (French)

God's / In His andsoforth: "God's in His heaven / And all's right with the world" (Robert Browning, "Pippa Passes").

Turn Your Shirttails Into Drawers: Parody of ad for Imperial "Drop Seat" Union Suit, long underwear with a buttoned seat panel.

littleliverpill- / hearted: Refers to ads for Carter's Little Liver Pills.

Nujolneeding- Nujol was a widely advertised laxative.

There's-A-Reason:" Slogan for Grape Nuts cereal and (?) Instant Postum, a coffee substitute containing no caffeine.

Odor? / ono. Odo-ro-ono was a "toilet water" sold to prevent "excessive perspiration."

comes out like a ribbon lies flat on the brush: Slogan for Colgate's Ribbon Dental Cream.

Generic Cummings Questions

1. Cummings has been called the poet of "now." In what ways do Cummings' poems exhibit "the now moment of awareness" characteristic of haiku? Look as some poems where the word now occurs (pp. 39,42, 44, 47, 99-100, 181. What do you think Cummings means by this term? Look also for the words is, are, and am (Kennedy 98).

2. What do you think spring means to Cummings? (see Kennedy 3-4, 12-13, 18-22, #12 on p. 70, 91-91, 99, 101, 177).

3. What's the poet got against time and thinking in "you shall above all things be glad and young" (67), poems #1-5 on pp. 99-102, and "life’s more true than reason will deceive" (Kennedy 181)?

Compare "(of Ever-Ever Land" (149) with "of all the blessing which to man" which is more of an attack on capitalist mass-society. Can you see some aspects of "Ever-Ever Land in our own society?

i: six nonlectures, chapters 1-6. (Poetry that’s not written by Cummings is optional.)

Notes, i: six nonlectures

These lectures were delivered in the Sanders Theatre, Harvard University, 1952-1953.

(8) my father: Cummings' father, Edward Cummings, was a sociology professor and later a Unitarian minister. When he was in his teens and twenties, the poet rebelled against his father, but later saw him as a hero of the self (see Kennedy 54-56).

(9) William James: Pragmatist philosopher, early psychologist, and brother of novelist Henry James. See the bad likeness and short saying at the main entrance to Lake Superior Hall.

(9) concentration camp: During World War I, Cummings was jailed for supporting his friend Slater Brown, who wrote letters home saying that the Germans were probably not such bad folks after all. Cummings’ book about this experience is called The Enormous Room.

(11) nothing false and possible is love: first stanza of a sonnet by Cummings. The next line of the poem reads: "must’s a schoolroom in the month of may:"

(25) professor Royce: Josiah Royce, professor of philosophy at Harvard, colleague of James.

(50) lugete, o Veneres: Catullus, poem 3, "O Venus and her cupids / and all that's moved by beauty in man, mourn" / for my sweetheart's sparrow is dead."

(51) labuntur anni: Horace, Odes II.14, Ah, Postumus, Postumus, how fleeting / "the swift years--prayer cannot delay / the furrows of imminent old-age / nor hold off unconquerable death." / poikiloqron', aqanat' 'Ajrodita: Sappho, poem 1 "On the throne of many hues, deathless Aphrodite" (Rayor 51). / that glorious human being: poet John Keats.

Questions, i: six nonlectures

1. What do you think Cummings means when he says that "I never did, and still don't, know" (3)? How can he learn if he doesn't know? How is "who I am" different from knowing?

2. Why do you think Cummings says that he will talk about himself as a "son of my parents" (4) and as a writer, rather than lecturing on poetry (5)?

3. What do you think is the difference between "criticism" and "love"? How are they related to the "mystery which you are" (7)?

4. What does the speaker in "so many selves(so many fiends and gods" not "comprehend" and why? (Connect with his statements about not knowing and not criticizing.)

5. Why do you suppose Cummings included the portraits and stories about his parents?

6. What’s wrong with technology, according to Cummings (23-24)? Why do you think Cummings is saying about individuality and poetry on p. 24?

7. Cummings makes fun of his "second poetic period" (29)--but can poems avoid "doing good"? Connect the statements here and on pp. 31-32 with poems in Kennedy141-166.

8. According to nonlectures 4-6, what is art for? What does it do in the world?

9. What do you think of Cummings’ individualism?