Norma Pollack

[Spring 4 (1995): 121-129]

Cummings' poetry has inspired a diverse array of musical settings. At least 168 different poems have, in fact, been transformed into some 370 compositions by approximately 143 composers. This information has been compiled into two lists, one that names the composers who have created songs from Cummings' poetry, and another that identifies the first lines of the poems that have been transformed into songs. Entries in each list consist of the name of the composer, the title of the song or the collection of which the song is a part, publication facts, performance mode, the first line of the poem that is the source of the musical setting, the particular collection of poems to which the poem belongs, and, wherever possible, some of the libraries where the score or the recording might be found.

A number of important sources supplied the information for this compilation, among them the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the compilations of George Firmage and Michael Hovland, and the computer-accessed catalogs of the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts, as well as those of several university libraries in Texas. The compilation can account, of course, only for those musical settings that have been cataloged. In fact, the setting of Cummings' poetry to music is an ongoing and never-ending process. His poetry will continue to inspire composers to translate his words into music, interpret those words via music, and offer that music to performers who, in turn, will transport the poetry and music to new interpretive realms. The mind boggles at the thought of the plethora of musical entities to which one tiny poem can and often does give rise.

Indeed, 24 poems, in particular, appear to be great favorites of composers. Each of these has generated four or more musical settings, and each has been interpreted via diverse performance media. The poems that have inspired the greatest number of music settings are, in descending order, "in Just-," with 17 musical versions, "hist whist," with 14, "i thank You God for most this amazing," with 13, and "Tumbling-hair," with nine. There are also seven musical settings each of "what if a much of a which of a wind," "maggie and milly and molly and may," and "somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond," and six each of "All in green went my love riding," "anyone lived in a pretty how town," "love is more thicker than," "sweet spring is your," and "this is the garden:colours come and go." The poems that have inspired five musical settings each include "a wind has blown the [end p. 121] rain away and blown," "if i have made,my lady,intricate," "Jimmie's got a goil," "little tree," "Spring is like a perhaps hand," and "up into the silence the green." Finally, four musical settings each are of "because it's," "i carry your heart with me(i carry it in," "O sweet spontaneous," "(sitting in a tree-)," "stinging," and "who knows if the moon's."

Numerous other poems have generated two or three musical settings each and many more, some perfectly marvelous poems among them, have inspired only one musical setting ("i am a litde church(no great cathedral)," "air," "& sun &," "!hope"). Thus, the musical versions of Cummings' poetry constitute a diverse group of poems and represent the broad spectrum of his published collections of poetry, from Tulips & Chimneys (1922) through W [Viva] (1931) and No Thanks (1935) to 95 Poems (1958) and 73 Poems (1963). Of course, the poems in all of these collections vary greatly in style and quality, and range from the most experimental, idiosyncratic, outrageous, and sometimes downright unpleasant or even ugly in content and mode of expression, to the most eloquent, enticing, exquisite, beautiful, and poignant. It should come as no surprise that the poems that have engendered the greatest number of musical settings exhibit these latter qualities.

Among the 143 composers who have transformed Cummings' poems into music are some extremely important modem composers, such as Dominick Argento, William Bergsma, Luciano Berio, Leonard Bernstein, Marc Blitzstein, Pierre Boulez, John Cage, Aaron Copland, David Diamond, John Duke, Morton Feldman, Philip Glass, Ned Rorem, Vincent Persichetti, and Richard Wemick. Argento has created a song cycle from "in Just-," "in / Spring comes," "Spring is like a perhaps hand," "when faces called flowers," and "who knows if the moon's." Diamond, Glass, and Persichetti are among those who have created musical versions of "this is the garden:colours come and go," while Rorem and Bernstein have, respectively, set to music "in the rain" and "if you can't eat you got to."

Persichetti, moreover, has explored the musical possibilities of a disparate array of poems and moods, setting to music those that are poignant and evocative, such as "these children singing in stone a," "maybe god," and "the / sky / was," as well as those that are rambunctious, such as "Jimmie's got a goil," "a politician is," and "jake hates all the girls," and one that is extremely bitter, "my uncle." Morton Feldman has created musical settings of four short poems, the ethereal "air" and "!blac," as well as "moan" and "(sitting in a tree-)." Cage has not only created what appears to be, according to the present study, the sole musical setting of one of Cummings' challenging texts, "wherelings whenlings," from 50 Poems (1940), but he has composed a song cycle from the entire collection of "Chansons Innocentes," to which belong "in Just-," "hist whist," and "Tumbling-hair," which are, it [end p. 122] will be recalled, among those Cummings poems that have inspired the most numerous musical settings. Not surprisingly, two of the boldest and most innovative modem composers, Pierre Boulez and Luciano Berio, have created musical settings of two highly idiosyncratic and challenging Cummings texts: Boulez has set to music a short poem, the exquisite and ethereal "birds( / here,inven," which he has expanded into a 13-minute exploration—and evocation—of the poem's multisensory effects; Berio, on the other hand, has created a musical version of a lengthy, extremely linguistically challenging, intensely multisensory poem, "n(o)w / the."

Musical settings of Cummings' poetry are intended for performance by solo voices, typically soprano, but mezzo-soprano, contralto, baritone, and tenor as well; and by choruses of various vocal combinations. Solo voices are usually accompanied by piano or instrumental ensemble. Choruses may be accompanied by piano, organ, or instrumental ensemble, or they may simply be left unaccompanied. The poems that have inspired the greatest number of musical settings tend to be created for a variety of performance media, thereby exhibiting some of the myriad musical identities inherent in a given poem. However, musical settings of "i thank You God for most this amazing" and all of Persichetti's works appear to be only for various choral combinations, either accompanied or a cappella.


Without a doubt, the poems that have engendered several musical versions apiece are unique verbal artifacts. Yet these poems share certain attributes for which composers might be inspired to find musical equivalents: they all have a distinctive rhythmic and aural presence, and some have striking visual imagery as well. For example, the rhythmic and aural characteristics of "in Just-" both complicate the words and impart a nonverbal dimension of significance to the words. This poem is characterized by a rhythmic asymmetry that consists of a pattern of momentum and bounce alternated with a greatly slowed-down tempo and stasis. Joining the names of the children not only conjures a vision of innocence and play but contributes momentum as well. Spaces between words, on the other hand, as in the thrice-repeated refrain, "whistles / far and wee," retard or halt the momentum and, linked as they are with the presence of the "lame balloonman," impart ambiguity to the atmosphere of joyous innocence communicated by the vision of children at play.

These alternating patterns of momentum and stasis undermine the simple surface meanings of the words and complicate the presentation of innocence and renewal symbolized by the children and springtime. Instead, the rhythms create an aura of mystery and ambiguity, of tension and disquiet, that results in the poem becoming a complex embodiment of irony [end p. 123] and dissonance. It is the distinctive and peculiar rhythmic system of the poem that suggests levels of significance and effect extending beyond the semantic meaning of the words. Nor should the aural character of the poem be overlooked, since this, too, influences the rhythmic environment of the poem. Long vowels, such as those in "lame balloonman," "far and wee," and "marbles and piracies" slow the tempo, create a smooth rhythm, and impart melodiousness and resonance, as well as a keening quality, a tone of regret, that contradicts the idea of joyous renewal with which spring is typically associated. Thus, an aura of mystery and ambiguity permeates the poem and belies its words, and this ambiguity invites and enables composers to emphasize what they wish—the surface meaning of the words of the poem, or the shadowy, darker undercurrents.

Another poem that has inspired numerous musical settings, "i thank You God for most this amazing," exhibits a distinctive rhythmic and aural character that is, nevertheless, remarkably different from "in Just-." This poem falls into an easy, natural, predominantly pentameter rhythm. It is characterized by graceful phrasing, pleasant images and sounds, a reverent attitude, and intensity of expression. For example, the preponderance of words with "ing" endings and those with long vowels ("leaping," "greenly," "trees," "blue," "dream," "sky") results in a resonant, melodious pattern of sounds. The use of rhetorical and rhythmic repetition, as in, for example, "which is natural which is infinite which is yes," and the final couplet, "now the ears of my ears are awake and / now the eyes of my eyes are opened," imparts intensity and Biblical grandeur.

Still another poem among those that have inspired the greatest number of musical settings is "Tumbling-hair," a marvel of brevity distinguished by a series of discrete images, as well as by an asymmetrical rhythmic structure consisting of different combinations of strong and weak stresses for each line. Caught within the brief span and space of the poem, these striking, discrete images and irregular rhythms create an effect of fragmentation. The poem embodies, thus, a brief, fleeting impression, and it charms with its ability to convey the swiftness of life's passing. Noteworthy, too, is its system of assonance, the melodious elongated "o" sounds ("violets," "dandelions," "wonderful," "sorry," "Another," "comes," "flowers") that, gonglike, echo throughout the poem, and retard the tempo as well. The poem, in all its brevity, is, nevertheless, a compendium of sensory images.

The remaining poems that have generated as many as four, five, six, or seven musical settings each not only possess various striking rhythmic and aural qualities, but an array of additional traits as well. For example, "somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond" conveys an impression of intense, tender love via delicate and subtle images. "what if a much of which of a wind" possesses strongly accented rhythms and a system of long [end p. 124] vowels that, in the context of the poem, have an onomatopoeic, shrieking quality. The poem is a repository of violent imagery and associations that dramatically convey an impression of the flux and chaos of life, the depredations of time. "maggie and milly and molly and may" charms with its simplicity, its strong dactylic rhythms that conjure a vision of children at play, as well as with its evocative images—"a stranded star," "a shell that sang." "All in green went my love riding" is notable for its dramatic, tension-filled narrative content, its vivid pictorial quality, its palette of intense colors, and its swift, relentless pace, developed from a regular pattern of strongly accented rhythms, as well as from a pattern of recurrence in words, sentences, stanzas, sights, and sounds.

"anyone lived in a pretty how town," also distinguished by narrative content, moves along via a linear progression of events. Its rhythmic regularity and balanced phrasing reinforce the narrative and provide a stability against which language may be used in unaccustomed yet meaningful and effective ways. Tethered to the regular rhythms that relentlessly propel the poem is a system of echoing, resonant long vowels. All of these features work together to create a poignant depiction of the contrast between alive individuals and nondead mostpeople. "This is the garden:colours come and go," a haunting presentation of life's passing, works its magic via evocative, exquisitely delicate images, and a system of long vowels that not only imparts an echoing, melodious aural quality but retards the tempo to a lingering pace, as if to stay the passage of time. "A wind has blown the rain away and blown" is dominated by various types of repetition—words, sounds, phrases, images, rhythms—all of which reinforce one another and, together, present an overpoweringly stark impression/expression of grief and longing.


This overview of some of the poems that have generated the most musical settings suggests that composers are drawn to fantasy, whimsicality, mystery, ambiguity, naiveté, romance, fervent expressions of love, and distinctive sensory impressions. These poems exhibit the persistence of a complex interweaving of three modes of sensory experience—visual, aural, and kinetic—whose interaction makes for different modes and levels of stylization and intensity, and whose function is to communicate shades and layers of significance and effect that constitute a basis for translation from a verbal to a musical realm The poems that have inspired the greatest number of musical settings, moreover, do not constitute Cummings' most grammatically and typographically idiosyncratic texts, any more than they consist of his most controversial subject matter or modes of expression. Although poems exhibiting traits that are most favored by composers are to be found [end p. 125] in all of Cummings' published collections, they are especially prominent in Tulips & Chimneys, 50 Poems, 95 Poems, and 73Poems, works that primarily represent Cummings' early and late, rather than middle, periods. One is tempted to speculate that they are attracted to familiar lyric forms and sentiments in the poetry of Cummings, to the visual imagery of the poetry, and, in particular, to its musical qualities, all of which are characteristics exhibited by many of the poems in the earlier and later collections but by few of those from the collections of the middle period, which, by contrast, contain poetic experimentations marked by extreme linguistic and visual innovations that greatly defamiliarize the language and might well, in turn, identify the poems as purely literary and visual objects or artifacts that do not invite musical elaboration.

Throughout Cummings' collections may be found, too, several poems, such as "air," "& sun &," "beautiful," "birds( / here,inven," "!blac," "dim," "l(a," "mi(dreamlike)st," "moan," "n / OthI," "one // t," "silence," and "tw," that constitute ethereal, exquisite, and affecting impressions of and responses to nature, or to the passage of time. These very short, extremely fragmented and stylistically idiosyncratic poems consist of only a few words, pulled apart or pushed together, their letters deployed over several lines in a slender, vertical mode. They exhibit, too, displaced punctuation and syntax, as well as idiosyncratic capitalization. The poems are characterized, on the one hand, by the absence of rhythmic regularity and, on the other, by the presence of aural and virtually onomatopoeic visual effects. Words that are pulled apart not only appear to float on the page but function to elongate further the long vowel sounds, slowing down the momentum and imparting to the whole a poignant resonance and melodiousness. Contrasted with "in Just-," "hist whist," "i thank You God for most this amazing," "Tumbling-hair," and other poems that have inspired multiple musical settings, each of these poems has been set to music no more than once or twice. Nevertheless, so many of these poems have been transformed into music that the group as a whole represents numerous composers. Clearly, these poems are great favorites with composers, who appear drawn to their delicate multisensory effects and to be moved to translate these effects from the verbal to the musical domain with its infinite musical possibilities.


Many poems, on the other hand—typically those that might be regarded as controversial in subject matter as well as highly idiosyncratic in style—do not seem to recommend themselves as sources for musical settings, although a good many of them may be very interesting verbal artifacts. Poems that do not appeal to composers are to be found in all of Cummings' [end p. 126] collections of poetry, including Tulips & Chimneys, which contains the poems that are the source of over a hundred musical settings. For example, no musical settings of poems from the "Orientales," "Sonnets—Realities," and "Sonnets—Actualities" segments of Tulips & Chimneys were discovered during the search that produced the present compilation, and very few from the W [ViVa] and No Thanks collections. Poems from these unpopular sections or collections are very different from those that are used as the source of musical settings. "Orientales," whose contents seem derivative of Swinburne orRosetti and "The Song of Songs," consists of poems that are overlong, as well as overelaborate, stilted, and pretentious in expression. These poems are clogged with descriptive details and a preponderance of grotesque comparisons. A typical line contains descriptions such as, "thy mouth is as / a chord of crimson music," "thine eyes are as a vase / of divine silence" (Complete Poems 32), or "thy breasts are swarms of white bees / upon the bough of thy body / thy body to me is April / in whose armpits is the approach of spring" (Complete 33).

"Sonnets—Realities" and "Sonnets—Actualities," additionally, consist of some of Cummings' most controversial poems, poems characterized by grotesque, sexually explicit, even sexually violent depictions, as exemplified by the poem "it started when Bill's chip let onto" (Complete 127). They consist, too, of crude, grotesque verbal expressions, unappealing in sound or image, such as "sagging debris of exploded day/the hulking perpendicular mammal / a / grim epitome of chuckling flesh" (Complete 135). Poems with these characteristics do not appear to inspire translation to the musical realm. Among this collection of approximately 370 musical settings, for example, very few contain sexually explicit material (those being three musical settings of "may i feel said he," two of "raise the shade," and one each of "between the breasts" and "little ladies more"); few display a polemic stance (one setting of "Humanity i love you"); and few are bitterly vehement (three settings of "my sweet old etcetera," two of "my uncle," and once setting each of "Buffalo Bill"s," "come gaze with me upon this dome," and "a politician is an arse upon").

Poems from W [Viva] tend to be highly experimental, abounding in grammatical displacements, atypical syntax, odd punctuation, and broken words. Often, words are used as though they are mere objects devoid of semantic value and function. Thus, poems may contain a series of images that are simply present on the page but in no other way appear to interact with one another, such as "legs think wrists / argue)short(eyes do / bang hands angle / scoot bulbs marry a become) / ened / (to is" (Complete 311). Poems from this collection, thus, tend to contain myriad linguistic challenges that interfere with their ability to readily communicate significance or effect. These poems also lack elements that reinforce or reveal commu- [end p. 127] nication—distinctive sensory impressions, for example, or repetition of various sorts, kinetic, aural, or rhetorical. Such qualities, which are intensely present in the poems that have been transformed into music, including those poems that are disjunctive, appear to constitute a basis for translation from the verbal to the musical realm and suggest themselves, in fact, as criteria for translation.

Of the 70 poems in W [ViVa], only six have been set to music, among them, "somewhere i have never travelled,gladiy beyond," which has inspired seven musical settings. In terms of the criteria set forth, these six poems represent the most accessible hence most translatable poems from this particular collection. For example, although one of these six, "n(o)w / the," is an extremely radical text, abounding in grammatical and typographical aberrations that result in a fragmented, chaotic, and idiosyncratic appearance, these aberrations, nevertheless, constitute rhythmic cues that communicate motion and energy through rhythms and sounds; they are a sort of multisensory onomatopoeia that communicates the impression of a raging storm, rendering the poem as the verbal equivalent of a storm. This poem, in short, constitutes a powerful sensory impression that transcends, and even ignores, the semantic meaning of the words and, via its powerful sensory effect, contains the potential for translation into infinite musical equivalents.

It is hardly surprising that this poem, a difficult, disjunctive text, appears to have generated only one musical setting, a composition for soprano, harp, and two percussion players; nor that this composition is by Luciano Berio, one of the oldest of modern composers. Except for these six poems, however, the remaining poems from this collection appear not to have served as the source of musical settings. One might well speculate that the absence or dearth of lyric, musical qualities—melodious sounds, a distinctive rhythmic character, not to mention a paucity of evocative visual imagery and the sentiments associated with lyric poetry—has rendered these poems as predominantly literary artifacts resistant to musical transformation and, thus, made them unappealing to composers, quite in contrast with other highly disjunctive poems, already noted, such as "air," !blac," "birds( / here,inven," and others, whose musical qualities have inspired musical metamorphosis.

Poems from No Thanks not only display linguistic and typographic idiosyncrasies, they do so in a far more exaggerated way than those in W [ViVa]. Series of words are pushed together (Complete 385), individual words are pulled apart (385), disordered syntax (386,402) as well as aberrant capitalization and punctuation abound (421, 423, 426, 429), beautiful sounds combine with ugly ones (384), peculiar juxtapositions of images occur (386, 397), as do concatenations of words (475) or letters (398) that [end p. 128] require reconstruction and from which it is difficult to readily extract meaning. The collection also contains poems that are bitterly vehement (441) and polemical in tone, sexual, satirical, or political in content, and vulgar and crude in expression. Traits such as those displayed by virtually all the poems in this collection seem to discourage or repel musical transformation. Yet, the same collection that contains "may i feel said he" is also graced by the presence of the exquisite, multisensory "birds( / here,inven," which has inspired two musical settings, one by Pierre Boulez for four-part mixed chorus and chamber orchestra, and another by Malcolm Peyton for double chorus, a cappella, performance media that suggest both composers have promoted the ethereal qualities of the poem.

To sum up, then, the composers identified through this research tend to avoid transforming into music poems that are satirical, political, polemical, graphically sexual or violent in content; grotesque, ugly, crude, or vitriolic in expression; extremely distorted in grammar and typography, hence difficult to understand; and those that lack musical qualities and visual imagery. On the other hand, they gravitate toward the traditional subject matter of lyric poetry, such as nature, love, subjectivity, and the cycle of life and death, and toward those poems that communicate significance and effect via intense sensory means—kinetic, visual, aural.

—University of Texas at Dallas
[end p. 129]

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