Music and Texts of Gary Bachlund


No Thanks

A source list and

Some thoughts on setting and not marketing a song anthology of the poetry of E. E. Cummings

Monday, December 08, 2008




Edward Estlin Cummings (1894-1962) is among the favorite poets whose works I have so thoroughly enjoyed. Over decades I have composed song settings to various Cummings' texts for the sheer joy of being engaged with his wit, words and ideas. To spend time with such words as his is one of the joys of life, as far as this composer is concerned, and shall continue to be in the future.


Many composers from the twentieth century and into today have set one or a few of Cummings' texts, the greatest number as I have been able to discover by Gerald Ginsburg, with fifteen settings. Such world renown composers as Dominick Argento, Luciano Berio, Leonard Bernstein, Pierre Boulez, John Cage, Aaron Copland, Ned Rorem, and Peter Schiekle (of PDQ Bach fame) have composed only one or a very few to texts of E. E. Cummings; my work to date amounts to 63 settings of Cummings brilliant texts.


Norma Pollack of the English Department of Grand Valley State University wrote, "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." ("Poems of Cummings Set to Music." Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 4 (1995): 123-24) Placing my mostly unpublished number of settings alongside those noted in the Cummings' Journal will serve to underscore my enthusiasm as composer for Cummings' opus as evidenced by my 63 settings compared to the total noted above of 370. Undoubtedly today there are more, awaiting the notice of a next scholarly study.




Early in 2008, I sought permission to publish an anthology of my Cummings settings, and received a somewhat positive reply from Liveright and its owner, W. W. Norton, requiring from me a cash advance against royalties, but especially expecting to enforce constraints on what musical excerpts I might display on this site -- constraints which I considered to be arbitrary and unacceptable, i.e., restrictions on what and how many excerpts from my own scores I might display to document something of my settings of Cummings' texts; I did not seek permission to display texts-as-texts under their current copyright protection. Their words were "We will only grant up to three poems or musical settings to appear on your website." (The underlined highlight is mine.)


One will find on this site more than "three" musical settings for those Cummings texts demonstrably in the public domain, and freely available to interested parties for their own scholarly and musical purposes; as there are already more than "three" of Cummings' texts in the public domain, this condition included in the permission department's offer of a contract seemed to reach into the public domain to control it, or at least to hinder my own documentation of my work as composer.


I note that an online search yields a good number of sites with many Cummings texts, and some of these sites which feature over one hundred complete texts, and several with "more than three" complete texts specifically state "Reprinted by permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation." Given that some sites reproduce large numbers of complete texts, the Permissions Department "offer" of "up to three" was at the minimum quixotic and inconsistent with their previous practices.


I answered the proposal conveyed by W. W. Norton with the title of Cummings' 1935 poetry collection, No Thanks. (Cummings self-published the collection with the help of his mother and dedicated it to the fourteen publishing houses who turned the collection down. It is interesting to note that publishing houses have not always been farsighted, as Cummings' own experience and example are testimony to this.)


The trustees' continued stewardship of the asset value of the Cummings' opus is admirable; their interest in seeing a greater and growing repertoire of art songs to Cummings' fine texts seemed merely unenthusiastic, and especially their interest in constraining my documentation of my part in a song setting -- a composer being a collaborator with a lyricist, and vice versa -- was wholly unacceptable. I care little for profits from setting Cummings texts, but I care much for artistic and scholarly freedom, as I care deeply for Cummings' art. It was obvious that Liveright as governed by the trustees of the E. E. Cummings Trust and I were dealing from two wholly different perspectives.


My reply to the publishers and trustees of the E. E. Cummings Trust in no way reflects on my ardor and enthusiasm for Cummings' magnificent life in poetry itself, but only on a business relationship with current estate trustees 46 years after Cummings' death which seemed inadvisable to me. Cummings remains one of my absolute favorite poets, and I encourage enthusiasts of poetry to acquire Cummings' Complete Poems currently published through Liveright, a subsidiary of W. W. Norton.


E. E. Cummings



Song settings to those Cummings texts which are demonstrably in the public domain will be freely available through links on this page, most of these having been published in The Dial and Broom; such texts-as-texts may be found elsewhere on the Internet. For those interested in Cummings' texts-as-texts, a favorite search will reveal many extant poems for perusal, and a suggested URL may be found at the bottom of this page. I have no interest to compete with a publisher over texts-as-texts.


The remainder of my song settings will be set aside for future publication, given the current situation that all of Cummings' 1923 texts will be clearly within in the public domain "after 95 years" according to the United States Copyright Office's advice. For these reasons and as the spirit moves me to compose, I will restrict my interest as a composer to the earliest work of Cummings for future compositions, pending publication at the end of 2018 and beyond, with ongoing preparation for a vocal anthology of Cummings' 1923 texts which will be planned for release at the end of 2018. The remainder of these unpublished settings below can simply remain in a "trunk" until such time as the texts from various years are become in the public domain.


A detailed list of my 63 song settings to Cummings texts to date follows below. Those which are in the public domain are freely available for educational purposes through links as noted below, and all others will await future publication when such texts fall into the public domain. As I continue to set from time to time another Cummings text, the ongoing work will be documented herein, though no settings which are under copyright protection will be available.





Program notes in smaller size font tell something of each setting from web pages which I have taken down per the 2008 request of the Permissions Department of W. W. Norton


Those titles marked in bold and with a green dot are available -- "Click here" -- as free PDF downloads

1)        A Chorus Girl - (2008)    

            for tenor and piano

            "A Chorus Girl" was originally published in Eight Harvard Poets, New York, Laurence J. Gomme, 1917

            -- Click here for more on this song setting --


2)        it is at moments after i have dreamed - (2008)    

            for medium voice and piano

            "it is at moments after i have dreamed" was originally published as "III" in FIVE SONGS in The Dial, (January 1922), New York The Dial Publishing Company, Inc.,

            -- Click here for more on this song setting --


3)         but the other day - (2008)     

             for low or medium voice and piano

            "but the other day" was originally published as "III" in FIVE SONGS in The Dial, Vol. 68, No. 5 (May 1920), New York: The Dial Publishing Company, Inc.,

            -- Click here for more on this song setting. --


4)         into the strenuous briefness - (2008)    

            for high, medium or low voice and piano

            "into the strenuous briefness" was originally published as "I" in FIVE SONGS in The Dial, Vol. 68, No. 5 (May 1920), New York: The Dial Publishing Company, Inc.,

            -- Click here for more on this song setting. --


5)         when life is quite through - (2008)    

            for high, medium or low voice and piano

            complete title: the bigness of cannon, text found in LA GUERRE, Tulips and Chimneys, 1923

            "when life is quite through" was originally published as "VI" in SEVEN SONGS in The Dial, Vol. 68, No. 1 (Jan. 1920), New York: The Dial Publishing Company, Inc.,

            -- Click here for more on this song setting. --


6)        the bigness of cannon - (2008)    

            for medium voice and piano

            "the bigness of cannon" was originally published as "II" in SEVEN SONGS in The Dial, Vol. 68, No. 1 (Jan. 1920), New York: The Dial Publishing Company, Inc.,

            -- Click here for more on this song setting. --


7)        i walked the boulevard - (2008)
            for medium voice and piano  [ 3 pages, circa 2' 10" ]

            text found in IV, Portraits, in Tulips and Chimneys (1923)

Among the portraits which Cummings paints in word yet in shades of emotional gray comes this picture of a few people on "the boulevard." The cast of characters includes the self, "i," as well as the child on roller skates, her mother and father and a pregnant "girlish whore." An unhappy event, apparently, in the eye of the poet. Written for a medium vocal range, the setting is meant to evoke this moment in time, perhaps lethargic and yet at the same time pressured. The past tense of the verb indicates this is a sense memory and perhaps a reflection on the components of the scene. The mother's portrait is in no way flattering, nor is the father's with his inappropriate attentions to the fifth character in the scene, the pregnant "whore." Much is missing in this vignette, and as a result the portrait is ripe with possibilities. The tempo races slightly ahead as the "thick cheerful man" is added to the scene unflatteringly in the poet's choice of descriptive words. A reprise of the opening gestures finishes the song setting, as well as a reprise of the phrase, "i walked the boulevard" and "i saw...." How did seeing this affect the observer? That is for the performers to ponder, as is Cummings' intent as a portrait painter and my intent in offering this set of "line readings" to this little scena.

8)        O sweet spontaneous earth - (2007)     
            for high voice and piano [ 3 pages, circa 2' 45" ]

            complete title: O sweet spontaneous, text found in LA GUERRE, Tulips and Chimneys, 1923
            "O sweet spontaneous" was originally published as II in FIVE SONGS in The Dial, Volume 68, Number 5 (May 1920). New York: The Dial Publishing Company, Inc.

                -- Click here for more on this song setting. --


9)        If freckles were lovely - (2007)     

            for medium voice and piano [ 3 pages, circa 1' 40" ]

            complete title: If (1910) as web text found on "the other pages"

                -- Click here for more on this song setting. --


10)       a salesman is an it that stinks Excuse - (2007)
            for medium voice and piano  [ 3 pages, circa 1' 40" ]

            original title: a salesman is an it that stinks Excuse, IX in 1x1 [One Times One], 1944

Set for medium voice, this song is meant to be a jolly joke of a song, set in a music hall style. The repetitive bass line makes little note of the parallel fifths in the upper voices, except for their rhythmic relation as a gesture. The light syncopation of the vocal line gives evidence to the Americana flavor of Cummings' expression and that sense of commerce which caused French ex-president Jacque Chirac to complain of the "Anglo-Saxon" cut-throat business style. Even so, the joke is that even France relies on salesmen to represent the manufacturers to sellers and sellers to manufacturers, and both the the general public. Ergo, I say, "Razzmatazz!" [... a common word would be ‘ambiguous language’. It also means a flashy action or display intended to bewilder, confuse, or deceive.] The list which Cummings' generates to tell us of the wide range of products sold becomes much more serious, as it begins with "hate." Certainly the vendors of fear and hate belong to the world of the salesman, as much as if not more than any snake oil salesman of the smallest "honorable" business. Here the simple, measure long bass line breaks its pattern to underlie the parallel chords of the upper voices.

11)     i'm so drunGk, dear - (2007)     
          for medium voice and piano   [ 3 pages, circa 3' 40" ]

          original title: the, I in PORTRAITS, Tulips and Chimneys, 1923

Written for medium voice, the setting begins with a stark, empty picture as of a hot day. Stillness, which is broken by the stillness of a woman "which had once been dorothy." Is the reader to think her dead, or merely "dead to the world?" The range of the voice is shown in the first gestures, broadly essaying the text over a stark accompaniment. As the drunk Dorothy begins to awaken from her stupor, "enormous sobs" tell of some emotional travail which perhaps preceded the drunkenness. At this point the stillness of the accompaniment yields to a structured 4/4 gesture which is not so much a progression of chords as a "holding in place" for what is to come. As the central yet unnamed character tries to help Dorothy, she awakens further with the bawdily blurted "i'm so drunGk, dear." The capitalized "G" in the word is meant to be vocalized as a second syllable in the one-syllable word, drunk.

12)       maggie and millie and molly and may - (2007)
            for high voice and piano  [ 3 pages, circa 1' 30" ]

            original title: maggie and millie and molly and may, 10 in 95 Poems, 1958

For high voice and piano, the vocal line rises only once to G, as "molly" is chased by the "horrible thing" which is the literal sense seems nothing more than a crab running sideways blowing bubbles. But to the imagination nature can become "horrible." After the opening "splash" of C major and D minor, the accompaniment sings out with the vocal line the initial theme, and left hand emphasizing the off beat throughout. The vocal line breaks rhythmically away, a hemiola of three against the underlying duple of the accompaniment. The verses for each of the girls are variations, with a final restatement of the accompaniment figure one octave higher, as the poet reminds us "ourselves" that we find in all that we seek. Without regard to the deeper philosophic import, I personally feel the song should be performed as "for children."


For a polite parody on this poem, please see my parody:  - Sarah and Sandra and Sally and Sue (2007/2008)     

for soprano and piano   [ 3 pages, circa 1' 30" ]

-- Click here for more on this song setting. --

13)       all the girls - (2007)
            for high voice and piano [ 5 pages, circa 2' 00" ]
            The text is found in XAIPE (1950) noted as simply "21," though listed in a table of contents and appendix as its first line, "jake hates."

This four stanza text -- the above is only the first and opening of the four -- brings four characters to our attention, Jake, Paul, Gus and Mike. In the American fashion, one imagines three of the four are nicknames, and therefore the text seems to speak personally about these men. The adjectives to describe the "girls" (we may be sure these are women, not girls) hint at a broad range of characteristics. The adjectives to describe those "girls" unfavored by any emotional interest, whether it be hate, scorn, love or liking of the four stanzas, are few. These adjectives are "cold" or "dull" or "dead" or "green," which I take to mean inexperienced. Aside from these characteristics, the four men seem to be quite emotionally wrapped up with women of all sorts. So it is in life. Many of Cummings' poems are titled by precedent using the first line as the poet did not seem to need titles for his work in general. For this I chose to title the song setting after the general theme of the poem, as the phrase appears in each strophe, whimsically moving from the second to the first line one word at a time.

14)       a politician is an arse upon - (2007)
            for medium voice and piano  [ 2 pages, circa 40" ]

            original title: a politician is an arse upon, X in IX in 1x1 [One Times One], 1944

This acerbic estimation of politicians is one I share in general. Like the lessons suggested by de Tocqueville so many years ago, today's modern Western politicians serve themselves by serving up other people's money to other people taken from other people, and call it charitable -- through such political words as "grants" and "support" and "services." Accompanied by a series of hard major-minor seven chords, the words are spit out with a critical tone. The first syllable spits out "po," which is also slang in a number of Western European languages for "arse." This is to speak plainly about the current crop of "servants" who serve themselves more finely than they do those they serve, and furthermore at the public's expense. How many modern politicians have become wealthy through public service? The list is long indeed. After two wholly chromatic arching phrases in the accompaniment, and final dissonant parody of what I also parody in words, "My country, 'tis of me," which sounds as these words are so clearly imagined resounding from the lips of politicians to their own ears.

15)      dying is fine)but Death - (2007)
            for medium voice and piano  [ 3 pages, circa 1' 50" ]

            original title: dying is fine)but Death, 6 in XAIPE, 1950

Cummings offers us saucy comparison between dying and death, wherein he -- and we by extension -- thank "god / almighty for dying / (forgive us,o life!the sin of Death." In the modern clash between secularism, atheism and religious sensibilities, this modern poet might spell "god" in the lower case, but the concept of God remains for him, even in the parlance of Daniel Dennett, a "useful fiction" at the very minimum. It is not religion, but the artificiality of the business and science of "death" and the legalism which surround it which Cummings unabashedly calls "sin" and "evil."  The contrast between a light swing tempo and rhythm and this text sets up the poet's clearly-voiced insistence that indeed dying and death are two completely different concepts, celebrated differently in our various cultures.  For this distinction, the swing tempo and minor tonality tinged with chromaticism give way in a parade of rising seconds in sixteenth notes, and is broken into a regular insistence of parallel triadic block harmonies to accompany the harder "scientific and artificial and evil and legal" game which is death in this modern world.  At the close of this setting, there is a repetition of the cry to life and de facto then to "dying" as well, "forgive us" for the sin of death.

16-18)  Three Cummings Songs - (2007)
            for soprano and piano
                i. may i feel said he   [ 5 pages, circa 2' 30" ]

             original title: may i feel said he, "16" in No Thanks, 1935

composed for soprano Hanan Alattar

The opening text from the anthology titled No Thanks (1935) is a ribald conversation, in a humorous retelling of the age-old tale of man and woman. Each line is a change in character, and each strophe in the banter "accelerates" to the final climax and dénouement as "she" proclaims "you are Mine." The brittle opening reflects one of many standard Americana musical patois, and the lilt of the 3/8 meter is meant to underscore the "tongue in cheek" character of the text. After several developing strophes in C and a wandering harmonic shift based on "flat-ten" chords, the last strophe rises a diminished fifth -- that "diabolus in music" -- to G flat major, for the final triumphant outbursts by "he" and "she," hers being the more triumphant for the final win in the "battle of the sexes."

                ii. if i believe    [ 4 pages, circa 4' 30" ]

              original title: if i believe, IV in AMORES, Tulips and Chimneys, 1923

The second setting is a gentle affirmation of love, through the eyes of mortality as various sweet words of love between man and woman dominate the poetic imagery. The truth of love is that it comes to eventual loss, and that loss teaches the deep value of love. For this, the accompaniment is merely a rocking structural underscore of the vocal line. A center section features a slightly faster urging on as the imagery points to the phrase and fulcrum of the setting, "i knew thee death." Thereupon the setting returns to its opening serenity and a vision of confidence by which death is in its own way conquered.

                iii. buy me an ounce     [ 5 pages, circa 2' 00" ]

            original title: buy me an ounce and i'll sell you a pound., "27" in 50 Poems, 1940

The last setting was the first to be composed, but as I worked through it, the notion of a rising final climax taught me that this would end the short cycle. Strophic in its structure, the humorous poem is a set of four differing twists on life's adages conflated with confusing sexual imagery, to reflect again the age old "battle of the sexes" as also found in the opening text. Cummings pairs Gert with Helen, Liz with Tommy, Sam with Alice and Fred with Neddy.  As the songs were imagined for this particular soprano, I thought a final ringing ending to the set was more than appropriate, and also apt for Cummings' last boastful line -- "here we come." One might deconstruct or interpret this poem in a number of ways, but I suspect Cummings aimed at a certain enthusiastic and playful ambiguousness in his writing and therefore the important feature of the setting is to fully interpret that enthusiasm. This setting is therefore not meant for anything less than full throated singing and broadly played gestures.

19)      Hokku - (2007)     
            for medium voice and piano

            original title: Hokku, published in 1910 -- in the public domain

                -- Click here for more on this song setting. --


20)      the sky was - (2006)
            for medium high voice and piano   [ 2 pages, 1' 35 ]

             original title: the / sky / was, 1 in XLI Poems, 1925

The setting is one simple long arch, a lengthy and very tonal harmonic stroll across all the easy polytonal consonances of the diatonic scale, in which all "candy luminous" colors might still be found. How nice to think that, after so many decades of the "liberation of tonality," the freedom to employ it unabashedly remains the most normative musical language throughout popular music.  One wonders why "twelve-tone" schools and techniques did not also explore "eleven-tone" palettes, or "five-tone" palettes, especially as those who experimented with and labored in the fields of all twelve, chromatic notes appearing always together in rows, inverted and turned backwards, took it as a matter of faith and catechism that all twelve must be somehow "liberated." From what? Musical meaning? The musical sky is indeed "candy luminous," but especially on a clear day when the storms have passed. That might well summarize modern classical music's lost amblings of the last decades, wherein the "new" was always meant to supplant the old, rather than stand alongside it, and where complexity became mere clutter, dynamics mere noise and simple notions absent, in favor of obfuscation.  Music need not be either numbingly complex nor minimal, but rather simply -- well -- musical.  Cummings has shown another way, and music has much to learn from him -- modern yet human, odd yet conversant, kitsch yet never kitsch, and certainly a man who found his own voice in a sea of similarities and dogmatic adherence to the vagaries of "aesthetic" elite. The harmonic scheme is extraordinarily simple, an upward parallel motion of diatonic chords, which would otherwise be called polytonal outside the framework of the simple major scale. In closed and open voicing, they make up the whole of the accompaniment.

21)      Doll's boy's asleep - (2005)     
           for mezzo soprano and piano   [ 3 pages, 2' 00" ]

            original title: Doll's boy 's asleep, V in SONGS, Tulips and Chimneys, 1923

This little mythic dream is populated with one "boy" and many "ladies" who seek to capture or control him in some way. He is "Doll's" boy, though we learn nothing more about who Doll is. The images are in some way romantic, as the "heart drinks wine" and the "wrist's too fine." Setting this lyrical poem in a lyrical setting seemed appropriate therefore, with a pastoral 6/8 meter and the diatonic polytonal counterpoint allowing for some elusiveness to the accompaniment.

22)      as freedom is a breakfastfood - (2005)
           for mezzo soprano and piano   [ 5 pages, circa 3' 00" ]

            original title: as freedom is a breakfast food, 25 in 50 Poems, 1940

Cummings tell us that "worms are the words but joy's the voice" in this river rush of images, and yet the voice of the poet declares "i am for you just so long and long enough." Is this an equivocation or a promise, or perhaps both, as the opposing images shoulder up, one against the other.  After a wholly diatonic introduction, and as the opposing images pile up, so does the top harmonic gesture in the accompaniment rise consistently in whole tones, while the lower harmonies are rooted in a limited whole tone progression, building the joyful polytonal tension across each strophe. The vocal part must conform to this wide-ranging form and yet remains bound to a functional tonal region stated at the outset and yet also nestled within the whole tone series.

23)      i sing of Olaf glad and big - (2005)
           for bass or bass-baritone and piano    [ 7 pages, circa 4' 10" ]

            original title: i sing of Olaf glad and big, XXX in W [ViVa], 1931

composed for Herbert Eckhoff, bass


It has been said that Olaf was based on a conscientious objector that Cummings (pictured above in 1918 during military training) had met while at Fort Devens. In Kennedy's biography, that solder was taken to Ft. Leavenworth. A senior officer was reported to have said: "You men ought to take a look at what they do to a man at military prisons... the first thing they do is give him a god damn fine beating. They black his eyes for him. They do it on principle down there." The vulgarity in the poem is reflective of a vulgarity which we find in ourselves from time to time and age to age. We do well not to forget that reality or its consequences.  In the coarse language of this poem, Cummings puts these vulgarities into Olaf's mouth: "I will not kiss your fucking flag" and "there is some shit I will not eat." This conscientious objector is hailed by the poet as a hero for standing up to his superiors in the military, and, as it is today, Cummings moves beyond the situation itself, fictionalized or not, to the following: 

" our president,being of which
assertions duly notified
threw the yellowsonofabitch
into a dungeon,where he died"


Is Olaf a hero? Cummings calls him brave to resist the draft in this mortal manner, in which Olaf becomes a victim of the military, and indeed of the "system" in today's political parlance. Given the remainder of the poem's text, the performer and listener will have to be the judge.  The song setting opens in a quasi-music hall style, a juxtaposition to the seriousness of the text. The tessitura for the bass voice is higher than later in the setting, as the gravitas of the situation and text become a prayer. 

24)      this is the garden - (2005) E. E. Cummings

            for soprano and piano   [ 4 pages, circa 4' 15"]

            original title: this is the garden:colours come and go, from XLI Poems (1925)

Ostensibly in the region of  B-flat, the "silver-fingered" and colorful harmonic surroundings are wholly polytonal and based on whole tone relationships. Cummings brings the reader to blend the metaphor of the transitory garden in which "colours come and go" with the "silver-fingered fountain" which "steals the world."

25)     oil tel duh woil doi sez - (2005)
           for medium voice and piano   [ 3 pages, 1' 20" ]

            original title: oil tel duh woil doi sez, II in W [ViVa], 1931

Cummings chooses his spellings and run-on words to reflect the dialect and conversations of the street, as a lower class yet simple hearted thug apologizes for having to "break" his intended victim, "Do you understand me, he says, pulling on his moustache, I don't give a shit, I says. Tom, I don't want to do it, but I got to break you." The easy soft-shoe of the setting is itself is a counterpoint to the coarse and sometimes threatening street chatter. The simple four measure ground bass forms the harmonic and structural basis for the setting, which is about syncopation against the regularity of the 12/8 meter. Written for medium voice with a range accessible to most singers, it is meant to be sung with a slightly coarse accent, and quite as written by the poet and hyphenated in the engraved score.  The poem ends with "Youse, with the permanent wave [yoozwidduhpoimnutwaiv] under your something-or-the-other. Give us a tune, the f**king thing." This odd typography captures something of the regional flavor, as did Joyce in his Ulysses, a text often to be read aloud as a performance as much as to be read silently as literature. The major-minor minor seven chord on the tonic is a signature of this musical style.

26)     nobody loses all the time - (2005)
          for medium voice and piano   [ 7 pages, circa 3' 20" ]

             original title: nobody loses all the time, "10" in is 5, 1926

Originally conceived for baritone and because this poem has always amused, I took the time to set it as an art song in an Americana style. How many families have an Uncle Sol? Perhaps not an uncle but nevertheless the seemingly hapless one for whom life seems so treacherous. The one who cannot manage a success in life. The one for whom various attempts at accomplishment are swept aside for so many reasons, the most inane of which is always "valid." In today's jargon, it is the one who sees himself as victim to so many things. That is who Uncle Sol is, and why this poem and the setting poke gentle fun at him. The notation, "droll yet nonchalantly strict," suggests the music be jazzy but refined as well. Just as "an uncle named Sol" wandered from enterprise to enterprise, this setting wanders into a new tonal region, followed by another, as if being unwilling or unable to settle down or, for that matter, to return to the original as well. Rather the setting ultimately "sinks" from C to B-flat, as "down went ...uncle Sol."

27-33) "spoke joe to jack" and other songs - (2004)    [ 29 pages, circa 16' 25" ]
           for baritone and piano
            i. spoke joe to jack

            original title: spoke joe to jack, "10" in 50 Poems, 1940

This cycle is meant to capture a broadly American palette of verbal, vocal and musical colors. Some of the songs are somewhat rude, as are the texts on which they are based. The first song captures a bloody bar room brawl over a woman. The gawky bass line is secco, while the parallel sixths in the accompaniment figure suggest perhaps a saloon piano. which then break into a fast gesture during the fight itself. The outcome is certain, as the line says "jesus what blood."

            ii. red-rag and pink-flag

            original title: red-rag and pink-flag, "11" in 50 Poems, 1940

If a bar room brawl is not enough, here is a rude text by Cummings to add to the elegant rudeness of the whole.

            iii. the way to hump a cow

            original title: the way to hump a cow is not, "14" in 50 Poems, 1940

It is an up-tempo soft shoe, echoing a music hall milieu. The song is set in verses with a bridge, savoring Cummings' use of the verbal humor as he tricks a lisp in "to lay a wreath from ancient greath on insulated brows," and his parody continues about aesthetics and politics, by calling what one will "beautifool," with an emphasis on the "fool."

            iv. there are possibly 2½

            original title: there are possibly 2½ or impossibly 3, "28" in 50 Poems, 1940

The comic notion of a sure individuality in a world of conformity and adherence to marketing, memberships in groups and under the approval of some cultural authorities is Cummings' theme. Individuality is rare, he says, and he will express surprise at seeing it, stating "than all mankind something more / small occurs / or something more distorting than socalled / civilization i’ll kiss a stalinist arse / in hitler’s window on Wednesday next at 1 / E.S.T. bring the kiddies let’s all have fun:"

            v. these children singing in stone

            original title: these children singing in stone a, "37" in 50 Poems, 1940

Among the other sweetness in the cycle, this vision of children carved in stone is set with long sustained arches and a static harmonic coloration.

            vi. love is the every only god

            original title: love is the every only god, "38" in 50 Poems, 1940

            vii. up into the silence

            original title: up into the silence the green, "41" in 50 Poems, 1940

Carrying the theme of this cycle to its conclusion, a "jazzy" bounce captures Cummings' notions about love, with verses rising by half step in the fashion of popular music of this genre. It is meant to conclude with a rudeness something like the beginning of the cycle. The other song setting in this cycle round out an Americana flavoring which is meant to reflect and enjoy the truly individual and American character of this poetry, from its humor to its profundity.

34)    little man (2004)
         for soprano and piano   [ 3 pages, circa 2' 10" ]

            original title: little man, "10" in No Thanks, 1935


35)    when god lets my body be - (2004)     
          for tenor or baritone and piano

            complete title: When god lets my body be, VI in SONGS, Tulips and Chimneys, 1923
            "when gods let my body be" was originally published as "IV" in SEVEN POEMS, The Dial, Vol. 68, No. 1 (Jan. 1920). New York: The Dial Publishing Company, Inc.

                -- Click here for more on this song setting. --


36-43) "crazy jay blue)" and other poems - (2004)    [ 20 pages, circa 11' 30" ]
           for tenor and piano

composed for Stephen Gould, tenor

           i. crazy jay blue)

            original title: crazy jay blue), "5" in 95 Poems, 1958

These settings are meant to be a bit of an odd "riot," as Cummings was not averse to odd notions, crudity and vulgarity, all buried within his unique typographical style of presentation. In "crazy jay blue" we are told to laugh at the "dull all regular righteous comfortable" and advised that there is a "fragment of heaven" elsewhere than in that world.

            ii. dominic has a doll

            original title: dominic has, "8" in 95 Poems, 1958

Cummings portrait of a friend, Dominic de Paolo, is charming, and instructs that perhaps we are "less alive" than dolls and dreams.

            iii. in time of daffodils

            original title: in time of daffodils(who know, "16" in 95 Poems, 1958

Cummings mixes opposites together "in time of daffodils" wherein forgetting and remembering conjoin, not being really opposites but rather part of the whole.

            iv. as joe gould says

            original title: as joe gould says in, "28" in 95 Poems, 1958

The blatant poking fun at women going to college so that they cannot use the excuse of not having gone is placed in the mouth of one Joe Gould, and I included the text for this set of songs with Stephen Gould's family name being reflected in the texts.

            v. when mack smacked phyllis

            original title: ADHUC SUB JUDICE LIS, "34" in 95 Poems, 1958

Mack "smacked" Phyllis, and that too is a societal "breaking of the rules," but Frank "sank him with an uppercut" showing a little slice of everyday life captured like a Polaroid snapshot.

            vi. the old almost lady

            original title: n, "53" in 95 Poems, 1958

The two visual triangles of "the old almost lady" are not reflected in the song setting of Cummings' "n," but rather then character of that "almost" lady herself, though the opening gesture in the piano shapes into two triangles as well, and the setting sinks ever lower in its first verse as the "old" lady sinks in her years. Even the second verse cannot revive her former days, for she is now "the old almost lady."

            vii. when any mortal(even the most odd)

            original title: when any mortal(even the most odd), "59" in 95 Poems, 1958

Two opposing lines meet and cross in the simple setting of "when any mortal(even the most odd)" and never meet to form a real consonance as the "ways of God to man" remain unjustified.

            viii. what the hell

            original title: you no, "55" in 95 Poems, 1958

The title, "what the hell" is taken from the end of Cummings'  "you no," in which people always wanting "more" ends up with the referential pun, that single syllable word becoming linked to "mortician." He asks us "what the hell are we all morticians?" Perhaps so, if we think we always need more, for death is the solution to that never-satisfied appetite for "more." As with many other poets throughout the ages, there is an awareness of the comic and tragic, intertwined one with the other. This cycle is meant to reflect that same sentiment.

44)     o by the by - (1991)
            for soprano and piano   [ 3 pages, circa 1' 30" ]

            original title: o by the by, "LIII" in 1 x 1 [One Times One], 1944

Cummings asks us to consider "why people let go." The sky into which a kite has been lost into the wind is captured beautifully in an image as ""far beyond far / and high beyond high." Yet it is not the kite which is the subject of the poem; it is us, his "little you-i."   The setting's quasi-jazz chords indicate that this age-old question remains utterly modern as well. As with the ending image of the poem itself, the setting ends suspended in its "consonant" dissonance. The opening chords suggest C-sharp though written without a key signature. The beginning of the song moves through several tonal regions, best spelled without a key signature, and the song's ending brings one to a conclusion decidedly in D-flat major.

45)     seeker of truth - (1991)
            for medium voice and piano   [ 1 page, circa 25" ]

            original title: seeker of truth, "3" in 73 Poems, 1963

"How long should a song be?" Only as long as necessary. A mere thirteen measures and twenty-five seconds in length, this tells the truth that all paths lead to where "truth is." Cummings' advice, as he often stated it in other writings, prose as well as poetry, is to "follow no path." With so many artistic "isms" of the twentieth century spawning so many "schools," it seems that Cummings' advice has been so often ignored, as the initiates and devotees of one school or another rush to follow some "path," which explains the many blind alleys of the twentieth century which have been so thoroughly and wastefully explored, toadied after and touted as the singular and dominating "truth," all the while art has slipped through those cracks and found valid homes elsewhere.

46)     the secrets of living - (1991)
            for high voice and piano   [ circa 2' 40" ]

             original title: may my heart always be open to little, "19" in New Poems [from Collected Poems], 1938

This gentle song shifts tonal regions quickly through common-tone relationships such that a succession of major-seven chords is the signature for the setting, with the cadence-like gestures which follow being also shifting seven chords. The opening chords have a light jazz feel, though quite dissonant outside the vocabulary of this song setting.

47-52) e. e.'s songs - (1990)    [ 10 pages, circa 5' 00" ]
           for medium voice and piano
            i. Jimmie's got a goil

            original title: Jimmie's got a goil / goil / goil, Jimmie, "VI" in ONE, is 5, 1926
            ii. raise the shade will you dearie?

            original title: raise the shade, "V" in PORTRAITS, & [AND], 1925
            iii. mary green

            original title: mary green, "3" in I, Late Poems, 1930-62
            iv. says ol man no body-

            original title: says ol man no body--, "8" in II, Late Poems, 1930-62
            v. time, be kind

            original title: time,be kind;herself and i, "10" in III, Late Poems, 1930-62
            vi. plato told him

            original title: plato told, "XIII" in 1 x 1 [ONE TIMES ONE], 1944


53)    mr youse needn't be so spry - (1990)  
            for baritone and piano    [ circa 45" ]

            original title: mr youse needn't be so spry, "XVIII" in is 5, 1926

This is the confession of the "he-man" for whom "arty" questions are not so very important. Rather the one naked "pretty girl" is worth more than "a million statues." As the sentiment is simple, so is the song setting, an accompaniment made up merely of half-note, four-tone chords as if a modern chorale to beauty. But whose image of beauty? Each has his tastes, and this he-man has his particular taste in women; there is simply no point in questioning it. A performance of this song should be done without subtlety. It is what it is....

54)    i'm very fond of black bean soup - (1989)
          medium voice and piano    [ 3 pages, circa 1' 00" ]

            original title: I'm very fond of, "8" in II, Late Poems, 1930-62


          For a twist on this poem, please see my parody: I'm very fond of Cummings' words - (1989/2008)     

            for medium voice and piano   [ 3 pages, circa 1' 00" ]

                -- Click here for more on this song setting. --


55)   wanta spend six dollars kid - (1985)
          for high soprano and piano   [ 4 pages, circa 3' 15" ]

            original title: wanta, "IX" in EXPERIMENTS WITH TYPOGRAPHY, SPACING AND SOUND, 1916-17

in memory of Kathleen Brown Riggs, soprano


This is the story of a young prostitute, made "centuries" old by her profession. The tessitura is very high, for written a high coloratura soprano, one capable of that extended "flageolet" range of which few singers are capable. Therefore I have also made an edition in a fourth lower, though it still requires a high soprano. In the original edition, the expected range was written F to F, with an ossia up to the highest C.  Kathleen Brown Riggs debuted this song for me in a recital at UCLA, and in fact sang a wondrous high flageolet C as the culmination of the vocal line. I was astounded and most appreciative. The setting is dedicated to her, a fine singer and mother of many children, after her passing at too young an age.  The setting opens with a simple dissonance, for no matter how entertaining the poem and setting might be, it remains a subject of tragedy. Following this simple first gambit, a jazzy snippet sets the stage for an impromptu and unstructured recitative. It begins with a quasi-recitative, and then through an andante section marked "rhapsodic," with the vocal line rising lyrically in vocal portamenti to the high E-flat. The setting to this short portrait in words ends with a final and aggressive musical "strut" in F minor, with the major-minor harmonic pattern evoking blues and the music hall. The strut is short, but yet the voice is given some time to prepare for the final gesture. A last vocal gesture rises chromatically to the cadence's F, while what awaits after this is a further rise. It is notated with a slide up to the double high C, and the final notes were not expected to be accurately sung, but merely hinted at. The admirable Kathy Riggs proved my expectations wrong.

56-58) chansons innocentes (1923) - (1984)           [ 8 pages, circa 4' 35" ]
          for high voice and piano
            i. in Just --

            original title: in Just -, "I" in CHANSONS INNOCENTES, Tulips and Chimneys, 1923
            "in just" was originally published as "IV" in FIVE POEMS, The Dial, Volume 68, Number 5 (May 1920). New York: The Dial Publishing Company, Inc.
            ii. hist whist

            original title: hist whist, "II" in CHANSONS INNOCENTES, Tulips and Chimneys, 1923
            iii. Tumbling-hair

            original title: Tumbling-hair / picker of buttercups / violets, "III" in CHANSONS INNOCENTES, Tulips and Chimneys, 1923

59-60) chansons innocentes (1925) - (1984)   [ circa 5' 05" ]
            for high or medium voice and piano

            (NOTE: This cycle title is abandoned by me, as the two poems below were originally in a set of seven not originally titled as the subsequent , and then collected into a set of two in the republication of 1923.)
            i. why did you go    

            original title: why did you go, I in CHANSONS INNOCENTES, XLI Poems, 1925
            "why did you go" was originally published as "V" in "SEVEN POEMS, The Dial, Vol. 68, No. 1 (Jan. 1920). New York: The Dial Publishing Company, Inc.

                -- Click here for more on this song setting. --
            ii. little tree    

            original title: little tree, "II" in CHANSONS INNOCENTES, XLI Poems, 1925
            "little tree" was originally published as "I" in SEVEN POEMS, The Dial, Vol. 68, No. 1 (Jan. 1920). New York: The Dial Publishing Company, Inc.

                -- Click here for more on this song setting. --

61)       Buffalo Bill's - (1983)    
            for medium voice and piano

            complete title: Buffalo Bill's, VIII in PORTRAITS, Tulips and Chimneys, 1923
            "Buffalo Bill 's" was originally published as "III" in SEVEN POEMS, The Dial, Vol. 68, No. 1 (Jan. 1920). New York: The Dial Publishing Company, Inc.

62)      it may not always be so; and i say - (1983)      
            for high voice and piano   [ 3 pages, circa 1' 40" ]

            original title: it may not always be so; and i say, I in SONNETS --REALITIES, Tulips and Chimneys, 1923

            -- Click here for more on this song setting. --


63)     the Cambridge ladies - (1983)    
            for medium voice and piano   [ 3 pages, circa 2' 10" ]
            complete title: the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls, in "Sonnets - Realities," Tulips and Chimneys, 1923
            "the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls" was originally published in Broom (May 1922).

            -- Click here for more on this song setting. --

One may therefore read literally more than one hundred of Cummings' poems on line at various sites, showing their requirement that I minimize my site to be quixotic and inconsistent. What is assured is that within a decade, the first large share of Cummings' early work will become public domain. For all my song settings within that group, I prepare an anthology to be placed immediately on line for all who wish to do so to access.

For complete texts of Cummings poems which Liveright/W. W. Norton has apparently given permission to appear on the web, please see:

Here is the URL for complete texts of Cummings through the American Academy of Poets:  


Another site for reading Cummings online:


And another:  


At one time there was a W. W. Norton web page on Cummings pointing to a site of their choice with several texts available on line. This was recently removed, and now only a summary of the available titles is in its place.  I find this amusing, as the Cummings texts under copyright yet easily found through the various web search engines allows one to read much of Cummings' poetry without having to purchase a new publication from W. W. Norton. This and the availability of online sellers of used texts suggests that the business model for publishers is being radically challenged by changing times. So be it.