Cummings by the Numbers

By: John Freeman  

In a website advertising “A Groundbreaking Advancement in the Field of Obsolescence,” we are introduced to the USB Typewriter whose “circuitry transforms beautiful old manual typewriters into retro-futuristic marvels.” This digital typewriter affords those desiring a break from digital devices an opportunity to “type with good old fashioned ink-on-paper while electronically recording [their] manuscript to an SD card” (Zylkin). Describing E. E. Cummings and other avant garde typewriter experimenters of his time as code poets manqués, Rita Raley (2002) might have found this device a useful metaphor for expressing their in-between, retro-futuristic status. Here, she asks us to picture them "upgrading their medium and exchanging their typewriter keys for the units of programming languages, and the result would in part resemble the contemporary mode of experimental writing and called 'codework.'” A code poet avant la lettre, Cummings’ own mingling of natural language and code comes closer to the notion of the USB typewriter, and codework itself, than Raley allows. Significantly, what began as a numbers game for Cummings led him far beyond even the code poetry whose advent his experimental poems anticipated, and it did so in the purest of mathematical formulations: The Golden Ratio of the Fibonacci sequence. In his exhaustive efforts to set a poem to numbers, Cummings unwittingly tapped into a programming code “so profoundly purposeful that the natural world and the universe bend to its whims." He came tantalizingly close to bending it to his own.

Cummings, Digital, Retro-futurism, Prosody, Un(bee)mo
New Media, Technology and the Arts
Paper Presentation in a Themed Session

Dr. John Freeman

John Freeman is a professor of Renaissance literature at the University of Detroit Mercy. His research interests include articles on the recusant legacy in Shakespeare (Fordham University Press), intellectual property rights in More's Utopia (ELR), and claims by an Irish technology company to have perfected a perpetual motion device (CTheory and Postmodern Culture). He is currently working on an essay about the death of the American commons. An ongoing project includes a multimedia production employing the frequency hopping invention of Hedy Lamarr as a means both of expressing her life as a "Woman, Interrupted" and exposing the disruptive forces with which she had to contend.