His incarceration became the subject of Cummings's prose work The Enormous Room. This book is upbeat and optimistic in tone, because as a prisoner Cummings was experiencing life. He admired his fellow inmates, a motley crew of drifters and small-time crooks, but he gave the highest praise to one man, a Polish farmer who had no idea why he was there. There seemed to be no distinction between this man and his emotions. The farmer was "A Verb," Cummings wrote; "an IS."
The word "is" was key in Cummings's vocabulary, in The Enormous Room and elsewhere. It implied pure feeling, or experiencing emotion on its own terms. Cummings believed that as soon as we pause to reflect on what we feel, we take a step away, and the sensation is diminished. What Cummings described is akin to the Buddhist goal of being "in the moment." Practitioners strive through meditation to empty their minds of the past or future, to let go of outer concerns in order to be aware and at peace in the here and now.
I cannot say whether Cummings knew much about Eastern religions when he wrote The Enormous Room, but I do know that as someone raised and educated in New England, he was familiar with another source for his concept of "is": Walden, the classic work published by Concord, Massachusetts, native Henry David Thoreau in 1854. Thoreau asserted that if we simplify our needs, we are better able to discover and enjoy life. "To be awake is to be alive," he wrote. Living in a small cabin with just a few possessions, Thoreau had time to sit silently and hear birds sing or watch perch and shiners glide in Walden Pond. In winter he put his face so close against the pond's surface that he could see it reflected in the bubbles locked inside the ice.
"I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there," Thoreau wrote in Walden. "Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one." New experiences change us, enabling us to learn and grow, Thoreau taught. So did Cummings.