The Risks That Poetry Undertakes: “We Real Cool,” “next to of course god america,” and “Gypsies”

In the present day, poetry is often viewed as an inaccessible literary form – one that is made by and for those with a certain education and class background. T. S. Eliot commented that ‘it appears […] that poets in our civilisation […] must be difficult’ to be considered important.[1] However, the origins of poetry do not support the notion of the art as an as it began as an obscure form. It began as an oral and aural form, one which everybody could enjoy and take part in. This openness has provided the opportunity for poetry to undertake great risks – addressing social issues and defying normativity. Poets from marginalised communities dare to defy the societal conventions which demand their silence and complacency, simply by being poets and using their voices. People of social privilege risk being rejected also, by choosing to discuss taboos and seek greater understanding of the world we inhabit – and others within it. Thus, poetry can be regarded as a space for social deviance, a form which dares to undertake risks for a greater good. This important function of poetry is evident in and is here explored via ‘We Real Cool’ by Gwendolyn Brooks,[2] ‘next to of course god america i’ by e. e. cummings (lowercase intentional),[3] and John Clare’s ‘Gypsies’.[4]

Brooks’ poetry is inherently daring, as she was an African-American woman living amidst the battle against segregation. Her decisions to prioritise her own voice and share her words was a defiant and risk-filled act, as hers was a voice which racist and misogynistic American society did not wish to hear. Hers was a voice that people actively sought to stamp out, but she continued to produce poetry. In ‘We Real Cool’, that Brooks’ focus is specifically on the African-American experience is emphasised by the frequent repetition of the plural pronoun ‘we’ (ll. 1-7). This word appears on every – bar one – line, refusing to allow the reader to forget for even a moment who is at the heart of this poem. This relentlessness is coupled with the use of enjambment – the ‘we’ arriving at the end of each line and the statement appearing on the following. Such a technique creates a sense that Brooks’ is rushing to tell this story, desperate to get it out of her as quickly as possible – and lurking behind this is fear. As a woman of colour, she is forcibly aware that her voice and this space to use it may be cut short and taken away at any point – her insistence that this narrative of her people, who ‘Left school’ (l. 2) and ‘Strike straight’ (l. 4), be told is a risk she undertakes in her work and her life. This need to finish telling is further demonstrated through the sparseness of the poem, which consists of just 8 lines and a 2 line epigraph. Each of these lines are short, as are the words themselves – ‘Lurk’ (l. 3), ‘June’ (l. 7), ‘gin’ (l. 6) and each of the others are single syllable words, intensifying the rapid pace. Brooks’ hurries herself along, daring to speak this truth but ever aware of the risk inherent in doing so.

Similarly, John Clare was born into a peasant family and therefore was of a lower class than those deemed important and worthy of attention. This meant that he too was daring in deciding to make his voice heard amongst the literary elite of his day. However, unlike Brooks he did not choose to prioritise his own experience in the poem ‘Gypsies’, opting for a 3rd person tone in talking about ‘The boy’ (l. 2) and ‘The gypsy’ (l. 4). Whilst this could be argued as a way to avoid the risk of talking about his own lived experiences, it should also be understood as an even greater risk. Clare chose to write about a population far more marginalised than he was and shed light on the struggles faced by those who were not even well tolerated by his own class. He does not mince his words in depicting the scene – much like Brooks does not allow the reader to ignore who she writes of, Clare refuses to shelter the reader from the reality in which the ‘Gypsies’ lived. The opening description is of ‘The snow fall[ing] deep’ (l. 1), which eases the reader in, as it could belong to any poem about nature. However, once context is provided – this snow covers the ‘squalid camp’ (l. 5) in which people are trying to live, but are an ‘unprotected race’ (l. 14) – the horror of the situation sinks in. Many people ignore the conditions in which marginalised people live in – even ignore that they are truly people – but Clare insists on revealing this truth to them, in the hopes of it changing some people’s attitudes. He risks ruining his own social standing – he perhaps even risks his career – but is seemingly aware that his is a risk which pales in comparison to this freezing, ‘half-wasted’ (l. 9) population.

e. e. cummings was born of greater social privilege than both Clare and Brooks, but he too is daring in his poetry. In ‘next to of course god america i’, he risks being viewed as deeply unpatriotic – which in America, even in the present day, amounts to a terrible wrong. He utilises the sonnet form, traditionally associated with love and romance, to mock Americans’ devotion to their country. Furthermore, he includes a small section from the National Anthem – ‘oh / say can you see by the dawn’s early’ (ll. 2-3) – amidst questioning the faith and loyalty that the song is supposed to incite. He goes on to openly address this unthinking devotion, writing of people who ‘rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter’ (l. 11) and ‘did not stop to think [and so] they died instead’ (l. 12). The zoomorphic simile of the former line is a particularly interesting one, as lions connote bravery and strength – this is how the people fighting for their country feel about doing so. However, the transferred epithet of the ‘roaring slaughter’ (l. 11) suggests that what these men faced was fiercer than they knew, and that their defeat – death – was inevitable. In daring to suggest that war was not a chance to protect and boast the excellence of America – that it was a careless and destructive beast – cummings risks being ostracised, even accused of treason. He refuses to be made ‘mute’ (l. 13), knowing that the risk must ultimately be worth the pursuit of freedom for all.

Whilst cummings dares to address the issue of patriotism and its effects, Clare notices the outcomes of xenophobia, racism, and classism. He depicts how ‘The boy goes hasty for his load’ (l. 2), illustrating that children are forced to perform labour when their families are in such a desperate situation as the ‘Gypsies’ are. By using the image of a child, Clare evokes sympathy for these people as the wider population finds caring for the lives of children easier than their adult counterparts. Clare also highlights the malnourishment of the travellers – explaining that ‘none a bit can spare’ (l. 11) and that their food is ‘tainted’ (l. 8) – an effect of poverty which is linked to exclusion from society and thus reasonably-paid work. Although Clare does not explicitly outline this as a direct cause of the travellers’ marginalisation, the closing line – ‘A quiet, pilfering, unprotected race’ (l. 14) – suggests that prejudiced attitudes are the reason for their situation. They are an ‘unprotected race’ because the rest of society do not care for them, and assume the worst. They view them as ‘pilfering’ but do not consider why they are compelled to steal – when confronted with this picture of their lives, the reader is forced to examine this. This is a daring act as it questions the social position that the travellers have been placed into and asks the reader to shift their perceptions.

Brooks equally makes suggestions that the marginalisation which African-American people experience significantly impacts their day to day lives. She writes of aspects of their lives which might seem deviant to white America – they ‘Lurk late’ (l. 3) and ‘Sing sin’ (l. 5). However, she dares to normalise and humanise these activities by writing of them. This normalisation is furthered by the rhyming with other activities such as to ‘Strike straight’ (l. 4) and ‘Thin gin’ (l. 6) – activities which white Americans would even have partaken in. In doing so, she implies that what makes their preferred activities appear deviant is prejudiced perceptions – that in many ways they are no different to the people who oppress them. A further thing which Brooks normalises is that they ‘Left school’ (l. 2), something which in 20th century America was looked down upon. Brooks does not give an explanation for their leaving school – although poverty and racism can both be cited as issues which affect education – but this makes it more impactful. She is not interested in reasoning nor excusing – it is merely a fact of some people’s lives and does not require justification. This challenges the readers’ expectations as they are reading this from a published poet – and this challenge to their understanding of education is a bold statement within the poem. As the poem is called – and states within – the ‘We real cool’ (l. 1), these situations and activities are presented as ordinary and even positive, thus defying societal norms. cummings’ main challenge to patriotic convention is achieved through sarcasm. The title and opening line ‘next to of course god america i’ (l. 1) refers to the reverence with which Americans view their country – placing it on a par with god – and mocks this. The phrase ‘of course’ situated within the line sounds dry and ironic, as if the writer cannot believe that people genuinely feel that way. This derisive tone is furthered by the use of ‘and so forth’ (l. 2), as this dismisses what is said in praise of America as if it is all the same and all meaningless. However, the crux of cummings’ sarcasm towards patriotism is in the lines ‘what could be more beaut- / iful than these heroic happy dead’ (ll. 9-10). cummings implies that attitudes towards the deaths of people at war as brave and beautiful is ridiculous by placing the words ‘heroic’ and ‘happy’ in sequence with ‘dead’. The juxtaposition between the words and their connotations is startling, and highlight the absurdity of thinking of death in such a way. Thus, cummings dares to challenge prevalent understandings of casualties of war and in turn challenges the place of war in American minds.

Poetry has the potential to deviate from its own structural conventions, as well as social expectations. Brooks, Clare, and cummings each demonstrate this in their own way through the poems explored in this essay. Each poet risks being silenced, isolated, or having their social position affected, and yet they dare to challenge the dominant culture for a greater good. Therefore, although literature – and particularly poetry – has at times in history been viewed as an elitist art, it can also be understood as an opportunity to share and hear the voices and experiences of marginalised groups, and to question the status quo.

[1] http://tseliot.com/prose/the-metaphysical-poets [2] Brooks, Gwendolyn, ‘We Real Cool’, in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, ed. by Margaret Ferguson, 4th edn, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996), p. 1481 [3] cummings, e. e., ‘next to of course god america i’, in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, ed. by Margaret Ferguson, 4th edn, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996), p. 1284 [4] Clare, John, ‘Gypsies’, in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, ed. by Margaret Ferguson, 4th edn, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996), p. 823

e. e. cummings: A Lyrical Rebel

Modernist poet Edward Estlin Cummings (pen name e. e. cummings) uses diverse poetic structures in “Buffalo Bill’s” and “next to of course god america i” to draw the reader’s attention to the deeper meaning behind the words. Cummings experiments with capitalization, punctuation, and line breaks to lightly veil his personal opinions with humor and disorganization. Through his unique poetic style, Cummings breaks away from traditional poetic standards in order to express his views on love, pain, and commercialized American culture. Modernist literature is often characterized by its reflections on the brutality of war, alienation and instability, and stream of consciousness narration. The work of an insightful experimental modernist, Cummings’ poems often revolve around the themes of cruelty and loneliness, which stem from his experience in a French prison camp during World War I, but asset his originality in the face of such adversity.

Susan Cheever, close family friend to the Cummings, describes e. e. cummings’ distinct brand of Modernism as having three parts: “The first was the method of using sounds instead of meanings to connect words to the reader’s feelings. The second was the idea of stripping away all unnecessary things to bring attention to form and structure: the formerly hidden skeleton of a work would now be exuberantly visible. The third facet of modernism was an embrace of adversity” (Vanity Fair par. 9). As the journalist explains, Cummings uses his poetry to connect to his audience and bring a deeper understand of ones self and prevalent social issues. In some of Cummings’ most popular work, he blends his personal writing style with Modernist themes to bring an element of creativity to reality.

n “Buffalo Bill’s” (1920), e. e. cummings uses the popular American cowboy William “Buffalo Bill” Cody to show his distaste of false heroes and their ties to materialism. In the first two lines, the narrator begins with “Buffalo Bill’s defunct” which immediately casts the cowboy as no longer functioning (lines 1-2). The word defunct takes up its own line, setting the tone of the poem by deadpanning his death using a word that should be more appropriately applied to a machine. Next, Cummings builds the cowboy up as a “handsome man” who rides a “watersmooth- silver stallion” and eventually passes away (lines 4-5,8). The narrator proceeds to comment on his passing and questions, “how do you like your blueeyed boy Mister Death” (line 10). The narrator describes his attractiveness and talent before revealing his death in order to explain how flashy heroes are not to be trusted. Even a brave cowboy like Buffalo Bill will not be protected by his ability to please a crowd when he the market no longer needs him. Buffalo Bill exists to be another American failure; a man who was famous for his Wild West shows and made money off of imitating the Western Dream who eventually dies and carries his legacy with him. As Cummings reduces Buffalo Bill from a popular celebrity who can shoot “onetwothreefour pigeonsjustlikethat” to a simple “blueeyed boy”, he strings the words together, changing the way that reader focuses on the cowboy’s quick actions in comparison to his innocent eyes (line 6, 10). By leaving a question mark out of the line 10, Cummings makes his question to Mister Death open-ended and up for interpretation; did Buffalo Bill die courageously like a hero or will he be solely remembered for his role in the capitalistic entertainment industry? In his death, Buffalo Bill disillusions those who may have used his shows as a distraction for all of the ugly parts of society that his audience tried to ignore.

After e. e. cummings’ stint in a French prison camp, he began to see the underlying greed and blind pride that leads America to war as characterized by his poem “next to of course god america i” (1926). Stemming from Modernist aspects, Cummings combines various patriotic songs into a medley that is both humorous and attention-grabbing which leads the reader to consider the costs of war. The poem embodies Cummings’ frustration in listening to Americans brag about their patriotism through songs while never lifting a finger to join the fight. In line 6, Cummings describes the chatter as a language of “deafanddumb” citing the ignorance of citizens to the brutality of War. By referring to America as “your glorious name”, the narrator satirizes the unopposed worship of the United States and reveals his underlying disapproval of praising a country who you are not willing to fight for (line 7). Cummings expresses his frustration by using humor in stringing along “by gorry by jingo by gee by gosh by gum” to further displaying his feelings of alienation against the powerful public opinion (lines 7-8). The narrator then asks in lines nine through eleven what could be more beautiful than “heroic happy dead soldiers” who went to war like “lions to the roaring slaughter”, shifting the tone from light and playful to critical of the men who died for an apathetic country.

As the men die, the narrator wonders, “did [they] not stop to think… then the voice of liberty would be mute?” (line 13). As the first sign of punctuation is placed in the poem, Cummings wants his audience to reflect on the soldiers who gave up their freedom of speech to fight while widespread patriotism may have negatively influenced their decisions. The poem concludes in line fourteen with the narrator drinking a glass of water; a metaphor for washing away his words in order to put the spotlight on his actions. Through his sarcasm, Cummings ironically points out that the voice of liberty is muted when the unpopular opinion (disapproval of American policies) is drowned out by a symphony of inactive, brainwashed patriots. e. e. cummings surveyed the world from in interesting point of view in society: he came from a wealthy family and studied at Harvard, but yet he went to war and often lived in Paris as an expatriat. By living as a pauper while residing in the prince’s social status, Cummings is better able to connect to his audience and make his work more accessible. For example, Cummings often adopts the Modernist technique of writing poems in a stream of consciousness which connects to his readers by creating a more casual environment for poetry. Also, Cummings uses his experience as a prisoner of war during World War I to express his dissatisfaction with war, a sentiment that many Americans share.

e. e. cummings uses his personal experiences as a reference when he describes the Modernist time period in a timeless way that readers today can still feel connected to. During the Modernist time period, the destruction and death that resulted in both world wars created a new wave of literature that Cummings was swept up in. In order to reflect his world view, Cummings adopted an interesting poetic style that he has described as imitating life, always moving and having no rhyme or reason (Norton 635). His audience continues to enjoy his satirical and strange poems because they give us insight into Cummings world of frustration with the rise of capitalism and war. As America continues to change, modern poets can use Cummings’ work as an example of how to make light of a destructive time for America culture so that poetry will continue to serve its purpose: to enlighten and entertain.

Life is Meaningless: E.E. Cummings’ l(a

Throughout his illustrious career, E.E. Cummings produced some of the finest poems, plays, and paintings the world has ever seen. While many are masterpieces, few are as unique as his leaf-style poems. Perhaps his most famous – and arguably his best – of those poems is the transcendent “l(a.” At the surface, “l(a” is a frustratingly incoherent jumble of letters in an equally confusing order. Yet, Cummings has crafted an exceptionally interesting and complex poem through the use of jarring syntax, brilliant diction, and profound symbolism.

The poem begins with an string of words not easily pronounced: l(a, then le. Subsequent lines, ending in –iness, are written in a very similar fashion; each line, with few exceptions, house only two letters. Although not in full-length sentences, the syntactical structure of the poem suggest to the reader that the poet wants to reinforce his poems theme of loneliness by showing the unpredictability and abject uncertainty of life, which is invariably shrouded in profound mystery. Its structure (letters pieced out into different lines, with considerable spacing in between each line) also creates a sense of separation, which has been identified as a substantial cause of loneliness. Reading the poem with the eyes of a deconstructionist, though, it takes on an entirely new meaning. The syntactical structure of the poem allows the reader to decipher the code that consists of the jumbled letters. Pieced together, the poem reads as: (a leaf falls) loneliness. With this in mind, the poem takes on another new meaning. The metaphor that a leaf falling is akin to loneliness is apropos because it informs the reader how boring and melancholy and meaningless life becomes when lonely. Just like the life of a leaf, a lonely person is born, (usually) cared for, and eventually cast away to the loneliness that is adulthood, death, and eventual decomposition. In that sense, the poem is very nihilistic; from the point of view of a structuralist, though, the poem is very optimistic. It is optimistic in that, while Cummings’ diction (his choice to include incomplete words) as the poem goes along, complete thoughts begin to form, suggesting that life is like the poem – at first humans are unable to form complete, coherent thoughts and are unable to be certain about things in their life. But, as humans get older, life gets better (and less lonely) for them because they are able to be more certain about the happenings of their life and are able to speak coherently, easing their burden. On the flip side, deconstructionism tells the reader to approach the poem from a nihilistic point of view. Although according to the concept of difference there is not a single meaning to a text, Cummings’ careful choice of diction tells the reader that they, like the leaf, have no choice in the matter: everyone will die and decompose and over time will become inconsequential. In other words, the leaf is a transcendental signifier for the meaningless nature of the lives of humans, animals, and leaves.

From birth, humans have the extraordinary ability to quickly equate symbols with emotion. For example, newborns may equate a bottle filled with just about anyone would correlate a sharp knife pointed at them with profound fear. After all, food is good and death is bad. Nevertheless, in “l(a,” Cummings uses symbolism to paint a solemn emotional picture. He correlates a single leaf falling with the sad state of loneliness. From a young age, one recognizes that a single leaf falling is symbolic of its loneliness (and loneliness in general). This is, at its core, symbolic interactionism. In other words, through learned experience and the utilization of language, humans (while, ironically, in the presence of other humans) are able to understand what a single leaf falling symbolizes. In that sense, l(a is a deconstructionist poem because it uses symbols with arbitrary meaning – or, in deconstructionist language, signs – to create a simple yet profoundly elegant story about loneliness and the deep affect it has on organisms (at the surface level, leafs, but at a much deeper level, humans).

The eyes through which the reader studies this poem changes it meaning entirely. Through the eyes of a structuralist, the poem can be read as an optimistic ode to self-determinism, the changing nature of life, and how chaotic the early years of humans are. Through the eyes of a deconstructionist, the poem takes on a totally different, nihilistic meaning and world view that says that, no matter class, race, religion, or gender, everyone ups in the same place: dead, decomposed, and forgotten.

The Imagery of American Hypocrisy in Poetry

Poetry has been used since its inception to send strong messages about current and historical issues, and these are often political in nature. In their poems “next to of course god america i” and “King Cotton, 1907” from “Scenes from a Documentary History of Mississippi,” E.E. Cummings and Natasha Trethewey, respectively, explore the nationalism and political landscape of the United States. Although these authors come from vastly different backgrounds and represent unique perspectives, it is clear how each poet is able to convey their ideas through their ability to present vivid images. The effects of the imagery and meticulously selected language which these poets use can be demonstrated well through the ideas of the six powers of poetry in Robert Bly’s What the Image Can Do. E.E. Cummings was a pacifist and volunteered to work for the ambulance service in France during the First World War. In 1917, he was arrested for treason thanks to his pastime of leaving mysterious comments in his letters to home and was detained for several months. The next year, the United States entered the war, and Cummings was drafted into the U.S. Army (“E.E. Cummings,” 2017). These experiences, particularly his involvement in the Army combined with his distaste for war, led Cummings to write poetry with anti-nationalist themes which called out the hypocrisy of American ideals.

His 1926 poem, “next to of course god america i” is something of a parody of a traditional Shakespearean sonnet. One of the most interesting aspects of this poem is that Cummings uses unconventional mechanics in a traditional form in order to create an ironic piece on American national zeal. When one reads it aloud, it is a rushed, manic chant of patriotic songs and pro-American sentiments that slowly collapse into a tragic image of young men rushing “like lions into the roaring slaughter” in the name of liberty (11). The first line, “next to of course god america i” sets the stage for the rest of the poem, outlining the trifecta of American ideals in the order that sounds most honorable: God, country, and individual liberty (1). America should be a top priority, Cummings’ fellow citizens suggest, second only to God, of course.

Cummings’ mastery of Bly’s powers of poetry is apparent from the first line. Specifically, Bly discusses the power of the spoken language and as Frost calls it, “sentence sound,” which becomes quite evident after a read through this poem (38). The intertextuality that can be more difficult to identify in other poems is clearly used to Cummings’ advantage here, as the language of the first half is primarily derived from well-known American anthems and sayings, creating a tapestry depicting a picture of Americana. Some of the language is childish, reflecting puritanical standards of proper behavior like “by gorry by jingo by gee by gosh by gum” (7-8). By using familiar phrases, Cummings shows the reader that they too, have been exposed to (and likely fallen prey to, in his opinion) the brainwashing effects of an extreme, unifying national identity based on pride. The feelings of love of country are expected to be universal, as evidenced by Cummings’ sentiment “…in every language, even deafanddumb” (6).

The imagery of the second half also greatly adds to the meaning of this poem. The tone shifts, becoming darker and more comprehensible. This accompanies a more specific image of war when he writes, “why talk of beauty what could be more beautiful than these heroic happy dead who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter they did not stop to think they died instead then shall the voice of liberty be mute?” (9-15). By calling the “slaughter” of soldiers who were happy to lay down their lives for their country “beautiful,” Cummings again identifies the hypocrisy of a country that encourages personal liberty but takes away the freedom of life of those sent to war. The final line, “He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water” exists separately from the rest of the sonnet, both physically by a space and conceptually, as it is the only line which is not a part of the quote that comprises the rest of the poem. Although this line is simple, it conjures a powerful image: the speaker, exhausted from spouting the propaganda and then horrors, must drink a glass of water to recover. The uses of the previous two powers lead to Bly’s third power, psychic weight (39). Although every good poem carries a certain amount of psychic weight, the emotions evoked by this one—confusion and a struggle between pride and shame—are less common.

Natasha Trethewey is a mixed-race woman from the coastal town of Gulfport, Mississippi (Native Guard 1, 37). Born in 1966 to an African-American mother and white father, Trethewey was exposed to the realities of racism in the United States and the effects of the civil rights movement on the southern states which fought to own slaves just a century prior. She writes about both her experiences as a black woman in the south and by chronicling the histories of her Mississippian predecessors into poems. She has found great acclaim as a writer and served as the Poet Laureate of the United States in 2012 and 2014, an accomplishment that even her recent ancestors would not have been able to achieve in a country which was so bigoted against them (Native Guard).

Trethewey published the first section of “Scenes from a Documentary History of Mississippi,” entitled, “King Cotton, 1907,” from her collection, Native Guard, in 2006. This poem provides an image of the political landscape in Mississippi at the turn of the century and what Trethewey describes as a false notion of national unity. The poem is based on a photograph taken in the town of Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1907. The townspeople are gathered to welcome the president, Theodore Roosevelt, with a parade and an arch made of large “bales of cotton [rising] up from the ground like a giant swell” adorned with a banner reading “Cotton, America’s King,” which African-American children sit and play on. The irony of the poem (and subsequently, the photo itself) instantly becomes clear as Trethewey describes young, carefree children sitting proudly atop the very material that their enslaved grandparents spent their lives working to grow.

“King Cotton, 1907” can also be examined critically through the lens of Bly’s powers of poetry. Even if the reader does not know the history behind the poem or has not seen the photograph on which it was based, Trethewey paints such a vivid image that they end up visualizing the picture almost exactly as it really is. Her use of imagery enables the reader to better understand the hypocrisy of a parade celebrating cotton in an area in which it was a source of pain for so many. When she compares the apparently marvelous scene, complete with a band, flags waving on the street corners, and the aforementioned banner, to the bales of cotton infested with boll weevils, a truth is revealed. The juxtaposition between the proud, impressive arch and the unpleasant creatures in the cotton mirrors that between the ideal American image and the truth of what those who were not wealthy, white, and male faced in their daily lives throughout much of the country’s history (and arguably still do), much like Cummings’ songs on the home front and young boys dying overseas do.

Trethewey also cleverly uses Bly’s fourth and fifth powers, sound and drumbeat, to illustrate the disillusionment of African-Americans in the South (40). The poem is a villanelle, and the continuous rhyming throughout it echoes the sounds of the marching band moving down the street. Both of these mimic the “sound of progress,” that she attributes to the words “Cotton, America’s king. The notion of progress itself is ironic because although technological advances were occurring rapidly at this time and the cotton production economy was thriving, African-Americans still had few rights, particularly in the South in the era of Jim Crow (7-8). The reader may fall prey to the deception at first as well. The poem has an almost singsong quality to it, and it takes until the fourth stanza and “infested with boll weevils—a plague, biblical, all around” to notice that things are not as wholesome as they initially appeared (13). By drawing her audience’s attention to this disconnect, Trethewey is able to illustrate that although life in the South looked prosperous and inviting, the whole story was often not shown, and pictures can be deceiving.

These poems may have been written 80 years apart, but their intersection is evident. Cummings wrote about the evils of a nation focused on winning a global war while Trethewey discusses the often-hushed stories of the war for freedom being fought in the American South at the very same time. They are both able to say much more than what the words themselves express through their uses of imagery and other powers of poetry. Although these poets seem like each other’s opposites at first glance, their overlap in ideas and emotions about what it means to be an American is apparent when they critically examine the divide between the United States’ sociopolitical appearances and reality.