E E Cummings Poems
E.E. Cummings’s and Gertrude Stein’s Modernist Use of Language
Modernist Approach to Language
The early twentieth century was characterized by the modernist movement, which included a new way of expressing art as well as literary innovations. During the modernist movement many writers incorporated cubism into their poetry and other publications. Cubism is a way to construct a work of art abstractly in order to lend the viewer many perspectives leaving the work open to interpretation. Writers used the formatting of their work, spacing, punctuation, and repetition, to alter the way the reader understands a piece. Both E.E. Cummings and Gertrude Stein used new and innovative writing styles in their poetry in order to transform the way the reader perceives the meaning of language and further interprets the poem.
Cummings and Stein both produced pauses in their work in order to emphasize words and phrases, utilizing the way a piece is read to further the audience’s understanding of the poem. In Cummings’ poem, Buffalo Bill’s, he constructed his stanzas with lengthy spaces that create pauses to slow the reader, accentuating the severity of each phrase. The seventh line of the poem simply reads “Jesus,” and is indented at the end of the line to create a long silence and emphasize the exclamation (Cummings). Stein, however, composed the passages within her publication, Tender Buttons, with commas separating thoughts and descriptions. For example, Stein described Mildred’s umbrella as “A cause and no curve, a cause and loud enough, a cause and extra loud crash, and an extra wagon, a sign of extra, a sac a small sac an established color and cunning, a slender grey and no ribbon, this means a loss a great loss a restitution” (Stein 6). The entire description completes almost four lines with each idea separated by a comma instead of a few sentences. Stein used this convention to highlight each phrase describing the umbrella; each phrase is equal, giving the description a sense of abstraction, affording the reader different perceptions.
Both Cummings and Stein also used the formatting of words to occasionally speed up their poems. The fifth line of Buffalo Bill’s appears to be the longest however contains few spaces between words. Cummings described how Buffalo Bill rides a stallion and would “…break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat” (Cummings). Cummings strung up to five words together and quickened the pace to accentuate the importance of phrases. In addition to lengthy sentences separated by commas, Stein integrated short concise sentences that quickened passages and stressed the importance of various descriptions. The two writers incorporated an experimental way of formatting the language in their poems to give their works different meanings, thus lending the reader various perspectives.
In addition to formatting their work to accentuate passages for the reader, both Cummings and Stein utilized repetition in order to underscore a detail they felt was important. Stein sometimes incorporated repetition more literally than Cummings. Stein described sound as “reckless reckless rats, this is this” (Stein 15). Stein repeated specific words and sounds she felt were important in her description. She also encompassed alliterations in her work to stress sounds as Cummings did in Buffalo Bill’s. He described Buffalo Bill’s horse as “a watersmooth-silver stallion” (Cummings). For both Stein and Cummings repetition transformed language to give specific phrases different meanings that are open to interpretation and variation in perspectives.
Cummings and Stein constructed their literary works with experimental ways of transforming language to lend different viewpoints to readers. Both authors incorporated cubism; they wrote their poetry abstractly to leave the work open to the audience’s interpretation. Stein and Cummings transformed language by utilizing spacing, repetition of words and sounds, and punctuation. Stein and Cummings were revolutionary the twentieth century; they used an experimental construction of language to change the way the audience perceived their works of literature.
Her Flesh Came by E.E. Cummings: Sexuality in the Poem
Modernism does for poetry what it achieved in every other form of art during its span, in that it tore down the barriers of traditional poetry and erected the new rule: “There are no rules.” Imagism is a prime example, wherein the simple description of the subject is all that is required of the piece, and nothing more. E. E. Cummings, however, often displayed a different departure from the norm in his poetry, and that was to manipulate the appearance of his poem on the page. One of his most striking poems in this regard is “her flesh came,” a sexually charged piece about an erotic encounter taking place over the course of eighteen lines.
Visibly there is an obvious change in direction from normal poetry. At a glance, lines are indented in weird places; words are combined strangely, as well as separated and chopped up over more than one line; sometimes space is added between words; and some letters are wrongfully capitalized while others need capitalization. Fortunately, poetry is largely exempt from standard rules of punctuation, and most of this seemingly random disregard for writing has a purpose to be unlocked.
To establish the sexual nature of this poem, let us start with word meaning. Just about every last word serves some kind of innuendo. The first is made clear by the word “Came,” which is, in slang terms, the past tense verb for “ejaculate”; the word has a double meaning for approaching, and closeness, and the lines, “her/flesh/Came/at/me…” implies the possibility of both meanings as the literal occurrence. Then the reader is assaulted with a series of nonsense words that can only be translated as, “me as sand caving into a chute,” followed by the absurd, “i had cement for her/merrily.” As it appears on the line, “meassandca V/ingint/oA/chute,” certain dirty-minded readers may immediately pick up on the nonsense in the first line containing “ass,” another innuendo achieved through word combination. There also appears to be a reference to cement mixing and sex, where “cement” is a direct reference to ejaculation as, “sand caving into a chute” references the process of cement mixing, or making love. As cement hardens, it could also be a reference to the penis, but this is unlikely, as cement as semen seems to be more accurate. The last line, “concrete,” also makes reference to semen, as it becomes sticky if exposed to open air for too long, though this too could mean that the penis is erect and ready for another round of sex.
Further contributing to the innuendoes found in the poem is the way capitalization is handled. “Came,” being the first capitalized word, seems to be important. If the above is the case and it is a reference to ejaculation, then that would certainly be important, as the climax is probably the most intense part of any sexual experience. Also capitalized and separated from its word is “V,” on line five. V has significance because it appears to resemble the female reproductive organ in two ways: first, it takes the shape of the vagina, vaguely, and second, it begins the word “vagina.” The only other capitalized letter is “A,” on line seven. Apart from being the vertical reversal of V, A can be interpreted as having a resemblance to a penis, with a sectioned-off head and two lines descending diagonally, creating a shaft. It is unknown why it resides next to an “o,” except it may resemble the anus. This is only disputed by the fact that it isn’t placed directly below the V, but the woman in question could be in any number of positions.
We also perceive significance in the way the lines and visually structured through spacing and indentation. One of the more important sections is the “slide” or “chute” that is created by “meassandca V/ingint/oA/chute.” At line five, the poem seems to teeter over a cliff (which is possibly an innuendo for the sexual “point of no return,” where the man cannot cancel his ejaculation), which is followed by the words tumbling down the aforementioned chute in lines six and seven and coming to an abrupt halt on line eight. Here, the poem starts to gradually slow down. Words are spaced further and further apart, and eventually become lines all by themselves, and by line seventeen, it comes to a complete stop. This indicates the rest period immediately following sex, and if the eighteenth line is to be taken as a re-gained erection, then the subject matter of this poem is ready to begin once again.
What we have here is a poem that pours so much sexual innuendo into its words that sex is almost treated practically. The spacing, indentation, punctuation, wording and separation of said wording in “her flesh came” all come together to create a piece describing sex in all its frank glory, linking it to such a thing as cement mixing all at the same time. This is a surprisingly deep and developed poem for a subject matter so primal. It’s no wonder why Cummings (note the hidden word) is such a famous poet.
Innocent Love in E.E. Cummings’s Poem Since Feeling is First
The concept of love is widely explored in literature, ranging from captivating odes about admirers to sorrow-filled compositions describing the loss of a sweetheart. Taking a charming spin on love, E. E. Cummings’ poem, “since feeling is first,” uses comparison to show that romance is propelled by the theme of purity, ultimately persuading his audience to follow their hearts over their minds when it comes to real-world love. The poet mainly focuses on the difference between a man whose center lies in wisdom versus a man who is in tune with his emotions, where the latter greatly prospers over the former when pursuing romance.
Cummings’ first and second stanzas displays the differences between a man who overanalyzes situations and another who lets his feelings rule over his life. He initially states, “since feeling is first” (Cummings 1), starting his poem, as well as titling his piece, with a claim that emotions come before all other senses. Especially in a romantic context, as Cummings writes about, the act of identifying and acting upon one’s feelings is essential. As a relationship stems from proclaimed affection, the thoughts that inhabit the mind are more propelled by the soul than logic. By following his heart, Cummings maintains a sense of purity and innocence, reveling in contentment with the company of his lover. The next lines state, “who pays any attention/to the syntax of things/will never wholly kiss you” (2-4), where Cummings provides reasoning for his original claim of feelings coming first. He displays two differing tones between these lines, putting down the egos of others while showing boundless affection for his lover. The love of his life stands as a treasure, where he defensively guards her against those who are more logically inclined, as they do not prove worthy. Fittingly, Cummings’ mention of syntax follows through in his writing, which lacks a complete usage of capitalization and punctuation. The formed sentences are broken up into lines, yet are not composed of the same format throughout. Whereas the start of some phrases are properly capitalized, others begin with lowercase letters and are not preceded by any punctuation, creating differences in the poem’s composition. In this oddly-formatted style lies a mockery of those individuals guided by logic; although Cummings initially deems them undeserving of his lover, he furthers this by satirically poking fun at their overflowing intelligence directly through his writing. Through the humorous ridicule, he warns his readers against using knowledge to uncover the depths of romance. Instead of prospering through an authentic life, those who spend their time dwelling on logic waste away their time, missing opportunities to pursue an ideal romance.
Differing from the men who are propelled by logic, Cummings finds himself to be a man of pure emotion. He refers to himself in “wholly to be a fool/while Spring is in the world” (5-6), contrasting with other men who find themselves more involved with knowledge. When he is in the presence of his lover, he is overwhelmed by her beauty and begins to stutter and bumble through his words. Whereas some men are puzzled by intelligence and education, Cummings finds himself curiously dwelling on the charming woman in his life. The referral to “Spring” (6) symbolizes the lover, representing her encompassing attraction to Cummings as a season. With a mention of spring, the themes of purity and fertility come to mind, regarding the falling of cherry blossoms, the blooming of a first love, and the gradual perking up of greenery when warm weather strikes. Emphasized by the usage of the word “lady” (10), the aura of the woman is filled with a teeming feminine innocence, which influences Cummings in choosing emotions over logic. He makes his intentions resonate with the woman he loves, going so far as to make “[his] blood [approve]” (7), making the relationship go past a mere physical state. As “Spring” (6) is capitalized, the concept of religion is brought upon the romance, putting an emphasis on the ethereal image of the woman. Just like God is always capitalized in scripture, the same importance is given by Cummings unto his lady, ultimately raising her on a pedestal. To amend these assertions, he claims to “swear by all flowers” (10). Here, there is a mention of the epitomal representation of the season, as spring would not appear the same without the image of multicolored flowers. Cummings promises his lady that he is telling the truth by personally bringing her essence into the deal, displaying complete confidence in his words. With his utter devotion to his lover, Cummings relays the message of pursuing romance with a sense of purity to his audience. With his outspoken certainty, it is difficult to both refute his claims and see the superiority of logic over emotions in a battle of romance.
While arguing that emotions rule over intelligence, Cummings emphasizes the additional potential in making the most out of life by seeking happiness, even in dreadful situations. He states, “Don’t cry/—the best gesture of my brain is less than/your eyelids’ flutter which says/we are for eachother” (10-13), bringing forth the claim that any form of intelligence pales in comparison to something as simple as a blink of an eye. This logic sinks down even further with the stark contrast between his lover’s tears and the trivial flutter of her eyelids, deeming knowledge in an even more insignificant fashion. Cummings compares a moment in reality with a train of thought, diminishing the latter so that it eventually becomes obsolete. He finds real-life moments to be more essential than those in the minds of others, sending forth the message to take advantage of reality rather than be consumed with thoughts. Additionally, his plea of telling his lover not to cry indicates that he does not want to see her in a state of misery. When she is overwhelmed with sorrow, Cummings cannot help but feel the same way, as they exist in harmony and “are for each other” (13). He conveys the message that reality should be filled with joyous moments, rather than times of wallowing and heartache. Instead of existing in worry, Cummings wants his lover to “then laugh, leaning back in [his] arms” (13-14), and embrace the bliss of existence. Finding the world to be a place of happiness while lacking logic, he wants his other half to experience the world as he does. Once again, there is a recurring theme of innocence, where Cummings simply seems to look for his own definition of romantic happiness in a perfect world. A playful factor remains in this outlook, as he imposes his wonderment unto his significant other, just as a child would humorously affect the people around him with an infectious laugh. By climbing over hardships and replacing them with moments of comfort, Cummings tells his readers to embrace the joys of life and romanticize this notion of happiness. Propelled by an innocent lifestyle, his audience is influenced to turn aspects of their amorous relationships into a positive utopia, just as Cummings does himself.
Just as much as Cummings enforces positivity onto the romantic aspects of his life, he also finds a contrast between a long-lived reality and the eternal concept of death. When he states, “then/laugh, leaning back in my arms/for life’s not a paragraph” (13-15), he embraces the positive aspects of life, as mentioned previously. Cummings does so with the intention that life is filled with these innocent moments, and he has time to make the absolute best for himself and his lover. With the comparison to a paragraph, Cummings implies that the series of sentences forms a simple-minded argument — one that is easy to understand. Although paragraphs may be detailed and eloquent when deeply analyzed, they merely consist of tiny segments of letters and punctuation tied together to prove a point. On the other hand, Cummings makes a claim that life is nothing like this simple chunk of text, instead focusing on the intricacy of a human life, consisting of thousands on thousands of paragraphs. However, regardless of this long-lived reality, he makes the best out of the entire situation, making sure he and his lover are always content and embraced in romance. The last stanza of his poem, where he states, “And death i think is no parenthesis” (16), showcases this encompassing happiness. The usage of parenthesis in a text displays a comment that is seemingly relevant, but can also be ignored and opted out. When Cummings states that death starkly contrasts with this form of punctuation, he implies that it cannot be omitted and disregarded. The premonition of mortality is everlasting, no matter how long life continues on for, which subtly offers a darker tone in comparison to the pure image of his poem so far. Instead of showcasing a theme of “carpe diem” throughout the poem, where the thought of the future is completely disregarded, Cummings instead brings forth a reality check. Although some may find happiness in ignoring death, he offers a counterargument, where the idea of mortality ironically forces people to live in contentment. Cummings always finds positivity in his romantic life not only because he enjoys embracing joy constantly, but also due to the fact that death is unpredictable. He lives in contentment knowing that one day, he or his lover will perish from the world, leaving the other paralyzed with grief. Hoping to make the most out of the time he is with his significant other, Cummings embraces the grim reality of death and asks his readers to do the same. Living every day in happiness is a goal that he hopes his audience takes advantage of, as their near futures are all unclear and foggy, just like his own.
In conclusion, Cummings relays the message that the notion of love is driven by putting emotions over logic, which allows the relationship to form in purity. By comparing and contrasting the ideas brought up in the poem, readers are given a first-hand look into the joy-filled romance of Cummings and his lover, darkly propelled by the feeling of forthcoming death. In a way, this final mention of mortality offers a contrasting view on the overall innocence of the poem. Readers are forced to ask themselves what Cummings intended to do with this last stanza, which seemingly appears to break down the entire meaning of the poem that he has composed so far. There is a possibility that hidden underneath the veil of contentment, there always lies a thin layer of fear and concern. Perhaps he offers this opinion to show that no matter how often people encompass themselves in happiness and joy, there is never an entirety of that single emotion. Cummings’ original statement of emotions ruling over logic still remains, yet there is an underlying remark that this feeling cannot live up to its entire potential.
Meaning Of The Poem “Cummings”
Cummings describes a normal life that a community lives every day without realizing the value of each day. The people live in a disorganized way in the town. The poet emphatically uses the word “anyone” to indicate that an individual lived a quiet life in the town (Cummings, 1985). The individual’s life revolves around living the same life each day. The individual does the same tasks every day and has never been happy of the life that he lives every day. The poem illustrates the lack of care that surrounds the community. The town’s women and other people do not care about other people within the town. The poet wants the reader to understand the dangers of living in a safe place or town. People within the town do not have a sense of community. The people care more about themselves and their families. The poet also provides a vivid description of children’s perception that all people loved each other. However, the kids change as they grow up every day in the town. Time passes and seasons change over and over again (Cummings, 1985). Most of the children fall in love, get married and live the same life until they die. The cycle of life is repeated but no one understands the importance of caring for other people. The town’s people live the same lives even after their friends die. Seasons also come and go with the same repetitive nature of life happening every day.
Figures of Speech
The poet uses various words and figures of speech in the poem.
Anyone: The word describes the lack of community sense within the town. Only a few people care about others in the town.
With up so floating many bells down: The phrase describes a community living in a life of confusion (Cummings, 1985). The floating bells describe the irony behind living in a safe place.
Sun moon stars rain: The phrase describes the various activities that go around in town over time.
Forgot: The word describes the forgetful nature of people as they grow up. The children forget the lack of care within the society.
Snow: The word describes the cold nature of the town. Everyone lives a life of their own and there is no genuine sense of friendship in the town.
The poet uses different poetic elements within the poem.
Symbolism: The poet says that the children guessed indicating that they could be right (Muthiah, 2015). Symbolism is used to indicate the cold relationship among the grownups.
Rhyme: The poet uses rhyme scheme to stress various issues within the poem. For instance, he says that the pretty how town had all its floating bells down.
Imagery: The poet describes the four seasons and how they occur severally. He creates a visual representation of the repetitive nature of life that the people lived in the town.
Metaphor: The poet also uses metaphor by linking the tree by the leaf. The poet compares the present moment as a part of the entire life.
Connotation: The poet also uses connotation to enrich the meaning of death in the after the town’s life. The “busy folk” means that the people were busy forgetting that they shall also go through the same experience.
Role of Poetic Elements
The words and the poetic elements enhance the understanding of the poem. First, the words define the uncaring nature and the shattered lives that people lived in the town (Muthiah, 2015). The cold relationship continued over the seasons as people did not understand the need of a genuine friendship. The poetic elements make the poem enjoyable by creating visual interpretations of the people’s lives and deeper meanings.
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. 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, ‘next to of course god america i’ by e. e. cummings (lowercase intentional), and John Clare’s ‘Gypsies’.
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.
 http://tseliot.com/prose/the-metaphysical-poets  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  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  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.