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.
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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 […]