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.
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