Last week, my son had to recite two poems for his 7th-grade Honors English class. The poems he read were “Alone”, by Edgar Allan Poe, and “Chord”, by Stuart Dybek.
I asked him if he had ever read anything by my favorite poet, ee cummings. He said no, and so I immediately dug up my collection of cummings’ poems and shared my two favorites with him.
In college, I spent much of my English 1B class explicating the style and nature of his poetry, and I found him fascinating. At first, I thought that he was simply a pretentious wordsmith trying to razzle-dazzle his readers by viciously throwing away all rules of grammar and style until I saw what he was really doing with his poetry: He was using words and punctuation to create a living work of art.
One does not simply read the words in an ee cummings poem; one lives the experiences held within the poem. I’ll try to explain with examples from my two favorite poems.
who used to
ride a water-smooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
he was a handsome man
and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
The short, staccato lines of the poem give a matter-of-fact reading to the inevitable, and unremarkable, death of the Great American Hero, Buffalo Bill. Cummings is almost mocking Buffalo Bill because after all the great deeds he has done, and all the fame he gained, he died just like every single one of us will. It is important to note that Buffalo Bill is now “defunct”; not dead, and not off on some spiritual quest. He has simply stopped being.
The mashed sentence “onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat”, shows off Buffalo Bill’s prowess as a sharpshooter. The single-word line, “Jesus”, almost shows a reverence for this “handsome man”, but the poem is more about death than our American hero. “Mister Death” gets a title of respect, since he is the great equalizer, but cummings seems to mock him, as well. And why shouldn’t he? If we are all to meet him, then what makes him so special? Meeting Mister Death might as well be as special as going to the supermarket. Cummings almost spits out those last lines as he asks Mister Death if he holds any more regard for Buffalo Bill than he does for anyone else he has taken away.
In short, cummings sees Buffalo Bill, a hero of his day, reduced to a circus act before finally being reduced to nothing. And there is nothing remarkable about it. Cummings sees the same plaintive ending for himself, as well.
The next poem is a bit more complex, perhaps. I have always read it as a happy, childlike poem of someone trying to find something remarkable in his world while surrounded by conventionality. I have heard others say that they felt sadness in the conformity of their sterile environment.
anyone lived in a pretty how town (with up so floating many bells down) spring summer autumn winter he sang his didn't he danced his did Women and men(both little and small) cared for anyone not at all they sowed their isn't they reaped their same sun moon stars rain children guessed(but only a few and down they forgot as up they grew autumn winter spring summer) that noone loved him more by more when by now and tree by leaf she laughed his joy she cried his grief bird by snow and stir by still anyone's any was all to her someones married their everyones laughed their cryings and did their dance (sleep wake hope and then)they said their nevers they slept their dream stars rain sun moon (and only the snow can begin to explain how children are apt to forget to remember with up so floating many bells down) one day anyone died i guess (and noone stooped to kiss his face) busy folk buried them side by side little by little and was by was all by all and deep by deep and more by more they dream their sleep noone and anyone earth by april wish by spirit and if by yes. Women and men(both dong and ding) summer autumn winter spring reaped their sowing and went their came sun moon stars rain
The cadence of the poem emphasizes the drudgery of living a day-to-day, repetitive existence. Thirty-six lines of sing-songy rhythm almost drones on, even if the imagery is happy and pretty. The “anyone” in the poem is someone trying to break free of this repetition and conformity. “Anyone” is an individual who has been stripped of his identity due to the homogenous nature of his community, yet he is determined to find his own place in this world.
We know that “anyone” is a he, because in the tenth stanza, after he dies, we read that “noone stopped to kiss his face.” It is not until he dies that his true identity is revealed, and even then, only his true love (noone) bothered to notice.
The bouncy, lilting cadence fools us into believing that all is well, even in our homogenous lives, just as it tricked this reader into believing that it was a sweet and happy poem.
The repetition of such phrases as “up” and “down”, as well as the use of the seasons and natural elements is a common enough theme in poetry. He bounces the four elements (sun moon stars rain) in different orders in different places within the poem, just as he does the same with the seasons. He is referring to the cycles that occur in everyday life. In the last stanza, he matches summer to sun, autumn to moon, winter to stars, and spring to rain, to bring this theme together.
Cummings also uses verbs as nouns (laughed their cryings and did their dance) and adverbs as nouns (said their nevers they slept their dream) as a way to negate the real feelings of the townspeople. To acknowledge their sadness or unrealized potential would mean to break the mold of acceptance of their lives in the town.
The “pretty how town” also begs the question: is cummings mocking the town by calling it pretty, or is it genuinely pretty? Also, what does “how” signify? I believe that it is cummings’ way of asking how pretty the town really is. With all the conformity and constancy, how pretty can it really be?
Anyway, that’s my take on those two poems. They are my favorites, and I never tire of cummings’ work.
Do you have any favorite work by cummings? Any other poems that you think I should read? Please share in the comments below. I would love to hear from you.
Poems taken from: cummings, ee. 100 Selected Poems. 56th ed. New York: Grove Press, 1994. 7-74. Print.