Revisiting E. E. Cummings

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Earlier this week a co-worker mentioned in passing, having read through parts of my book, that some of my work reminded her of E. E. Cummings. She meant this as a compliment and it’s certainly how I took the statement. It’s true I do enjoy Cummings a fair bit. His presentation and rich imagery is quite appealing to me, but moreso it’s the way Cummings’ verse combines the old and new, the traditional and the avant garde to wonderful effect. These are techniques and concerns that I try to approach in my own writing though, admittedly, I’m less on the fringe than was Cummings.

Of all Cummings’ verse perhaps my favourite poem is a short elegy written in a stroke of genius by the poet:

Buffalo Bill’s
defunct
______who used to
______ride a watersmooth-silver
___________________________stallion
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
_________________________________________Jesus

he was a handsome man
_____________________and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Mister Death

Cummings is brilliant in his use of standard or traditional rhythm. Bill’s prowess as a gun-slinger is presented in two five syllable sections in line six counting out shots made at clay pigeons. Though a free verse poem, this line makes use of trochaics to give a staccato effect that at once bangs out the sound of pistols firing while allowing the line to move along quickly. It’s an excellent example of sound and sense coming together to compliment the portrait of the man. The wonderful sliding elegance of the “s” sounds playing off the i and o vowels of lines four and five present an opposition to the gunfire rapidity. Here we can see Bill mounted high on a beautiful horse whose movements are “watersmooth” (as is its appearance), flowing with the ripple of muscle on bone. This blending of traditional metre with free verse sensibilities creates a magic which echoes the showmanship and class that Buffalo Bill would quite likely have wanted to represent in his Wild West shows.

*E. E. Cummings. 100 Selected Poems. New York: Grove Press, 1994.*

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