In the twentieth century there were many great American poets. Among the variety of different poems and different poets, Edward Estlin Cummings has interested me the most. He has changed the traditions of poems throughout his writing by breaking the rules of poetry in his unique artistic unconventional ways. The main purpose for my interest is due to Cummings' eccentric punctuation. Cummings' has developed this unique style of writing that can be misunderstood. The poetry of Cummings is often written in a free verse structure dealing with themes of love and nature. When reading the writing style of Cummings, one must note his bizarre use of words, and punctuation throughout his poems. According to Michael Webster's critical essay titled, E. E. Cummings: Romantic Ideology and Technique, Webster suggests that “Cummings…reserves his experiments by and large for his free verse embodiments of satire, comedy, and description” (Webster). He takes many different approaches, full of experimentation that changes the visual of syntactical elements and creating effects on a poem. Through a close examination of several Cummings' experimental poems, I will argue that he uses syntax, punctuation and words to "illustrate" the meanings of his work. As both a painter and a wordsmith, Cummings understands the significance of presentation and uses unique methods to paint a picture in our minds.
Cummings changed the visual of syntactical elements, arranging words and phrases to communicate with the reader. Cummings is known for using typography as a writing technique throughout his poems. Typography is a style and appearance of print. In other words it is seen as a technique that arranges and modifies letters. Overall it's a combination of font size, and spacing, typically used to design in text. Cummings uses typography as an elevated form of art, making words easier to understand and more meaningful to read. When reading Cummings' poems it is important to note the way he uses font, letter spacing and punctuation, considering that he constructs most of his poems this way for a visual impact on the reader. It impacts the way the reader sees and feels about the poems.
A great example of typography can be seen in a poem, titled “!blac”. Cummings ultimately attracts a reader's attention by using typography and odd spelling in the poem. Cummings is very descriptive, once read one can see Cummings' unique style of writing, full of experimentation. He uses unique syntax to visually show the conflict between black and white as a social or racial conflict. Although is not directly stated one can interpret it that way with Cummings' opening words. In the book 50 poems, Cummings writes:
!blac k agains t (whi) te sky ?t rees whic h fr om droppe d , le af a:;go e s wh IrlI n .g (1).
One can get the impression of a negative feeling due to Cummings dropping the last letters of every word to the next line. It would make sense if the poem is viewed as a racial conflict. Dropping the last letters of the word shows of something falling apart, such as experiencing society being divided by blacks and whites. Cummings lived through the establishment of the Jim Crow era and probably has seen or experienced this tragedy. Cummings uses metaphor to compare a society that is falling apart with a tree that looses all its leaves. Cummings shows the image of the leaves falling down. The poem illustrates the fallen leaves by having the last letter of every word in its own line. When looking at the poem closely it looks like the poem itself is falling down.
Cummings is also known for his significant use of punctuation in his poetry. Cummings who is also an artist uses his artistic approach to blend his poetry into this visual form of art. Cummings often applies in his poems the use of commas, parenthesis, and colons where they are not regularly used. Cummings uses punctuations as an art technique rather than a rule, therefore giving his poems a “tentative and continuing effect” (Friedman, 114). The unusual use of punctuation has brought into question Cummings' unconventional insights. Cummings broke the rules of poetry with his visual style, which led to literary critics criticizing his work. Many critics think his methods are useless. Some critics argue that Cummings uses punctuation and “language with no concession to conventional recognition” (Maurer 1). I would agree on the fact that Cummings' poems are sometimes difficult to read because of his language and punctuation usage. However I won't agree on the fact that his methods are ineffective. What make Cummings so special is that a reader has to examine several of his poems to really appreciate the significance of his method. Scholar Norman Friedman claims that, “Cummings is fond of using a graduated series of marks—as in, ‘; : : ;', —to control the lightness and rapidity, the heaviness and slowness, of the reading…to give a visual sense of progression” (Friedman, 114).
With this perspective in mind we can concentrate on how the use of punctuation applies to the poem “may I feel said he” from Cummings', a selection of poems. In looking at it closely Cummings doesn't include any quotation marks throughout the poem. Before the phrase “said he” or “said she” of every line there is dialect between the man and the woman (96). It is interesting for the fact that the conversation does not have any quotation marks but instead it has uncertain clarification for the usage of parenthesis. In order to understand Cummings' usage of punctuation, one must see it as a technique that the writer uses in order to develop effective expressions. In this case the reader needs to treat parenthesis as a poetic device. Many times critics of poetry criticize poet's lack of poetic language and imagery. As a solution poetic devices help develop both. This means that Cummings added parenthesis in his poem for a reason, and should therefore be read with much thought and concentration. It is worth considering that Cummings parenthesized certain parts in the poem to grab the reader's attention and visualize what he is saying. Think of his punctuation as a signal of direction. It helps the reader read the poem more precise, as Cummings intended.
Cummings often displays unusual choice of words. He tends to play with various vocabulary words by changing nouns into verbs, adjectives into nouns, or vice-versa. He has the ability to use words to create a mood, to insert images and feelings in the minds of readers. For instance in the poem “Buffalo Bill's”, Cummings arranges the words by putting them together, making it one whole big word. Cummings writes:
who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeons justlikethat
he was a handsome man
and what I want to know is
how do you like your blue-eyed boy
Mister Death (34).
First to understand Cummings' unique method one must understand who Buffalo Bill was. Buffalo bill was an American cowboy who was a professional bison hunter and was very crafty with his gun. With this perspective in mind we can concentrate on how it applies to the poem. Cummings admires the man's ability to shoot his gun when he writes: “and break oneteothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat”. The numbers are usually adjectives, but Cummings uses it as a noun. Sometimes numbers can look like nouns because of ellipsis. The effect by the way Cummings structured it was to speed up speech. He wants the readers to read it in this fast tempo giving the idea Bill was a fast shooter, as well as a good shooter when saying “pigeonsjustlikethat”, indicating the pigeons were taken out.
In addition Cummings poems are simple in nature and it's really interesting how a single word can have such a vivid image. The use of Cummings methods gives a word so much meaning. His use of language creates these images in the readers mind. This shows how Cummings is able to use simple language in such a clever and imaginative way.
In the poem “I carry you heart with me” Cummings structural style of words bring about this awareness of simplicity within the poem. In the poem Cummings writes “no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet) I want no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true) and it's you are whatever a moon has always meant” (156). Careful reading of this poem one becomes intrigued by his words. In a simple interpretation the narrator addresses the reader that he has a soul mate, and whatever happens with one affects the other. Cummings uses the phrase “whatever a moon has always mean” to enforce imagery in the readers mind (156). Note that it is also an example of personification. In a sense he is able to create these images with simple words by using his other unique techniques. In the phrase “(for beautiful you are my world, my true)”, Cummings uses parentheses for a pausing effect, therefore giving the words “world” and “true” long lasting imagery. The word “world” represents his existence in life, with the sense that his love uplifts him n positive ways. The poem itself is written in such simple language. Cummings uses this technique in various works that has been recognized and part of the literary cannon overtime.
From examining Cummings' visual poems, one can surely see how he portrays his visual form of art into his poems. His poems are unique; one must see his poems in the perspective of Cummings' artistic design. The words of his poems are sometimes scattered throughout the page as if he were trying to draw something. Cummings doesn't just like writing his poems but he wants the reader to see and feel his poems. Whether or not Cummings' poetry brings about curiosity and interest to the reader, there is no denying the innovation of Cummings' unusual style of writing. Moreover, his use of words, syntax, and punctuation are methods and ideas that are essential to an understanding of Cummings' writing style.