FON American Literature: e. e. cummings Guide Questions
1. How does cummings’ use of typography and the poem as an object affect his poetry? How do word choice, syntax, and line construction play a major role in his poems? Consider a variety of poems in your response.
2. What is the effect of e e cummings’ rejection of traditional capitalization and punctuation rules in his poems? (Take note of words which are capitalized.)
3. Would the poetic devices of “in Just-“ still have their effect if the words of the poem were set in conventional stanzas of, for example, five lines each?
4. Discuss how the success of the poem “in Just-,” its transmission of feeling, is aided by various poetic devices, such as:
a. the tactile and visual effects of “mud-luscious” and “puddle-wonderful”
b. the aural effects of “far and wee”
c. the effect of motion created by running names together and varying spacing, as in the “whistles far and wee” line
d. the symbolic implications of “goat-footed”
e. the ambiguity of the phrase “in Just- / spring.”
5. Is “Buffalo Bill’s defunct” a pronouncement that even frontier heroes have to die? Is Bill merely a comic circus faker in his old age?
6. In “Buffalo Bill’s defunct,” how is “defunct” different from “dead”?
7. What is gained in “Buffalo Bill’s defunct” by running numbers together? And why “blueeyed” boy? The typographical placement of “Jesus” allows it to refer to the lines that both precede and follow it. What is gained by that?
8. What words are included in the poem “l(a)”? If you wrote it out on one line, what would it say? How does the arrangement of lines contribute to the theme?
9. How much does interest in poems like “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r” and “1(a” depend upon just trying to decipher the poems? Once deciphered, do they lose their ability to maintain reader interest?
10. What kind of story is narrated in “anyone lived in a pretty how town”? Who are the main characters? How can “anyone lived in a pretty how town” be read as a poem of ideal lovers. Do lines 9 and 10 suggest that it is a poem on the tragedy of growing up
11. cummings sometimes used one part of speech in a sentence position where "normal" grammatical structure requires another part of speech. For example, in “anyone lived in a pretty how town,” the adverb “how” is used between an adjective and noun, where adverbs never occur in ordinary usage, and the verbs “didn’t” and “did” are used like nouns, as the objects of “sang” and “danced.” Also, indefinite pronouns (“anyone,” “someone”) are used in contexts in which they normally would not make sense.
12. Find other examples of this type of “ungrammaticality” in this and other poems. What are the effects of violating grammatical rules in this way?
13. How do sound and sense match up in “anyone lived in a pretty how town”?
14. Comment on the matching of sound to sense—the rising and falling of the bells in line 2.
15.Discuss the critical judgment that Cummings’s poetry is merely a sentimental barrage, a shuffling of “monotonous vague counters: ‘death,’ ‘flower,’ ‘rain,’ ‘spring,’ and others.”
16. What relationships between cummings’ poetry and his other efforts in the arts can help us understand his poetry?