Posted by: Tom Triumph | January 8, 2010

71. Buffalo Bill: e. e. cummings

e.e. cummings might not seem so radical to kids in this age of poor grammar, spelling and crazy texting. The language is changing faster than copy editors can keep up with it, with the battle raging beyond “donut vs. doughnut”. Is “gtg” a legitimate “word”?

Yes, you have your opinion. The kids will have theirs. Can you say “teachable moment” (voted one of the most overused phrases of 2009). So, what does e.e. do with text? Heck, I’m an English teacher and I can’t remember if “e.e.” is capitalized at the start of a sentence (e.e. cummings or E. e. cummings?)

What makes cummings interesting, along with folks like William Carlos Williams, is that they were heavily influenced by technology. In their case, the typewriter. Williams reportedly typed his poems over and over again, breaking it up in many different ways, to see how it lay on the page. So much depends, I guess. This technology made an entire society focus on text and typography, instead of the oral tradition.

Here is the text printed in a book:

Notice how the shape is printed.

Now, look at today. Anyone can write two hundred pages, but is that writing or just typing (to quote Truman Capote about Jack Kerouac, supposedly). Without the gatekeepers of the publishing industry, those same tappers can post their musing on a blog (like me) or print an ebook. And, our students are writing; in emals, texts and chat rooms. Is that “writing”? Discuss.

The other obvious topic for this poem is the structure. Not only the obvious shape of the poem, but when they read it aloud how do they pronounce, “onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat”? And, why does cummings leave no spaces (hint: how fast is his gun?)?  And the a single word, and then a space (to capture your breath?)  Whew.  What about that shape?  Is it a bullet, and arrowhead, something else or nothing (I doubt the latter)?  And why is “Jesus” at the tip?  Hmmmm.

So, is this poem meant to be read, spoken, both or doesn’t matter? What choices do WE make when we write anything, from a poem to a lab report? Does spelling count in an email to a friend? What do we think of our friends? Would we read them aloud? Why or why not?

This leads to the obvious question: what is the purpose of writing? Of poetry? If art is to capture truth, does cummings do it? He certainly makes a go of it.

So, how does text capture truth? What, in their lives, captures truth?

FYI: Beware of the “Jesus” invective; that’s why I think he’s on the tip, not because of any religious reasons. It is art, but some consider it to use the Lord’s name in vain.

Buffalo Bill’s
e.e. cummings

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

Please note, I could not get this to format perfectly.  The “.” at the start of some lines was to help with that, but use the image from the “Dial” above, too, and note the inconsistencies.

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