03 March 2005

More than mere "fireworks"

Kirsch's comment on Cummings' "typographical fireworks" was not meant to be dismissive, but it came off a tad too glib for me.

For example, many people know this one:
"next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims' and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn's early my
country tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?"

He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water
But how many actually recognize that this is a sonnet?

UPDATE: Further thoughts...

Leaving aside the fact that Kirsch automatically elevates content over form, he did not mention the inherent value of making the effort to decipher Cummings' structures. Meaning seems to rush ahead, leaving the reader to trail along behind. But what's actually going on?

Cummings poem seamlessly embodies the predicament of a man torn by the hollowness of his own argument. At first, the reader is bombarded by the hasty speech of a man who is trying to communicate his thoughts as rapidly as possible. His continuous stream of patriotic slogans seems full of conviction because there are so many of them, and they are blurted without hesitation. But a closer reading reveals that for this precise reason the opposite is true. He divulges his own doubts by revealing too much, exposing himself as a defensive man spouting things he does not quite believe.

Cummings’ exceedingly clever employment of language, specifically clichés and colloquialisms, enables the speaker’s own words to contradict him. The myriads of trite, half-started platitudes demonstrate the scattered thoughts of a man scrambling for firm footing. But then something happens. An original thought slips in among the socio-political babble as he confesses, “we should worry / in every language even deafanddumb” (lines 5-6). This startlingly original idea surprises him so much that he trips in the very next line, causing him to exclaim “by gorry” rather than “by glory” (7). Truth is beginning to emerge in spite of himself. The harsh reality of death, which he attempts to hide, leaks out, forcing him to resort to colloquial euphemisms such as, “by jingo by gee by gosh by gum” to cover his confusion (8). When this fails him, he becomes outright defensive and protests, “why talk of beauty what could be more beaut- / iful than these heroic happy dead / who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter” (9-11). The futility of that argument grows obvious as he falls apart, ultimately declaring, “they did not stop to think they died instead” (12). With supreme irony, he finally asks, “then shall the voice of liberty be mute?” (13). But how can liberty speak in the first place if those who were her champions are now dead?

This ties in well with Cummings’ choice of poetic structure. Although the poem appears to be mere free-verse rambling, a detailed look at each line reveals that the poem is actually a sonnet. But its existence is obscured by both Cummings’ consistent use of enjambment, and his employment of chaotic meter. In effect, this mirrors the way the persona of the poem confuses the truth of the issue he tackles. Both the speaker himself and the technique of the author exemplify the breathless, run-on quality of the piece. The use of enjambment ultimately ends with the displaced rhyme of the word “slaughter” (11). By ending the enjambment, a new clarity is brought to the work. And it is an honest reference to death that brings this about.

Cummings’ sonnet has an interesting rhyme scheme: ababcdcdefgfeg, rather than ababcdcdefefgg. The rhyme falters specifically at the aforementioned word “slaughter” (11). Why do both the enjambment and the rhyme fail at this line? Again, the brutal reality of death throws everything off balance--the tidy philosophy of the speaker as well as the graceful structure of the sonnet. Interestingly, the mistake is quickly remedied by the replacement of the “E” rhyme (“mute” in line 13) where the original “G” rhyme (“slaughter”) should have been. This underscores the relief the speaker feels at having finished his ordeal as he retreats to his much-desired “glass of water” (14).

I don't think that such a deft melding of form with content should be undervalued. If "the medium is the message," how good are we at understanding what we read and hear? How much better off would we be as a society if more people could make sense of the information thrown at them? Cummings' poetry is a marvelous end in itself (and how much poorer we would be without such beauty!)--but it also gives us excellent practice in learning to discern and process the meaning embedded in seemingly random words and information.


Treena said...

"they did not stop to think they died instead"

You're so right about the irony of this line. The speaker might have thought to use it as a defence of the patriotic ideal of dying for one's country. However, mindlessness is what echoes back. The action is voided of thought and reason. Plus, the lack of punctuation suggests that the true meaning of the line is this: being dead, they now *cannot* stop to think that instead of the glory they sought, all they have is death. In fact, I feel specially an eternity contained in that line. It straddles both present and future. On the threshold of death they did not stop to think; now, after death, they cannot.

Thanks for the exegesis. I told you about my relationship with poetry. It really helps me when you break it down like that. I enjoyed reading it and learned a lot.

amcorrea said...

Thanks, but wow--that was some pretty great commentary of your own. You know much more than you think you do!