[Spring 3 (1994): 77-79]
E.E. Cummings uses a personalized, idiosyncratic form of diction. His unusual juxtaposition of words is, surprisingly, more precise than conventional diction; by using these unusual word choices he often creates an exact sense of the impression he wishes to create. He is at times acutely realistic, setting a scene exactly as it appears to him. This realism is enhanced by the occasional use of onomatopoeia, in which instances Cummings uses words as much for the sounds they create as for their meanings. His idiosyncratic precision allows him to say exactly what he wants to say about people and institutions he does not like. These observations are unconventional; they seem at first like ordinary protests against social evils, but on close reading they are actually more personal and eccentric than the typical protests people make against society. It is as if Cummings creates new ideas wholly original to him, whereby he eludes typical thinking, and says exactly what he means to say.
Cummings' choice of words is often unusual, but they denote precise observations. In "i was sitting in mcsorley's"(Tulips & Chimneys , Post Impressions: VIII), while referring to a New York bar's trappings, he mentions "ripe silver." Silver, of course, does not ripen, but the juxtaposition of "ripe" and "silver" suggests precisely the comfortable, aged atmosphere of the inside of a tavern. Some of these images are totally unexpected, yet they somehow convey impressions that are true to life; in "my father moved through dooms of love" (50 Poems [ 1940]: #34), he refers to "a forehead called the moon." This totally novel image does somehow connote the appearance of the moon in a meticulous way. In the poem "maggie and milly and molly and may"(95 Poems : #l0) he describes a stone as being "as large as alone." By the structure of the line it is evident that he means the stone is as large as the feeling of "alone," not large as well as alone. Again, Cummings uses a completely unexpected image that really says something clearly; somehow, in an intuitive way, one understands the reference to stones as alone.
Cummings' precision allows him to describe objects with a particularized approach; he does not simply evoke an object, but he evokes exactly the object he means to describe. For example, in "i was sitting in mcsorley's, "he refers to an "exactly-mutilated / ghost of a chair." This [end page 77] description does not simply connote an old chair, but suggests precisely the particular chair in McSorley's Cummings had in mind. Cummings, as earlier examples cited, suggests his realism tersely; with a few well-chose words he says precisely what he means.
Cummings' terseness is at times remarkable. In "O sweet spontaneous" (Tulips, La Guerre: V), he refers to life's end as "the incomparable/ couch of death." Here he takes an idea that prose writers might write pages on, the concept of death being a final resting place and a welcome relief to life's burdens, and he packs it into five well-chosen words. He takes this kind of concision even further in the next line, when he refers to death as earth's "rhythmic/ lover"; here, the volumes that have been written about the cycles of the seasons and of the death of living things as part of a process leading to rebirth in Spring are condensed to a mere two words. Such succinctness is extraordinary.
Cummings augments his curt kind of precision with the occasional use of onomatopoeia. In "i was sitting in mcsorley's" he says at one point, "waltz the glush of squinting taps plus slush / of foam knocked off and a faint piddle-of-drops," recreating the sound of beer taps in words. He goes on to say,
This passage is an attempt to convey the speech of a woman ill-heard across the bar. The words used are well-chosen to express this unusual effect. Here and elsewhere he uses words as much for their sound as their meaning. For example, in "now comes the good rain farmers pray for(and)," he refers to rainfall as "blissfully seething" (95 Poems : #82). Though one does not normally say that rain "seethes," the 's' sounds of this phrase connote a particular kind of rainfall well. In " 'right here the other night something'" (73 Poems : #28), he states "the roar/of traffic collapses." Here the word "collapses" is used for its resemblance to the sound of traffic stopping--traffic itself, of course, does not collapse.she says I ploc spitttle
what the lands thaz me kid in no sir hopping sawdust you kiddo
he's a palping wreaths of badly Yep cigars who jim him why...
Cummings' odd kind of precision allows him to go further than most poets in capturing the character of people. In "my father moved through dooms of love" (50 Poems : #34), he describes how his father moved through "sames of am," implying in its odd, terse way that his father was not content simply with the uniformities of existence.
Cummings is particularly good at capturing in a striking way the [end page 78] character of people and institutions he does not like. In "the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls" (Tulips: Sonnets-Realities I), the phrase "furnished souls" immediately suggests that the women he is describing are well-off in an unappealing way. It does, however, suggest something further--that somehow these women's minds are too comfortable, filled with already supplied ideas, a highly original observation. In "i sing of Olaf glad and big" (W [ViVa] : XXX), he describes an army colonel as being "most succinctly bred." He here does not simply make the usual observation that an officer appears too neat and perfect, but he goes further to say that somehow his whole upbringing was too neat and perfect. In "a salesman is an it that stinks Excuse" (1 X 1 : IX), he does not simply say that salesmen are obsequious; he also implies that salesmen reek of moral irresponsibility, again a deeper reason, bringing the indictment even closer to home.
In the line "a salesman is an it that stinks Excuse," Cummings blends the abstract and concrete. Someone stinking of something is a very concrete, sensory, image, but what salesmen stink of, "excuse," is an abstract concept. It is typical for Cummings to use such juxtapositions. In "O sweet spontaneous" (Tulips: La Guerre, V), he refers to how the "fingers of/prurient philosophers pinched/and/poked" the earth. Here philosophers, people generally thought of as abstract thinkers, do something very concrete; they "pinch" and "poke" the earth. Cummings juxtaposes "philosopher," a word of Greek derivation, with two words derived from Old European languages, "pinch" and "poke." The high minded classical abstraction is thus brought down to the level of the earthiness of Old French and Middle Low German. A good example of Cummings' extended conjunction of abstract and concrete levels occurs in "a salesman is an it that stinks Excuse," where Cummings refers to salesmen selling
Although he occasionally reached too far, Cummings' choice of words
is usually very precise. He is often more accurate than less experimental
poets when it comes to conveying exactly what he intends to convey. He
is a man who would let nothing stop him, neither conventional verse forms
nor conventional word-usages, in his endeavor to say exactly what he wanted
Back to SPRING Contents
Back to SPRING home page