Larry Chott

CUMMINGS’ "oil tel duh woil doi sez"

[Spring 6 (1997): 45-48]

"oil tel duh woil doi sez," poem II in Cummings’ ViVa (1931), has long been one of my favorite poems. Fun to read aloud and recite, it’s also interesting as an attempt to present what sound looks like—that is, to create a visual equivalent of spoken English. Here’s the poem:
oil tel duh woil doi sez
dooyuh unnurs tanmih essez pullih nizmus tash,oi
dough un giv uh shid oi sez.    Tom
oidoughwuntuh doot,butoiguttuh
braikyooz,datswut eesez tuhmih.    (Nowoi askyuh
woodundat maik yurarstoin
green?    Oilsaisough.)—Hool
spairruh luckih?    Thangzkeed.    Mairsee.
Muh jax awl gawn.    Fur Croi saik
ainnoughbudih gutnutntuhplai?

yoozwidduhpoimnuntwaiv un duhyookuhsumpnruddur

(CP 312; for a transliteration and notes, see the Editor's Appendix)

I imagine the speaker in the poem as a not particularly well-educated young American soldier from Boston or Brooklyn. Stationed in France, he has just been demoted for an unnamed infraction, by a superior officer who knows the speaker well enough to call him Tom and to regret having to carry out the demotion. Tom, apparently drunk and now out of money and cigarettes, is unhappy enough about his demotion to tell everybody in the bar he has wandered into about how unfairly he’s been treated.

At first glance, this poem looks like gibberish—nothing unusual for Cummings. But my high school students take to its gibberishness gladly, sounding it out with energy and enthusiasm, enjoying hearing words they recognize emerge from their lips, tongues, mouths. It’s a cacophony, and then come questions that I can never answer quite fast enough, leading me to try to take the following space to answer them, if not once and for all, then at least tentatively.

"oil tel duh woil doi sez," begins the speaker, as much to himself as to his primary audience, the others in the bar, indicating he is about to report an injustice that demands public attention. "dooyuh unnurs tanmih essez pullih nizmus tash" (line 2) suggests how vividly the speaker recalls the incident: the officer’s irksome tweaking of his own mustache while verifying that the speaker "unnurs tan[s]" that the officer is required to take some disciplinary action because of an infraction of military protocol the speaker has committed. (The speaker never names this infraction, but he displays enough about himself to support some educated guesses.)

"oi / dough un give uh shid oi sez" (2–3) is the speaker’s forthright response to the bad news; more than uncontrite, he is defiant and perhaps still in the condition in which he committed the infraction. The officer addresses the speaker familiarly and, with reluctance, announces that he (the officer) must demote the speaker: "Tom / oidoughwuntuh doot,butoiguttuh / braikyooz,datswut eesez tuhmih" (3–5). But it is clear that Tom, querying "Nowoi askyuh / woodundat maik yurarstoin / green?" (5–7) and providing his own answer with "Oilsaisough," does not find the officer’s position sympathetic. At this point in his monologue, Tom has apparently gotten enough of his problem off his chest to pause and reflect or at least to stop thinking about his troubles.

The dash beginning "—Hool / spairruh luckih?   Thangzkeed.   Mairsee" is a pause where Tom perhaps checks his pockets and finds them empty, prompting him to ask (no one in particular) for a cigarette; the long spaces between "luckih," "Thangzkeed," and "Mairsee" are meaningful. I imagine a young man at the bar offers Tom a cigarette and lights it for him; Tom inhales, exhales, and then, relieved and grateful, thanks the young man. Then, in an unusual moment of insight and courtesy, realizing that the young man does not speak or understand English, Tom says "thank you" in French. (If this poem were a sonnet, the turn could occur in this momentary widening of vision on the speaker’s part.) Quickly reconsumed by his self-absorption, however, Tom immediately reverts to idiomatic Yankee military jargon ("Muh jax [my jack’s = my money’s] awl gawn"—absolutely unintelligible to the young man) as if to apologize for mooching the cigarette.

In the space between "gawn" and "Fur" (9), I believe it occurs to Tom that the bar is now quiet (a reaction to his boisterous monologue? Were people talking, was music playing when he entered?). Wishing to be entertained, to be distracted from his troubles, he asks in an irritating ("Fur Croi saik") way, "ainnoughbudih gutnutntuhplai?" (9–10), meaning, "How ’bout some music?"

In her exploration of the meaning of blank space in Cummings’ poetry, Rai Peterson has argued convincingly that ". . . Cummings’ work fills blank space with implicit meaning, audible silence, and the chaotic white noise of concurrent thoughts and actions" (55). Following Peterson’s prompt, I find the most meaningful and most visually conspicuous use of blank space in "oil tel duh woil doi sez" in the closing lines:

ainnoughbudih gutnutntuhplai?

yoozwidduhpoimnuntwaiv un duhyookuhsumpnruddur

Tom has, I imagine, noticed that a musical entertainer is present (in a small stage area across the room?), or perhaps just a woman sitting at a table with a ukulele. Apparently he has asked his question about the availability of music loudly enough that, as sometimes happens when one bar patron boisterously "takes the stage" and everyone else in the bar stops talking and stares at he-who-is-making-a-spectacle-of-himself, Tom finds himself surrounded by silence and stares. The combination of the horizontal space surrounding the capitalized interjection "HAI" (Hey! or Heeey!?) and the space (blank line) below conveys, I believe, the depth of that silence and those stares—uncomprehending silence and stares because, again, the other patrons in the bar do not understand English, thus Tom’s speech is as much aural gibberish to them as it is at first visual and verbal gibberish to us speakers and readers of English. More than a touch of the ugly American presents itself in Tom’s attention-getting "HAI" (I believe the capital letters here convey considerably increased volume—as if Tom is employing the old Yankee routine for solving communication problems with speakers of other languages: Talk a lot louder!).

Because Tom addresses a specific woman in the last two lines of the poem, it seems that his attention-getting strategy has been successful. Perhaps their eyes meet. He identifies her for himself according to her hairstyle ("yoozwidduhpoimnuntwaiv") and the musical instrument (with which he is not quite familiar enough to remember the precise name) she is in possession of ("un duhyookuhsumpnruddur") and "requests" that she play a song ("givusuhtoonunduhphugnting"). And there Tom’s monologue ends—in the uncomprehending white space of perhaps the ukulelist’s realizing what this fellow is requesting.

It is difficult to say in so many words all that I believe Cummings accomplishes in "oil tel duh woil doi sez," but several worthwhile possibilities exist. He renders American dialect in a manner as radical, honest, and accurate as Twain and Hemingway ever did. He creates a visual experience reminiscent of what speakers of one language hear when a speaker of another language’s words are unintelligible: the divisions between words do not occur where they are supposed to occur—answering the question "What does a speaker of English sound like to a speaker of another language?" Cummings presents a critical portrait of the rude, probably drunken, but certainly condescending and largely indifferent American—speaking and acting as if he is at the center of the world (in another country) and that everyone else lies at the periphery. And yet this portrait is not without a ray of hope: In the "Mairsee" that Tom, almost despite himself, manages to utter, he ever so briefly transcends his egocentrism and recognizes another human being.

Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, Aurora, Illinois

Works Cited

Editor's Appendix

"oil tel duh woil doi sez," transliterated into more-or-less standard English:

I'll tell the world I says
do you understand me as he's pulling his moustache,I
don't give a shit I says.  Tom
I don't want to do it, but I got to
break youse,that's what he says to me.  (Now I ask you
wouldn't that make your arse turn
green?  I'll say so.)—Who'll
spare a Lucky?  Thanks kid.  Merci.
My jack's all gone.  For Christ sake
ain'tnobody gotnothin'toplay?

yousewiththepermanentwave and theukeorsomethingorother


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