Believe it or not, I don’t think I’ve eve read an Edward Estlin Cummings poem, aka, e.e. cummings or ee cummings poem. The poet, born in Cambridge, Massachusetts toward the end of the 19th century, broke all convention and form when it came to poetry to create a “distinct personal style,” according to the Poetry Foundation.
To use one of my favorite words, his poems were avant-garde and experimental, sometimes only having a meaning he would know because he assigned “his own private meanings to words.” These descriptions of e.e. cummings’ writing reminds me of Gertrude Stein (who, according to Wikipedia, influenced him, so I’m not too far off base comparing the two), another formidable, towering literary figure around the same time period. For instance, her story, part of the book Three Lives, “The Good Anna,” and Tender Buttons were difficult reads for high school me because of her stream of consciousness writing and rather opaque meaning.
Still, a lot of cummings’ work was also within the conventional bounds. I would argue the poem today, “next to of course god america i,” is a bit of both. That is, it looks familiar as a traditional poem, as there’s even a rhyming scheme, but it has some flourishes that aren’t, including the title itself.
Here is the poem in full:
“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
To start, there’s a certain level of flippancy to it, “love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth,” like we all know the pillars of the patriotic rhetoric. But also, now that I’ve drawn that connection, I can’t read this poem without thinking of Stein and her stream of consciousness because it really does read like a stream of consciousness and further proof of this is that the entire poem, sans the final line, is within quotations, as if being being spoken aloud.
cummings was a noted pacifist, and he starts to get toward that with the rather fun linguistic line, “thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry (an archaic way of saying God) by jingo (war) by gee by gosh by gum (another rather archaic way of adding emphasis, similar to by gosh).” Taken together, it makes me just think of another phrase nobody uses anymore, by golly gee willikers, of course you salute and die, go do it, why not? That’s how you claim the glory. Or at least, that’s how they tell you to claim the glory. Speaking of which, one has to appreciate the phrase “happy dead.” Because they’re dead, so of course you can claim they’re happy about what they did. They can’t contradict you.
And the most controversial, if you want to call it that, is the end that these people rushed like “lions to the roaring slaughter,” more like blind cattle to slaughter, and never stopped to question, “Why? Will liberty really be muted if I don’t do this?” Questioning whether people died in vain or not is one of the most taboo questions to raise.
Finally, the last line, it returns to a curt, “He spoke.” That indicates to me the speaker knows what they spoke was rather uncouth, but I’m not sure what to make of “And drank rapidly a glass of water.” Is he cleansing his palette after saying something he knows will be controversial? Or, perhaps I’ve interpreted it differently, and is it the case that the speaker in question is a politician giving his jingoistic speech about rah-rah America, and this is e.e. cummings’ way of mocking such a speech for how silly it is and seems to him? That, so long as the speaker gives a passing nod (the flippancy I mentioned) to the patriotic symbols we all recognize, the dutiful types will go rushing off to slaughter and become the happy dead?
Granted, this poem hits my priors on pacifism, but it certainly seems like a pacifist creed, and so I appreciate it on that level. I also think the stream of consciousness and sort of flippancy I described at the beginning works for the vibe it’s going for here. To think of myself, I also thought of my own “version” of this poem I wrote years ago, so I wasn’t actually influenced by this poem or anything, but reading this one now made me think of my own, “god bless america.”
I should also note, as perhaps a bit of irony or maybe befitting background noise depending on how you look at it, I was listening to the greatest rendition of, “America the Beautiful,” ever while working on this post:
What do you make of this poem and cummings’ style?