E.E. Cummings: The Power of Structure and Form
E.E. Cummings has set himself apart from other authors by using different types of structure to add interest and creativity into his poetry. He uses four different facets of form and structure which are: choppiness in sentence length, spacing and punctuation, overall poem length, and shape.
Cummings uses a certain choppiness in his line length to add impact to the thoughts and feelings of the characters he creates within his poetry. The reason he uses structure in this fashion is to give the reader insight into what the character in the poem is feeling. Even if the poem is just about a leaf, that leaf is still a character because he puts emotion into the leaf. He puts a story into each thing his poems pertain to. The way he does this adds an extra element. In most poetry the poem has its basic character, theme, and its description of a situation; The way Cummings chops up sentences adds feeling. “(Me up at does)” is a perfect example of this.
Each line is no more than four words long which gives the poem a choppy effect that portrays the speaker’s feelings about what he has just done. Even though no words in the poem outright state his feelings of guilt the message still comes through loud and clear because of the way in which it is written. Also, he doesn’t put in any unnecessary words at all; each word he puts in there is essential to the sentence and would be illiterate without it. Our brains make mandatory a certain amount of thought pertaining to each situation we are involved in; We can’t just block out everything even if we’d like to. The speaker is just giving the minimal thought to the situation that he cannot block out. That shows how he’s feeling and what is going through his head because in his mind he doesn’t want to fully acknowledge what he has done or give it the proper amount of thought because he feels guilty for his actions. The poem is broken up because his thoughts are broken up and uneven. Another poem that exemplifies how this type of structure works is called “(will you teach a…”,
This shows the speaker’s impatience. It shows a frustration and a lack of hope that what he is asking will ever be met. Often times, when one does have to re-ask something time and time again your mind does begins to feel like that poem; completely befuddled and unclear of anything other that just the annoyance in having to ask over and over again.
“if strangers meet” is a poem about two people that cross paths with no previous knowledge of each other whatsoever; only an arbitrary attraction that is not fully understood.
This poem shows the strangers interest in each other and through the uneven choppiness of the lines in the poem you can see into their minds; you can almost see their thoughts and the formation of their thoughts. Their thoughts are just like the form of the poem in the way that it is interesting and void of a certain rationality. However, to the characters of this poem, rationality is not their main objective, feeling is. Cumming’s has an incredible ability to make such uneven lines in his poem make sense and connect a feel to the reader. “carry your heart with me(I carry it in” illustrates this;
Because the lines are uneven and do not complete an entire thought it keeps you on edge. The first line in the second stanza ends in “fear”; nothing else, just the word “fear”. The line leaves you unsettled and makes you want to race to the next line in hope to learn more or to get some sense of closure. The next line just ends in the word “want”. You once again feel unsettled and need to continue on to find out what he wants. By structuring his poems in this way he is keeping the reader personally interested. “if i love you” is a poem about a man deeply in love that is also feeling love given to him from the one that he feels so deeply about.
By not making the lines into full, complete sentences you can almost see the character of the poem standing, proclaiming his love; choosing his words carefully and really thinking through what he is saying and the entirety of it. While the speaker is proclaiming his love he is not concerned with small things like if he’s using sentence fragments or if his grammar is correct; His only care is his message he is trying to get across. The way he structures lines in his poems is almost child-like in the sense that his creativity has not been dismorphed or diluted by social norms. For every profession there are norms and that includes poetry. The norm for poetry is not to have such odd structure; it’s to have in essence every line a complete thought and a comma at the end of each line. Cummings breaks through this and does not allow “regulation poetry” to be his norm. Very few topics of his poems are innocent but there is innocence in the ways in which they are written because of his structure. Cummings truly uses this avenue of structure to his advantage by giving the reader so much more than the ordinary.
Another way E.E. Cummings uses form is by using punctuation and spacing. He does this in a variety of ways that are very imaginative. This also create a new experience fore the reader. The way punctuation is used in “!blac” is particularly important because instead of serving a real practical purpose it serves as a visual interest.
The words and the concept of this poem are really very simple and without the way it is structured and the punctuation usage in it, it would create a feeling of calm. Without his influence of structure the poem would merely be, “Black against white sky”. There is a world of difference between that and the poem “!blac” that he wrote. By using structure creatively and using odd punctuation marks in places that they most certainly don’t belong in a grammatical sense it creates more of a feeling of disruption and chaos. The poem is given an opposite meaning without even changing a single word choice. If you were to fully analyze this poem without all of this added into it by Cummings it would be the absolute antithesis of what he has made it to be: interesting with a hit of mild chaos. “!blac” is the perfect example of how punctuation can take something so far. “Cummings never placed capitals or punctuation marks at random—there was always some point behind the deviancy” (Landles).
In "you said is" he uses capitalization to make a statement. He only capitalizes the words that he really wants to emphasize and have an impact on the meaning of the poem. He capitalizes the words “Looking” and “Nothing”, which are the base words of the poem. He doesn’t even capitalize the word “I” because although in grammatical terms, it is considered to be incorrect, there can be more thought put into it. Why capitalize the word “I”? It is not an important word to the poem; it therefore need not be emphasized. “Looking” and “Nothing” do need to be deemed emphasis. “Buffalo Bill” shows another use of form through the spacing of the letters and words, “and break onetwothreefourfive pigeons justlikethat”. Spacing is used in an amazing way here. Your mind reads the words and lines of this poem slowly until it gets to the part where the words are crammed together with no spacing. When you think about what the poem is talking about it makes sense that you should read that part quicker than the rest of it because it’s describing something that is happening very quickly. Before I read this poem I had never thought like this but while I was reading the poem I caught to it immediately. Your mind speeds the words up without even making a conscious decision to do so. "Using the white space within or between lines, Cummings is able to regulate the poem's tempo" (Landles). The overall length of the poem is another way that Cummings uses form in a unique way.
“You Said Is”
One of the things that make E.E. Cumming’s poetry so worthwhile is that it seems as though he’s saying so little but he’s really saying so much. Often times in literature it feels like authors drone on and on in an effort to make a point. Cummings has the ability to cut right to the poem and make a blunt impact. Another poem that shows this in almost an opposite way is his poem “(will you teach a…” This poem is thirty two lines long but it only has sixty one words. This is important because the poem is trying to convey the speaker’s frustrated feeling of asking somebody to do something over and over again. The poem feels so dragged out and long and is almost chaotic to read because of this, and that is exactly how the reader feels.
Cummings is well known for making his poems into visual masterpieces. “Poetry and visual art grew, in Cummings' mind…” (Kidder). The way he shapes some of his poems adds another whole dimension to them. “l)a” shows this quite well. “This haiku-like poem has been described as the "most delicately beautiful literary construct that Cummings ever created" (Landles). It almost feels as though you yourself are watching a leaf falling. The poem is uneven and vertical just in the way that a leaf falls slowly to the ground. An excerpt from the poem “i have found what you are like” shows this.
Through the way this poem was shaped your mind perceives an entirely different view of it. You feel like you can see the woods stutter and sing and you feel like you can almost even comprehend the idea of the woods stuttering and singing. Even though it is not describing a realistic occurrence you still feel like you can see it and it is real. Cummings really uses “visual thinking and brings into poetry the aesthetic principles of the painters” (Kidder). “a total stranger one black day” is an example of using shape in poetry that is symbolic but not completely on the surface;
Even though at first glance it there appears to have nothing unique about it’s shape whatsoever; if you look at it closely it does have a shape. The poem is shaped like a square block. The feel of this poem most definitely correlates with the block-like quality of the shape it as been formed in because it is about a man having an issue and dealing with it. There is very little sentimentality or sensitivity in the words of this poem; the poem is like a square block in this sense. His “concrete shapes express multidimensional perspectives” (Parekh).
It is E.E. Cummings’ intent with this poem is to create a mild state of confusion in the reader. It is not his intention for the reader to fully understand this poem or to be able to draw one direct conclusion by the end of this. This is not only shown through the words and topic of the poem, it is also shown through the way the poem looks. The poem is outright visually confusing. Your eyes are moving in different direction at different lengths just in reading it. The hidden underlying themes of this poem are expressed through this. He really brings “the excitement, the originality, the accuracy of vision, and the fun that poetry ought to supply” (Chinitz). Many poets write poetry and hope that their words and ideas set them apart from the work of all the other poets out there.
E.E. Cummings not only does this but he also adds an entirely new way of feeling into his poetry using form and structure. “Above all, Cummings is a playful poet, with every element of language and of poetic technique, from orthography to syntax to form, making the stuff of his play” (Chinitz). He plays with choppy lines, odd punctuation and spacing, length of entire poems, and shape. He truly has set him apart by really using the one thing that all poems ever put forth have in common: structure.
Chinitz, David. “Cumming’s Challenge to Academic Standards”. (1996). (accessed on February 23).
Landles, Iaian. “An Analysis of Two Poems by E.E.Cummings”. (2001). (accessed on March 1).
Parekh, Pushp. “NATURE IN THE POETRY OF E. E. CUMMINGS” (1994). (accessed on February 27).
Rushworth M. Kidder, in his E. E. Cummings: An Introduction to the Poetry, Columbia University Press, 1979, 275 p. Reproduced by permission. (accessed on March 2).