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E. E Cummings And His Individuality Essay, Research Paper

Olufunmi Awonuga

E.E. Cummings is an especially intriguing poet. At first glance his poems look unintelligible, you could almost go as far as saying that they look almost as if the were arranged by a man in a drunken state. Over the years people have grown to expect a poem to be set out in a certain format. When we think of a poem we often think of words set out in a column like manner or the words: Rhyme scheme. We hardly deviate from this form when writing. We have accepted the fact that poetry is what we ve been taught it is meant to be. In one of his lectures at Harvard Cummings said that poetry and every other art was, is, and forever will be strictly and distinctly a question of individuality (Cummings). Cummings s work challenges or rallies against mass thought, and group conformity and struggles to replace these empty ideals with this notion of individuality.

One example of Cummings s individuality is his poetic style. He antagonized the English language using it in new and sometimes seemingly awkward ways. He experimented with the pictorial possibilities of poetic lineation. Often Cummings work is set out in a shape that has nothing to do with rhyme or meter but a reflection on its poetic thought. Often Cummings s work is riddled with out of order syllables, syntax, letter and punctuation marks. Cummings often misspelled words and even invented new ones. He rarely even used capital letters, when he did they were not used in the conventional manner. His poetic technique was a direct consequence of his point of view- that of an enemy of restriction and regimentation (Riley 69). Cummings was an individual, using his own unique style; he wrote his poetry how he thought it should be written. Cummings s poetry shows no restrictions, he was as bold with language as a painter is with color.

Cummings exploited the pictorial possibilities of poetic lineation (Ketterer 153) using the look of the poems and the individual lines in varied ways. His poetry contained a wild variety of poetic rhythms lines that crept, leaped, staggered, paced proudly or flowed smoothly (Riley 69). The way he set out his lines affected the way that you would read them. In Cummings s world poetic lineation was used as a type of punctuation. For example in XLI Poems, I there is a poem that looks like smoke puffing out of a locomotive:

the

sky

was

can dy lu

minous (Cummings).

One cannot help but reading the words The , Sky , and was separately and at an altered speed than they would have been read if this was written:

the sky was

The separation of the word candy luminous also affects the way that it is read, stresses are marked out by the separation; each part of the word is read differently. This is an example of the individuality that Cummings tried to portray with his poetry. The meaning of words can be changed by the way that they are read. His virtuosity was directed to capture in words what the painter captured on canvas (Unger 433). He wanted to have the full feeling of his work put across not just by how the words sounded but how they looked as well. Cummings was very much aware of this in his writing.

Another thing that Cummings did that shows his individuality as a poet was that he created new words. One way he did this was by misspelling words. Another way he did this was by using already existing words and joining them to new affixes. In his compound words his prefixes are similar enough but the use of suffixes like ly, -ish, -ful and adverbs (such as less) in unexpected combinations produces in English an intensifying of perception (432). Making you look at the words in a different manner than you normally do. Introduce one or two of these words riverly, nowly, downwardsly, birdfully, witchfull, girlest, skylesness, onlying, laughterring, etc and the reader has to explore the possibilities of the meaning of the words in a creative way. He created his own individual language. He made new words that put across the exact action or picture that he wanted to describe. He also often used one part of speech where another should have been used, as in the first line of an poem from And, spring is like a perhaps hand. I n this line he uses an adverb (perhaps) when an adjective (possibly open) is expected, this manages to emphasize the tentative nature of spring.

The dictionary didn t limit him and he did not conform to the way words quote unquote should be used, he was never content to rest easily within inherited conventions (Friedman 154).

Cummings used punctuation in an unconventional manner; a comer may be used where a full stop is expected, within a poem or at the end of it. Some poems he wrote with little or no punctuation for example XLIII, XLV, and L. Sometimes he used commas, colons, and semicolons within a word mostly to arouse new sensations and intuitions (Unger 431). In Number 48 in 73 poems the word thrushes is divided into t,r;u;s,h;e:s so that the reader can see with the poet the thrushes gripping a branch separately in a line.

To focus the readers attention he used capital letters, he would place them anywhere in his poems: in the beginning of words, middle, end or simply placed sporadically in them. In the opening poem of No Thanks capitals are placed to emphasize the roundness of the moon. At the beginning of the poem the only letter that is capitalized is the o whereas in the second half of the poem the only word that is not capitalized is the letter o . This contrast further emphasizes the letter o in this poem.

Another example of Cummings s individuality or struggle to renew the idea of the individual is the actual meaning of a number of poems. Although in most cases it is not correct to assume that everything written by an author of a book as with a poet is his opinion. You normally have to assume in poetry that the author has created a persona, the narrator, through which he tells a story or relinquishes a thought. With this in mind as I read E.E Cummings s poetry I noticed the same opinion coming over and over again. The Narrator in a lot of his poems continually repeated ideas about individuality and ideas against mass thought and group conformity. Cummings himself said:

“To be nobody-but-myself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make me everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting” (E.E. Cummings).

I think that it is safe to assume that Cummings s poetry challenging mass thought and group conformity is actually putting across his view. Cummings uses this poetry to replace these empty ideals with this notion of individuality.

In the Poem 18 from the New Poems Cummings is attempting to say to his readers in the beginning of the poem that he s daring them to become and individual.:

ecco a letter starting dearest we

unsigned: remarkably brief but covering

one complete miracle of nearest far

I cordially invite me to become

noone except yourselves r s v p (Cummings).

He begins the poem with saying that the letter should be addressed dearest we , the dearest implies that it is one person but when followed by the we makes you think about it deeply. We is usually used when addressing the thoughts of more than one person. I think Cummings is trying to put across the idea that me had become we of if you use proper grammar I has become we and me has become we .He places r s v p at the end of the phrase I cordially invite me to become noone except yourselves r s v p . He s using it in an unusual manner. r s v p means (responde sil vous plait) reply please , it is generally used at the end of invitations meaning reply and tell us if your coming or not etc. It is my opinion that when he uses it he still means reply please but he means it in the sense of: respond to what I m asking you, do something about it, try and make me into yourselves .

In this poem he s challenging group thought. And challenges the reader to become an individual and to react or act as the case may be to what he is saying.

In poem 28 from the New Poems Cummings outright says that there are very few individuals left today:

there are possibly 2 + or impossibly 3

individuals every fat

thousand years. Expecting more would be

neither fantastic nor pathological but

dumb. (Cummings)

.

He makes a point of saying that there are only 2 + and it is impossible that there are 3 individuals every thousand years. That s a very small amount of individuals in a vast amount of time. He goes as far as saying that to expect more than that is worse than pathological. Cummings goes on to call civilization the most distorting thing that has happened to mankind. He says that:

all mankind something more small occurs

or something more distorting than so called

civilization I ll kiss a Stalinist arse

in hitler s window on Wednesday next at I

E.S.T. bring the kiddies let s all have fun (Cummings)

He is so sure that nothing more distorting can happen to mankind than civilization that he ll kiss a Stalinist arse in hitlers window ; he gives an exact day and time also. Civilization is an example of group conformity, which I think he considers distorting to mankind as an individual.

In another very short four-lined poem XI from the 1×1 he talks about a mr who will not be missed because he wasn t a promoter of the individualism that Cummings so pasionatley promoted. The poem is:

mr u will not be missed

who as an anthologist

sold the many on the few

not excluding mr u

The mr was an anthologist who sold the many on the few . I believe he s saying the reason mr won t be missed is since he promoted groups of things over one thing i.e. mass thought over individualism. Cummings is saying that it is for this reason he will not be missed.

Cummings believed that poetry and every other art was, is, and forever will be strictly and distinctly a question of individuality (Cummings). Cummings s work challenges mass thought, and group conformity and struggles to replace these empty ideals with this notion of individuality.

Bibliography

Primary sources

Cummings,Edward E., Poems 1923-1954 : The first complete edition

New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, INC, 1968

Cummings,Edward E., 100 Selected Poems by E. E. Cummings

n.p.: Grove Press, 1989

Secondary sources

Riley, C., ed. Contemporary literary criticism: volume1

Detroit Michigan: Gale Research Company, 1973

Friedman, Norman. Contemporary literary criticism: volume15

Ed. Sharon R. Gunton and Laurie Lanzen Haris

Detroit Michigan: Gale Research Company, 1980

Unger, Leonard., ed. American Writers: Volume 1

University of Minnesota: Charles Scribner s SONS, 1972

Ketterer, David. The Explicator. Washington; 55 (spring 1997): 152-154


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