This poem, by e e cummings, is in the new AQA anthology – and it will probably fox a lot of people. So… what do you need to know?
The most noticeable thing about e e cummings’ poetry is that it is non-conformist. This poem is perhaps less non-conformist, structurally, than many of his other poems. Forget anything about saying what it looks like – which many teachers seem to rely on when talking about form and structure – and think of two things:
1. e e cummings is a rule-breaker with a very distinct personal style. As soon as you see lack of capitals, odd punctuation and strange layouts, e e cummings is probably hot favourite to be the writer. Much of what he writes is covered with his writing ‘fingerprints’ that make it as distinct and unique as a real-life fingerprint.
2. The most important thing is you ask yourself: why? Why does he write like this? Why has he chosen not to capitalise this word, or capitalise another? Why does he want to break with ‘traditions’
3. Then ask yourself what it is about the way he’s set it out that helps add meaning to what he writes. What does it tell us?
If you want to think about the structure of e e cummings’ poems, take all the line breaks out of them, see where you would want to put them and think about why.
Why do poets use line breaks?
- For a long time, line breaks didn’t exist. In copied writing, for a long time, sometimes up to the time of the printing press, most of the words ran into one another with no spacing at all, and no paragraphs. ‘Poets’ who wrote Icelandic sagas, Beowulf and so on, didn’t use the features we now associate with poetry. Line breaks came much later on, and for a period of time – 400 years or so – were fairly standard.
- Ask a five-year old what a poem looks like or to identify what’s a poem, and they will pick things that usually have verses – and always four lines in a verse! – and rhyme. If you read these, you will find they often have a regular pattern of syllables too. This is fairly standard.
So, if you look at the first verse of another anthology poem, London by William Blake, it matches with what we’d expect. Four lines per verse. Capitals at the beginning of the line. Rhymes at the end. A clear pattern of stressed syllables (the ones you emphasise)
I wander thro each charter’d street ,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
So we have 8 syllables in most lines except the last in the verse. It rhymes alternately. It looks pretty much how you’d expect a poem to look. It has that dee-DUM dee-DUM dee-DUM dee-DUM pattern that makes it easy to read. Each line makes sense on its own. The verse is like a complete sentence, with commas adding a pause and coming at the end of each line. Perhaps the regulation of this poem has something to do with the regulation and restriction Blake finds in the city. But mainly, it’s how poems were written.
So… poets gave us line breaks to make it easy to read (and memorise – remember a lot of poetry came from the ‘troubadour’ tradition – wandering entertainers who would go round telling stories and long poems) and it’s instantly recognisable.
And then we get the first line of e e cummings’ poem:
“next to of course god america i”
which immediately makes us stumble over our words. Next to, of course, God, America… that’s fine. That works. It’s a complete bit of sense. But the ‘i’ tacked on at the end? It really wants to go on the beginning of the next line, or at least have something coming after it. Especially when we realise it’s ‘I love you land of the pilgrims’ – which all goes together. That i is out of place, it seems. It’s not in its most natural position. And it’s a ‘i’ not an I, and although we live in a world of instant messaging and SMS, ‘i’ begs to be capitalised. Traditionally.
So, you’d want to write (or say)
Next to, of course, God, America
I love the 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 deaf and dumb.
Thy sons acclaim thy glorious name.
And so on. And if you compare where you want to put the breaks with where cummings put the breaks, they’re very different.
Yet, when you look at the poem as a whole, it is remarkable for several things:
- Firstly, it rhymes. All the way through. He had to chop ‘beautiful’ into two to get ‘beaut’ to rhyme with ‘mute’, but it rhymes.
- It has 14 lines. It’s actually a sonnet – that poem sometimes of love – always of contemplation and marshaling of complex ideas into a neat little box.
- It has a fairly regular syllabic pattern, with most lines having 10 syllables.
But when you try to look for a dee-DUM dee-DUM rhythm, there isn’t one. And the enjambment – sometimes of words like ‘beaut-iful’ also makes it really hard to find the natural rhythm of the poem. Plus, there are no marked pauses, so you don’t know where to stop and have a breath – which makes it a nightmare to read aloud. Try it!
So… first big question:
Why of all the poetry forms he could pick from, did he choose a sonnet?
Superficially, you might want to settle for ‘it’s a love poem for America’.
The first mark on the page is a ” – the beginning of someone’s speech. Not the poet’s. Secondly, when you read the poem and look at the content, you get bits of things that make it sound like a poem of appreciation for America, but then a whole lot more that doesn’t. Personally, I think the sonnet form is a pithy little box to put this in. It’s as fake to e e cummings as the cheesy sonnets Shakespeare read and then criticised for their fake sentiment. He’s perhaps doing what Shakespeare did – using a sonnet form to mess with you – to make you think it will be full of fake sentiment – and actually, if you read it, it is!
Incidentally, if you google ‘is ‘next to of course god america i’ the first wiki-answers says it’s not a sonnet because it doesn’t have 10 syllables. Wrong!
Of course it’s a sonnet. And not all of the sonnets have 10 syllables. Some have 9; some have 12. Petrarch, the father of the sonnet, had 12. Don’t believe everything you read!
When you read it, you’ll get the feeling a lot of this isn’t actually the words of whoever is speaking. They’re bits of other things. You have a bit of the Star-spangled Banner – ‘Oh say can you see by the dawn’s early light’ – the first verse of which ends patriotically with ‘The land of the free and the home of the brave’ – which kind of sums up the jingoistic patriotism most anthems pick up on. And you have bits that are kind of like other things, mentioning pilgrims, using archaic language like ’tis and ‘acclaim your glorious name’.
So, what’s the point of a national anthem? You’re supposed to feel all proud, patriotic and pumped-up. It’s what you hear before a battle cry to win a sports match. It’s the kind of tune that makes old soldiers get teary-eyed with sentiment. If you don’t believe me, watch the singing before the Superbowl, or the singing before the six nations rugby matches (not the anthem before England playing football. They’ve got as much national pride as a slug has for a lettuce)
But these words are not the poet’s words. They’re not even really the words of the speaker. They’re just rehashed phrases in kind of a jumble, without any real sentiment behind them. It reminds me a lot of the kind of jingoism that poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon rebelled against in their poetry, egging men on to sign up and fight in wars. Wilfred Owen’s poem that ends ‘Dulce et Decorum est Pro Patria Mori’ – it is sweet and proper to die for one’s country’ – is essentially doing the same thing as this: saying how thin and pointless these patriotic words are. How lacking in real sentiment or value.
What makes the link between this and a poem about the pointlessness of war?
The fact that e e cummings refers to ‘the heroic happy dead’ as if by dying a hero for your country makes you happy. He calls these corpses ‘beautiful’ – as if you become something amazing by dying for your country. Much of the poetry of the First World War dispels this myth – saying it is not dignified or noble or beautiful to be killed in battle – and the only people saying so are those who have no chance of dying in battle themselves!
He also says they ‘rush like lions to the roaring slaughter’… usually, the cliché is ‘lambs to the slaughter’ – not in this case. He calls them ‘lions’. It’s silly – because lion or lamb, they’re still ‘slaughtered’.
“They did not stop to think” kind of echoes ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ – also in the anthology – which says ‘theirs not to make reply/ theirs not to reason why/ theirs but to do and die’ – the kind of men who go blindly into battle. But where The Charge of the Light Brigade celebrates battle, this, like Owen’s poems, focuses on the pointlessness of it.
So… what seems on the surface to be a sonnet glorifying America, patriotism and jingoism is actually nothing more than the hollow regurgitation of words – once by the speaker and once by e e cummings. You can pretty war up as much as you like, swathing it in patriotism and liberty and equality, but at the heart of it, you have ‘lions’ running into a ‘roaring slaughter’ – not a pretty image – just pointless, senseless death.
e e cummings is one of the more interesting poets you can write about – his work is open to interpretation and clever analysis because it works on so many levels and there’s such a lot to say about it. Yes, it’s hard to make sense of, but there’s so much to write about that it’s much more meaty than many of the other poems which teachers have taught over and over again. If you want something to compare this to, think ‘futility’ by Wilfred Owen, another non-conformist sonnet – or ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ – and if you are looking for a soundtrack, think ‘Born in the USA’ by Springsteen. This poem has more in common with Apocalypse Now! and Platoon about how life is lost senselessly in battles allegedly about freedom.
If you want to read more about the AQA poetry anthology contemporary poetry, you can find my ebook here. If you want to read more about the Literary Heritage poems, including ‘Next to of course god america i’, you can find my AQA Literary Heritage poetry analysis here. Remember, you don’t need a kindle or e-reader to read it; just download the ‘Kindle for PC’ software. If you want an hour’s lesson with me (or even half an hour!) you can find all my details on my website. One hour via skype is £10.00 only! By the end, I promise you will OWN the poems!!