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E.E. Cummings' Free Verse Poetry: Analysis

E.E. Cummings' Free Verse Poetry: Analysis
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  • 0:06 e.e. cummings and Free Verse
  • 1:02 Poem: 'Buffalo Bill's/Defunct'
  • 3:27 Poem: '9'
  • 5:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Edward Estlin Cummings, or E.E. Cummings as he was better known, was a modernist poet who wrote poems in a new and innovative style. Read on to find out more about him and analyze two of his famous poems.

E.E. Cummings and Free Verse

E.E. Cummings used free verse and unique page layouts to express his ideas.
e e cummings Picture

Edward Estlin Cummings, better known as E.E. Cummings, was an innovative modernist poet from the 20th century. The thing that set E.E. Cummings apart from other people was the way he wrote. While other modernists explored similar themes, E.E. Cummings expressed those themes in new ways.

As we've seen, traditional poetry had a specific rhyme and meter. Many of the modernists did away with rhyme and meter, instead choosing to write in free verse. Not only did E.E. Cummings use free verse, he introduced a highly visual style to his poetry. The way the poetry was laid out on the paper was important, as was the unusual way he used punctuation and capitalization. Anyone who's ever read an E.E. Cummings poem can tell you that his poetry doesn't look like anyone else's!

Let's look at two famous poems by E.E. Cummings and the techniques he uses to get his point across.

Buffalo Bill's/Defunct

One of the most famous E.E. Cummings poems is called 'Buffalo Bill's/defunct,' named after the first lines of the poem. Let's read the poem, and then we'll discuss it.

The page layout in the poem reflects the stages of life.
Page Layout Buffalo Bills Defunct

Confused? Don't be alarmed. The first time people read an E.E. Cummings poem, they are often not sure what the poem is about. But this poem tells us what it's about in the first two lines: 'Buffalo Bill's/defunct.' Something that is defunct is dead. This poem, then, is about Buffalo Bill being dead.

Buffalo Bill Cody was a figure in the American West. He had many jobs in the Wild West, but became famous when he started a 'Wild West' show at the end of the 19th century. In the show, Buffalo Bill and other performers rode horses and showed their marksmanship by shooting clay pigeons in the air. He was seen as full of life and vitality.

E.E. Cummings describes Buffalo Bill's feats in his show: riding a 'watersmooth-silver/stallion,' and breaking clay 'pigeonsjustlikethat.' He also describes him as a 'handsome man.' In short, cummings is pointing out to us that Buffalo Bill is a symbol of all the things that we want to be: handsome, accomplished, full of life. By talking about his death, cummings is commenting on how even the most talented and beautiful people have to die. This is reinforced in the eerie last lines, 'how do you like your blueeyed boy/Mister Death.'

Notice the way the poem is spread out on the page. The pattern made by the end of the lines looks kind of like a sideways mountain. It's as if Buffalo Bill's life is laid out: short lines at the beginning for his youth, then the lines that stretch all the way to the right side of the page at the peak of his life, followed by the short lines against the left side of the paper to represent his death. In this way, E.E. Cummings is commenting on how death is like a return to birth.

There's a lot involved in that one little poem! Let's look at another one of E.E. Cummings' poems.

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