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The poem by e. e. cummings that begins “the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls” might be considered an example of literary modernism for a number of reasons, including the following:
- The poem breaks conventional rules of capitalization, as in the lack of capitalization of the very first word.
- The poem also breaks conventional rules of punctuation, as in the lack of a space following the comma in the following phrase: “daughters,unscented.”
- The poem experiments with unusual phrasing. Thus, rather than simply calling the ladies “ugly,” the speaker uses a fairly uncommon and much more ambiguous term (“unbeautiful”).
- The poems breaks normal rules of syntax or sentence structure, so that it is often difficult to know for certain when one complete thought has ended and when another one has begun (as at the end of line 4).
- The poem implicitly satirizes a poet (Longfellow) who typifies pre-modern, Victorian writing.
- The poem challenges conventional ideas, as when it refers to Christ as dead (rather than as “risen” or “resurrected”).
- The poem lacks any kind of conventional use of meter, rhyme, or stanzaic structure.
- The poem uses phrasing that is highly unconventional and totally unpredictable, as in its final two words, when the speaker describes how the
moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy [emphasis added]
Modernist poets (and, indeed, modern artists in general) often tried to “make it new” (to quote a famous phrase from another modernist poet, Ezra Pound). They wanted to write in ways that were non-traditional, both in form and often in meaning. They wanted to challenge the comfortable assumptions of their readers, both in terms of style and (often) in terms of content. They wanted to breathe new life into the language, in the process thereby also displaying their own wit and inventiveness as well as (often) their contempt for the staid, allegedly boring tastes of the middle and upper classes. cummings (who often spelled even his own name unconventionally) sets about achieving all these goals in his poem about the Cambridge ladies. The poem is a piece of modernist satire, and there is a sense in which much modern art was a kind of satire on the culture of its era.
Modernist artists wanted their works to seem vital and stimulating. They wanted their works to force audiences to think rather than relying on lazy, conventional responses. They were not afraid to upset their audiences or make them angry, and in fact they often wanted to do precisely that. Modernist writers were often less concerned with producing works that were conventionally “beautiful” than with producing works that would unsettle and stimulate their readers, often in uncomfortable ways. Modernist poetry often calls great attention to the formal aspects of poetry, often by rejecting standard forms. Each modernist poem is, in a sense, unique in shape and structure, and certainly this is true of cummings’ poem about the Cambridge ladies.
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