Cummings first published “i was sitting in mcsorley’s” in his collection Tulips & Chimneys, which appeared in 1923. It has also been anthologized in The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. Different versions of the poem have been printed over time.
The poem is set in McSorley’s Ale House, where cummings frequently drank. It is a New York City saloon on East Seventh between Second and Third Avenues. Known as a favorite haunt of bohemians and artists, McSorley’s opened in 1854, and both Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy are said to have visited the saloon. In the poem, the speaker, alternately meditative and descriptive, depicts his experience inside the saloon in typical cummings fashion, using nouns as verbs and vice versa, coining portmanteau words (words whose form and meaning are derived from a blending of two or more distinct forms), twisting syntax, and fragmenting words. The poem visually resembles prose, with its division into twelve paragraph-like sections.
Like many of the other poems in Tulips & Chimneys, “i was sitting in mcsorley’s” embodies the opposition between the organic, natural world, and human society, what cummings refers to as “manunkind.” Cummings’s description of the bar is thick with sensuous and concrete images and effectively conjures the feel, smell, and sight of a saloon. The descriptions themselves also mimic the often sloppy way the brain processes perceptions and produces language when affected by alcohol. Cummings’s love for the city and his revulsion of humanity are both evident here.
The first stanza of “i was sitting in mcsorley’s” introduces the setting of the poem and one of its themes: the distinction between the inside and outside worlds. These worlds are literally the inside and outside world of the bar and the city, but they are also the inside world of reflection—focusing on self and the outside world of perception—focusing on others.
The speaker describes the saloon and its “slobbering walls” as “snug and evil.” This seeming contradiction highlights the simultaneous attraction and repulsion the speaker holds for the place. Cummings’s trademark disregard for conventional grammar and syntax are effective here, as they help to depict a bustling, chaotic, and dirty atmosphere that is nonetheless comfortable. Adjective and adverbs such as “slobbering,” filthily,” “pompous,” and “witless” all contribute to this description.
This stanza, the longest of the poem, mixes bits of dialogue into its description of the sights and sounds of the bar. “Kiddo,” “Yep,” and “no sir” are all words or phrases that one might expect to hear in a bar, especially in exchanges between bartender and customer. The filmic equivalent to this stanza would be a scene from a Robert Altman film, in which simultaneous dialogues are captured. The overlapping of sight, sound, and smell give the description immediacy and highlight the many individual dramas being played out in the bar. Phrases such as “a faint piddle-of-drops” also gives cummings’s description an onomatopoeic quality, as the sound of the words mimic the action depicted.
Cummings frequently breaks words in unexpected places. The first word of this stanza is “steps,” finishing the word “footsteps,” which ends the previous stanza. Using run-on lines in this manner emphasizes the seamlessness of the speaker’s perception and the relentless quality of existence itself. By stringing together his perceptions and thoughts as they happen, the speaker functions as a kind of multisensory recording device. The description in this stanza suggests an older man (“old feller”) who has had too much to drink, ordering “summore.”
(The entire section is 925 words.)