“i was sitting in mcsorley’s” is a painterly poem that embodies cummings’s idea of what he called “unrealism.” Like so many artists and writers at the beginning of the twentieth century, Cummings wanted to make his writing modern. Writing modern poetry meant to “make it new,” as Ezra Pound said. This involved challenging the status quo, which at the beginning of the twentieth century was realism and its offshoots. Realism, a literary movement rooted in the nineteenth century, uses the everyday world as its subject matter. Practitioners of literary realism considered language a tool to show readers the world as it was rather than how it should be. Realistic writing often had a reportorial feel to it. At the beginning of the twentieth century, novelists such as Virginia Woolfe, James Joyce, John Dos Passos, and others challenged this way of representing reality. In poetry, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and H. D. were similarly challenging the status quo, writing verse freed from the confines of formal diction and meter and composing a poetry in speech patterns, dense with images, whose aim was to show that the world wasn’t necessarily what people thought that it was. Cummings was part of this modern movement. Claiming that the prism, not the mirror, was the symbol of all art, cummings wrote in his unpublished notebook, which can be found at the Houghton Library, that “the goal is unrealism. The method is destructive. To break up the white light of objective realism, into the secret glories which it contains.” The poem “i was sitting in mcsorley’s” demonstrates the practice of cummings’s unrealism in action. Ostensibly a portrait of the inside of a famous saloon in lower Manhattan, the poem doesn’t show readers what the bar looks like, but rather it evokes in them a sense of the bar’s complex atmosphere. Whereas realism by its very nature is selective, showing this and not that, cummings’s unrealism is just the opposite, attempting to show everything at once. To accomplish this, cummings developed a method that struck at the very heart of realism’s assumption about language. When light passes through a prism it is dispersed into a number of wavelengths that the human eye experiences as colors. Cummings wants to do the same thing to language and, hence, readers’ experience. He is describing the scene at Mc- Sorley’s as if he were looking at it through a prism. However, instead of colors, images are dispersed. This dispersal literally destroys the linearity of cummings’s sentences, the order in which he presents the images. But it creates a sense of movement and immediacy, so that readers can see and experience images and incidents simultaneously. An examination of the poem’s third stanza will illustrate this method:
the Bar.tinking luscious jigs dint of ripe silver with warmlyish wetflat splurging smells waltz the glush of squirting taps plus slush of foam knocked off and a faint piddle-of-drops she says I ploc spittle what the lands thaz me kid in no sir hopping sawdust you kiddo he’s a palping wreaths of badly Yep cigars who jim him why gluey grins topple to gether eyes pout...
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At first glance, e. e. cummings’s poem “i was sitting in mcsorley’s barely seems to be a poem at all. Arranged not in stanzas and lines like most poems, but in paragraphs like a prose passage, the poem further baffles many readers with its bizarre spelling and punctuation. Much of the poem seems to be an incomprehensible run-on sentence, the words following one another with no apparent logic. Once a reader puts aside his or her expectations of what a poem should look like, however, “i was sitting in mcsorley’s” is revealed to be not only a deeply poetic piece of writing but a poem with a strong connection to the rest of cummings’s work.
Throughout his long career in American poetry, cummings was know for his unorthodox style of punctuation, capitalization, and spelling. He would often leave the first letter of a line in one of his poems uncapitalized, while capitalizing a word in the middle of the line. Words would run into each other or be separated by long spaces. Lines would break in unexpected places. Cummings used these methods to bring a freshness and sense of excitement to his poems. By using such novel arrangements of his text, he also created new stresses and tensions in his poetry that would have been impossible to achieve using ordinary arrangements of words. In this way, he was following the lead of the American poet Walt Whitman, whose long lines managed to capture the exuberant rush produced by saying each line in a single deep breath.
Both poets ran words together, either to express two related ideas in a single image (such as the “wetflat” smells in line 9) or, using the technique known as juxtaposition, to force unrelated ideas together to create a fresh, new image. Cummings’s unique typography also serves to make not only the individual words but the poem itself more than just words on a page. His poems become carefully arranged word pictures. In this way, he followed the lead of the founder of the imagist school, American poet Ezra Pound, who felt that each word in a poem must be like a Chinese pictogram, containing a concrete image as well as an abstract meaning.
In the case of “i was sitting in mcsorley’s,” cummings arranges the poem like a prose passage, with paragraphs instead of stanzas. This type of a poem is known as a prose poem. A famous example of this type of poetry is the collection of prose poems by the French poet Charles Baudelaire, Paris Spleen. Cummings’s “i was sitting in mcsorley’s” shares with Paris Spleen a vision of discontent, of an ugly human world into which something ugly frequently intrudes. At the same time, “i was sitting in mcsorley’s” plays on two of cummings’s most frequent themes: the relation between the human and the natural world, and the need and desire for love.
The first two paragraphs of the poem immediately describe the first of these themes. The poet is sitting inside McSorley’s Saloon in Greenwich Village, New York City. Outside it is “beautifully snowing,” (line 2) but inside it is “snug and evil” (line 3). The second paragraph is a sort of verbal collage of various impressions of the interior of the bar, mostly consisting of visual images, all thrown together seemingly at random. Cummings’s technique here serves to convey the fragmented way one would hear and see things if he or she were sitting inside the bar.
The third paragraph continues in this mode, including in its collage effect snippets of the conversations that fill the air inside McSorley’s. What is most notable in this paragraph and the one before it is the palpable sense of decay that fills the inside of the bar. The imagery is full of words that sound somehow disgusting: gobs, spittle, piddle, skulch. These and the various bits of conversation related in this paragraph help to...
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