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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

E. E. Cummings’s short poem “Buffalo Bill ’s,” first published in 1923, is one of the author’s most straightforward in terms of meaning. While it maintains many of the language features typical of E. E. Cummings’s poetry, such as the rejection of standard capitalization and the use of unusual punctuation, the sentences are, for the most part, understandable: we do not have to think too hard as readers to understand what is going on or see what Cummings is trying to convey.

It is, however, important to know who Buffalo Bill is in order to grasp the meaning of the poem. Born William Frederick Cody in 1846, Buffalo Bill, as he came to be known, was one of the most famous figures of the American Old West. He performed in Western-themed shows and eventually toured with his own highly successful company, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, which employed other such famous figures as Lakota leader Sitting Bull and sharpshooter Annie Oakley. The show was akin to a circus, and performances included reenactments of incidents from the Indian Wars (in which Buffalo Bill had fought) and other frontier battles between cowboys and Indigenous people. Buffalo Bill died in 1917, and his death is the main concern of Cummings’s short poem.

Cummings uses spacing to create a visually arresting image on the page with his poem, which is written in free verse. The lines vary from very short (in some cases a single word) to very long—notably in the sixth line, where the words are all run together, emphasizing the stretch of the line.

The poem uses caesura in interesting ways. The title, “Buffalo Bill ’s,” is ambiguous: firstly, the spacing is unusual, and secondly, it isn’t immediately clear whether this is an apostrophe of possession or one of omission—is this something belonging to Buffalo Bill, or something that Buffalo Bill is?

In the body of the poem itself, Cummings explains that Buffalo Bill is “defunct.” This is an interesting word choice, too; he does not say that Buffalo Bill, the great Western hero of legend, is dead, but rather that he is “defunct.” Cummings goes on to describe Buffalo Bill in legendary terms, referring to his capacity to ride horses, like his own “watersmooth-silver / stallion,” and his skill with guns, through which he could kill multiple “pigeonsjustlikethat.” Buffalo Bill is presented in rather idealized terms: Cummings does not mention that he has killed people, only pigeons, and describes him as Death’s “blue-eyed boy.”

There is a sense of approval from the speaker, too, in the use of the word “Jesus” before the speaker notes that Buffalo Bill was a handsome man. Finally, the speaker appeals to Death himself, who is personified, asking how he is enjoying the presence of Buffalo Bill, whom he has now accepted into his kingdom.

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