The Poem

The poem announces that Buffalo Bill (William F. Cody, 1846-1917) is “defunct.” Cody had made a name for himself in the wild west as a buffalo hunter and Indian fighter. He subsequently became a showman, hiring many of the Indians (among them was Sitting Bull) who had fought the U.S. Army and doing road tours that featured staged battles between cowboys and Indians, sharpshooting exhibitions, and other events associated with frontier America. Cody was more than a national phenomenon; his wild west show toured Europe, and he was received as an example of the vigorous American spirit that had conquered a continent. To say that he is defunct rather than simply dead is to imply that his example is outmoded and irrelevant.

E. E. Cummings does not limit his attention to the historical Buffalo Bill, however. The typography of the first line, “Buffalo Bill ’s,” with its space between the name and the apostrophe s, implies a pluralization. It is as if the poet is dismissing not a man but a symbol and all the copies of that symbol—all the men who think of themselves as Buffalo Bills. To be more precise, by separating the apostrophe s from Buffalo Bill, the poet conjures up an image of both the historical figure and his out-of-date followers or emulators, who trail after him leaving a gap (the space) between him and them. The America these wild west heroes thought they possessed no longer exists, and thus Buffalo Bill as America’s...

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Forms and Devices

Cummings is known as a poet who attacks conventional uses of grammar, and he turns capitalization, hyphens, apostrophes, and spaces between words to new uses. He runs words together. He separates words and lines in unique ways. Indeed, he employs no punctuation in places where most writers would favor a comma or period. His highly individualistic style is, by definition, a challenge to the way most people write and think. So it is not surprising that he would take an irreverent view of an American hero like Buffalo Bill.

The poem satirizes Bill as a idolatrous figure who can do miraculous things—like Jesus. His stallion is silver, gleaming no doubt like a precious metal, with the adjective “watersmooth” emphasizing how glossy and glittery Buffalo Bill’s performance is. He is a shining symbol of American energy and know-how, and that easy efficiency of manner is combined with a romantic aura. The image of the “blueeyed boy” focuses on Buffalo Bill as a paragon of American innocence—as if showing off is comparable to conquering the world. Buffalo Bill’s looks solve nothing, and over time they prove meaningless. He becomes not America’s blue-eyed boy—analogous to someone like movie star Mary Pickford, once known as “America’s sweetheart”—but Mister Death’s victim.

The figure of Mister Death makes what has seemed a light-hearted poem much more sinister. Death often appears in medieval mystery plays as a character who...

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(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Ahearn, Barry, ed. Pound/Cummings: The Correspondence of Ezra Pound and E. E. Cummings. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996.

Bloom, Harold, ed. E. E. Cummings: Comprehensive Research and Study Guide. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003.

Dumas, Bethany K. E. E. Cummings: A Remembrance of Miracles. London: Vision Press, 1974.

Kennedy, Richard S. E. E. Cummings Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1994.

Kidder, Rushworth M. E. E. Cummings: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.

Lane, Gary. I Am: A Study of E. E. Cummings’ Poems. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1976.

Norman, Charles. The Magic Maker: E. E. Cummings. Rev. ed. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1972.

Sawyer-Lauçanno, Christopher. E. E. Cummings: A Biography. Naperville, Ill.: Sourcebooks, 2004.

Wegner, Robert E. The Poetry and Prose of E. E. Cummings. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965.