Analysis

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 322

Like many of E. E. Cummings's poems, it is important to pay particular attention not only to the choice of words but also to the way in which Cummings chooses to lay out these words on the page, the number of words he affords to each line, and the decisions to run words together or place a space where we would not expect one. The content and meaning of the poem are supported by the presentation, and the words which are isolated are the ones which are intended to have a particular effect.

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By and large, what Cummings is saying in this poem is that Buffalo Bill, a man who was able to kill multiple pigeons with a single shot and could ride a horse like few other people—a man who was, indeed, a legendary figure in the Wild West, both on the stage and off it—can just as easily be made "defunct" as any other man. By "defunct," what Cummings really means is that Buffalo Bill is dead, but that is not all he means—the word is placed alone on a line, forcing us to consider its nuances. As a commodity, Bill is defunct. As a human being, he has passed beyond our world, but also as a figure of legend, his relevance has shifted. While he was once on the top of his game, this is no longer true. At the end of the poem, Cummings shifts to address "Mister Death," seemingly on this topic—he asks how Death likes his "blue-eyed boy" now.

This shift in the address of the poem is interesting and catches the reader's attention. We are not sure how (or if) Death will answer the question, but we do know that Death is watching, or listening. The suggestion is, eerily, that Death is listening to us all at all times: just as he came for Buffalo Bill, he will come for us.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 456

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 representative is defunct.

Like many satires which poke at the pretensions of a subject by evoking and dramatizing it, the poem charges ahead like Buffalo Bill himself. The pigeons that Buffalo Bill is breaking “justlikethat” are most likely the clay pigeons used in shooting matches—in this case, in events contrived for the wild west shows. The pigeons break apart when shot. The show is impressive because Buffalo Bill hits his targets rapidly and easily. The show is also a kind of sham, however, because the birds are not real, and the show does not have much to do with the real wild west. That the poem has less than an admiring view of Buffalo Bill—while conceding his romantic appeal—is evident in the last five lines.

On one hand, the speaker pays tribute to Buffalo Bill’s handsomeness, evoking what may be the wonder of an onlooker at a wild west show performance. On the other hand, Buffalo Bill, the “blueeyed boy,” is subject to mortality, personified in the figure of “Mister Death.” Buffalo Bill, the figure of youth, in other words, gives way to a rather grim reminder of the processes of time. Not even this true-blue American hero can defeat death.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 492

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 reminds human beings that they will die and that they are subject to the corruption of the earth. In such mystery plays, people must be reminded that they will not live forever and that their gaudy shows and vanity will be overcome by death. In the poem, Mister Death appears to be the ultimate showman—the one who really controls Buffalo Bill’s act. In other words, Buffalo Bill has not really been the master of his fate: He has been a tool of Mister Death.

Along with the shocking appearance of Mister Death comes a change of tone in the speaker’s voice. In the first half of the poem, the speaker seems jocular—although he clearly foreshadows his darker tone in the poem’s third word, “defunct.” Nevertheless, the next six lines seem to indulge in a vivid memory of how pleasurable and exciting it was to watch Buffalo Bill. The words run together in line 6 in imitation of his sharpshooting. It is only with the single word in line 7—the mention of Jesus—that the poem slows down to contemplate the consequences of Buffalo Bill’s behavior. The speaker concedes the hero’s allure and then suddenly subverts that allure in the sobering last three lines, which form a question (the question mark itself is eliminated). Cummings usually omits end punctuation, as if refusing to come to a conclusion about life, which is, his poems imply, ceaseless, constantly reinventing itself and repeating the process of life and death.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 129

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.

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