The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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by separating the apostrophe s from Buffalo Bill, the poet conjures up an image of both the historical figure and his out-of-date followers or emulators, who trail after him leaving a gap (the space) between him and them.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...

(The entire section is 456 words.)