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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

As with 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 a reader 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.

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 person:

Buffalo Bill ’s

 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 readers 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 the personified Death likes his “blue-eyed boy” now:

                                                              and what i want to know is
how do you like your blue-eyed boy
Mister Death

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 everyone.

The reference to “Jesus,” placed by itself in line 7, is also significant. While it can be interpreted as an exclamation emphasizing Buffalo Bill’s handsomeness, which is declared in the next line—

he was a handsome man

—it also, of course, invokes Jesus Christ himself and the ideas of death and resurrection that are so important to Christian belief. Cummings’s reference to Jesus displays an almost tongue-in-cheek tone; the speaker may, in addition to uttering an exclamation, be subtly (and somewhat iconoclastically) comparing Buffalo Bill to Jesus. Both were men of great fame who have come to represent more than themselves—in Buffalo Bill’s case, the Wild West and everything that goes along with it in the American cultural imagination, including rugged individualism. There may be no divine resurrection for Buffalo Bill or for the history, myth, and way of life he symbolizes, as he is now not only deceased but “defunct,” yet Cummings’s poem itself constitutes an enduring memorial to the man Buffalo Bill was, or at least who those who grew up with his legend imagined him to be.

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