Cummings first published “i was sitting in mcsorley’s” in his collection Tulips & Chimneys, which appeared in 1923. It has also been anthologized in The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. Different versions of the poem have been printed over time.
The poem is set in McSorley’s Ale House, where cummings frequently drank. It is a New York City saloon on East Seventh between Second and Third Avenues. Known as a favorite haunt of bohemians and artists, McSorley’s opened in 1854, and both Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy are said to have visited the saloon. In the poem, the speaker, alternately meditative and descriptive, depicts his experience inside the saloon in typical cummings fashion, using nouns as verbs and vice versa, coining portmanteau words (words whose form and meaning are derived from a blending of two or more distinct forms), twisting syntax, and fragmenting words. The poem visually resembles prose, with its division into twelve paragraph-like sections.
Like many of the other poems in Tulips & Chimneys, “i was sitting in mcsorley’s” embodies the opposition between the organic, natural world, and human society, what cummings refers to as “manunkind.” Cummings’s description of the bar is thick with sensuous and concrete images and effectively conjures the feel, smell, and sight of a saloon. The descriptions themselves also mimic the often sloppy way the brain processes perceptions and produces language when affected by alcohol. Cummings’s love for the city and his revulsion of humanity are both evident here.
The first stanza of “i was sitting in mcsorley’s” introduces the setting of the poem and one of its themes: the distinction between the inside and outside worlds. These worlds are literally the inside and outside world of the bar and the city, but they are also the inside world of reflection—focusing on self and the outside world of perception—focusing on others.
The speaker describes the saloon and its “slobbering walls” as “snug and evil.” This seeming contradiction highlights the simultaneous attraction and repulsion the speaker holds for the place. Cummings’s trademark disregard for conventional grammar and syntax are effective here, as they help to depict a bustling, chaotic, and dirty atmosphere that is nonetheless comfortable. Adjective and adverbs such as “slobbering,” filthily,” “pompous,” and “witless” all contribute to this description.
This stanza, the longest of the poem, mixes bits of dialogue into its description of the sights and sounds of the bar. “Kiddo,” “Yep,” and “no sir” are all words or phrases that one might expect to hear in a bar, especially in exchanges between bartender and customer. The filmic equivalent to this stanza would be a scene from a Robert Altman film, in which simultaneous dialogues are captured. The overlapping of sight, sound, and smell give the description immediacy and highlight the many individual dramas being played out in the bar. Phrases such as “a faint piddle-of-drops” also gives cummings’s description an onomatopoeic quality, as the sound of the words mimic the action depicted.
Cummings frequently breaks words in unexpected places. The first word of this stanza is “steps,” finishing the word “footsteps,” which ends the previous stanza. Using run-on lines in this manner emphasizes the seamlessness of the speaker’s perception and the relentless quality of existence itself. By stringing together his perceptions and thoughts as they happen, the speaker functions as a kind of multisensory recording device. The description in this stanza suggests an older man (“old feller”) who has had too much to drink, ordering “summore.”
This stanza is the most conventionally coherent one in the entire poem. The speaker focuses on himself, noting that he is just “sitting in the din thinking drinking.” He highlights his own pleasant feelings, regardless of the seedy surroundings, which are embodied in the image of “the always retchings of a worthless lamp.” His comment that “ale . . . / never lets you grow old” alludes to the pleasant, often self-deluding effects of alcohol on one’s thinking.
While contemplating his experience in McSorley’s, the speaker’s world is interrupted by the vision of a “bald greenish foetal head,” around whose huge neck “a collar hung gently.” This apparition could be some combination of dog and human, which symbolizes the degenerate atmosphere of the bar and the ways in which human beings lose dignity when alcohol takes over their bodies. But more likely he is describing a man and his dog in an impressionistic manner. Phrases such as “sonorous muscle” are examples of synesthesia, a technique in which one sense is used to describe a sensation related to another sense. In this case, the speaker describes something that he sees (“muscle”) with an adjective related to sound (“sonorous”). As in previous stanzas, cummings uses modifiers such as “soiling” and “unwashed” to emphasize the extreme seediness of the place and the people who frequent it. Interestingly, the speaker never implicates himself in this seediness. Rather, he positions himself as a tourist or anthropologist who doesn’t see himself as a part of the world he attempts to explain.
The speaker’s apparitions continue when, during an “instant of semilumionous nausea,” he sees a “nondescript genie of trunk” plop himself down into a “ghost of a chair.” The speaker’s visions suggest that he has had too much to drink and that these beings he sees are symbolic projections of his own view of humanity. But these descriptions are also cubist-like renderings of simultaneous perceptions. Whereas cubism, an early twentieth-century art form, attempted to break objects down into their geometric shapes, cummings’s version of literary cubism breaks words down and coined new ones to affect the structure of experience itself. Thus, the creatures that cummings describes in this poem may be separate, a man and a dog, for example, but he is combining the words used to represent them to probe a new way of expressing the simultaneity of his perceptions.
Cummings continues his linguistic inventiveness in this stanza, describing an element of time (i.e., “interval”) as a physical thing, calling it “domeshaped.” He references a number of perceptions in this stanza: a waitress quickly cleaning a table, a dog, and a man affectionately holding his beer. But he rearranges the words used to describe these perceptions so it appears as if they are pieces of a dream.
The speaker has achieved that drunken moment of self-reflection, asking an imagined self if it wouldn’t share a drink with him.
Appropriately enough, this stanza shadows the previous one. The “eternal perpetual question” is the one the speaker asks of the shadow. Cummings implicitly pokes fun at philosophical and unanswerable “eternal” questions such as, Is there a God? and What is the meaning of life?
These two stanzas repeat phrases and information from the beginning of the poem, giving the poem a circular shape and providing closure. That the shadow “did not answer” underscores the speaker’s aloneness in the saloon, the sense of his separateness from all that surrounds him.
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