Cumming's Notion of Unrealism
“i was sitting in mcsorley’s” is a painterly poem that embodies cummings’s idea of what he called “unrealism.” Like so many artists and writers at the beginning of the twentieth century, Cummings wanted to make his writing modern. Writing modern poetry meant to “make it new,” as Ezra Pound said. This involved challenging the status quo, which at the beginning of the twentieth century was realism and its offshoots. Realism, a literary movement rooted in the nineteenth century, uses the everyday world as its subject matter. Practitioners of literary realism considered language a tool to show readers the world as it was rather than how it should be. Realistic writing often had a reportorial feel to it. At the beginning of the twentieth century, novelists such as Virginia Woolfe, James Joyce, John Dos Passos, and others challenged this way of representing reality. In poetry, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and H. D. were similarly challenging the status quo, writing verse freed from the confines of formal diction and meter and composing a poetry in speech patterns, dense with images, whose aim was to show that the world wasn’t necessarily what people thought that it was. Cummings was part of this modern movement. Claiming that the prism, not the mirror, was the symbol of all art, cummings wrote in his unpublished notebook, which can be found at the Houghton Library, that “the goal is unrealism. The method is destructive. To break up the white light of objective realism, into the secret glories which it contains.” The poem “i was sitting in mcsorley’s” demonstrates the practice of cummings’s unrealism in action. Ostensibly a portrait of the inside of a famous saloon in lower Manhattan, the poem doesn’t show readers what the bar looks like, but rather it evokes in them a sense of the bar’s complex atmosphere. Whereas realism by its very nature is selective, showing this and not that, cummings’s unrealism is just the opposite, attempting to show everything at once. To accomplish this, cummings developed a method that struck at the very heart of realism’s assumption about language. When light passes through a prism it is dispersed into a number of wavelengths that the human eye experiences as colors. Cummings wants to do the same thing to language and, hence, readers’ experience. He is describing the scene at Mc- Sorley’s as if he were looking at it through a prism. However, instead of colors, images are dispersed. This dispersal literally destroys the linearity of cummings’s sentences, the order in which he presents the images. But it creates a sense of movement and immediacy, so that readers can see and experience images and incidents simultaneously. An examination of the poem’s third stanza will illustrate this method:
the Bar.tinking luscious jigs dint of ripe silver with warmlyish wetflat splurging smells waltz the glush of squirting taps plus slush of foam knocked off and a faint piddle-of-drops she says I ploc spittle what the lands thaz me kid in no sir hopping sawdust you kiddo he’s a palping wreaths of badly Yep cigars who jim him why gluey grins topple to gether eyes pout...
(The entire section is 1284 words.)