Cumming's Notion of Unrealism

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1284

“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 Claiming that the prism, not the mirror, was the symbol of all art, cummings wrote in his unpublished notebook, which can be found at the Houghton Library, that “the goal is unrealism.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:

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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 gestures stickily point made glints squinting who’s a
wink bum-nothing and money fuzzily mouths take big wobbly foot-

Using critic Rushworth Kidder’s guidelines in “Cummings and Cubism: The Influence of Modern Art on Cummings’ Early Poetry” for understanding cummings provides insight into cummings’s method. Kidder advises readers to add punctuation and words and to rearrange words if necessary to give a cummings’s poem more conventional syntactical meaning. A “translation” of the stanza into standard sentences might look as follows:

The warm bar smelled of flat beer. You could hear the gush of squirting taps and the piddle-of-drops and see the bartender knock the slush of foam from the head of the beers. Voices could be heard above the din, saying things like “Kiddo” and “Hey you,” “No sir,” “Yep,” “Thaz me, kid,” and “Who’s a bum?” You could hear the tinking of the silver mugs and see the sawdust on the floor. Tipsy people with gluey grins and smoking cigars pack the tables, winking and pointing at one another, flashing money while buying drinks, wobblying.

Cummings critic S. V. Baum, in his article “E. E. Cummings: The Technique of Immediacy,” says this about cummings’s technique for creating immediacy: “Because of his extreme honesty as a poet he has been compelled to describe the complex unit of experience without the presence of falsifying temporal order. Perception of the moment involves many impressions, none complete in itself; instead, they blur and overlap one into the other.” To achieve this overlapping effect cummings not only fragments impressions and words, but he also creates new ones by literally reconstructing the language. “Glush” and “wetflat” are words illustrating cummings’s desire to concentrate multiple sensations in the same word. Ironically, such linguistic precision makes cummings’s poetry more real rather than less. Lawrence Weinstein, in his article “On the Precision of E. E. Cummings,” underscores the success of this method, noting that “Cummings’ precision allows him to describe objects with a particularized approach . . . he evokes exactly the object he means to describe.” Weinstein cites the image of the “exactly-mutilated ghost of a chair” in McSorley’s, claiming that “this description does not simply connote an old chair, but suggests precisely the particular chair in McSorley’s Cummings had in mind.” Cummings also juxtaposes unlike terms in his portrait of the bar, a technique popularized by surrealists, to create his “all-in-one-effect.” For example, Weinstein notes cummings’s use of the description “ripe silver.” “Silver,” Weinstein observes, “does not ripen, but the juxtaposition of ‘ripe’ and ‘silver’ suggests precisely the comfortable, aged atmosphere of the inside of a tavern.” Similarly, cummings juxtaposes snatches of dialogue with description, appealing simultaneously to readers’ ears and eyes. Juxtaposition, fragmentation, and overlapping are all techniques used to heighten the sense of the subject. However, these techniques also draw attention to the medium of cummings’s art and language and to the idea that words could no longer be considered the mere window onto the physical world that realists assumed they were. Cummings offers a compelling alternative to the notion that art’s goal is to imitate life through an accurate depiction of the empirical world. At the time “i was sitting in mcsorley’s” was written, the United States was experiencing the aftermath of World War I. It was a time of excitement and confusion and prosperity and fear. The automobile and the telephone were changing the ways in which people thought about and experienced time and space. Movie houses were also springing up around the country, playing motion pictures and newsreels of world events, consolidating images of the past and present. The world was becoming a smaller place. By fragmenting the language he uses to describe the world, cummings presents a portrait of a fragmented world in which everything is happening at once. The demand that he places on readers to understand his poems is similar to the rapidly changing world’s demand on people in their daily lives. In this sense, cummings’s poems do not challenge the idea of realism as much as they help redefine realism. His “destruction” of words, word order, linearity, and sense provide readers with a hyper-real vision of things. It is a vision even truer today than it was at the beginning of the century. Source: Chris Semansky, Critical Essay on “i was sitting in mcsorley’s,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001. Semansky has published widely in the field of twentieth-century poetry and culture.

A Meditation on Love

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1566

At first glance, e. e. cummings’s poem “i was sitting in mcsorley’s barely seems to be a poem at all. Arranged not in stanzas and lines like most poems, but in paragraphs like a prose passage, the poem further baffles many readers with its bizarre spelling and punctuation. Much of the poem seems to be an incomprehensible run-on sentence, the words following one another with no apparent logic. Once a reader puts aside his or her expectations of what a poem should look like, however, “i was sitting in mcsorley’s” is revealed to be not only a deeply poetic piece of writing but a poem with a strong connection to the rest of cummings’s work.

Throughout his long career in American poetry, cummings was know for his unorthodox style of punctuation, capitalization, and spelling. He would often leave the first letter of a line in one of his poems uncapitalized, while capitalizing a word in the middle of the line. Words would run into each other or be separated by long spaces. Lines would break in unexpected places. Cummings used these methods to bring a freshness and sense of excitement to his poems. By using such novel arrangements of his text, he also created new stresses and tensions in his poetry that would have been impossible to achieve using ordinary arrangements of words. In this way, he was following the lead of the American poet Walt Whitman, whose long lines managed to capture the exuberant rush produced by saying each line in a single deep breath.

Both poets ran words together, either to express two related ideas in a single image (such as the “wetflat” smells in line 9) or, using the technique known as juxtaposition, to force unrelated ideas together to create a fresh, new image. Cummings’s unique typography also serves to make not only the individual words but the poem itself more than just words on a page. His poems become carefully arranged word pictures. In this way, he followed the lead of the founder of the imagist school, American poet Ezra Pound, who felt that each word in a poem must be like a Chinese pictogram, containing a concrete image as well as an abstract meaning.

In the case of “i was sitting in mcsorley’s,” cummings arranges the poem like a prose passage, with paragraphs instead of stanzas. This type of a poem is known as a prose poem. A famous example of this type of poetry is the collection of prose poems by the French poet Charles Baudelaire, Paris Spleen. Cummings’s “i was sitting in mcsorley’s” shares with Paris Spleen a vision of discontent, of an ugly human world into which something ugly frequently intrudes. At the same time, “i was sitting in mcsorley’s” plays on two of cummings’s most frequent themes: the relation between the human and the natural world, and the need and desire for love.

The first two paragraphs of the poem immediately describe the first of these themes. The poet is sitting inside McSorley’s Saloon in Greenwich Village, New York City. Outside it is “beautifully snowing,” (line 2) but inside it is “snug and evil” (line 3). The second paragraph is a sort of verbal collage of various impressions of the interior of the bar, mostly consisting of visual images, all thrown together seemingly at random. Cummings’s technique here serves to convey the fragmented way one would hear and see things if he or she were sitting inside the bar.

The third paragraph continues in this mode, including in its collage effect snippets of the conversations that fill the air inside McSorley’s. What is most notable in this paragraph and the one before it is the palpable sense of decay that fills the inside of the bar. The imagery is full of words that sound somehow disgusting: gobs, spittle, piddle, skulch. These and the various bits of conversation related in this paragraph help to heighten the sense that it is indeed “snug and evil” inside the bar.

The noise inside the bar both brings readers closer to the other people and yet, at the same time, distances readers from them. By only allowing readers to hear little pieces of conversation, they are prevented from understanding what the people are really talking about. And by mixing up their conversations with words used to describe the way the bar looks and sounds, cummings makes it seem like the people are just a part of the bar. In fact, he never describes these people; he only gives readers parts of their conversations. This makes them seem like a part of the atmosphere in the bar and not like real people at all. At the same time, the act of eavesdropping on their conversations makes readers see the poet as something of a voyeur.

Starting with the fourth paragraph, however, there is a break in the way the poet’s impressions of the bar are reported. Instead of giving readers sound impressions, he now only uses visual imagery. And at the same time, the sense of nastiness, almost of evil, is increased.

It begins with the first glimpse of the poet himself, who is sitting, drinking the ale, “which never lets you grow old” and blinking (note the sudden return to primarily visual imagery) at the ceiling, almost as if he hopes to be lifted above, or at least out of the atmosphere inside the bar. While the poet feels pleasant enough, he is constantly being reminded of where he is by the retchings of the patrons; and although he mostly just looks, his lamp remains “worthless,” perhaps because it only gives light but does not illuminate.

Then into his awareness comes a stranger. This is also the first time a person is actually described in the poem. But the description is of someone monstrous: the head is “bald greenish” and “foetal”; the neck is huge and unwashed; the hands are like paws and “distended,” almost as if they belong to a corpse. Yet while readers are being inundated by this sudden flood of detail, at the same time they are losing senses; while the poet first noted the head in an instant of light falling on it, soon the instant is “semiluminous,” and the trunk of the other man is both “nondescript” and “wordless.” This last detail is extremely important.

The poet, confronted by the approach of this strange person, seems to be filled with loathing (“nausea” is part of his sense-impressions of the man). “Darkness it was so near to me,” he notes (line 32). Yet even when confronted by this apparently disgusting person, the poet does not give in to his fear but instead asks him if he would like a drink. Confronted with everything that is terrible and evil in the bar, he chooses to reach out to it, to try to connect with it.

Just as the man seems to be more than an ordinary bar patron (who has perhaps had too much to drink), so too does asking him if he would like a drink seem to be more than just a friendly invitation. The request is described as “the eternal perpetual question” and can be seen as the ultimate attempt to reach out to a world of decay and death, where one is always separated from the rest of the world, just as cummings is separated from the patrons at the bar. Thus, not only is the man (who is always described as “it”) a person, he is the “Darkness” of line 32 and possibly also the world itself, or at least its evil and ugly parts. To truly love and embrace the world, cummings seems to be saying, it’s necessary to be able to embrace its ugly side, to unite with its decay, to take that risk in exchange for connection.

But it does not happen in this poem. The man does not answer. McSorley’s remains “snugandevil.” (Note that by running the words together, cummings manages to include the word “devil” in his repeat of his first impression of McSorley’s.) And outside, it remains “beautifully snowing. . . .” In contrast to the decaying human world of the bar, the outside world of natural processes (snowing) is beautiful.

Yet at the same time, the poet remains inside the bar, which is not just evil but snug. There is something comfortable about staying inside, risking the chance of human connection (which may remain forever impossible) rather than going outside into the snow, which will remain forever inaccessible to the poet.

The poem “i was sitting in mcsorley’s” thus touches on two of cummings’s most important themes: that love is the most important thing to have (he tries to love the man in the bar, in his own poor way, by offering him a drink) and the beauty of the outside world. At the same time, it shows the tension of trying to hold onto these beliefs in an imperfect human world. Remarkable for its brilliant collage of impressions, which manage to convey the inside of a crowded New York City bar with all its sights, sounds, smells, and tastes, “i was sitting in mcsorley’s” is also a serious poem about the ache of being human.

Source: Erica Smith, Critical Essay on “i was sitting in mcsorley’s,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

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Critical Overview