Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

After he graduated from Harvard in 1916, cummings moved to New York City, where he stayed, with time away during World War I, for most of his life. Cummings probably wrote “i was sitting in mcsorley’s” around 1917, when he was living in Greenwich Village in New York City, part of that time with his friend William Slater Brown, whom he met during the war. Cummings’s biographer Charles Norman notes that cummings frequented McSorley’s, which he describes as follows:

It has two rooms, each with its individual admonitory sign, “Be Good or Be Gone.” The walls are crowded with photographs and lithographs in which a vanished city dwells, and dead, buxom ladies and derbied men. The room in front has the bar, but the room in back boasts a famous lady of smooth and beautiful nudeness. . . . Here writers, artists, and laborers still meet on equal terms, without distractions, to sluice down amber quarts in the abiding gloom.

Cummings was a flaneur (an idle, man-about-town) of sorts, roaming the city for hours every day, sitting in coffee shops, bars, and restaurants, soaking up the voices and sights of New York City, and using them as fodder for his paintings and poems. The early part of the century was a lively and vibrant time in Manhattan and across the country. Undergirded by a surge in industrial growth, the economy was booming, and politicians announced a New Era in world affairs. Consumerism was on the...

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Literary Style

(Poetry for Students)

Cummings is perhaps best known for his innovative typography and for his experiments with grammar and word form. He routinely uses capital and lowercase letters in unconventional ways, he inserts parenthesis and scatters periods and commas in a seemingly random manner; he uses nouns as verbs and vice versa, and he splits and combines words in unexpected places and ways. All of these devices slow down the poem for readers, asking them to think associatively, as the speaker thinks, and to question the ways in which reality has been described to them. In spite of all this apparent randomness, in general, each of his “stanzas” can be read as separate syntactical units.

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)

Baum, S. V., “E. E. Cummings: The Technique of Immediacy,” in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 1, January 1954, pp. 70–88.

Blackmur, R. P., “Notes on E. E. Cummings’ Language,” in Hound & Horn, Vol. IV, No. 2, 1931, pp. 163–92.

Cummings, E. E., Collected Poems, Harcourt Brace, 1938.

———, The Enormous Room, Liverlight, 1922.

———, Tulips & Chimneys, Liverlight, 1976.

———, “Unpublished Notes,” Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Dendinger, Lloyd N., ed., E. E. Cummings: The Critical Reception, Burt Franklin, 1981.

Farwell, Byron, Over There: The United States in the Great War, 1917–1918, Norton & Company, 2000.

Friedman, Norman, “E. E. Cummings and His Critics,” in Criticism, No. 6, 1964, pp. 114–33.

———, E. E. Cummings: The Art of His Poetry, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1960.

Gorman, Herbert, “Goliath Beats His Poetic Breast, Whilst Critics Gape,” in New York Times Book Review, December 9, 1923, p. 5.

Kennedy, Richard S., Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E. E. Cummings, Liveright, 1980.

———, E.E. Cummings Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1994.

Kidder, Rushworth, “Cummings and Cubism: The Influence of the Visual Arts on...

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Compare and Contrast

(Poetry for Students)

  • 1925: Harold Ross publishes the first issue of the New Yorker, a weekly magazine for sophisticates that extols urban New York City.

    1985: Conde Nast chairman S. I. “Si” Newhouse Jr. buys the New Yorker for $168 million.

    2000: David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, announces its first venture into television. “Who Wants to Be Us?” a trivia game show, will challenge contestants’ knowledge of the city and the magazine.

  • 1920: On February 1, temperatures in New York City drop to 2 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, a record cold for the date for the second day in a row.

    1989: On February 1, temperatures in New York City reach 67 degrees Fahrenheit, highest for this date.

  • 1925: The United States is in its fifth year of Prohibition, which forbids the manufacturing or sale of alcohol.

    Today: The abuse of alcohol remains a major social problem; drunk driving and binge-drinking by high school and college students are major issues.

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Topics for Further Study

(Poetry for Students)

Research prohibition in the United States and write an essay exploring the contradictions between the law and the reality of alcohol consumption in the country during that time.

Using cummings’s own unconventional writing style, compose a poem that focuses more on your impression of an individual than your perception of how he or she looks.

Translate “i was sitting in mcsorley’s” into conventional grammar and word form. What is changed and what is gained in the translation?

Research a coffee house, a bar, a restaurant, or some other place in your neighborhood where artists and writers gather, then explain the appeal of that place in a short essay.

Write a poem about a place that represents humanity at its worse.

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What Do I Read Next?

(Poetry for Students)

Cummings’s 1922 prose work The Enormous Room details his experience as a prisoner of the French during World War I. Cummings was working for the American Red Cross at the time he was imprisoned for insubordination. The book is considered by many critics to be an American classic.

Poet and critic Gerald Locklin explores the influence of cummings on contemporary poets such as Richard Kostelanetz, Edward Field, and Ronald Koertge in his 1993 essay “The Influence of Cummings on Selected Contemporary Poets.”

In addition to his biography of cummings, Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E. E. Cummings (1980), Richard S. Kennedy also wrote a critical study of cummings’s work, E. E. Cummings Revisited, which reviews much of the more recent critical work on the poet.

Byron Farwell’s study of America’s involvement in World War I, Over There: The United States in the Great War, 1917–1918 (1999), provides an in-depth look at the United States’s role in the Great War. Farwell tells the story of how the United States responded to a war it was not prepared to fight. This study helps to contextualize cummings’s own formative experiences as an ambulance driver for the Allies.

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