Excerpted Criticism

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Lewis H. Miller, Jr.: On "Poem, or Beauty Hurts Mr Vinal"

...Cummings was quick to take an anti-acquisitive stance by insisting in 'Poem, or Beauty Hurts Mr Vinal' that America's bad, anaemic poetry had much in common with the cloying appeals of America's advertising. Both sprang from and contributed to a sterile, mechanized world which, as Cummings saw it, feeds on predictable, stock attitudes and responses. As an indictment of a consumer-oriented society and of the verbal and visual cliches which accompanied and promoted that society, 'Poem, or Beauty Hurts Mr Vinal' provides a unique antidote to the optimism of its time and to the consumer fetishism which continues to shape our individual and collective desires and goals....

...Cummings' underlying comparison of bad poetry with the tired commercial phrases of his time is mischievously introduced by his selection of Mr Harold Vinal as a representative contemporary poet. Vinal, a New Englander like Cummings, had moved from his bucolic family compound in Maine to take up residency in New York City where he quickly became secretary of the Poetry Society of America and where he published his own poetry journal, Voices, a short-lived periodical to which Cummings applies the paradoxical, uncomplimentary modifiers, 'radically defunct' (see line 18).

Vinal broke into print with his Yale Younger Poets Series volume, White April (1922), a collection of Georgianesque nature lyrics which Cummings found contrived, sentimental, and very much out of touch with a postwar industrial era....


 ...Cummings attacks Vinal not only as an individual poet but as a symptom of his times.  The assertion that 'Beauty Hurts Mr Vinal' is not only a description of silly derivative gestures in Vinal's poetry; Cummings' title also points up a persistent cultural phenomenon: 'beauty' can be insidious as it deflects attention away from basic human attributes and needs to mere show and window dressing--whether in poetry or in advertising....

Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren: On "Buffalo Bill's"

This poem deals with what is a rather common theme, and treats that theme simply. Death claims all men, even the strongest and most glamorous....the most prominent element is the unconventional attitude which he takes toward a conventional subject, and in this particular poem, the matter of tone is isolated sufficiently for us to examine it rather easily ....

In the first place, what is the difference between writing

Buffalo Bill's defunct


Buffalo Bill's dead?

The first carries something of a tone of conscious irreverence. The poet here does not approach the idea of death with the usual and expected respect for the dead. He is matter-of-fact, unawed, and even somewhat flippant and joking. But the things which he picks out to comment on in Buffalo Bill make a strong contrast with the idea of death. The picture called up is one of tremendous vitality and speed: for example, the stallion is mentioned and is described as "watersmooth-silver." The adjective contains not only a visual description of the horse which Buffalo Bill rode but a kinetic description is implied too. How was the horse "watersmooth"? Smooth, graceful in action..... The "portrait" of Buffalo Bill given here after the statement that he is "defunct" is a glimpse of him in action breaking five claypigeons in rapid succession as he flashes by on his stallion--the sort of glimpse which one might remember from the performance of the Wild West show in which Buffalo Bill used to star. The exclamation which follows is exactly the sort of burst of boyish approval which might be struck from a boy seeing him in action or remembering him as he saw him. And the quality of "handsome" applies, one feels, not merely to his face but to his whole figure in action.

The next lines carry on the tone of unabashed, unawed, slangy irreverence toward death. Death becomes "Mister Death." The implied figure of the spectator at a performance of the Wild West show helps justify the language and manner of expression used here, making us feel that it is in character. But the question as asked here strikes us on another level. It is a question which no boy would ask; it is indeed one of the old unanswerable questions. But here it is transformed by the tone into something fresh and startling. Moreover, the dashing, glamorous character of the old Indian fighter gets a sharp emphasis. The question may be paraphrased like this: Death, you don't get lads like him every day, do you? The way the question is put implies several things. First, it implies the pathos at the fact that even a man who had such enormous vitality and unfailing youthfulness had to die. But this pathos is not insisted upon; rather, it is presented indirectly and ironically because of the bantering and flippant attitude given in the question, especially in the phrases "Mister Death" and "blueeyed boy." And in the question, which sums up the whole poem, we also are given the impression that death is not terrible for Buffalo Bill--it is "Mister Death" who stands in some sort of fatherly and prideful relation to the "blueeyed boy."

Louis J. Budd: On "Buffalo Bill's"

 ...Cummings regards the hero as a distressingly revered caricature of genuinely human actions and values, an avatar of stillborn sentience.

The poem's attitude is epitomized in the word "defunct." Buffalo Bill has not undergone a tragic crisis, he has not passed through a spiritual ordeal; he simply has ceased operating, liquidated like a bank or a poorly-place filling station. The reader primarily realizes that William F. Cody will no longer prance through metropolitan hippodromes as the chief asset of a gaudy commercial venture. More broadly, the reader should recognize that the westering dream and nostalgic enjoyment of that dream are ended, the dream ripped by realities or stultified by vulgar misuse and the nostalgia deflated by post-Versailles cynicism. Buffalo Bill and his cohorts, galloping through this world in a blinding shroud of physical exertions divorced from meaningful reality, never were alive to tulips or the small white hands of the rain and can be scarcely said to have died.

David Ray: On "Buffalo Bill's"

...though the poem appears to be a simple elegy, it must be placed in the context of Cummings's obstinate attitude of hatred toward an American culture that invites children (and even men) to create an unworthy gallery of heroes. Cummings is one of our society's best haters; functioning as a Juvenalian satirist, he has long attacked our society's worst indulgences in materialism, hypocrisy, "hypercivic zeal," scientific unwisdom and the following of false heroes and tawdry ideals. He most bitterly, in poems like "Plato told him . . ." reproaches us for not taking the words of our philosophers seriously, but rather insisting on mouthing (vulgarizing and debasing) the poetry of their utterances.


It is important to note, in making a case for the redirection of the poet's fury to Bill, that Bill, in the poem, functions as a destroyer, an agent of death. What has been destroyed...is rather all-embracing. Bill has been destroyed; the poet's childhood, and the kind of innocent faith and wonder that went along with it has been destroyed by his subsequent disillusionment...; the clay pigeons have been destroyed. The poet is in many ways blaming Bill for disappointing both his expectations of childhood and of America, for delivering him rather treacherously to a tawdry world of cheapened values, for America is Bill's "sponsor" as well as that of freedom and breakfast foods.


At last Bill belongs literally to "Mister Death's" team. The poet triumphs over death by having come to an insight into Bill's fraudulence before "Mister Death," who is only now presumably finding out that he has been tricked into treating a sham performer as a great man, cut down with all the panoply of tragedy. The poet has beaten Mister Death to the draw, literally, and leaves the great destroyer to find out that he has the commonest of food for his worms. Perhaps, then...the best elegies are for the least heroic of victims, not for those figures who are true heroes in our lives, but for those who have functioned in our lives at their most tawdry, misguided, or commonplace moments.

Earl J. Dias: On "Buffalo Bill's"

 ...The picture of Buffalo Bill on his "watersmooth-silver stallion"...is...acidly ironic. Moreover...Buffalo Bill is not the only individualist mentioned in the poem; in fact, Jesus is given a line to Himself.

Consequently, His name stands out emphatically in the poem--perhaps as a contrast to Buffalo Bill. Of the two types of individualism implied in the poem--the man of war and the man of peace--I submit that the latter is more akin to Cummings' basic ideas revealed throughout the body of his writing.

As for the last three lines of the poem...they underline the central sarcasm of the work. The question is obviously delivered in acerbic tones; "your blueeyed boy" (the phrase seems to have overtones of "fair-haired boy") suggests that Buffalo Bill has at last found his rightful home--with Death itself.

In summary...it is safe and reasonable to conclude that for Cummings, Buffalo Bill belongs in the category of the poet's dislikes--with war, salesmen, windy politicians, the prurient--in short, with all negators of life and the "sweet, spontaneous earth."

Thomas Dilworth: On "Buffalo Bill's"

 ...The subject of this portrait is not, as commentators have assumed, Buffalo Bill. Neither is the poem merely a modern expression of the convention of sic transit gloria mundi, of which the appropriate tone would be sadness. The speaker praises the dead celebrity but also disparages him. The reason for the disparagement cannot be, as one reader has suggested, disapproval of Cody's "blend of hero and charlatan" or reduction of "heroic deeds to circus stunts." The speaker clearly admires the showmanship. Instead, he disparages Buffalo Bill merely to exceed him in worth or stature. The poem is a self-portrait of an admiring but also disdainful speaker, unaware of a logical flaw in his reasoning and the profound irony of his situation.

The speaker admires Buffalo Bill's skill in shooting and his good looks. He also admires the horse Buffalo Bill rode, which had symbolic affinity with its rider since it was male (a "stallion") and "silver," like silver-haired Bill Cody in old age. The speaker's admiration is preceded, however, by irony and followed by sarcasm. The word "defunct" instead of "dead" implies callous or humorous indifference to or even approval of Buffalo Bill's death, and the question "how do you like your blueeyed boy" sarcastically belittles Buffalo Bill and conveys the speaker's sense of superiority over him. Furthermore, the possession by "Mister Death" of a blue-eyed boy has pederastic connotations. The celebrity Buffalo Bill was skillful, superior, and, in the last years of his life, the most famous man in the world. But now he is dead and, the speaker assumes, it is better to be alive than dead. So death, which cancelled Buffalo Bill's skill and erased his good looks, gives the speaker an advantage over him....

...Logically, the self-elevation of the speaker is nonsense, since the dead (nonexistent) differ categorically from the living.... The gloating self-evaluation of the speaker has no reasonable foundation. It is also and more obviously ridiculous because he fails to take into account his own mortality. The poem contains the theme of the passing of worldly glory, but its principal meaning is that pride is blind and goeth before a fall....

Barry A. Marks: On "O sweet spontaneous"

Cummings presents philosophy, science, and theology as dirty old men disgustingly attempting to recapture their lost youth. They are victims of what Cummings called..."mental concupiscence." Their specific ills are their effort to reduce life to abstractions and their underlying effort to make life conform to the purposes of man. From this kind of desire earth withholds her charms. By contrast, the natural relationship of earth and death issues in the spontaneous vitality of SPRING. The arrangement of the poem on the page is Cummings' experimental effort to represent his theme. Negatively, it is a rebuff to literary conventions (which parallel the conventions of philosophy, science, and theology). Positively, it forces us to a dramatic sense of the poem's meaning. The clearest instance is the placement of "spring." The wide spaces separating the last three lines function as musical rests of varying length. The consequence is a great sudden stress on the word "spring," so that, in effect, it springs at us....

...In a way which is, in the conventional sense of the term, clear--and yet poetically not very impressive--Cummings here used sex as a symbol of uninhibited spontaneity, of natural vitality in contrast to sterile human conventionality. It is a rather blunt instrument, however; and, at the least, Cummings left undefined the relationship between sex and death. The poem says that true vitality results from a relationship with death which is, somehow, like the cycle of the seasons. The nature of the relationship, however, is by no means clear. Cummings' best poems about sex fully and precisely render this relationship....

Robert D. Mayo: On "Chansons Innocentes (I)"

The unconventional typography...is used to enhance the feeling of childlike naivete, to suggest sound effects, and to support the "action" of the poem in other ways.

1. Most obviously, eddieandbill and bettyandisbel are attempts to suggest a child’s running of words together breathlessly....The curious form baloonMan...shows...the same process in reverse, the breaking up of a single word into its significant components. Here it may represent a naive qualification by the speaker. This queer, little being--he seems to warn us--may be goat-footed, but he’s a Man just the same.

2. At first sight the wide spacing and the line-breaks in the poem may seem to be pure freakishness, but with study one discovers a regularity in the irregularity which suggests some method in the poet’s oddity. For example, there is after Just-spring or spring each time either a space or a line-break. These can be interpreted as dramatic pauses--suggestive of the speechless wonder of the child. Every time the subject recurs, he stops to take it in, as it were.

3. In the passages just cited the spacing seems to have been used for emphasis--as exclamation points in absentia so to speak. Elsewhere quite the opposite effect may have been intended. For example, each time the baloonman whistles, the line is either broken or extended by wide spacing.... [Here Mayo quotes l. 5, the end of l. 12 and beginning of l. 13, and ll. 21-24.] It may be that this is intended to convey to the eye the impression of distance, and attentuation. The whistle...is heard by the children far off...whereupon they come running and skipping from their games.

4. Undoubtedly the most cryptic typographical feature...is found in the last nine lines. The first fifteen are grouped for the eye in "stanzas" of five lines each, consisting of a "quatrain" and a "refrain." The arrangement is quite arbitrary, it would seem, since the meter is free, the lines are irregular in length, and the grouping bears no observable relation to the sense....After three "regular stanzas," however, the sight pattern dwindles: ten words make up nine lines, the margin slips to the right, and the poem breaks off between the "quatrain" and the "refrain."

...It is a striking fact...that the hop-scotch and jump-rope of line 15 is followed by three hops forward in the verse, two diagonal, a double-hop, and three singles. The game breaks up the poem, just as the baloonman breaks up the game.

Marvin Felheim: "In Just--"

...The poem is in three movements, each built about the refrain of the balloonman's whistle; each movement has a spatial as well as a tonal quality; both qualities are quite definitely suggested by the placement of the words on the page. The first movement is horizontal (the sound is liquid, pulled out):

                 the little

lame balloonman


whistles      far       and       wee

The second movement is circular (the sounds are bunched): "eddieandbill come running" and "bettyandisbel come dancing" from all around (literally both sides) as

the queer

old balloonman whistles

far       and       wee

The final movement is vertical (the sound is stretched thin and tall: even Man stands up, capitalized):



balloonMan    whistles




Albert C. Labriola: On "In Just--"

..."in Just-" is grouped with poems called "Chansons Innocentes" alluding to William Blake's Songs of Innocence and the complementary Songs of Experience. Innocence and experience, or the transition from the one state to the other, inform the poem, whose central character, including his identity and significance, is described through the stylistic feature of incremental repetition. Described as "the little lame balloonman," the "queer old balloonman," and the "goat-footed balloonMan," who in all three instances "whistles far and wee," he is a rendition of Pan, the god of the goatherds and shepherds. A goat-man, he was akin to the satyrs; like them, he inhabited the thickets, forests, and mountains, all places of wilderness. Upon his reed pipe (called a Panpipe), this lesser god played music for the dancing nymphs. Like the satyrs, he loved the nymphs but was rejected because of his ugly appearance: cleft foot and deformed and aging body. He was a lecher whose pursuits of nymphs such as Echo, Pithys, and Syrinx are well-recounted in classical literature. The haunts that he frequented, the urges and appetites that impelled him, and the distinctive cleft foot all profoundly affected later Christian conceptions of the devil, whose humanoid appearance in art resembles that of Pan and the satyrs....

 ...By its emphasis on mud and water, growth and vitality, sexuality and propagation, the poem may be read as a displacement and adaptation of the creation myth or the account of primal creation in Genesis. The loam from which Adam was created, the inspiriting that ensued, the creation of Eve, her introduction to and relationship with Adam in the verdant Garden of Eden, and the procreative function of their relationship mandated by God are all elements in the paradigm adumbrated in Scripture. Against the foregoing context, the balloonman appears. His classical analogue is Pan, not only the lecherous goat-man, the prototype in physical appearance of the Christian conception of the devil, but also the Good Shepherd who oversees the well-being of his flock and encourages their propagation. By awakening in the children the impulses or instincts of sexuality, the balloonman, in effect, creates new beings, promotes other relationships, and imparts the potential for consequences--evil, goodness, and variations or interactions thereof--that may result from the pairings of male and female in adolescence and eventually adulthood. One surmises that the unusual spelling of "balloonMan" in its third appearance in the poem looks toward adulthood.