Max Nänny: On "r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r"

By way of conclusion let me briefly deal with e. e. cummings’ poem "r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r" which bri1liantly combines the three chief poetic ways of iconic signification I have discussed so far, namely spatial configuration, sequential motion, and successive change.

[quotes poem]

If we follow the sequence of letters that makes most sense — thus we have to read the first word from right to left rather than from left to right —, our reading process follows lines of motion that provide a diagrammatic icon of the elusive, haphazard jumps and flights of a grasshopper. Thus we move to the left, to the right, to the left, etc. and follow words, syllables or letters that hop down one or two lines, vault typographic voids, skip up to capitals and down to small letters; we are interrupted by stops and reversals as well as puzzled by a saltatory punctuation (ll.9, 12, 15).

Furthermore, the word "grasshopper" itself, whose eleven letters behave like grasshoppers in a bait box, wildly hops around in the poem, leaping lines, landing in the middle of a word (l.5) or a sentence (l.12). Even the title of the poem, I suggest, has hopped from its proper place to line 7 ("The") and line 15 ("grasshopper") thus disguising the fact that the poem has the fourteen lines of a sonnet.

But the reading process also involves the progressive’ unscrambling or unravelling of the differently and successively less scrambled words for "grasshopper." Quite apart from offering various onomatopoeic icons of the grasshopper’s whirring and stridulation, the sequential unscrambling on the part of the reader is an iconic imitation of a gradual change in the perceiving subject, of a gradually firmer perceptual grasp of the nature and identity ("The," l.7) of the evasive object called grasshopper. Hence, the initially slow and laborious act of rearranging the letters can be seen as an iconic reenactment of the subjective process of perception that bundles disparate sensory impressions into the whole of a meaningful "gestalt." The progressive recognition of the poem’s genre as a titled sonnet matches this process in terms of poetic form.

This cognitive process that results in the eventual detachment of the "figure" of the grasshopper from the perplexing, seemingly chaotic sensory "ground" of cummings’ typography is paralleled and reinforced on the iconic level of spatial configuration, too.

For if we look at his "poempicture" as if it were a picture puzzle, we discover to our surprise the rough outline of a grasshopper facing right. Thus "aThe):l/eA/!p:" forms the joint and femur of the hind or saltatorial leg, the "S" on the very left of line 10, which pricks the invisible vertical line of the left margin justification, stands for the sting; "a" on the very right of the same line represents the antenna; "r" is the place where the rubbing of the leg against the wing, the stridulation occurs; "rIvIng" indicates the hind claw on which the grasshopper lands or arrives after a jump; ".gRrEaPsPhOs)" represents the segmented thorax and the head with its compound eye ("0"), leaving "to" for the front claw or toe (the curve described by "S/aThe):1/A/!p /(r" may, of course, also be seen as a diagram of the grasshopper’s jump):

In short, the puzzling difficulties of the cognitive process of clearly grasping a jumping insect’s position in the grass, its species or name as well as its outward form are given simultaneous iconic expression in this virtuoso poem.


Title Max Nänny: On "r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Max Nänny Criticism Target E. E. Cummings
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 12 Jan 2022
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication On Poetry and Poetics
Printer Friendly PDF Version
Contexts No Data Tags No Data

Rate this Content

No Data
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Total votes: 0
Use the above slider to rate this item. You can only submit one rating per item, and your rating will be factored in to the item's popularity on our listings.

Share via Social Media