Norma Pollack: On "In Just--"

Without a doubt, the poems that have engendered several musical versions apiece are unique verbal artifacts. Yet these poems share certain attributes for which composers might be inspired to find musical equivalents: they all have a distinctive rhythmic and aural presence, and some have striking visual imagery as well. For example, the rhythmic and aural characteristics of "in just-" both complicate the words and impart a nonverbal dimension of significance to the words. This poem is characterized by a rhythmic asymmetry that consists of a pattern of momentum and bounce alternated with a greatly slowed-down tempo and stasis. Joining the names of the children not only conjures a vision of innocence and play but contributes momentum as well. Spaces between words, on the other hand, as in the thrice-repeated refrain, "whistles / far and wee," retard or halt the momentum and, linked as they are with the presence of the "lame balloonman," impart ambiguity to the atmosphere of joyous innocence communicated by the vision of children at play.

These alternating patterns of momentum and stasis undermine the simple surface meanings of the words and complicate the presentation of innocence and renewal symbolized by the children and springtime. Instead, the rhythms create an aura of mystery and ambiguity, of tension and disquiet, that results in the poem becoming a complex embodiment of irony and dissonance, it is the distinctive and peculiar rhythmic system of the poem that suggests levels of significance and effect extending beyond the semantic meaning of the words. Nor should the aural character of the poem be overlooked, since this, too, influences the rhythmic environment of the poem. Long vowels, such as those in "lame balloonman," "far and wee," and "marbles and piracies" slow the tempo, create a smooth rhythm, and impart melodiousness and resonance, as well as a keening quality, a tone of regret, that contradicts the idea of joyous renewal with which spring is typically associated. Thus, an aura of mystery and ambiguity permeates the poem and belies its words, and this ambiguity invites and enables composers to emphasize what they wish--the surface meaning of the words of the poem, or the shadowy, darker undercurrents.

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Title Norma Pollack: On "In Just--" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Norma Pollack Criticism Target E. E. Cummings
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 04 Aug 2021
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Poems of Cummings Set to Music
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