In high school, a nun named Sister Angele required each student in her junior honors English class to memorize a poem she had selected for us. My selection was e e cummings’s poem “i am a little church”. At first, I grumbled about the strange language – how was I supposed to memorize something that barely sounded like it made sense? But the more time I spent with the poem, the more enamored I became with his style. I eagerly looked for more poems by cummings, and I discovered treasures: poems whose syntax I needed to unlock but whose content moved me once I did.
It is hard for me to choose a favorite cummings poem, but I will, one that I enjoyed in high school and have since taught to middle school students for many years. And, now that I am older, it holds different layers of meaning for me.
old age sticks
youth yanks them
The poem addresses an issue that could seem clichéd: the generation gap, or the inability of a younger generation to accept the advice or platitudes of elders. But the last line takes the poem beyond cliché. It reminds us that all of life is a cycle, that perhaps we shouldn’t worry about whether our advice is heeded or not. One generation will quickly replace another, no matter how many stops or don’ts we hand down.
In terms of structure, the use of the parentheses is unique. In some places, the parentheses seem to be adornments, but in the syllabication of the word trespassing, the punctuation is used both as visual trick and to add layers of meaning. The last syllable sing, isolated after the word laughs, resonates differently as something else that the young do in contrast with the old.
If you haven’t read much cummings, I recommend that you pick up 95 Poems as a starting place.
If you want to write:
Let cummings’s seemingly wild abandon with syntax and punctuation inspire you. Write a poem that breaks the rules of grammar and mechanics. Or, if you are too much the grammarian to do such things, try to write a poem that contrasts two typical opposites and offers a revelation at the end.