Poetry Mix Tape #2: Hope I Die Before I Get Old

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
up Keep
Off
signs)&
youth yanks them
down(old
age
cries No
Tres)&(pas)
youth laughs
(sing
old age
scolds Forbid
den Stop
Must
n’t Don’t
&)youth goes
right on
gr
owing old

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.

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8 thoughts on “Poetry Mix Tape #2: Hope I Die Before I Get Old

  1. I adore cummings. His poems work beautifully for centos.

    His punctuation and parentheses have become one of my favoured past-times, figuring how they work. Since you point us in that direction, the old are behind parentheses, youth not. The poem for youth reads:
    youth yanks them
    down
    youth laughs
    youth goes
    right on
    gr
    owing old
    The old behind their parentheses are all saying, Heh heh heh, or, as my mother says: Just wait.

    Clearly, I am having too much fun.

    margo

  2. Pingback: Prompts: Friday the Thirteenth Freeforall « Margo Roby: Wordgathering

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  4. I like the structure of your poem…and that you could explain it.

    By reading your poem, I sort of have the idea of what the prompt is…I’m a bit dense to new ideas sometimes, but once I get it, I’m on a roll…usually !

    Thanks for sharing.
    I enjoyed what you wrote.
    Peace,
    Siggi in Downeast Maine

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