(1923) E. E. cummings's "in Just-spring," one of his most popular poems, is derived mainly from imagism in that its main purpose is to re-create, in as few words as possible, the sensual particulars of a lyrical moment (see imagist school)—but it also introduced much of the technical innovativeness, particularly with regard to the placement of words on the page, that Cummings pioneered and accomplished more than any other American modernist poet (see modernism). First sketched as an exercise for a class at Harvard at a time (about 1914) when free verse excited undergraduates but was discouraged by professors, the poem captured the poet's childhood memories of a street that flooded in spring each year—at the same time that a balloon-seller began showing up, blowing his whistle.
Cummings made many changes in the poem before its publication that greatly illuminate the how and why of his technical innovations. First he changed all the 1916 version's capital letters, such as those beginning the names of children, to lowercase, then capitalized two other letters—the beginning of his practice of using capitalization for emphasis only. He also removed all commas and periods. To better "punctuate" his "score," he broke his stanzas into smaller ones, some but a line in length. Those lines he also frequently shortened, some of them to a single word apiece. More than once, too, he spread his lines out, as when he appropriately prolonged line 4 to "whistles far and wee."
Cummings cut his very first line from "In just-Spring" to "in Just-" to make his reader quickly aware of being in a poem that requires careful, slow reading—and to accentuate how abruptly arrived the scene is in spring. By chopping "mud-luscious" in the same manner, he gave "mud-" time to convey ugliness before its transformation to what mud is delightfully to most children.
Perhaps Cummings's best changes were his condensations of "Bill and Eddy" to "eddieandbill" and "Betty and Isabel" to "bettyandisbel" to show onomatopoetically, through spelling rather than sound, the inseparability and energy of Eddie and Bill and Betty and Isabel (with "isbel" also, of course, suggesting the child-world the poem is from, where names are sometimes only partly pronounced and often misspelled). Also important was Cummingss improvement of "ooze-suave" to "puddle-wonderful," a near-perfect poetic compound word, along the lines of "Just-spring," with its multiple meanings of just. Through such techniques and well-chosen imagery, especially that which gradually reveals the true identity of the balloon-seller (as the god Pan), Cummings achieved a marvelous celebration of childhood—and of spring, and the immortal, rather than old, goat-footed, rather than lame, archetypal figure at its core.
Kennedy, Richard S. Dreams in the Mirror. New York: Live-
right, 1980, 24-25, 97. Lindroth, James R., and Colette Lindroth. The Poetry of E. E. Cummings. New York: Monarch Press, 1966, pp. 26-28.
Was this article helpful?