Radical Poets: E.E Cummings and Langton Hughes

Poetry from the mid-20th century adds value to American literature. This is due to the era and the events that occurred during this time period. It is influential in that it changed the flair and structure of poetry, molding into what it is today.   Occurrences in American history that strongly influenced literary movements are World War I, the depression, and the migration west.  These literary movements caused writers to dramatically change their style, along with the times.  Most writers such as Carl Sandburg depicted real images of modern day life.  He didn’t over exaggerate images, only looking at the beauty of life which is popular among earlier writers.  Early writers such as Robert Lowell used well-organized stanzas containing heroic couplets and iambic pentameter couplets, styles of writing that isn’t seen in literary works of this time.  Other differences seen are topics.  From the late 19th century and early 20th century, themes changed from romanticism to realism and naturalism as upcoming writers began to find the voice of the new age. Writers became outspoken about matters occurring around them.  In the middle of the 20th century, all writers began inputting their own theories and views of what America is supposed to be compared to the realities; expressing how they felt about this country.  Those most significant to this era are radical writers Edward Estlin Cummings and Langston Hughes. By understanding their poetic structure, context, and literary components, one can better understand their value to American literature.

There are many similarities and differences between the lives of E.E Cummings and Langston Hughes.  The two differ educationally and culturally.  Cummings is a White American whose Harvard education was passed down to him through his father- his family coming from a privileged background.  Hughes, an African American, worked his way through college, taking him years to save money and receive a degree.  Also Hughes, unlike Cummings, grew up fatherless in a working class family.  Together Cummings and Hughes lived through the same era giving them inspiration, radicalization, and individuality in their work.  Both lived and died only years apart from each other, experiencing the same historical events causing them to write untraditional poems for their time.  Even though their works of poetry differ in what they’re fighting for, their opinionating and radical voice is what draws individuals to these great and inspirational writers.

A radical poem by E. E. Cummings is entitled, “I sing of Olaf glad and big”, written in 1931, less than 10 years after he fought in WWI.  In this poem, Cummings portrays a young man who is celebrating himself and what he believes in along with celebration- “I sing Olaf glad and big.”  By rebelling after joining the military and then refusing to fight, Olaf is embracing his private convictions. Not only does Olaf celebrate taking a stand for himself by singing “glad and big”, but his audience celebrates for him as well.  They celebrate because Olaf did not fight even when he was demanded to do so. Olaf rebels and goes against the words of the military.  The poem represents the history and American tradition. It is Olaf who triumphs. He follows his desire and does what he feels is right.  It shows Olaf’s acknowledgement of his own truth. He is not compelled to be bravery or prove his virtue and patriotism. For all of this he is seen as a hero and praised by the narrator.

Cummings uses the poem as a song from the past. This is indicated by his continuous lyrical phrases:

            I sing of Olaf glad and big/Whose warmest heart recoiled at war:/A conscientious object-or

This is done in order to stress the importance of the legendary actions of Olaf. The narrator of the piece praises Olaf for rejecting the Army and the government. His warm heart suggests that Olaf is strong, too strong to hurt, harm, or kill another; even an enemy. Like a great and good person he rejected the evil found in war. Although most would call this cowardly, the narrator sees this as the opposite. This is clear in the last two lines of the poem, “unless statistics lie he was more brave than me: more blond than you.” –lines 41 and 42. This line has the direct meaning that Olaf is White America.  It also indicates that Olaf is the true American by being “more blond than you.” Even if Olaf was of Spanish decent, he would still be “more blond” than the average American.  It is important because America founded its self on standing up for its beliefs and rebelling against European traditions.  Standing up against the king of England is how America became independent.  For Olaf to sand up against the military is more blonde and more American than “you”, thus Olaf is a hero.

Olaf is a hero for standing against the war, but he is also a martyr for standing against the war. For refusing to fight, his fellow soldiers work against him. They beat him and sodomize him for his action. Instead of fighting the enemy the soldiers fight Olaf.

But—though all kinds of officers/ (a yearning nation’s blue eyed pride)/ their passive prey did kick and curse/ until for wear their clarion/  voices and boots were much the worse,/ and egged the firstclassprivates on/ his rectum wickedly to tease/ by means of skillfully applied/ bayonets roasted hot with heat–

Stanzas number 2, 4, and 5 contain dashes indicating and emphasizing the syllables, which stresses the importance of the phrase as well as gives connotation for sarcasm.  In this fourth stanza of the poem, the use of dashes is indicated.  It shows an off-hand remark, giving the reader more information in between verses.  It tells of the sad tale of Olaf being beaten and sexually abused by the military.  He plays the passive role as his fellow privates torture him. The soldiers attempt to strip him of humanity.  But in the end he achieves an even higher stature. Olaf still stands for his cause and refuses to kill, though it means that he himself will be killed.

The parenthesis that is used in the same stanza gives the reader a sense of after thought and sarcasm.  It indicates an effect of irony showing the plain text as less harmful and objectifying Olaf.  The reader then beliefs that the events and outcome of Olaf’s actions is something that is to be hidden and not talked about.  In reference to the fourth stanza again, “(a yearning nation’s blue eyed pride)” is a hint of sarcasm to Olaf’s prosecutors.  It is mocking America and its American standards of being blonde haired and blue eyed, giving specific reference to the color blue.  Blue is located on America’s flag and a representation of America, and it also brings reference to ‘blue-blood’.  The people, who look down on Olaf and beating him for taking a stand, are of a different American.  They are different because they are upper class American. They are able to use their voluble assets and money for power.  An American of blue blood would want to fight for their country, and would want to kill to gain power. If we assume that Olaf is an average American, being that he is middle class, he would know the struggles of being American. To be American means to be a rebel and never back down.

Cummings objectifies his main character in other ways.  He does this by associating the main character to the objects used to beat him with.  This makes Olaf a thing and not a human in the eyes of the officer.  “Their passive pray did kick and curse, until for wear their clarion, voice and boots were much the worse.” Instead of Cummings stating how Olaf was in “much the worse”, Cummings insists that the boots and the voice of the soldiers are in worse shape than Olaf.  Despite this, Olaf’s condition isn’t mentioned and is left unsaid. This gives importance to Olaf and his persistence to not giving into the demands of war and military.  To describe or give mention to Olaf would relieve the main character from heroism. It would suggest that Olaf gave up, gave into his beating, and become a fighting soldier in war.  This affect is emphasized even more by the grammatical powers Cummings uses. The author puts the subject -Olaf- last and the adjectives in the beginning of the sentence.  Olaf is dehumanized during his rape and the Cummings language by objectifying the main character. The rape subjects Olaf to the loss of manhood. It also lets the reader know how the soldiers felt about him; because Olaf wouldn’t fight in the war, he was sexually identified as a woman.  Olaf was then associated with other women and wasn’t fit for war and fighting battles.

 Christ (of His mercy infinite)/ I pray to see; and Olaf too

In this stanza, stanza eight, it is seen that the narrator envisions Olaf as a Christ like figure, for Olaf is sacrificed.  He cast himself to death by rebelling against the army and government.  Olaf gives himself up to save others and supports his personal cause.  He takes on the passive resistance role. By not fighting back against his aggressors and turning the other cheek, Olaf becomes Christ-like.  The use of syntax through the poem also creates the effect of biblical overtones. This is another indication of Olaf being related too or having similar reactions of Christ and praised by others.  Others praise him after death for standing up against the government.  They even appear to sing to him about his heroic efforts, and looked up to for his actions.  For like Christ, he chooses to answer to a God rather than to society that condemn him.

The poem “I sing of Olaf glad and big” is a radical poem written for its time.  It gives voices to the audience encourage people to stand up for humanity and personal rights, even if it means to stand against the military and the government.  If one were to stand up against the government for a good cause, Cummings portrayed the praise that would be received as well.  Praise from those who carry the same beliefs as well as those who were afraid themselves to take action.  He gained fast attention to his reader by swearing several times in the poem, “I will not kiss your fucking flag.”  The use of profanity was possibly the only way that Olaf could get his point across.  With out the swearing, Olaf would have been an even more passive hero.  His character would appear stubborn and vain, instead of dominating and heroic.  Swearing also portrays his anger of his country, the war, and the military; adding even more personality to the character of Olaf.  It also has a way to suave and stun not only the readers, but Olaf’s prosecutors as well.  The reader was able to understand the anger Olaf had as well as the anger felt by his fellow officers once he made such bold statements.

Besides profanity, the poetic form Cummings used for this poem doesn’t follow traditional poetry of the 1930’s.  His stanzas do not contain a specific rhyme pattern or lyrical meters, and the length of each stanza varies significantly. Some are only two lines while another runs on for the length of sixteen lines. Literally, at the end of each stanza he makes a bold statement such as: “I will not kiss your fucking flag” and “there is some shit I will not eat”.  Although Cummings himself did not take a stand when he was sent to war- because it is known that he participated in World War One- one can see his inner struggle with the issue by the courageous statements made through out the piece.

 

Langston Hughes is also observed as a deep-seated writer for his time. This is observed in his poem, “I, Too” written in 1932.  It is a radical poem in which the main character dreams of one day taking a stand against the racial bigotry and prejudice of Jim Crow.  In the poems second stanza, the main character, “the darker brother”, predicts the future. He wants to become socially equal to the others. Referring to the “company” as his white counter parts, he yearns to share a table with them.

Tomorrow,/ I’ll sit at the table/ When company comes.

His wanting to eat with the company is a historical reference to the segregation of the South. During this time, and even today, African Americans were looked down upon and viewed as a lesser class than White Americans.  This is observed in the beginning of the poem where the main character complains about his situation:

I am the darker brother./ They send me to eat in the kitchen/ When company comes,

Being constantly sent to the kitchen when company comes is a reminder of the main characters place in society and the degradation of his race. It is also his White counterparts sending him back to his duties and his work.  Historically, African Americans were in the kitchen, cooking and cleaning, keeping alive and maintaining the lives of their owners- in reference to slavery- and their bosses.  The table that the main character dream of sharing represents a symbol of communion like a gathering place or welcome table.  It is viewed as the social coming together of groups of people as well as culture and a representation of unity and acceptance.  So when “the darker brother” is constantly being sent back to the kitchen, he feels lesser than others and not valued in society and his country.  However, the table the he wants to sit is not really a table. The table is the south, the cities, the government, and America.  “The darker brother” wants to be viewed as a part of society and not as an outcast as he is constantly being shooed away from where he should to be.

      Besides,/ They’ll see how beautiful I am/ And be ashamed—

Hughes uses a connotation that White America didn’t associate with Black people. For “the darker brother” to desire White America to view him as “beautiful” represents a child-like image.  It references the ideology of White society to view African Americans as ugly, unattractive, savage, and heathens.  But the statement also demonstrates the mind and ideals of the main character. He has not let the mentality of his surrounding society influence how he views himself; the “darker brother” recognizes and acknowledges the beauty in himself as well as the humanity and equality of all individuals.  When he predicts the future, the “darker brother” does not say that he is going to eat at the table with other Blacks. He wants to eat at the table with the company and not be inferior of Whites. Instead he wants to become equal with them.

But I laugh,/ And eat well,/ And grow strong.

Although “the darker brother” is continuously being put back in his place in society, he does not become angry, he does not except the status quo. The “darker brother” dreams of the future outcome of sharing a table with the “company”.  His reference to strength and to work his way out of the kitchen is Hughes symbolism of progression. This is the progression of the main character as well as the African American community.  Although eating in the kitchen bothers him, the narrator and the author do not argue the point or fight to eat at the table. Instead, the narrator is accepting to these social circumstances, satisfied with knowing that one day when he “grow[‘s] strong” he will eat at the table among them.

The poem “I, Too” is a poem rebelling against the unjust systems and racism occurring in 1930’s America. “I, too, sing America.”- are the first and last lines of the poem.  It is a statement against the bias society.  The “darker brother” dreams of a day when he will be equal with those around him.  Decades earlier other cultural communities were singing for their rights and freedom, such as the Jewish, Irish, and German societies.  Now it is “the darker brother” who is telling America that he too sings and dreams for a day in which he will be able to eat the table with the “company”.  Hughes is also taking a stand for rights that are deserved of his community in the south and his yearning for a time when he will be viewed as equal.

The literary style in which Hughes wrote his poem rebels against literary tradition.  He does not follow any rhyme scheme or the standard four to six stanza poem.  Hughes wrote this poem in first person and uses short sentences getting straight to the point.  There is no use of imagery, nor any metaphors or symbolisms that is common in 19th and early 20th century poetry.  This particular poem is something close to Marxism mixed with Modernism. It makes the poem’s simple statements and outcomes romanticized as Hughes details the realities of segregation and dreams of a different and accepting society.

When comparing Hughes and Cummings writing, they are both rebelling against what they feel is wrong.  They both aren’t afraid to tell their opinion to point fingers at the accused.  Such poems are what make these writers great and rebellious for their time.  They were not afraid to change the structure of the modern poem.    It is authors such as Cummings and Hughes who have been inspirational to many and what has helped shape and mold opinionated, realistic and modern poems that are seen today.

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About Russia Robinson

I am an independent freelance writer and free thinker. I strive to use my writing talents to benefit the greater good of society, one word, one sentence, one page at a time. Originally from Richmond, California I attended San Francisco State University receiving a BA in English Creative Writing and American Literature in 2004. After this I attended post graduate studies in 2008 at Georgia’s Kennesaw State University in Technical Writing. With an academic background in English, I have spent more than 10 years’ helping young people succeed. This can be seen in my career background in education and mental health. I am a certifiable Language Arts teacher for the state of Georgia. I also worked in social services including juvenile mental health treatment services and counseling. As a result, I understand the diversity of problems people face in their everyday lives. With words put together like so, I promote equality and a healthy society for all people regardless of individual differences. Conducting research, writing articles, essays, and blogging, I push to educate others about various issues that affect people. I also do this creatively through short stories, poems, pictures, and a novel in progress. My hobbies and interest are reading and learning. I enjoy all things art and all things nature. From camping and astronomy to photography and cooking, I enjoy sighting seeing and socializing just as much as I enjoy curling in bed with a good book or binge watching TV.
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