My sweet old etcetera by E. E. Cummings

In this study topic, you will closely read Langston Hughes’ simple poem, My sweet old etcetera.  You will take notes and have various opportunities to debate the subject with your classmates. You will demonstrate your comprehension in an informational essay in which you will explore Cummings’s theme and style of writing.

E. E. Cummings was a poet, playwright, painter, and writer from Cambridge, Massachusetts. In September 1917, while serving in an ambulance unit in the Army, he was captured and transferred to a prison camp for three and a half months on charges of espionage. He rejoined the 12th Division in November 1918 at Camp Devens, Massachusetts. After this, he travelled extensively, especially to Paris, which he had fallen in love with during his ambulance duty. Cumming’s father, his staunch supporter, died in a vehicle accident in 1926. Due to his Unitarian upbringing, Cumming began writing more about God (his father was a minister). Despite being an artist, he became disillusioned with communism after visiting the USSR and shifted rightward on many social and political issues upon his return.

Many of Cummings’ poems are about his experiences in World War I. After the war, young people his age in France, England, and America had the type of reaction to war that we currently call “Vietnam Syndrome.”  In both cases, the war was bogged down and seemed meaningless.  For cummings, in particular, the war seemed absurd.  The French allies threw him in jail for the “crime” of writing letters home criticizing the French.  So this was how he spent “the war to end all wars,” “the war to make the world safe for democracy.”  Where was the freedom he was supposed to be fighting for?  Can you understand how cummings developed a critical attitude toward war jingoism and toward advertising in general?

He mostly wrote in an experimental style. He usually attacked on depersonalized, commercial, and exploitative mass culture. Mass culture means making everybody the same. Cummings reflects the culture of advertisement. He was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His father was a Congregationalist minister and teacher at Harvard. Cummings was a New England poet with some connections with the Puritans strains. Cummings was known for not using punctuation marks properly and sometimes not capitalizing the words. In his poems, there are a lot of gaps and short sentences.

The style of cummings’ poetry reflects his use of the technology of the day.  His poems look like the sort of thing one gets by playing with a typewriter.  Imagine what he would have done with a modern word processor & all those fonts, sizes, & styles.

Text of The Poem

Summary of My sweet old etcetera

Summary of My sweet old etcetera

This 1926 poem is essentially a letter sent by a soldier to his lover during World War I. The speaker discusses his family’s contribution to the war effort and his parents’ pride in him (albeit for the wrong reasons: they mention how they hoped he would die bravely on the front line instead of hoping he comes home). He then returns to the situation and describes how, regardless of what his family is doing, regardless of how happy his parents are, regardless of how much his sister contributes to the war effort, regardless of how patriotic his aunt is, all he can think about is his darling (and her body of course).

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The poem’s structure is somewhat free-form, following Cumming’s distinctive style of free verse; reading aloud brings the poem’s content into focus. However, the poem can be understood as having two sides: one is the letter in which he describes how all he can think about amid the hell of war, face-first in the mud, is the girl he wishes to return to. The other is more of a template as if detailing every other letter written to a loved one by a GI in the thick of it all. On the one hand, the seemingly endless description of his family’s actions and how it all comes to a halt near the end when he mentions his lover, as well as the quirky little joke about missing her “…smile eyes knees and of your Etcetera,” referring to her body or parts of it or possibly even her personality, lend credence to the former. On the other hand, the recurrent use of the word ‘etcetera’ – even referring to the reader of the letter as his ‘sweet old etcetera’ – and the acts of his family in keeping with the times (written during WWI, when Cummings served in the Ambulance Corps in France.) support the latter.

The poem reads more like text than poetry on the surface, yet, like the surrealist painters who inspired Cummings, not everything is as it appears. The poem presents us with two sides, but ultimately it is the same coin: it is a basic love poem; slightly playfully designed to elicit a chuckle from the reader or listener on the final line following the description of the speaker lying face down in the mud, fighting for survival. And when bullets whizz overhead and spatter the soil around him, or perhaps silently as he lies, the speaker’s thoughts, whether he is a single man or one of the thousands, are all directed toward his beloved.

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