The Two Faces of Spring: A Stylistic Analysis of E. E. Cummings’ “in Just-” and “(listen) this a dog barks”
by Rose Kulsum-Binder
A refreshing and novel approach to conveying emotions and imagery can be said to be the domain of a very unique poet, Edward Erstlin Cummings. Better known to the world as E. E. Cummings, he was a force of change in American poetry in the early twentieth century. As author Eve Triem notes in her book E.E. Cummings - American Writers 87: University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers No. 87 (1969), by “diverging from traditional practices” Cummings was essentially a “smasher of the logicalities” of commonly accepted poetry (p. 5). His poetry used “idiosyncratic typographic and stylistic devices,” which created a sense of absurdity in his works, yet Cummings meant this deliberately in order to “leaven the commonplace [and] to startle readers into ‘listening’ instead of merely hearing” his poetry (Triem, 1969, pp. 5-6). Thus, by examining his poetry with its intentions in mind, it is possible to conclude that the stylistics of his poems is a key factor in their successful conveyance of mood and situation to the reader. This paper will endeavor to analyze the stylistics of two of Cummings’ poems, “in Just-” (1922) and “(listen) this a dog barks” (1963), both of which treat the topic of spring time, in terms of their elements of graphology, lexis, semantics, pragmatics, and point of view. Although both of the aforementioned poems have a similarly non-traditional manner of presentation and their focus is the same topic, they each differ slightly in the mood that they evoke in readers as a result of their stylistic features.
a. “in Just-”
According to Paul Simpson, in his book Stylistics: A Resource Book for Students (2014), graphology refers to “the patterns of written language [and] the shape of language on the page” (p. 5). The graphology of this poem significantly impacts its message by adding an extra dimension to the reader’s understanding. First of all, the fact that this poem discusses the topic of spring from a child’s perspective is quite important, as the distribution of the poem’s content on the page is not neatly organized but rather seemingly haphazardly placed, much like a child’s way of describing an event with excitement. Please refer to the appendix for the complete poem texts.
In lines  and  there are pauses inserted for effect. Line  only has two words and the second, “Just-”, is capitalized then hyphenated at the end, which gives off the sense of importance to it as it forces the reader to stop and focus on it. Line , on the other hand, possesses an entire clause, but the first word “spring” is set off from the rest by a large space, which once again puts it in the spotlight of attention and visually groups it with the two words above it, in order to create an effect of special focus within the poem itself. It also gives off the impression of the way an excited child would speak, producing single words with pauses as he tries to catch his breath in his state of excitement. Similarly, lines  and  contain words such as “eddieandbill” and “bettyandisbel” that have been jammed together on the other hand, which also foregrounds them against the rest of the content and mimics the way that children often speak out phrases in one breath when they are excited.
Another interesting function of the poem’s graphology is that it also mimics aspects in the real world. For example, lines , , and [21-24] all pertain to the balloon man’s whistling while he is far away from the children in terms of distance, since the poem mentions it explicitly with the repeated word “far.” This sense of his being distant is conveyed through the addition of extra spaces between the words in lines  and  as well as the presentation of lines [21-24] in a downward cascade format of words with a space insertion in the first line. Finally, action is also conveyed indirectly in lines [18-20] as the balloon man is described as being “goat-footed” and that evokes a trotting type of movement on his part. This is alluded to graphologically through the downwardly cascading words “and”, “the”, and “goat-footed,” which progressively move further to the right of the page, as if the balloon man himself was trotting along towards the children, inside the poem.
b. “(listen) this a dog barks”
In terms of its graphology, this poem is similarly interesting as it also mimics excitement, creates emphasis and represents real world elements. Lines [3-6] enumerate a number of nouns without punctuating them using commas, thereby giving these lines a sense of rushed excitement as the words are strung together without any pause. Similarly, lines [14-19] also contain densely packed words, but now they are all verbs that have been grouped together without any commas, and also create the effect of a mélange of excited actions that are occurring suddenly and swiftly. Both of the stanzas containing these word groups graphologically convey the excited feeling that everything acquires when spring is in the air and approaching fast.
The use of parentheses and selective capitalization emphasizes certain aspects of the poem. For example, line  is simply made up of one word, “(listen)”, however because it is presented in parentheses, it forces extra attention from the reader as it is stands out against other words. Similarly in line , the single word “(yes)” reaffirms the “miracle” that is spring and so its power is emphasized through its presentation in parentheses. The entire poem is presented in lower case lettering except for the last line, which is written with the initial letter of every word capitalized, much like title casing. This stylistic device places emphasis on line  by foregrounding it against the other lines with internal deviation from the established pattern of lower casing. Once again it serves to reaffirm the power of springtime and to demonstrate that it is an unstoppable force as “nobody [can] stop it” (Cummings, 1991b, line 30). There is one more instance of capitalization, which occurs in line  with the word “Spring.” This is another important internal deviation which foregrounds and emphasizes the topic of the entire poem.
The representation of real world elements is ingeniously presented in the poem through the use of punctuation and graphological layout. For example, lines [7-8] demonstrate the real world action of “tumbling” by actually splitting the word into two halves, one beneath the other in mimicry of an actual downward fall. The joyous feeling of “wonderful sunlight” emanating all around is also mimicked through the splitting of the word “wonderful” into two parts spread over lines [8-9] to show how the rays are all pervading.
Following from the unusual graphological layout is the unique usage of punctuation, which also mimics action. In line , the word “―look―” is surrounded by dashes on either side, thus giving the impression of a set of eyes actually turning from side to side to look around. Similarly in line , the word “o-p-e-n-i-n-g” is actually written out in a spaced manner, leading the word itself to appear as if it is literally unfurling just like the “leaves [and] flowers” mentioned in the poem.
III. Lexis, Semantics, Pragmatics
a. “in Just-”
As Simpson notes, lexis refers to “the words we use,” which is essentially “the vocabulary of a language,” and semantics is “the meaning of [those] words and sentences” (2014, p. 5). The way those individual meanings are understood by people is an entirely different matter, however, as this relies heavily on circumstance. In this case then, pragmatics also enters the picture and analyzes “the way [in which] words and sentences are used in everyday situations,” referring to “the meaning of language in context” so to speak (Simpson, 2014, p. 5). When this poem is analyzed in terms of its lexis it can be noted that it contains a few neologisms. In lines [2-3], the word “mud-luscious” is introduced as a novel way of describing the way that the “world” feels at springtime. Please refer to Table 1 below.
From the examination of the two separate words that constitute this novel adjective, it can be surmised that the intended effect was to imbue this springtime mud with a special quality of richness as an indication of its uniqueness. The common lexical choice would have been to describe the world as simply being ‘muddy’; however, that would not have had the same effect on the reader. Please refer to Table 2 below.
After examining the semantics and pragmatics of ‘muddy,’ it can be noted that it does not possess any positive qualities; in fact it is a word that often carries negative connotations as seen from the above entries. Therefore, the neologism that was used in its stead proved a much better approximation of the pleasant way that spring mud feels in contrast to plain every day mud.
Another interesting neologism to note is “puddle-wonderful,” which is once again another novel adjective used to describe the world in line . This type of description continues to be linked to the general theme of spring as it refers to puddles, which are commonly associated with rain as it often occurs during this season. Please refer to Table 3 below.
Thus by joining two words of opposite connotation, the new adjective that describes the world in spring carries with it the literal meaning of it being filled with puddles due to rain, but it also imbues these same puddles with a positive quality, which is usually the sense of renewal that accompanies the spring season.
There are also a few words used in the poem that hide within themselves a darker meaning that only surfaces upon closer inspection of their pragmatics. Please refer to Table 4 below.
Although the poem’s topic is spring and there are many references to what children normally associate with it, such as “marbles” and “hop-scotch,” there is also the figure of the “balloonman”, whom children look forward to for lovely colorful balloons. Yet the words that describe him do not paint an innocent and friendly picture of this spring scene. In the poem, the balloon man is mentioned thrice and each time his description is somewhat sinister as can be seen from the definitions listed above, such as “little”, “lame”, “queer”, “old”, and finally “goat-footed”. The final adjective is especially noteworthy as it is a neologism of sorts, which gives the balloon man his overall definition, likening him to a goat or similar animal. Please refer to Table 5. This description, when considered alongside the other adjectives, does not spell a pleasant image yet rather shows a man who appears as a jolly balloon salesman to the children but is in fact a much more ominous figure.
In this manner then, this innocent poem of nature in the spring time mingles the dark side of outdoor fun within it, as children who leave their homes to enjoy the beauty of the new season are also in danger of falling into the clutches of strange old men.
b. “(listen) this a dog barks”
This poem does not possess any neologisms as the previous poem did. It does, however, contain many groups of words that help to convey the sensation of spring time. And from the examination of these words it is also possible to determine that none of them allude to any sinister aspects of spring, but rather celebrate this concept to its very core. Please refer to Table 6.
As listed above, all of the nouns pertain to people, nature, inanimate objects, and abstract concepts. There is an intermingling of mankind with nature as spring brings with it excitement to all things that are touched by it, including the inanimate “steeples.” Humans, animals, and plants are all equally awaiting the arrival of the season of rebirth. From the adverb group listed it is also possible to discern the attitude that is prevalent in the air, as it evolves around excitement and rejuvenation. Lastly the verb group of words is also visibly marked by a number of various actions that convey the many activities that living things engage in when spring arrives and they are feeling excited and renewed. Therefore, this poem, which deals with the same topic as the previous one, presents a mood which is much more encompassing and inclusive of all things, not just people, and does not contain any negative allusions whatsoever.
IV. Point of view
a. “in Just-”
According to Simpson, point of view refers to the “perspective through which a story is told” and this is considered “an important stylistic dimension” as it is responsible for creating “much of the feel, colour or texture of a [text]” (2014, p. 28). Even though the texts being analyzed here are not stories in the strictest sense but rather poetry, they still perform the action of narration, which in both cases is, the approach of springtime. From an examination of the manner in which this poem is structured in terms of point of view, it can be noted that it possesses a heterodiegetic viewpoint, as the narrator is a detached observer of the unfolding scene, rather than a participator. There is no indication given anywhere in the body of the poem that the narrator is actively participating in Eddie and Bill’s games or Betty and Isbel’s games either. As a result of this distance, the narrator of the poem is separated by what Simpson calls “an ironic space,” from the characters in the poem and thus the reader receives an impression of being a voyeur on a seemingly blissful spring scene that is about to turn disturbing with the approach of the questionable balloon man (2014, p. 30).
b. “(listen) this a dog barks”
This poem, in contrast, is narrated from a much more intimate perspective. It is possible to discern that the narrator in this case is also the reflector of fiction. From the examination of the phrases “,come quickly come / run run / with me now” in lines [14-16] and “you and i may not / hurry it with / a thousand poems / my darling” in lines [26-29], it becomes evident that this poem has a homodiegetic viewpoint. Through this first person style of narration, the reader is brought “psychologically much closer to the central character”, who in this case is the narrator and is experiencing springtime firsthand (Simpson, 2014, p. 30). Thus, there is a marked difference here between both poems in terms of the mood that they create and consequently, the emotions that they elicit in readers. As “in Just-” discusses a distant panorama of a children’s spring that is tinged with potential darkness, “(listen) this a dog barks” is completely involved in experiencing spring in all its positive aspects.
In conclusion, it can be noted that both “in Just-” and “(listen) this a dog barks” are avant-garde poems to say the least, yet their unusual appearance and conventions can be considered their best attributes as both of these aspects contribute to the poems’ success in translating two different perspectives of spring into the written word. Through a thorough analysis of such stylistic aspects as graphology, lexis, semantics, pragmatics, and point of view, crucial features of both poems have been exposed in order to display the linguistic secrets behind their narrative and literary effects on readers. These effects can vary greatly depending on the linguistic tools employed and can effectively produce completely opposite images of the very same concept such as has been demonstrated here with two approaches to an oncoming new season of the year.
Cummings, E. E. (1991a). in Just- . In G. J. Firmage (Ed.), E. E. Cummings complete poems 1904-1962 (p. 27). New York: Liveright. Retrieved from http://library.globalchalet.net/Authors/Poetry
Cummings, E. E. (1991b). (listen) this a dog barks. In G. J. Firmage (Ed.), E. E. Cummings complete poems 1904-1962 (p. 835). New York: Liveright. Retrieved from http://library.globalchalet.net/Authors/Poetry
Goat. (2015). In Oxford Dictionary. Retrieved from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com
Lame. (2015). In Oxford Dictionary. Retrieved from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com
Little. (2015). In Oxford Dictionary. Retrieved from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com
Luscious. (2015). In Oxford Dictionary. Retrieved from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com
Mud. (2015). In Oxford Dictionary. Retrieved from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com
Muddy. (2015). In Oxford Dictionary. Retrieved from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com
Old. (2015). In Oxford Dictionary. Retrieved from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com
Puddle. (2015). In Oxford Dictionary. Retrieved from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com
Queer. (2015). In Oxford Dictionary. Retrieved from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com
Simpson, P. (2014). Stylistics: A resource book for students. (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.
Triem, E. (1969). E.E. Cummings - American writers 87: University of Minnesota pamphlets on American writers no. 87. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Retrieved from http://www.ebrary.com
Wonderful. (2015). In Oxford Dictionary. Retrieved from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com
Rose is a Polish native who has spent over three decades of her life here in the UAE. She is a senior who is expecting her impending graduation this semester from the BAELL program at AUS, concentrating in Language. Having previously spent nearly a decade in the education field, catering to young minds and preparing them for the future, she hopes to return to academia upon leaving AUS. When not hard at work, Rose still enjoys academic pursuits such as reading and research in addition to spending time outdoors and with her human and feline family.