The world informed by the horrors of World War I was also a world which influenced artists of the 20th century to push hard against literary conventions and traditions. As a result, the 1920s saw not just the rise of hemlines and skyscrapers, but also boundaries of poetry. Several poets were at the vanguard of this revolution, including T. S. Eliot one side of the spectrum of experimentation and Robert Frost who towered over the opposite side. Somewhere between them stands e.e. Cummings who embraced Frost’s simplicity as the key to revealing depth.
“my sweet old etcetera” is not an exhibition of the more avant-garde techniques of playing with structure and punctuation to be found in Cummings’ canon, but it is more than experimental enough to be a useful counterpoint to the poem’s ironic content. In fact, the rather subtle sense of anger and rejection of the mindless pomp and circumstance of jingoistic patriotism would perhaps be undercut by punctuation of the type references in the two above poems. By settling down to a system of random line breaks, sudden stops and starts and the introduction of parenthetical asides, Cummings sets the stage for a critique of the norm by framing the poem in a structure that is just slightly outside the norm.
It is worth remembering that there were thousands or even tens of thousands and perhaps even millions of Aunts…and Uncle…and brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers back home who were promoting the patriotism of their sons overseas during the war. Patriotism comes as an expectation and any deviation from that norm will be viewed with a sidelong glance of mistrust and distrust toward the person expression those thoughts. The weirdly off-kilter construction of lines like:
“what everybody was fighting
isabel created hundreds
hundreds) of socks not to
mention shirts fleaproof earwarmers”
To describe a very mundane activity performed with love and belief that soldiers were fighting the good fight undercuts that belief with an appropriate sense of irony. The overriding sense of those lines and, indeed, the entire rest of the poem is one of heartbreaking irony and also bitter irony. The secret to the enormous popularity in middle America of Cummings is likely due precisely to his ability insert such bitter irony into poems without giving them the sense of an out of touch artist who had no real feelings of sincerity.
“my sweet old etcetera” provides a perfect framework for establishing the argument that Cummings may be underrated simply because he was embraced so readily by what appears to be a public reading with an uncritical mind. Perhaps it is the very acceptance by the public of a poem that reaches genuine heights of disgust not so much with the horror of the war as the horror of support for continued war whatever the stimulus that served to undermine his status among the critical elite. If so, what to make of the sort of incredible combination of satire, sadness, irony, wistfulness and even a slight sense of bewilderment that comes with the framing of the lines immediately following those quoted above:
“etcetera wristers etcetera, my
mother hoped that
i would die etcetera”
What more powerful example of the Modernist desire to take the world that was left in heaps and stitch it back together into something better than what it was? Does a poem really need to indulge in the sort of abstruse and half-understood allusions of an Eliot for such an intense example of Modernism boiled down to its elements to be considered worthwhile?