Lesson on 'Next to of course god America' by e e cummings
This lesson focuses on helping students to understand the use of allusion for satirical purposes in modernist poetry, making use of two Dadaist paintings to illustrate cummings' collage technique and satirical style.
Part - though only part - of the power of this poem comes from its puzzle-like nature: where exactly DO all those phrases come from? This makes the poem fun to teach, but care must be taken not to reinforce the idea, common amongst students, that poems are simply like crossword puzzles that need to be solved, and that the answer is 'out there', usually in the mind of the English teacher, just waiting to be disclosed. So attention needs to be drawn to the aesthetic impact of the poem and the role that its tone, its style, its form have to play in that.
- To focus on the use of allusion, by looking at a specific satirical mode of allusion
- To understand some of the features of modernism
- To understand aspects of the relationship between modernist art and poetry
- A sheet with the words of the poems 'next to of course god america' and 'anyone lived in a pretty how town'
- The Poetry Archive recording of cummings reading 'Next to of course god america'
- A sheet with the with the words of the following national anthems (all of which can be found online with their own Wikipedia article): (1) 'My Country 'Tis Of Thee' (the title is quoted in the cummings poem as well as the words 'land of the pilgrims'); (2) 'The Star Spangled Banner' (the words 'oh say can you see the dawn's early' are in this); (3) 'O Canada' (contains the words 'thy sons command')
- A sheet with the words of Psalm 8, and the following verse from Jeremiah: 'Therefore thus saith the LORD; Behold, I will plead thy cause, and take vengeance for thee; and I will dry up her sea, and make her springs dry. And Babylon shall become heaps, a dwelling place for dragons, an astonishment, and a hissing, without an inhabitant. They shall roar together like lions: they shall yell as lions' whelps. In their heat I will make their feasts, and I will make them drunken, that they may rejoice, and sleep a perpetual sleep, and not wake, saith the LORD. I will bring them down like lambs to the slaughter, like rams with the goats. (For Psalm 8, it is best to use 'the translation in the Psalter Hymnal' as this uses the same phrase as cummings ('your glorious name')
- A sheet containing images of two Dadaist paintings, or a display of these paintings with a projector and screen: (1) Hannah Hoch: 'Cut With the Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany', 1919 (can be found in the Wikipedia article on Dada), and (2) George Grosz: 'Republican Automatons', 1920 (can be found in the Wikipedia article on George Grosz)
- A sheet containing the list of features of modernism from 'text etc', or a display of that list with a projector and screen. This is one of John Holcombe's very interesting and useful poetry teaching sites - the other is 'Poetry Magic'
Teaching sequence of activities
The teacher should not read the poem to the class first: this always constitutes an intervention in the process of interpretation - and, whilst that is nevertheless a good thing in many circumstances, in the case of this poem students need to be allowed to make their own decisions, initially, about how it should be read.
Students read the poem to each other in pairs and try to make sense of it. What is the initial impact of the poem? Even if they can't make sense of the words, do they seem to have a general theme or tone? Do they recognise any of the phrases? What do they notice about the use of punctuation and the form or structure of the poem? Get some of them to attempt a reading to the class and get feedback from their discussions.
1. Pause the discussion of the poem and hand out the national anthems sheet and the religious passages sheet. Get the students to read and discuss the three patriotic anthems and the two religious pieces. First of all, can they spot what these have in common with cummings' poem? Second, what do they feel about the national anthems? What kinds of sentiments do they express, what kind of language do they use, and what do they have in common? Third, what do they feel about the religious pieces, and what do they have in common with the patriotic pieces?
2. Now return to cummings' poem. Does their reading of the other pieces help them to understand what the cummings is about, and how it is written? At this point, having found the sources of the allusions, they should be able to detect the way in which cummings has elided a number of well-known phrases to make a kind of verbal collage. Point out to students that the first 13 lines of the poem are in fact a speech, whilst the 14th line is narration. Then ask the students to write a punctuated version of the speech. What do they make of the phrases for which they have not seen the sources?
3. Play the Poetry Archive recording of cummings reading the poem. Does this change or confirm the students' view of the poem? How does his manner of reading the poem affect their interpretation - especially his use of pauses and his tone? At this stage, draw out the satirical tone and style of the poem. Ask students to discuss the form and structure of the poem: do they notice that it is a sonnet? Why do they think cummings might have chosen the form of a sonnet?
4. Pause discussion of the poem again. Hand out or display the two Dada paintings and get students to talk about what they see in the paintings. Then ask them if they seem to have anything in common with cummings' poem. Draw out the following features of modernist art and poetry:
(Students could also at this point read the Wikipedia entry on Dada which describes the anti-war origins of the Dada movement.)
5. Finally, play the recording of another cummings poem, 'anyone lived in a pretty how town', and show students the poem. Although this is a very different kind of poem in some ways, can they see cummings using similar techniques in both poems?
Hand out or display the list of features of modernism and ask students to discuss which of these features the poems and paintings display. Finally, ask them to sum up how effective they feel cummings' use of these features is.
Ask students to read and discuss the following extract from a critical essay and discuss in relation to the poems they have read:
...Cummings was attempting...to imitate the modern artist's attempts to depict a fourth dimension within a work of graphic art...
...To accomplish [the] feat of linguistic fidelity to the immediacy of experience, Cummings developed the literary technique of fragmentation or the dismemberment of language into autonomous yet related fragments….Cummings first reduced language to those components usually regarded as the lowest common denominators, morphemes and graphemes. Then, instead of the usual arrangements of words placed in normal syntactical order and grouped into poetic stanzas, Cummings rearranged these linguistic units into a visual representation of an experience. Such dismemberment is analogous to the analysis of surfaces into planes and angles such as are depicted in the Picasso portraits of a profile superimposed on a full face view….
Similarly, Cummings felt that the technique of tmesis or the re-combination and the interspersing of other phrases, words or parts of words would illustrate the interrelatedness and the overlapping of events which actually or perceptually occur simultaneously. In the same way that the Cubist painters illustrated the various visual viewpoints of physical objects, Cummings’ verbal-graphic techniques of fragmentation and tmesis demonstrated the structure and the component forms of language. At first, the reader faces the scattered letters and punctuation marks with much the same bewilderment as that experienced when first viewing the non-representational cubes and cones of a Cubist painting. Eventually, the reader realizes that the external elements of language have merely been dislocated and juxtaposed in new ways within the jumbled typography.
from Regis L Welch, "The Linguistic Paintings of E. E. Cummings, Painter-Poet." Language and Literature 9(1984): 79-89.
Extend students' experience and understanding of modernism by showing them 'The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock' by T.S Eliot, and/or playing them extracts from 'The Four Quartets' or 'The Waste Land' which may be found on the Poetry Archive website, and by showing some examples of expressionist art.