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Deviation in E.E. Cummings’ “Kitty” Essay

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Updated: Sep 21st, 2021

Introduction

For years, E.E. Cummings has been the “bad boy”, the nonconformist, the rebel with a cause, confusing librarians by giving his volumes uncatalougable titles like is 5 (1926) with the end given making readers pay attention and believe.

Having seen action in World War I and been incarcerated in a French concentration camp, Cummings turned to poetry and came up with his first volume Tulips and Chimneys. In the said volume “the songs and love sonnets proved that Cummings was already one of the most accomplished poets of his generation. But the characteristic Cummings typographical devices have already begun to appear… In using these tricks, he was not merely trying to divert the reader momentarily from “spring electricity Coney Island” (in his explanation of his verbal acrobatics). He realized that at this age we take in more by the eye than by ear. To make his rhythms felt and his words audible, he called on the printers for help. Let the eye see and then the ear might listen”. (Thorp, 1960, p. 215)

We shall now dwell on such deviations from orthodox poetry as we go along.

Cummings’ verbal acrobatics

The first syntactical violation we can point out is Cummings’ failure to capitalize the first word of the first line which is also the beginning of the first sentence, this is due to his “ineluctable preoccupation with ‘the verb’”. (Thorp, 1960, p.214).

The second of his verbal acrobatics is his spelling kitty, a proper noun, in small letters. Could kitty be a derivation from coitus – Kitty’s occupation? We do not presume to read the poet’s mind, but we can conjecture that he wishes to point out to the reader the low stature of kitty in the hierarchy of human beings since she has chosen an ugly way to earn a living. Another reason could be that the poet likens her to a kitten – a lively, cute, playful young animal.

Each time Kitty decides to say “yes” to a customer, she has had to consider her options since she knows that pursuing the business she is in ultimately leads to disease and death. The words must and shall means survival for herself. She is prepared for no other work other than that which is the oldest profession in the world.

The third stanza

In the third stanza (if we may call it a stanza), Cummings fails to capitalize the morpheme skilled which marks the beginning of the line. But we have the sudden capitalized Unspontaneous in the middle of the line that contains adjectives that best describe Kitty. She has been quite a while in the sex trade that she has learned to be automatic in her actions.

A morphological deviation can be found in the third stanza (one line) wherein the poet coins a new word to his advantage – unrepute. He could have resorted to oft-used expressions as disreputable or of ill repute, but he is a law unto himself. When he invents the new word unrepute, he is trying to stress

Kitty’s being amoral, not immoral. At the tender age of sixteen, Kitty has dim ideas of right and wrong. She doesn’t know any better. She is also poor and cannot differentiate between one scent or another. Cheap perfumes that signal the preferences of her kind, will do the trick of attracting prospective clients.

The next two lines continue to describe Kitty – a sweet slow animal. Her look is impersonal, unperturbed. At first, we are puzzled as to his choice of words – “importantly banal” until we analyze it to mean – the vulgar stare needed and associated with the sex trade.

The fourth and fifth stanzas

In the only four-line stanza, we are startled by the accusation in the line “you corking brute” until we understand that the poet is addressing anyone who victimizes Kitty – the owner of the brothel, the pimp, or even the bartender who abets prostitution and takes advantage of helpless people like Kitty. The cork would be the male sex organ that plugs the hole – the vagina during the sex act. The ease with which Cummings uses euphemistic terms as the above has earned for him the title of “the best writer of erotic verse since the Earl of Rochester.” (Thorp, 1960, p. 214).

In the line the baby breastfed broad “kitty” twice eight, baby breastfed could mean that kitty has not quite developed as an adult. Twice eight could mean that she is still a child – somebody’s daughter or younger sister.

The term “broad in the four-line stanza is not used as an adjective to refer to Kitty’s body since her being baby-breasted and underdeveloped has already been pointed out. “Broad” is the slang word referring to a prostitute or a woman with loose morals.

We can only guess why the poet has this extra-long line in the fifth stanza until we find out that there are seven stanzas in all. These stanzas could stand for the seven days in the week, there could be at least one day in the week which Kitty would regard as long and tiring e.g. a day with as many as four customers, one of which would be an elderly customer hard put to attain his orgasm.

Then, towards the end of the poem, in the line starting with “beer nothing”, the poet switches to another character, probably the bartender who mentions the whore’s choice of a man’s drink – a whiskey sour since she is accustomed to hard drinks, the faster to make her drunk an in the mood for sex. The word Lady only serves to emphasize the fact that Kitty is no lady.

In the last two lines, Cummings violates still another rule of grammar; he uses the term most great instead of greatest. Kitty has one saving factor: the least of her wonderful smiles can radiate joy and amusement to a man – though he is a sinner or saint.

Cummings has composed poems like “kitty” on supposedly degraded sexual love. One way of forcing awareness is by the use of unconventional expressions. “What saves the poems is Cummings’ knowledge that only the most sacred things of the self can be kidded and remain sacred”, (Pearce 360), e.g. Kitty’s choice not of beer but hard drinks.

“Cummings, like D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce suffered from the banning from serious writing of certain Anglo-Saxon expressions and a feeling against the literary portraiture of certain types of people such as drunks, homosexuals and whores who are usually portrayed sympathetically.” (Mazzaro 259).

Despite all the acrobatics and deviations from standard rules, Kitty has almost all the attributes of a poem. It has alliteration: skilled, softness (stanza 1), sweet, slow (stanza 4), baby breastfed, broad (stanza 5). The poem is in iambic verse and it is not without rhyme, especially in the beginning.

So we have shall and pal (first 2 lines), cute and unrepute (next 2 lines), animal and banal (2 lines that follow).

A poem must stir the emotions, the predominant emotion is that of anger towards the unfair treatment of children thrust into prostitution.

Conclusion

In Cummings’ poem, Kitty is the symbol of young, deprived, and depraved womanhood.

References

Mazzaro, J. Modern American Poetry: Essays in Criticism. New York: David McKay Co., Inc.

Osterwalder, H. (n.d.), ‘Eros/Jhanafos a pair’: The Dialecric of Life and Death in Tony Harrison’s Laureate^ Block, Critical Survey, Volume 17, Number 3.

Pearce, R. The Continuity of American Poetry. Princeton University Press, 1961.

Thorp, W., American Writing in the Twentieth Century. MA: Harvard University Press, 1960.

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