Spoiler alert: the contents of this blog post might make your brain implode, I know mine almost did.
Okay guys, so I’ve either made a huge discovery or really shot myself in the foot for this work sample. I have a friend who’s a graduate student in English, and he’s a huge Cummings fan, so I made a point of mentioning to him that we’re reading “the boys i mean” when I saw him yesterday. His reply was, “that’s the one about the soldiers and the cannons right?” I corrected him, “no, it’s about boys and girls who are unrefined and stuff” (embarrassingly, that might be an exact quote) and he says, “Yeah I remember, that one is about soldiers and cannons, Cummings was in World War I, reread it.” So I sit down to reread it, and he might be right. It’s certainly a compelling argument, and once you consider it, parts of the poem I thought were rather strange (lines 4, 5, and 12) make a lot more sense. The boys come and go “with girls who buck and bite” (2) who they fire “thirteen times a night.” (4) They hang hats on these girl’s breasts and carve crosses (the symbol of the allied forces, if I remember my history channel studies correctly) on their behinds (4-5), not very refined acts, even for boys who are not, um, refined. Cannons cannot read or write (10) and I suppose “masturbate with dynamite” (12) could be a rather graphic way to describe a cannon firing. Soldiers in an artillery division probably wouldn’t be refined, and I suppose they wouldn’t give a fart for art (15) as they bombarded cities full of classic architecture. They certainly would have no qualms about killing (16) or watch their language (17), and they would literally have the power to shake the mountains (20) when they and their girls did their deadly dance. It certainly seems like there is more evidence for this being true than there is for all of it being a coincidence.
However, I can’t decide whether this knowledge is a blessing or a curse, and if me putting it on here is a helpful insight to my classmates or an act of literary mind-terrorism. I mean, it’s certainly an interesting way to look at the poem that I didn’t think of the first time I read it, but I feel like maybe I unintentionally betrayed the whole spirit of the critical reading assignment by bringing in so much outside knowledge. I feel like we’ve just spent a lot of time learning about how to separate a piece of literature from the outside knowledge and preconceptions you bring to it, and that this is totally the opposite. But then again, if the soldiers and cannons thing is the way Cummings meant it, then maybe reading this poem without the knowledge is not doing it justice. I mean, reading Animal Farm without any knowledge of Stalinism would be a rather fruitless exercise. Interesting duality there.
But anyway, does looking at it from a soldier-cannon perspective really change the meaning? I think that the same themes that have already been brought up still apply, maybe even more forcibly. Emily brought up “…not only are these men physically powerful, but they also have a strong, almost admirable presence about them…” that still seems like it would apply to soldiers, hell, strong and admirable might be two of the very first words I would use to describe soldiers. Perhaps we weren’t meant to get it at first, because then we can make up our minds about the soldiers before we knew they were soldiers, and applied all these connotations them. Certainly war is brutal and the soldiers he describes are crude, but there’s something ruthlessly honest about them. They’re not afraid to seek out what they know will give them pleasure or speak their minds, regardless of what society deems crude or unrefined. Unlike the people who chat of that and this, they are the shapers of history, the shakers of mountains.
PS: I hope this doesn’t make anyone go back and rewrite their interpretations, I’d hate to bring that on any of you.