Buffalo Bill's | Study Guide

e.e. cummings

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Buffalo Bill's | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

Lines 1–2

"Buffalo Bill 's" is a short poem with only 11 lines, three of which are just one word. The narrator begins by announcing "Buffalo Bill 's / defunct." The reader notices right away that "defunct" seems like an inappropriate word to use about a human being passing away. Defunct is usually used in relation to inanimate objects that are no longer functioning rather than celebrated and famous individuals like Buffalo Bill. The extra space between "Bill" and the possessive ending "'s" demonstrates E.E. Cummings's refusal to follow the rules of punctuation in his unique, modern poetry. The "'s" could refer to something that belongs to Buffalo Bill such as his famous Wild West show, his activities, his possessions, or his life because Buffalo Bill's life and everything associated with it is now "defunct." Cummings also could be using "'s" in place of the word "is." Cummings's distinctive use of ambiguous phrasing and punctuation leaves much open to the reader's interpretation.

Lines 3–6

Placement and spacing play a large role in the power of the next few lines that describe Buffalo Bill's well-known skill of shooting guns while riding his horse. The three lines jut forward dramatically from the first two: "who used to ride / a watersmooth-silver / stallion." Buffalo Bill is in control of powerful natural forces as his "watersmooth-silver / stallion" surges forward like the words on the page. "Watersmooth-silver" is an example of the new compound words Cummings invents in many of his poems. With this combination of existing words, Cummings creates a new way for the reader to envision the sleek, fast-moving, strong horse from which Buffalo Bill would shoot his gun.

"Stallion," a strong and fast-moving male horse, is the fifth line. Then the poem forces the eyes back to the beginning of the next line with the placement of the next, oddly spaced line. The words "and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat" continues the narrator's awed remembrance of Buffalo Bill's strength and abilities. The fact that the spaces are removed between words creates the effect of thoughts quickly coming into a person's head in a dream-like or perhaps bullet-like fashion.

Lines 7–11

At the furthest point to the right of the rest of the words in the poem the narrator exclaims "Jesus" after reflecting on the death of Buffalo Bill. Cummings interjects the name of Jesus, one of the world's main religious leaders (c. 6–4 BCE–30 CE) and to many Christians the Incarnation of God. The narrator's exclamation of "Jesus" may express his surprise and awe in the face of the vibrant Buffalo Bill's erasure from the earth. Using the name of Jesus as an exclamation in this way can be considered offensive by Christians. The word "Jesus" floats to the right of the poem, indicating a pause that the narrator takes to consider the philosophical lesson of Buffalo Bill's death before returning to the details: "he was a handsome man."

The poem has thus far depicted Buffalo Bill as an idealized, traditional male figure who projects strength and skill. Cummings uses unexpected word placement again in the ninth line of the poem indicating the narrator's long and thoughtful pause before the startling rhetorical question that ends the poem: "and what i want to know is / how do you like your blue-eyed boy / Mister Death." The fond recollection of the strong, handsome, masterful Buffalo Bill shifts toward the thought that all people die, including celebrities like Buffalo Bill and the narrator himself. Death reduces the once powerful Buffalo Bill to his "blue-eyed boy," a child who is beautiful but helpless.

Analysis

Experimental Spacing

E.E. Cummings experiments with language in most of his poems and "Buffalo Bill 's" is no exception. Cummings spaces words irregularly throughout "Buffalo Bill 's" as he does in many of his poems. Overall the placement of the words gives an impression of jutting forward, from the first line's "Buffalo Bill" through the word "Jesus," and then coming back through the last word of the poem. Cummings uses the forward propulsion of the first seven lines to represent humanity's attempt to move forward and achieve earthly accomplishments. The words fall back until "Mister Death" is in the same starting position as "Buffalo Bill." In the sixth line Cummings removes spaces between words to create a quickly moving effect as if the narrator was imagining Bill's bullets quickly exploding the clay pigeons used as moving targets in Buffalo Bill's shows: "onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat."

Unconventional Style

Cummings flouted conventional language. Conventions in language are the standards and rules such as grammar, punctuation, and capitalization. Cummings began his poetry career using some traditional aspects of poetry such as rhyme and meter, and mostly conventional capitalization and punctuation. He soon abandoned any sense of the traditional in terms of format, style, or language conventions.

An example of his unusual style is "'s." An "s" with an apostrophe before it is either attached to a noun to show possession (such as "Buffalo Bill's Wild West") or as a contraction of "is" (such as "Buffalo Bill's defunct"). Cummings uses "'s" with a space before it to set it apart from "Buffalo Bill" and possibly point to one or both of these noun phrases (possession or contraction) in a unique and mysterious way.

Cummings uses capital letters sparingly. Only the names of the three people in the poem are capitalized. Much of his poetry features exclusively lowercase letters. Lowercase letters may be used to indicate a sense of being small or diminished. Cummings often used "i" as he does in "Buffalo Bill 's" rather than the traditional "I." This may suggest that the narrator feels small in the face of Bill's incredible feats and Death's somber finality.

Heroism and Mortality

The only capital letters in "Buffalo Bill 's" are in the names of famous and important men: Buffalo Bill, Jesus, and Mister Death. Buffalo Bill is now "defunct" but in the past he was a hero and international celebrity first known for killing buffalo and fighting Native Americans then later for creating and producing a live, international, traveling show about these topics. "Jesus" seems on the surface to be an exclamation uttered after the narrator's recollection of Buffalo Bill's amazing talents. Using standard punctuation the expression might be, "Jesus!" As an interjection "Jesus!" is used to express anger, surprise, awe, or other strong reactions. But this instance might refer more directly to the Christian religious leader (c. 6–4 BCE–30 CE) considered by many to be the Incarnation of God. Jesus is a hero to many as Buffalo Bill was on a smaller scale and for very different reasons. Both Buffalo Bill and Jesus seemed to overcome death temporarily: Bill through his incredible feats controlling nature and Jesus through his resurrection after being killed.

The placement of the word "Jesus" all the way to the right, farther forward than any other word, may represent the fact that Jesus is considered by many to be a religious figure above all others. Jesus came back to life, but humans cannot. The poem pulls back its spacing until it ends simply with a strangely friendly name of death personified, "Mister Death." Cummings may have in mind the Grim Reaper, the most common representation of death in Western culture. The Grim Reaper is often shown as a skeletal being in a black robe with a scythe, a tool to cut down wheat, "cutting down" and erasing people from the earth. As incredible and unique as Buffalo Bill's feats and personality were, he was taken down by death like every other human.

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