Among the myriad of textual operations E. E. Cummings performs so masterfully on every single imaginable level of language, a particularly elegant one is changing the word order of an otherwise “normal” sentence or phrase. Of course Cummings is not the first poet to take liberties with word order, but, as Norman Friedman remarked already in 1960, Cummings’s “distortion of the normal sequence of a sentence goes far beyond mere poetic inversion” (108). Linguist Irene Fairley, in a book devoted to Cummings’s ungrammaticality, deals extensively with his various “dislocations” or scramblings. And Richard Cureton cites scrambling of normal word order as “one of Cummings’s favorite iconic strategies,” iconic because it can convey “thematic disorder” (196).
Just taking one word out of its place and repositioning it within a sentence can have a dramatic effect, though in the best cases it is dramatic only in as much as it is subtle. The “original” unscrambled sentence is evoked, and the scrambled version does not so much conflict with it, but rather opens up new semantic possibilities. It also opens up the very possibility of reading new possibilities. In that sense Cummings celebrates not just a new order or a re-ordering, but the potential of dis-ordering an existing order.
I’d like to demonstrate the possibilities of this operation using one simple example, taken from the poem “the great advantage of being alive” (CP 664), a poem that celebrates loving and living, indeed loving-as-living. The poem is worth reading in its entirety, of course, but here I just want to focus on the locution “love are in we,” which recurs five times in the poem. To arrive at “love are in we,” we may surmise, Cummings switched the first and last words of the familiar and grammatical “we are in love,” a locution that is also found in the poem, in the second stanza:
we are in love (conventional order)
love are in we (scrambled version)
What are some of the advantages, then, of “love are in we” over “we are in love”?
- First, perceptual freshness. This is always important to Cummings, but it is particularly important here because “we are in love” is so often used in everyday discourse that it is in real danger of being trite. Switching its words around invites us to stop and rethink each of the words that make up this string of words, rather than take it as a whole, which runs the risk of barely taking it at all.
- When we attempt to make sense of this fresh sentence, we note that “love” is positioned now as its subject. “We” is no longer the subject; the sentence is not about us (and even less about “me,” as in “I am in love” or “I love you”), but about love itself. Love is elevated syntactically to the position of subject, and this elevation is part of the way the poem celebrates love.
- Since the verb following “love” is “are,” we may be encouraged to understand the noun love as plural, suggesting that it is not a single thing but a plurality of possibilities, matching the plurality of “we.” This further freshens and elevates love.
- While “love” seems to be the subject, “we” is of course also a subject pronoun, and so maintains something of the subject status it had enjoyed in the original sentence (compare to the theoretical, and grammatically more correct “love are in us”). This new formulation thus cleverly keeps both “love” and “we” as potential subjects, and reinforces the relation, even equation, between “we” and “love.”
- Finally, ending with “we” leaves the sequence “love are in we” open-ended, amenable to receiving additions. Cummings uses this openness later in the poem when he adds to it and writes “love are in we am in i are in you.” In this well wrought sequence of words “we” doubles as both the ending of “love are in we” and the opening of “we am in i,” and the same is true of “i”:
love are in we am in i are in you =
love are in we
we am in i
i are in you
Cummings ends the poem with another variation, switching “you” and “we” to get: “love are in you am in i are in we.” In these two longer strings, it is the intertwining of pronouns (you, I, we), and verbs (are, am), all (dis)organizing under the sign of love, which is foregrounded.
So, how can one still say, and say freshly and meaningfully, “we are in love”? Cummings shows us that by an alteration of word order, we can say that, and so much more, but differently.
New York University
 Fairley analyzes the poem’s last line as an example of “repetition that involves the compounding of parallel sentences,” so that her reconstructed reading yields: You are in love; I am in love; We are in love.” Though I reconstruct the sentence differently, I am in complete agreement with Fairley when she writes that a secondary interpretation embedded in the sequence is for love is in us, and that the overall result “is a much more memorable statement than the standard ‘We are in love’” (32).
Cummings, E. E. Complete Poems 1904-1962. Ed. George J. Firmage. New York: Liveright, 1991. Print.
Cureton, Richard D. “E. E. Cummings: A Case of Iconic Syntax.” Language and Style 14.3 (1981): 183-215. Print.
Fairley, Irene R. E. E. Cummings and Ungrammar: A Study of Syntactic Deviance in His Poems. New York: Watermill Publishers, 1975. Print.
Friedman, Norman. E.E. Cummings: The Art of His Poetry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1960. Print.
I appreciate the exploration of the tension between order and disorder in EEC’s (re)arranging, and I am reminded of Wallace Stevens’ “Connoisseur of Chaos”:
A. A violent order is disorder; and
B. A great disorder is an order. These
Two things are one. (Pages of illustrations.)
However, and as is so often the case, EEC’s work DOES this. He gives us new orders through disorder in ways that other modernists did not quite achieve.
When Roi writes,
“We” are no longer the subject;
don’t grammarians prefer “is” as the verb to agree with singular “We”?
Good catch. I updated the post so it reads ” ‘We’ is no longer . . . .