As readers, we have all had those special moments when we started to fall in love with words. It might have been your 10th birthday when Grandma gave you a copy of Matilda or perhaps being cast in a school Shakespeare play.
Wherever or whenever these moments were, that art piece always keeps a place in your reading repertoire as one of the greats.
This blog is not only an analysis of the ee cummings poem [In Just-], but also going through the poetry critique my Dad and I went through that started my life-long love affair with poetry.
Junior year of high school, one of the assignments in English class was to present an analysis of a pre-assigned poem. I was assigned [In Just-], by ee cummings.
After reading the poem, I had the typical confused, what-the-heckity-heck moment (more concerned about ‘what am I going to say in class? then trying to derive poetic understanding) and immediately ran to my Dad to find out what these confusing words seemingly smattered upon the page meant.
My Dad went through each line of the poem with me. He talked about symbolism, progression and word-choice – pointing out the structure of the poem as a tool to understand it. After this exercise (and having that beautiful ‘ah-ha!’ moment) this has since become one of my favorite poems.
If you are utterly confused (as I was) – stay with me. No need to call your Dad, I have already consulted a Dad-expert.
First thing to do, when you are in that awful ‘What the hell does this even mean?’ mode after a poem is to search for themes.
How do you search for themes? Words. Look at the words of the poem and see if there’s any pattern.
Words: Marbles, puddle, whistles, eddieandbill, bettyandisbel, hop-scotch, jump-rope…
Survey says: Children. Childhood.
And what do children typically represent? Innocence.
Now, in this poem eddieandbill and bettyandisbel are leaving their childhood games to follow the ‘balloonMan’ (we will get to him soon). When do children typically leave their childhood behind? Puberty. Sex. Loss of innocence.
Keep that in your back pocket, and read the poem again.
Alright, let’s look at the balloonMan.
At the beginning, he is described as “little/lame” then “queer/old” and then “goatfooted.”
Now, if you didn’t grow up with an Irish Grandmother who told tales of the Devil personified, you might not immediately get the goat-footed reference.
Goats have long since been metaphors for sex and lust. This goes back to the demigod Pan (often depicted with goat horns and goat feet) who would chase after the nymphs and bang everything in sight. [This is also where the word “horny” comes from]).
(Sidenote: Goat god Pan also gives us the word ‘Panic’ — he thought it was fun to play with human emotions and would give people a sudden uncontrollable fear or anxiety, just for kicks.)
In many Christian tales, Satan could change everything about his appearance except his cloven feet. If you see a man with goat-feet, get out, it’s Beelzebub.
Now we get to the fun part.
ee cummings is known for his unique placement of lines on the page. The placement is not random, as we are about to find, and it enhances the themes and motifs of the poem.
So we have innocence ‘running from marbles’ to the ballonMan who we now know is Satan/Sex/Lust.
If you look at the first three stanzas the children are just starting to follow the ballonMan. The last stanza, the children start falling – then see that the man is “goat-footed” (!!!) but by then it is too late and they are falling straight down and cannot stop.
So through dissecting the poem in both words and how it is displayed on the page, we see that this poem is about loss of innocence, sexual curiosity and that precious/sad time in one’s life when you stop playing hopscotch and start chasing after boys (or rather, chasing balloonMen….).