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[Buffalo Bill 's] by E. E. Cummings

[Buffalo Bill 's] by E. E. Cummings

Have you ever wanted to be a cowboy in the Wild West? What is it about a cowboy that you think people admire? Is it their heroism, tough facade, good looks, or simply the fact that they ride a horse? The unconventional American poet, E.E. Cummings (1894‐1962), wrote a short poem in the shape of a pistol about the irony of a larger-than-life cowboy's death. The poem, "[Buffalo Bill 's]"(1920), explores the inevitability of death in a tongue-in-cheek tone through Cummings' characteristic, idiosyncratic style of poetry.

[Buffalo Bill 's], William Frederick Cody on Horseback, StudySmarter

William Frederick Cody (1846‐1917), also known as Buffalo Bill, was a showman cowboy who brought Wild West horse shows around the U.S. and Europe in the late 1800s.

"[Buffalo Bill 's]" Poem Overview
Poet: E.E. Cummings (1894‐1962)
Year Published:1920
Type of Poem:Experimental, free verse poem
Meaning: Even someone larger-than-life, like Buffalo Bill, is met with the fate of obsoletion and death.
Literary Devices:Symbolism, word choice/connotation, juxtaposition, half rhyme, assonance, alliteration, irony, tone, and personification
Tone:Tongue-in-cheek, sarcastic, cynical, casual, yet playful
Theme:The inevitability of death

"[Buffalo Bill 's]" (E. E. Cummings): Background Information

"[Buffalo Bill 's]" was originally published in a 1920 issue of the American literature, philosophy, and politics magazine, The Dial. The poem was one of seven experimental poems published in the magazine, which served as E.E. Cummings' debut to a broader American audience.

This set of E.E. Cummings' poems published in The Dial helped establish his style of experimentation with form, punctuation, syntax, and spelling, which characterized his poetry throughout his career. Cummings' style is often described as idiosyncratic due to the poet's unusual use and placement of words, spacing, and punctuation.

Cummings is most famous for his poem, "[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]" (1952). You'll notice this poem's title also features his signature use of brackets. Why do you think Cummings uses brackets in his poetry?

"[Buffalo Bill 's]" (E. E. Cummings): About the Character 'Buffalo Bill'

Buffalo Bill is the stage name of the famous American bison hunter and cowboy showman, William Frederick Cody (1846‐1917). Buffalo Bill is one of the best-known figures of the American Wild West. William Fredrick Cody founded a circus‐like touring company that traveled around America, Great Britain, and continental Europe during the late 1800s.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West shows featured a parade of people on horseback, including different cultural groups such as the U.S. military, cowboys, American Indians, Turkish people, South American horsemen called gauchos, and more. The shows displayed the diversity of people alongside their unique horses and attire.

William Fredrick Cody died on January 10, 1917. The day before his death, he was baptized into the Catholic Church. At the time of his death, Cody's fortune had been significantly depleted. He was buried in Golden, Colorado, on the edge of the Rocky Mountains, near the Great Plains.

Why do you think Cummings focuses on the death of such a figure in his poetry?

[Buffalo Bill 's], Native Americans, StudySmarter

William Fredrick Cody was an advocate for Native American civil rights. He employed many Native Americans in his shows and paid them well.

"[Buffalo Bill 's]" (E. E. Cummings): Poem

Below is E.E. Cummings' poem [Buffalo Bill 's] in its entirety.

Buffalo Bill ’s
defunct
who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
stallion
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
Jesus
he was a handsome man
and what i want to know is
how do you like your blue-eyed boy
Mister Death"

"[Buffalo Bill 's]" (E. E. Cummings): Meaning

Due to E.E. Cummings' idiosyncratic, seemingly sporadic writing style and unique placement of words, the poem can be understood in several different ways. However, the poem clearly portrays the meaning that even someone larger-than-life, like Buffalo Bill, is met with the fate of obsoletion and death.

The meaning of "[Buffalo Bill 's]" can be best understood by analyzing the poem's form and use of literary and poetic devices, which will be explored below.

"[Buffalo Bill 's]" (E. E. Cummings): Analysis of Form

The experimental form of E.E. Cummings's poem is characteristic of his idiosyncratic style. The poem is a short, 11-line poem written in free verse. Cummings uses the freedom of free verse to speed up and slow down the poem through the use of unbound, unexpected language and visual cues.

Free verse is a form of poetry that is not bound to any set meter or rhyme scheme.

The line breaks and use of spaces in the poem initially appear to be randomly splattered across the page. However, if you look at the poem's shape, it resembles that of a pistol. This shape of the pistol evokes the gun that Buffalo Bill carries with him to shoot the "onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat" (6). Cummings uses the lack of spaces between the words to foster a fast-paced reading that mimics the rapidity of the gunshots as Buffalo Bill shot clay pigeons out of the sky.

In other instances, where there is an abundance of space between words or phrases, the poet uses spacing to create pause and breathing space between ideas. For example, in line 7, Cummings isolates the word "Jesus" to the far right. The next line follows, "he was a handsome man" (8). By creating a pause after the word "Jesus," the poem allows the reader to focus on the image and idea of Jesus Christ, who is also associated with death, as he suffered and died on the cross. The poet contrasts this broad, religious idea with the casualty of the expression 'Jesus,' meaning 'wow,' or 'my goodness,' to present surprise and emphasis. In this case, it is the speaker's surprise at how handsome and suave Buffalo Bill was (but no longer is).

"[Buffalo Bill 's]" (E. E. Cummings): Literary and Poetic Devices

Within this short, 11-line poem, E.E. Cummings uses several literary and poetic devices, including symbolism, word choice/connotation, juxtaposition, half rhyme, assonance, alliteration, irony, tone, and personification.

Symbolism, Word Choice/Connotation, and Juxtaposition.

The poem is based on the symbolism of Buffalo Bill as the embodiment of the values of the American Wild West. Wild West cowboys portrayed in films and culture presented an ideal of heroism, masculinity, and toughness. Buffalo Bill, in particular, was beloved for these traits and his larger-than-life nature. However, it is important to note that the admiration for Buffalo Bill came from his showmanship and the entertainment he provided, which satisfied commercial notions of the American frontier. It is not the real person, William Fredrick Cody, who is addressed in the poem, but his stage character.

The first two lines of the poem read:

"Buffalo Bill's

defunct"

E.E. Cummings uses the unexpected word choice of "defunct" to describe Buffalo Bill (2) at the outset of the poem. The word "defunct" connotates that Buffalo Bill is no longer relevant. He is an obsolete figure of the past. The poet juxtaposes the full-of-life character of Buffalo Bill with the idea that he is "defunct" to present a cynical yet realistic realization that no one sustains life, exuberance, and intrigue. Cummings characterizes Buffalo Bill as an object that once had a function but no longer does. Through this word choice and juxtaposition, Cummings suggests the inevitable temporality of life.

A symbol is an object, person, place, or idea that is used to suggest something additional to its literal meaning.

Juxtaposition is the close placement of two words or ideas for the purpose of contrast.

Analyzing the Poem's Title: "[Buffalo Bill 's]"

Why do you think Cummings wrote the poem's title in brackets, with a space after "Bill" before the apostrophe "s"?

In poetry, even the slightest choices in punctuation and spacing are intentional. The brackets Cummings uses in the poem's title suggest that the title is somewhat secretive, or shared just with the poem's reader. The poet suggests that the inevitability of death and the fading of vitality is a universal characteristic of life, not just Buffalo Bill's life.

The use of the space before the "'s" calls the reader to question whether the poem is one of possessive belonging (Is this a poem belonging or dedicated to Buffalo Bill?), or if it serves to indicate that Buffalo Bill is something the readers ought to be aware of.

Half Rhyme, Assonance, and Alliteration

Although "[Buffalo Bill 's]" is written in free verse, the poem does feature sound-related literary devices to lend a fluid reading to lines 3 to 5:

"who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
stallion"

In these lines, Cummings emphasizes Buffalo Bill's slick, admirable appearance. He emphasizes Buffalo Bill's suave appearance and nature through the smooth flow of words. Cummings creates this smooth reading through the alliteration of the "s" sound and the assonance of the "oo" sound. The repetition of the "oo" sound in words such as "who," "used," "to," and "smooth" create half rhymes, which satisfyingly carry the reading along in a way that resembles flowing water.

Alliteration is the repetition of the initial sounds of nearby words.

Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in nearby words.

Half rhymes, also known as slant rhymes or imperfect rhymes, are words that have the same stressed vowel sounds but are not perfect rhymes.

Irony, Tone, and Personification

The main intrigue of Cummings' poem comes from the poet's use of irony, tone, and personification. In order better to understand this, let's take a look at lines 7 to 11:

"Jesus
he was a handsome man
and what i want to know is
how do you like your blue-eyed boy
Mister Death"

The double meanings conveyed in the poem create a sense of irony. For example, Jesus indeed was known to be "a handsome man," but the poet can also be seen to be casually expressing the speaker's surprise that Buffalo Bill was such a "handsome man," yet now he is obsolete.

When the speaker of the poem says, "what i want to know is / how do you like your blue-eyed boy / Mister Death," there is a sense of irony because the line reads as if it is a Country Western cowboy slogan from a film. However, in this case, the "blue-eyed boy" is the "defunct" cowboy, Buffalo Bill.

E.E. Cummings' use of irony helps develop a characteristically complex tongue-in-cheek, sarcastic, cynical, casual, yet playful tone. This tone is encapsulated in the poet's playful yet dark personification of death by addressing it as a person, "Mister Death." The casualness and directness of the question, "how do you like your blue-eyed boy / Mister Death," reflects the speaker's indifference to Buffalo Bill's situation. Cummings presents this indifference to portray society's indifference to the inevitable death of those who are only a momentary commodity to it.

[Buffalo Bill 's], Blue Eyed Boy in Water, StudySmarter

In the poem, "Mister Death" can also be linked to the image of the "blue-eyed boy," representing the cold-eyed or striking stare of death. Cummings looks the reality of death straight in the eye through his poetry.

Irony is the use of language to convey an opposite or different meaning from the literal meaning. Irony creates a humorous or sarcastic effect.

Tone is the speaker's attitude towards the subject they are writing about.

Personification is when non-human things are given human characteristics.

"[Buffalo Bill 's]" (E. E. Cummings): Poem Themes

The experimental nature of E.E. Cummings's poetry allows for multiple readings of the ideas he puts forth. However, a clear theme in "[Buffalo Bill 's]" is the inevitability of death.

The Inevitability of Death

"[Buffalo Bill 's]" is ultimately a contrast of life vs. death. Cummings portrays Buffalo Bill as an idealized figure known to be full of life and action, to contrast this vivacity with the reality that all things must pass. Buffalo Bill is now "defunct" or irrelevant and obsolete despite the great heights of his former glory.

The pistol shape of the poem is also evocative of death. While Wild West cowboys were known for hunting and iconic showdowns, the poet suggests that the reality of death is not so exciting and climactic. Rather, Cummings portrays death as an unwilling resignation to obsoletion. While Buffalo Bill used to rile crowds, shooting clay pigeons on horseback with style, precision, and exuberance for life, he is consigned to the same fate of death as everyone else.

E.E. Cummings further emphasizes the inevitability of death in his poetry through the mention of Jesus Christ. Even though Jesus was both God and man, he had to consent to the fate of torture and death on the cross for the sake of humankind. The comparison of Buffalo Bill and Jesus Christ calls readers to question whether people can escape death through fame and legacy. It also calls into question the idea of immortality and whether there is life after death.

"[Buffalo Bill's]" - Key takeaways

  • "[Buffalo Bill 's]" (1920) is a poem by the American poet, E.E. Cummings.
  • The poem is an 11-line poem written in free verse.
  • The poem conveys the meaning that even someone larger-than-life, like Buffalo Bill, is met with the fate of obsoletion and death.
  • The poem features literary and poetic devices including symbolism, word choice/connotation, juxtaposition, half rhyme, assonance, alliteration, irony, tone, and personification.
  • The poem's main theme is the inevitability of death.

Frequently Asked Questions about [Buffalo Bill 's] by E. E. Cummings

The poem "[Buffalo Bill 's]" (E. E. Cummings) is about how the larger-than-life Wild West cowboy and showman, Buffalo Bill, became obsolete and died. 

The word "defunct" in "[Buffalo Bill 's]" (E. E. Cummings) means obsolete, out of use, or irrelevant. 

The American poet, E.E. Cummings, wrote the poem "[Buffalo Bill 's]".

"[Buffalo Bill 's]" (E. E. Cummings) is an experimental poem written in free verse.

The main theme of the poem "[Buffalo Bill 's]" (E. E. Cummings) is the inevitability of death. The poem conveys the message that even someone larger-than-life, like Buffalo Bill, is met with the fate of obsoletion and death. 

Final [Buffalo Bill 's] by E. E. Cummings Quiz

Question

Who is the author of "[Buffalo Bill 's]"?

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Answer

E.E. Cummings

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Question

Who was William Frederick Cody?

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Answer

William Frederick Cody (1846‐1917), also known as Buffalo Bill, was a showman cowboy who brought Wild West horse shows around the U.S. and Europe in the late 1800s. 

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Question

The poem is an experimental poem written in free verse. What is free verse?

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Answer

A form of poetry that is not bound to any set meter or rhyme scheme. 

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Question

Which word is often used to describe Cumming's poetry? 

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Answer

Idiosyncratic

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Question

What is the effect of the poet's lack of spacing in the line: "onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat"?

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Answer

Cummings uses the lack of spaces between the words to foster a fast-paced reading that mimics the rapidity of the gunshots as Buffalo Bill shot clay pigeons out of the sky. 

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Question

What does the shape of the poem resemble?

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Answer

A pistol/gun

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Question

What does the word "defunct" mean in the second line of the poem? 

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Answer

Irrelevant, obsolete

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Question

The repetition of the "oo" sound in the words "who," "used," "to," and "smooth" are an example of which literary device?

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Answer

Assonance

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Question

The phrase "Mister Death" is an example of which literary device?

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Answer

Personification

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Question

True or False: The poem conveys the meaning that even someone larger-than-life, like Buffalo Bill, is met with the fate of obsoletion and death. 

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Answer

True

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Question

Which of the following words would not be used to describe the tone of the poem?

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Answer

Sympathetic

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