blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

On "r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r"

 Norman Friedman (1960)

 Take the famous grasshopper poem, for example--

[Here he quotes the poem]

 The appearance of the poem on the page does not resemble, by any stretch of the imagination, a grasshopper leaping. The important fact to grasp is that the spatial arrangement is not imitative in itself, as is the case in representational painting or drawing in which the lines and colors actually resemble some object; it is rather that the spacing is governed by the disruption and blending of syllables and the pause and emphasis of meaning which produce a figurative equivalent for the subject of the poem, as the reader reads in time. As the reader gropes and fumbles his way along this jumble of syllables and letters, his mind is gradually building up the connections which normally obtain among them--"grasshopper, who, as we look, now upgathering into himself, leaps, arriving to become, rearrangingly, a grasshopper." When the reader has reviewed the entire poem once or twice, he recreates in his mind the very effect of a grasshopper leaping, which Cummings is describing as upgathering, leaping, disintegrating, and rearranging. This effect is partially produced by the fact that the syllables of "grasshopper" are rearranged acrostically four times (including the normal spelling); partially by the distribution of parentheses, punctuation marks, and capitals; and partially by the joining, splitting, and spacing of words.

The over-all intent, then, is not primarily visual at all, but rather figurative and aesthetic: Cummings is regulating, with a view to increased precision and vividness of effect, the manner in which the reader reads. The object is, for example, to loosen up the effect of a metrical line, to suggest the thing or idea spoken of, to alter and reinforce meanings, or to amplify and retard.  His is a style of constant emphasis: since he relishes each phrase, word, and letter of a poem, he wants the reader to relish them too, and many of his devices are aimed simply at slowing down the reader's intake of the poem.

from Norman Friedman. e. e. cummings: the art of his poetry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1960. 123 and 124.

 Sam Hynes (1951)

The whole poem is an attempt to deal with words visually, and to create art as a single experience, having spatial, not temporal extension: to force poetry toward a closer kinship with painting and the plastic arts, and away from its kinship with music.  It is a picture of an action rather than a description of it; word-clusters representing each psrt of the action (take-off, leap, landing) are to be received simultaneously, not as words occurring one at a time.  In the penultimate line, for example, the arranging and the becoming are simultaneous processes.   One word is therefore as nearly superimposed upon the other as is physically possible.

from Sam Hynes, "Cummings' COLLECTED POEMS, 276." Explicator 10 (Nov. 1951): Item 9.

Stephen Cushman

 The motions of a grasshopper are suggested by various permutations of the letters of "grasshopper" and other typographical gestures . . . Typographic jumbling, dispersion, rearrangement, and, finally, stability enact the transformation of the motionless grasshopper into a leaping blur of energy, which suddenly comes to rest. The poem also dramatizes the act of looking at the grasshopper and not realizing what it is (the grasshopper may be camouflaged in the grass as the word "grasshopper" is camouflaged in the first line) until it leaps into the air and into attention and recognition.

from William Carlos Williams and the Meanings of Measure. Copyright © 1985 by Yale UP.

Max Nänny

By way of conclusion let me briefly deal with e. e. cummings’ poem "r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r" which bri1liantly combines the three chief poetic ways of iconic signification I have discussed so far, namely spatial configuration, sequential motion, and successive change.

[quotes poem]

If we follow the sequence of letters that makes most sense — thus we have to read the first word from right to left rather than from left to right —, our reading process follows lines of motion that provide a diagrammatic icon of the elusive, haphazard jumps and flights of a grasshopper. Thus we move to the left, to the right, to the left, etc. and follow words, syllables or letters that hop down one or two lines, vault typographic voids, skip up to capitals and down to small letters; we are interrupted by stops and reversals as well as puzzled by a saltatory punctuation (ll.9, 12, 15).

Furthermore, the word "grasshopper" itself, whose eleven letters behave like grasshoppers in a bait box, wildly hops around in the poem, leaping lines, landing in the middle of a word (l.5) or a sentence (l.12). Even the title of the poem, I suggest, has hopped from its proper place to line 7 ("The") and line 15 ("grasshopper") thus disguising the fact that the poem has the fourteen lines of a sonnet.

But the reading process also involves the progressive’ unscrambling or unravelling of the differently and successively less scrambled words for "grasshopper." Quite apart from offering various onomatopoeic icons of the grasshopper’s whirring and stridulation, the sequential unscrambling on the part of the reader is an iconic imitation of a gradual change in the perceiving subject, of a gradually firmer perceptual grasp of the nature and identity ("The," l.7) of the evasive object called grasshopper. Hence, the initially slow and laborious act of rearranging the letters can be seen as an iconic reenactment of the subjective process of perception that bundles disparate sensory impressions into the whole of a meaningful "gestalt." The progressive recognition of the poem’s genre as a titled sonnet matches this process in terms of poetic form.

This cognitive process that results in the eventual detachment of the "figure" of the grasshopper from the perplexing, seemingly chaotic sensory "ground" of cummings’ typography is paralleled and reinforced on the iconic level of spatial configuration, too.

For if we look at his "poempicture" as if it were a picture puzzle, we discover to our surprise the rough outline of a grasshopper facing right. Thus "aThe):l/eA/!p:" forms the joint and femur of the hind or saltatorial leg, the "S" on the very left of line 10, which pricks the invisible vertical line of the left margin justification, stands for the sting; "a" on the very right of the same line represents the antenna; "r" is the place where the rubbing of the leg against the wing, the stridulation occurs; "rIvIng" indicates the hind claw on which the grasshopper lands or arrives after a jump; ".gRrEaPsPhOs)" represents the segmented thorax and the head with its compound eye ("0"), leaving "to" for the front claw or toe (the curve described by "S/aThe):1/A/!p /(r" may, of course, also be seen as a diagram of the grasshopper’s jump):

In short, the puzzling difficulties of the cognitive process of clearly grasping a jumping insect’s position in the grass, its species or name as well as its outward form are given simultaneous iconic expression in this virtuoso poem.

From "Iconic Dimensions in Poetry". In Richard Waswo (ed.) On Poetry and Poetics. © Gunter Narr Verlag, 1985.

Return to E. E. Cummings