David Ray: On "Buffalo Bill's"

...though the poem appears to be a simple elegy, it must be placed in the context of Cummings's obstinate attitude of hatred toward an American culture that invites children (and even men) to create an unworthy gallery of heroes. Cummings is one of our society's best haters; functioning as a Juvenalian satirist, he has long attacked our society's worst indulgences in materialism, hypocrisy, "hypercivic zeal," scientific unwisdom and the following of false heroes and tawdry ideals. He most bitterly, in poems like "Plato told him . . ." reproaches us for not taking the words of our philosophers seriously, but rather insisting on mouthing (vulgarizing and debasing) the poetry of their utterances.

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It is important to note, in making a case for the redirection of the poet's fury to Bill, that Bill, in the poem, functions as a destroyer, an agent of death. What has been destroyed...is rather all-embracing. Bill has been destroyed; the poet's childhood, and the kind of innocent faith and wonder that went along with it has been destroyed by his subsequent disillusionment...; the clay pigeons have been destroyed. The poet is in many ways blaming Bill for disappointing both his expectations of childhood and of America, for delivering him rather treacherously to a tawdry world of cheapened values, for America is Bill's "sponsor" as well as that of freedom and breakfast foods.

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At last Bill belongs literally to "Mister Death's" team. The poet triumphs over death by having come to an insight into Bill's fraudulence before "Mister Death," who is only now presumably finding out that he has been tricked into treating a sham performer as a great man, cut down with all the panoply of tragedy. The poet has beaten Mister Death to the draw, literally, and leaves the great destroyer to find out that he has the commonest of food for his worms. Perhaps, then...the best elegies are for the least heroic of victims, not for those figures who are true heroes in our lives, but for those who have functioned in our lives at their most tawdry, misguided, or commonplace moments.

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Title David Ray: On "Buffalo Bill's" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author David Ray Criticism Target E. E. Cummings
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 04 Aug 2021
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Irony of E. E. Cummings
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