Modernist poetry tends to break many of the structured rules of poems published previously. Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” “buffalo bill” by e. e. cummings, and “Mirror” by Sylvia Plath are definitely very different poems in subject. However, what they share is a “modern” view of poetry. They all “break the mold” in subject and especially structure. In cummings “buffalo bill,” cummings “breaks the mold” both in structure and in syntax. His lack of punctuation and capitalization are unique to his own style.
Cummings seems to compare himself to Bill Cody in that Buffalo Bill was really a facade. He rode “a watersmooth silver stallion,” which means that he didn’t really ride a stallion at all. He uses the word “defunct” in rather a mocking way, since it is not the way we would talk about someone who died. And yet, at the same time, there is worship in the poem. However, the poet himself has been tricked by the heroic farce of Bill Cody. This sense of mocking fraud is the chief way this poem is similar to the others.
Although cumming’s way to get to this similarity is very different from the other poets. He relies on word choice like “defunct” and mocking statements such as “fair haired boy. ” The tone of both these choices is very irreverent. In Plath’s “Mirror,” the reader feels as though Plath is writing personally or confessionally. Here is this woman looking in the mirror, seeing the girl slowly be replaced by an older woman and not enjoying this transformation at all. The tone is not irreverent at all, but the image of a “terrible fish” at the end is very jarring.
Plath plays on the fairy tale of looking into a mirror and asking for the “truth. ” But instead of getting the fairy-tale truth, she gets the real truth. If she wants to see how young she looks, she should ask the moonlight or candlelight that hides her flaws and wrinkles. Whereas cummings poem takes a mocking look at legendary Buffalo Bill, Plath’s poem takes a mocking look at a mirror as a truth teller. Plath “breaks the mold” in being a confessional poet and talking about a woman aging in a completely new way.
The last poem entitled “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” in some ways mocks another kind of person/object with legendary status. He mocks the idea that education can tell us all that we need to know. Like the Transcendentalists before him, Whitman believed that we should use our own experiences to tell us what is true in the world. While his tone does not mock, it does certainly refute the idea that by following the “learned” people, we will know and understand all that we need to.
Even though the “proofs, columns and figures” were before him, he chose to wander out by himself to find the answers. Whitman “breaks the mold” for his time period by favoring experiential learning over books and academic learning. The true beauty of the night sky is not in listening and understanding everything about it; it is in the beauty and wonder of the night sky. In trying to quantify nature, we kill its wonder. All three poets tell us something unique and refute some “old way” of looking at things.
For cummings, it is a new look at legendary figure Buffalo Bill Cody, who really wasn’t what he was heralded as being. For Plath, it is the old fairy tale like “Mirror Mirror on the wall…” Plath allows us to look at aging as what it truly is—gaining wrinkles and getting closer to death. For Whitman, it is allowing us to look at nature in a more mystical and beautiful way rather than trying to qualify and quantify it. All three poets shock us in some way.