E E Cummings is probably one of the finest poets of the 20th Century with an all-encompassing view of life that portrayed the American tradition yet he was also a realist in the sense that he viewed old age and decay as important elements of his poetry. His vast corpus of work numbers over 2,200 poems and he was also a painter this bringing an element of visual imagery into his writings. In ‘Old Age Sticks’ we are faced with the dilemma of ageing and remaining relevant in today’s society. The poem is also originally structured and almost consists of diverse ramblings without much direction although the message is clear for those who want to understand it.
The first few lines indicate that people with old age should keep off signs and stay away. It is a powerful statement also showing that Cummings is feeling himself out of the picture as he ages and becomes ever more irrelevant.
old age sticks
Cummings was very much an avante garde poet and he was singularly influenced by the Calligrammes of Apollinaire in Old Age Sticks. This may tend to be slightly off the beaten track since he was better known as a traditionalist with several of his works being sonnets based on a fairly basic model although the modernist elements creeps in as it is interspersed with the romantic tradition. The sense of hopelessness created by the line ‘Keep off signs’ is typical of Cummings who cuts to the heart of the matter without much ado. There is also an element of the blues form in the stanza which however also cuts off in mid-sentence almost amnesia like.
youth yanks them down(old
The influence of Ezra Pound also tells in the second stanza where we have the line; youth yanks them down (old age). In a way, Cummings is saying that the ever inexorable beauty of youth moves forward and the old age which afflicts everybody is like a gnarled tree which is constantly being crushed down into the earth. It is a powerful statement showing Cummings’ affinity with nostalgia and his state of mind which is full of wistful unhappiness. Old age is made to seem like a curse as health deteriorates and depression also kicks in. The spectre of doom laden imagery and death is also never far away. The words Tres and pas are slightly ambiguous here since they are also alluding to a sense of ridicule, almost a ghostly dance of shame. It is Cummings at his viscerally brilliant best. Tres)&(pas)
The third stanza and the fourth (which is just one line) continue to reaffirm the gloom and terror of old age. One almost brings to mind a famous episode which occurs so many times when an old man shuffles along and is taunted and jeered by a group of youths who are insensitive to his pain and indignity. The old man can do nothing since he is powerless to react and Cummings seems to recreate this picture with alacrity and wholesome intensity. Again we can compare these lines to modernist poets such as Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound who used the same techniques of tone painting through minimalist lines.
The fifth stanza is also complex and on first impression appears to be disjointed without much style. The words scolds Forbid indicate that the old man or the stick is apprehending and scolding youth for making fun of him although it could also be the other way round. Then we have Stop and Musn’t as well as Don’t where these negatives also create a sense of finality to the suffering of old age. The powerful themes of the poem come to the fore in the final lines. Youth goes right on growing old – again split into parts, this intensifies the effects of the words where we seem to have turned full circle with youths also having to face their own sense of finality when they themselves grow old. Cummings is very skilful at creating the aura of inevitability and the aura that life is simply a process from nothing to nothing with old age being part of the whole cycle.
Cummings was no stranger to controversy in his lifetime; in fact he eventually did turn towards the right in his thoughts and poetic leanings. This does nothing to lessen the effects of the poem ‘Old Age Sticks’ which shows an almost fatalistic approach to death which will eventually encompass us all. It is a powerful poem, all the more so in its style and short lines which create a sense of decay and ugliness. The poem is a classic exercise in verse which is powerful and effective yet also an understatement in a way. It basically sums up Cummings’ life work with his propensity to paint imagery and create a sound world all of his own at the same time.