Take a Poem to the Beach
To kick off the summer, here’s a poem by E.E. Cummings. Cummings is known for his inventiveness—his play with language and form. That playfulness is usually most obvious in the capitalization (or lack of) and punctuation (seemingly random) in his poems, and kids love to see a grown-up breaking those rules.
maggie and milly and molly and may
by E. E. Cummings
maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach (to play one day)
and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles, and
milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;
and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles: and
may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.
For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea
[From "The Complete Poems: 1904-1962" by E. E. Cummings, Edited by George J. Firmage.]
In this poem the sense of play is also present in the parenthetical asides; they create an extra intimacy—I feel like the poet is speaking just to me, letting me into his confidence. Sort of like when you watch an episode of The Office (or a Shakespeare play), and the actors break out of character and speak directly to the camera/audience…
This poem is also really fun to say aloud. It starts out with the jaunty, sing-song quality that feels just right for a light poem about a trip to the beach. You can picture the long stretch of sand and brightly colored umbrellas as the four M’s make their way to the water. But Cummings quickly begins to tinker with the rhythm, using the “ands” at the end of the line to create an extra beat that keeps us slightly off-kilter. This effect is compounded first by his use of slant rhymes (sang and and, star and were, instead of may and day) and then, to make things even more interesting, he abandons the end rhymes entirely with thing and and, then comes back to straight rhymes in the final two stanzas.
What’s also interesting is that the mood of the poem follows the shift in form as it goes along: there’s an undercurrent (excuse the pun) of darkness along with the lightness. We adults may begin to hear it as words like troubles, stranded and alone begin to wash up on the beach. (Sorry, I can’t resist the puns today!)
Don’t worry—your kids probably won’t pick up on the undertones, and they’ll enjoy the sound and overall sense of the poem. That’s part of what’s great about poetry—you can enjoy it on many levels. This is a poem to grow on, your kids get more out of it as they mature and their reading deepens.
By the way, even though this poem has 12 lines instead of 14 (Cummings playing with us again?), it acts very much like a sonnet, or “little song.” The last stanza in the poem feels like a “turn,” the place in a sonnet where the poem—and the reader—ends up somewhere we weren’t expecting. In this case, Cummings shifts the rhythm again, and goes from telling a story to us as audience, to including us in the story with his use of we and you, and we’re left with a couplet that implies both loss and comfort. We don’t know what the specific loss is, but we understand the feeling, and that’s really what the poet is after.
In the end, this seemingly simple story of the trip to the beach becomes our story. If you’re a kid, or even if you’re an adult, it might bring back memories of your first encounter with the ocean: the shells and stones and mysterious things you collected, and maybe—if that big blue expanse was a little scary—how you conquered your fear and jumped your first wave.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amy’s the mother of two children who seem to enjoy poetry, for which she’s extremely grateful. Her first book, How I Got Lost So Close To Home, was published by Alice James Books and poems have appeared in a variety of anthologies and journals. She’s a former Associate at the Five College Women’s Studies Research Center at Mt. Holyoke College, where she looked at the impact of motherhood on the work of women poets. In addition to her life as a poet, Dryansky works for a land trust, teaches in at Hampshire College, leads workshops in the community and writes about what it’s like to navigate the territory of mother/poet/worker at her blog, Pokey Mama. Her second book, Grass Whistle, is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry in 2013.
[Photo credit: (ccl) Doug Wheller]