Form as Content: E. E. Cummings’ “The Sky Was”

Screen Shot 2015-04-17 at 6.49.52 PM E. Cummings’ talents as a poet and as a painter comes together in this visual poem, in which he artfully integrates typography and words to create a mixed-media artwork of text and image on paper. The subject matter of the poem, which describes an outdoor scene throughout the day and the deeper content, which is the conflict between the beautiful sky and the pollution below are inseparable from the poet’s arrangement of syllables, words, and syntax.

On first reading, the poet seems to describe a simple outdoor scene by various similes. The opening comparison of the sky with candy makes readers perceive the sky not only with sight, but also with taste and touch: “the sky was candy.” Cummings stresses the similarity of the sky to food by continuing to use food images: “edible,” “lemons,” and “chocolates.” The sky is as touchable, inviting, and pleasant as candies and chocolates. It is also bright and lively: “luminous” and “spry.” Cummings uses different shades and colors to portray the scene: “luminous,” “pinks,” yellow of “lemons,” “greens,” brown of “chocolates,” and “violets.” Without the punctuation and visual arrangement of the text, the poem’s meaning seems to be straightforward: “the sky was candy luminous edible spry pink shy lemons greens cool chocolates under, a locomotive sprouting violets.”

Nevertheless, examining each word and its arrangement on paper reveals more about Cummings’ intention to connect content and form. The words aided by the typography create hidden meanings for the poem. In the first stanza, moving from “pinks shy,” to “lemons,” to “green cool,” and to “chocolates,” the poet describes the sky through different times of the day. In the early morning, the sun rises gradually as if it were shy of the new day. The sky is now glimmering with pink as the sun is half-revealed behind the clouds. In the afternoon, the sky is at its highest bright and perhaps as vivid as the color of “lemons,” and the temperature is as pungent as lemons’ taste. Lemons may also provoke juiciness, which can be a suggestion of sweat and thirst relief. In the late afternoon, the brightness of the sky is reduced to a more muted color, “green,” and the temperature becomes “cool.” In the evening, the sky turns darker, like the dark brown of “chocolates.” This process of assigning colors to the sky at different times of the day is like a painting process by a painter who experiments with colors: he paints the scene perceptively instead of mimetically.

Cummings’ careful visual placement of the words perhaps mirrors the swift transition of time within a day. If readers draw lines bordering the end of each line, these diagonal lines will converge at four points (see the figure below). These four points may represent the four different periods as described above: the early morning, the afternoon, the late afternoon, and the evening. In painting, diagonal lines always evoke tension and dramatic feeling, while horizontal and vertical lines generate a static and stable feeling. As a painter, Cummings is well-aware of these rules. The diagonal lines derived from the word arrangement could indicate a rapid passing of time and a drastic change of scenery within one day.

the sky was

The last stanza completes the picture. Cummings places the words in this stanza differently than he does in the previous one. He dissects words more thoroughly: syllables of each word spread more line. His words, instead of jumping a sharp distance between lines, tail along each other; thus, the second stanza seems to be bordered by curvy lines instead of linear ones. The result is an image that suggests smoke emitting up into the sky (see the above figure). Together, the forms of the two stanzas may be seen as a threat of pollution. The colorful and tasty sky is threatened by smoke and dirt from the train; an idyllic nature is endangered by pollution from machines and industrialization. The period at the end of the first stanza, the only period in the poem, resolutely separates the two scenes, emphasizing a dialectic between the tranquil sky above and the ominous pollution below. By articulating the content of the poem with typography, Cummings is able to use only a few words to deliver his ideas. With its sparseness, “The sky was” retains an abstract quality. The artists’ perfect comingling of text and image and the fusion of form and content allow the multiplicity of interpretive possibilities.