“These Heroic Happy Dead”

Watching with rising nausea the endless patriotic and militaristic boosterism surrounding the 9/11 memorials the other week, I thought ahead to later in the semester when, in my general education Introduction to Literature course, I’d be teaching a thematic section on war. One poem I’ve used often is “’next to of course god america i,” by e.e.cummings. (You can find it at: http://www.americanpoems.com/poets/eecummings/313 .)

The first thirteen lines of this 1926 poem consist of words uttered at a graveyard by a politician or military bigwig on Memorial Day or some other patriotic occasion. The last line reads: “He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water.”

The speech runs together scraps of patriotic song lyrics and other banal phrases to create the effect of mind-numbing and mind-numbed repetition — this speech, or something like it, has been given many, many times. “‘next to of course god america i” is a pretty tendentious poem, but (and?) I like it a lot.

What always distresses me (but, finally, has stopped surprising me) each time I teach this poem is the difficulty students have seeing the anger and sarcasm that animate it. Despite cummings’s mockery in lines like “america i/love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh/say can you see,” as well as absurd talk of “these heroic happy dead,” most (though, fortunately, not all) students won’t or can’t see that cummings is parodying his speaker’s mechanical jingoism.

By the time we get to this poem, students have already shown they can read poetry and they have a pretty clear sense of where I’m coming from politically. But there’s something about patriotic talk — especially with “god” mixed in — that they have a hard time thinking about critically. (Perhaps they watch as much TV news as I do.)

Eventually I get the class to agree that cummings is “probably” making fun of his speaker, but I always end up with a squirmy feeling that I’ve been too pushy. I’d welcome any suggestions on how to approach the poem, or suggestions of an alternative, since I may be ready to give up my attachment to “‘next to of course god america i.”

By Bob Rosen

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