In the poem [may i feel said he] by e.e. cummings, it has been suggested that it is a dialogue between a male and a female. My interpretation (an obvious one) is the dialogue spans a period of time, and marks their happiness, troubles, and arguments, etc., as their relationship unfolds.

However, some phrases are parenthesized irregularly, and it is not clear what they mean. What may the parenthesis signify?


Instead of interpreting ‘may i feel said he’ as describing the gradual unfolding of a relationship, I think it works better to read it as the dialogue of two lovers engaged in sexual intercourse, moving from caress in the first stanza to orgasm in the last.

As for the parentheses, Tartakovsky divides the uses of parentheses in Cummings’ poems into seven categories: 1. iconicity; 2. protection and intimacy; 3. direct address; 4. layers and frames; 5. interpolation; 6. subversion; and 7. simultaneity. In the first category,

Cummings explored iconicity in many aspects of language, and when dealing with his use of parentheses the most rudimentary examples are those that draw on its graphic shape.

Roi Tartakovsky (2009). ‘E. E. Cummings’s Parentheses: Punctuation as Poetic Device’. Style 43:2, p. 219.

and in the second,

parentheses through their delineation of a separate space also create intimacy. Their protective capabilities and their understated status allow for something more intimate, secretive, or delicate to be put in them.

Tartakovsky, p. 225

So in ‘may i feel said he’ the parentheses could represent the lovers’ embraces (protection and intimacy) with the shape of the punctuation suggesting the lovers’ arms encircling each other (iconicity).

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    Do you have any thoughts on the significance, if any, of the rise and fall in number of utterances within each set of parentheses? The pattern goes 2,3,4,5,4,3,2,1. It seems a very deliberate shaping of the dialogue, but I've no familiarity with cummings myself, so don't have much frame of reference.
    – Spagirl
    Feb 13 '19 at 11:09
  • That is an excellent observation, one that I missed completely. It must be deliberate, but I cannot immediately see how to interpret it — the rise and fall of passion, perhaps. Feb 13 '19 at 11:25
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    That's kind of what I wondered/suspected, 'interior dialogue', if you will!
    – Spagirl
    Feb 13 '19 at 11:27
  • You are incredible! I ignored the 2,3,4,5,4,3,2,1 pattern completely either. Feb 13 '19 at 16:47
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    I've been thinking about the parentheses and being bothered by that single utterance end one, which bucks the symmetry. Looking at it afresh today, I think the first 7 sets of () are dialogue but the final set, enclosing a single utterance of the woman is her private, unvoiced, thought.
    – Spagirl
    Feb 14 '19 at 14:42

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