Poetry Analysis: E. E. Cummings

Most of E. E. Cummings' poems have been for me odd and curious structures that have left me on their porches, searching for the doorbell. Occasionally one of his poems' doors pops open and the lights blink on. His poem that most refer to by the opening line "l(a" is one such example of which I dare to hazard an analysis.










This particular building is a structure of concrete; that is to say a concrete poem. The shape of the poem is actually its subject. The poem is shaped like the first letter of the first line - a letter that, in old-fashioned typography, was not only a lower-case "l" but also the digit representing the number one.

A commonplace notion of poetry is that it is meant to be read aloud. Cummings throws that idea out the door. This and many other of his poems cannot be read aloud. The key word "loneliness" is broken by a parenthesis containing fragments which, when assembled, read "a leaf falls." There is something lonely about the image of a single falling leaf. Archibald MacLeish, in "Ars Poetica," created the image of "an empty doorway and a fallen leaf" and made of it an objective correlative for all the history of grief." But instead of trying to evoke sadness or sympathy, Cummings is playing with us and making his poem an elaborate typographical pun. The entire poem looks like the number one - the loneliest of numbers.

Notice the number of times that the letter "l" (simultaneously the digit one) appears in the poem. The number is spelled out in the seventh line. The narrowness of the poem and its spacing support the downward motion of the falling leaf until it comes to rest in the climactic and longest line "iness" which conveys the state of being first person singular, with the lower-case "i" suggesting the sense of insignificance of a lonely person. But there is more.

Taking it from the top: line one begins with the number one, a parenthesis mark that looks like a side view of a falling leaf. Next to the leaf is the letter a - the indefinite singular article in English. Also, ignoring the leaf for a moment, "la" is the feminine singular definite article in French. The next line "le" is the masculine singular article, perhaps conveying the idea that loneliness is not gender-specific. The next two lines af and fa are like the leaf spinning around in its descent. (No, they aren't mirror images, but conventional typography has its limitations.) If you want to argue that fa like la represent single notes in the musical scale, I would not argue. But doesn't the next line blow the whole singleness thing to smithereens? Back to back ells make eleven! A whole football team! Yes, but etymologically "eleven" means something like "one left over" in our decimal-oriented numbering or counting system. Think of the Roman numeral, XI. What is lonelier than being the one excluded from the group?

Then comes s). The closing parenthesis in my scheme is the falling leaf of line one which has turned around in flight. The last three lines speak for themselves: the spelled-out number; the numerical digit; then iness or the state of being first person singular.

Cummings is the only poet I know that looked at the shape of letters and punctuation marks so that capital O's can become balloons or bubbles and capital B's, overhead views of female breasts or buttocks. He must have looked at the word "loneliness" and seen the number one (try it in American Typewriter font) then the spelled out word followed by another number and then "iness" and thought to himself how the shape of the letters reinforced the word's connotative and denotative meaning.

Image Credit: E. E. Cummings at Wikimedia Commons