Measured by sheer boldness of experiment, no American poet compares to him, for he slipped Houdini-like out of the locked box of the stanza, then leaped from the platform of the poetic line into an unheard-of way of writing poetry.
-- Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, writing about e.e. cummings --
The poetry of e.e. cummings (1894-1962) is something that is extremely new to me, and I cannot emphasize that enough. Truly, I do not even begin to assume that I understand anything about his work. But it intrigues me, it really does, and I want to learn more about it. And a dear friend who does know the work of this poet shared with me the simple secret of how to read what is known in the poetry world as the ideogram format.
Here is a wonderful example of it, seen in cummings’s untitled poem, commonly referred to and anthologized as “l(a”.
This poetic structure combines simplicity and complexity, and is meant to be seen, moreso than heard. As is quite obvious, it is not something that is going to WOW a listener at a public reading!
No, the reader must observe it on the page, spatially investigate it, if you will.
To some readers, in fact, it may look like gibberish at first, until you read the letters within the parentheses, apart from the ones outside.
It’s cheating, but perhaps setting the thing horizontally would help....
l(a le af fa ll s) one l iness.
Cummings is placing the phrase “a leaf falls” within the surrounding word “loneliness.”
Loneliness / a leaf falls.
But placing it horizontally is a bit worse than cheating. It is like nailing Van Gogh’s Starry Night upside down on your wall and then thinking this wouldn't bother the painter. Both acts are just WRONG.
The poem is vertical, and every single letter is placed exactly so, very purposefully. The truth is, there is so much going on with the way cummings has presented these 22 characters that it can boggle the mind.
This poem is about individuality – oneness.
[What an understatement, but seriously, one must set some sort of parameters in order to discuss something. A true thinker could speak about this poem until the world’s trees were bare....]
Each line, in one way or another, highlights the theme of oneness, from the first “L”, deliberately lower case, and looking like a numeric "one". [One should remember that in the pre-computer era in which this poem was written, typewriter keyboards did not even have a character for the numeral “1” as our keyboards nowadays do.... and so, a lower case “L” was quite literally a 1.]
And then there is the very next letter, following the first bracket in the first line. An “a” denoting singularity. Lack of plurality.
Even the next grouping of “le” is the French definite article denoting “the” which would precede a masculine subject in its singularity. [Anything in the plural would be preceded by “les”.]
The fifth line has “ll” which is really two ones, while the seventh line actually spells out the word “one”, which (I think significantly) is the only entire English word presented horizontally in the poem.
This is followed by yet another “l” or 1.
And then, “iness” which could mean “the state of being I”.... the state of my me-ness.
[Do you begin to see how such a discussion could be nearly endless? It is truly remarkable].
I mean... aside from all of this, the WHOLE POEM almost looks like a letter “I” [not “el” but “eye” as in “me”].
But it gets even more interesting when we begin looking at the motif (or metaphor) of the falling leaf.
The whole poem seems constructed (designed) to resemble the very action of a leaf in descent.
Pairs of letters flit downwards... (af & fa, for instance, reversing themselves in the 3rd and 4th) just as a leaf would flutter, twist and turn. This flip-flop is quickly followed by the “ll” which could signify a quicker drop, the leaf itself being perpendicular to the ground in that moment before flattening out again, gliding downwards, one more swoop with the next “l” and then into the wider “iness” at the base of the poem, as though not only joining other leaves that have previously fallen, but we even have a bit of the sibilance of what it might sound like were there a slight breeze. Leaves, perhaps swirling around a bit....
And this is still just sort of a bit of technical stuff.
We have not even spoken about what the poem means to the reader.
But this is the holy ground stuff. It is where we experience the poem, and ask ourselves why a leaf falling is like loneliness. It is the unspoken revelation. And untaught.
We can only know what the poem says to our self. We cannot know what it says to someone else. This poem is a wonderful illustration of this fact, as it defies the reader to even speak it, as presented.
We can each focus upon so many aspects. Upon the leaf’s brief journey, upon its coming to a place of rest. We can think about timeliness (“for everything there is a season” and all of that). We can think about why the tree lets go. We can think about how the leaf held on.
Loneliness surrounds the leaf, and notice, even does so while it is still attached to the tree.
Loneliness is proper.
Loneliness is cruel.
Loneliness is a severing.
Loneliness is a meeting of others.
It might look like gibberish at first sight.
But this poem is a work of art, and the work of a genius.
Loneliness: a leaf falling is sort of like a Hallmark card.
Loneliness is a leaf falling is sort of like a bumper sticker.
But l(a le af fa ll s) one l iness will forever be e.e. cummings.