The Poetry of E. E. Cummings
E. E. Cummings, who was born in 1894 and died in 1962, wrote many
poems with unconventional punctuation and capitalization, and unusual
line, word, and even letter placements - namely, ideograms. Cummings'
most difficult form of prose is probably the ideogram; it is extremely
terse and it combines both visual and auditory elements. There may be
sounds or characters on the page that cannot be verbalized or cannot
convey the same message if pronounced and not read. Four of Cummings'
poems - l(a, mortals), !blac, and swi( - illustrate the ideogram form
quite well. Cummings utilizes unique syntax in these poems in order to
convey messages visually as well as verbally.
Although one may think of l(a as a poem of sadness and
loneliness, Cummings probably did not intend that. This poem is about
individuality - oneness (Kid 200-1). The theme of oneness can be
derived from the numerous instances and forms of the number '1'
throughout the poem. First, 'l(a' contains both the number 1 and the
singular indefinite article, 'a'; the second line contains the French
singular definite article, 'le'; 'll' on the fifth line represents two
ones; 'one' on the 7th line spells the number out; the 8th line, 'l',
isolates the number; and 'iness', the last line, can mean "the state
of being I" - that is, individuality - or "oneness", deriving the
"one" from the lowercase roman numeral 'i' (200). Cummings could have
simplified this poem drastically ("a leaf falls:/loneliness"), and
still conveyed the same verbal message, but he has altered the normal
syntax in order that each line should show a 'one' and highlight the
theme of oneness. In fact, the whole poem is shaped like a '1' (200).
The shape of the poem can also be seen as the path of a falling leaf;
the poem drifts down, flipping and altering pairs of letters like a
falling leaf gliding, back and forth, down to the ground. The
beginning 'l(a' changes to 'le', and 'af' flips to 'fa'. 'll'
indicates a quick drop of the leaf, which has slowed by a longer line,
'one'. Finally, the leaf falls into the pile of fallen leaves on the
ground, represented by 'iness'. Cummings has written this poem so
perfectly that every part of it conveys the message of oneness and
In mortals), Cummings vitalizes a trapeze act on paper. Oddly
enough, this poem, too, stresses the idea of individualism, or
'eachness', as it is stated on line four. Lines 2 and 4, 'climbi' and
'begi', both end leaving the letter 'i' exposed. This is a sign that
Cummings is trying to emphasize the concept of self-importance (Tri
36). This poem is an amusing one, as it shows the effects of a trapeze
act within the arrangement of the words. On line 10, the space in the
word 'open ing' indicates the act beginning, and the empty, static
moment before it has fully begun. 'of speeds of' and '&meet&', lines 8
and 12 respectively, show a sort of back-and-forth motion, much like
that of the motion of a trapeze swinging. Lines 12 through 15 show the
final jump off the trapeze, and 'a/n/d' on lines 17 through 19,
represent the deserted trapeze, after the acrobats have dismounted.
Finally, '(im' on the last line should bring the reader's eyes back to
the top of the poem, where he finds 'mortals)'. Placing '(im' at the
end of the poem shows that the performers attain a special type of
immortality for risking their lives to create a show of beauty, they
attain a special type of immortality (36-7). The circularity of the
poem causes a feeling of wholeness or completeness, and may represent
the Circle of Life, eternal motion (Fri 26).
Cummings first tightly written ideogram was !blac, a very
interesting poem. It starts with '!', which seems to be saying that
something deserving that exclamation point occurred anterior to the
poem, and the poem is trying objectively to describe certain feelings
resulting from '!'. "black against white" is an example of such a
description in the poem; the clashing colors create a feeling in sync
with '!'. Also, why "(whi)" suggests amusement and wonder, another
feeling resulting from '!' (Weg 145). Cummings had written a letter
concerning !blac to Robert Wenger, author of The Poetry and Prose of
E. E. Cummings (see Works Cited). In it, he wrote, "for me, this poem
means just what it says . . . and the ! which begins the poem is what
might be called and emphatic (=very)." This poem is also concerns the
cycle of birth, life, death, and renewal. This is derived from the '.'
preceding the last letter. This shows that even though the poem is
finished, the circle of life is not, and is ever cycling (Weg 144).
Through the poem's shape, !blac also shows a leaf fluttering to the
ground. The lines' spacing synchronizes the speed of the reading with
that of the leaf at different points in its fall. With its capital
'I's, 'IrlI' also indicates a leaf falling straight down before it
hits the ground (147). Reading this poem, one may realize the lone
comma on line 12. The poet writes about the sky and a tree, and then a
comma intrudes, which makes the reader pause, and realize the new
awareness that the comma indicated - that of a falling leaf (145).
Lines 1 through 6 are also very important to the poem. Although "black
against white" may be referring to the color of the falling leaf in
contrast to the bright sky, it is not wrong to assume it means more.
As stated above, the poem's theme is the cycle of life, and "black
against white" could be indicating life death versus life. It shows
that even though a leaf falling may be an indication of death, falling
of leaves is an integral part of the whole life cycle of the tree
(146). !blac may seem like a simple mess of words, but in reality is
much more complex than that.
swi( is another poem of Cummings' ideogram form. The essence of
this poem is seeing a bird's swift flight past the sun, and the wonder
of this experience. The poem mainly tries to convince the reader of
the difference between conception, what one sees, and perception, what
one knows he is seeing (Mar 105). The first line, 'swi(' shows that
the object the poet sees is moving so rapdly that before he completely
utters his first word, he must describe the object, and that it is
passing before another object - the sun. His use of only primary
descriptives, such as speed, direction, color, and shape indicates
that he is trying to describe the bird as quickly as possible. The way
he speaks, in terse syllables that lack syntactical relationship to
each other, imitate one who tries to speak before he knows exactly
what he wants to say; it is another indication of how quickly the
object is moving (106). "a-motion-upo-nmotio-n/Less?", the 6th line,
is signifying that although the poet knows that both the objects are
moving, one's motion causes the other to seem still (106). The 'd,' at
the end of the poem is showing that after the poet has finally named
the object he saw, he immediately loses interest and stops, as writing
more to further organize his thoughts would be superfluous (106). The
contrasting words in this poem are very important. 'against' contrasts
with 'across', and signifies a halt. It seems that the poet wants to
stop the object in order to describe it. But a stopping of motion
would contradict 'swi/ftly', so Cummings decided to refer to the speed
average of the two, 'Swi/mming' (106). swi( contains less symbolism
than the other poems being analyzed, but it is similar in that the
syntax adds greatly to the poem.
Cummings' peculiar method of using syntax to convey hidden
meaning is extremely effective. The reader does not simply read and
forget Cummings' ideas; instead, he must figure out the hidden meaning
himself. In doing this, he feels contentment, and thus retains the
poem's idea for a more extended period of time. Cummings' ideogram
poems are puzzles waiting to be solved.
Friedman, Norman. E. E. Cummings: A Collection of Critical
Essays. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1972.
Kidder, Rushworth M. E. E. Cummings: An Introduction to the
Poetry. New York: Columbia University
Marks, Barry A. E. E. Cummings. New York: Twayne Publishers,
Triem, Eve. E. E. Cummings. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Wegner, Robert E. The Poetry and Prose of E. E. Cummings. New
York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1965.
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