Tuesday, December 07, 2004


First, I am still soliciting poems from anyone who might have a poem in mind that they'd like to see discussed here. Thanks to everyone who took the time to suggest their favorite poems. I'm planning to cover many of the suggestions.

Today, I'm posting a poem suggested by a friendly reader at http://snazzycat.com/ordinarychica. (I was careful to spell it correctly :-) It's by e.e. cummings.




Form is at the heart of this poem. As chica pointed out, if you read everything between the parenthesis, you read "a leaf falls." The rest spells "oneliness." If you add the beginning "l" to the "oneliness--that is, everything not in parenthesis--you get "loneliness."

Man oh man. This poem is heartbreaking. Upon first reading, I thought, how clever. A nifty poetic device. But the more I read it, the more it got to me. The form illustrates falling, motion, slimness, even termination. The lines are long--not just the poem as a whole, but the letters in the poem--so many l's and f's. Long, even fluid lines, all leading down.

We are familiar with the image of falling leaves and the poignancy that creates. Poems are full of that image. But cummings is illustrating that poignancy in several ways. First, the words themselves: "a leaf falls loneliness" or "loneliness a leaf falls." It doesn't work well to read it that way does it? Second, in the long, lean lines; the downward fluidity of the poem as a whole created with the whole line, and the lines of the letters. Third, those parentheses! Parentheses are inherently exclusive. cummings illustrates loneliness by alienating that word from the rest of the poem. And fourth, although this list is by no means comprehensive, the title. l(a. Alienation and loneliness is inherent in the separation, the boundary, between those two letters.

The gentle, wind-carried fall of a leaf, traveling downward to meet its fate, which is, let's face it, death. The separation of the leaf from its home and companions. Fantastic poem.

Any other ideas about this poem? Feel free to comment with other insights--I'd love to hear your ideas.


jett said...

Poem recommendation....D.H. Lawrence's 'When I went to the Circus'. I know he's not normally associated with poetry but that poem captures mankind in a nutshell. It is great.

Anonymous said...

As someone who is most definitely not a poet, my first inclination was to dismiss this poem as too gimmicky. Clever? Yes, and it appeals to my sense of whimsy. But the kind of poem to move me to some deep emotion? No. Of course, then you broke it down for me and I see where you're coming from. It's still not the kind of poem I would initially be drawn to, but I will be more inclined to look beyond the surface in the future. Thanks for the poetry lesson!


Amy said...

Yes, it struck me as a bit gimmicky too, at first, and I wonder if that might be partly because contemporary poetry generally avoids the use of any kind of specific form, even as an illustrative device. I'm a total postmodernist myself; that is certainly where my sensibilities lie. But it is good to remember that for centuries, poets wrote in form. There is great beauty in form, and sometimes we have to remind ourselves of that.


Carson said...

I find the ambiguity of the 1 (one) and l appealing. I'm old enough to have owned a typewriter that didn't have a 1/! key, you used the l (ell) for one, and the ' & then backspaced to add the . to make the !.

So is it an l or a 1? Modern typesetters have to choose, but for e.e. they were the same thing.

cj white said...

Having read the poem a few times, I like the concept of loneliness being interrupted by a leaf falling. I picture someone feeling very alone, sitting outside conteplating their loneliness only to be distracted by the slow, gentle, consistent falling of a leaf.

Anonymous said...

Hi. Fell on your site, and as I'm not too into the blogger login doodad, I'll just tell you my name, Ran, and my site, ranhasa.com. Anyway, I've always appreciated cummings because I'm very attracted to his sense of play, and he seems to echo or be echoed in other junk I like. Duchamp, Beck, Helen Cixous. When I did a creative writing degree, a book that made sense was Cixous' "Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing," which I think of as an inspiring book for authors/writers/farmers/poets/whatever. Now, being American, I suspect you've missed out on a few Canadian gems? No matter, as most canadians also haven't heard of a particular author I think you might like. Get this, in Canada, because the population is small, a best selling writer is one that sells 5000 or more copies. How's that for keeping your art pure? Anyway, mock conceit aside, check out bp Nichol, and a good book to get is "An H is in the Heart". Nichol is a cummings kindawriter, so maybe you'll like? maybe. Poetry schmoetry, you know. Poetry schmoetry. It's all just language, it's all just creating. Like your site, though. Salut!

sigmund fraud said...

I think the poem is incoerrctly reproduced, thereby robbing its uniqueness
You would have loved the poem more and found it much more intriguing reading the way e.e.c wrote it :






The lower case of L and the numerical 1 are almost similar, so "loneliness" implies "1-one-1-ness"
or "one-one-one-ness", all alluding to being alone !

Also, the way the the poem alternates between three lines and one line suggests the gentle swaying of the leaf from one side to the other, as it falls.

I loved your post and all the comments, and for giving me the chance to write about one of my all time favorite poems. Thanx.

Amy said...


Thanks for the new reproduction of this poem, and your astute comments. I find this poem endelessy intriguing.

Marissacap@gmail.com said...

i see you like duchamp and thought you might be interested in a book I have on eBay. It's of Marcel Duchamp!
Let me know if you are interested, I don't think anyone is bidding!
The item # is 180124200211 (just enter that in the search bar)


Ryan said...

la and le signify singular nouns in french.

the last line of the poem is iness.
ee always used a lowercase i, so i think he wanted to further convey being alone as i-ness.

it struck me how the lines of the poem (if you center it in word) are the lines you could see a leaf taking,
even swirling about on the af/fa and finally landing on the ground of iness.


whaleshaman said...

thanks for the reminder and accompaniment to what i saw last night...poetry in motion. i hope you enjoy it: Leaves Are Fading

kevin said...

Although many poets have tried to acquire the ability of bringing feeling into their writing, many today, and dare I say of old, never accomplished this. Cummings found this emotion and knew just how to take it to his writing. Many men and women of today walk along in life falling slowly to the unbearable end, death, yet many forget this. As one forgets this, we forget the feeling of falling, like a leaf in the wind. In this poem, one can find that feeling, and never seem to let go of it.

J said...

cummings is a fantastic poet in that he recognizes that syntax is irrelevant. as he says in "since feeling is first" "since feeling is first/ who pays any attention to the syntax of things/ will never wholly kiss you..." he realizes that no amount of structure will change a message from abstract and creative to concrete and tangible. if you like this one, check out "anyone lived in a pretty how town"

-=DaRiV=- said...

I believe the poem is about a relationship where two people come together in the first line and live life as a couple till one dies near the end. Here is my proof:
In the first line we see the "1" and the "a" being 'joined' by the beginning bracket. Brackets are used to group things or ideas together. (Cummings also used grouping brackets near the end of "grasshopper" to separate words of a sentence.) get it?
The letters fall down the page as a couple, paired together until the ending bracket.(death)
The first time we see a 'word' is the line just after the one with the ending bracket. The word "one" appears. The line just after that is where we find the one and only line with a single character. A "1" Both lines represent singularity. Now look up a few lines where the "11" appears. Two singular symbols for 'one' placed next to each other on the line with white space above and below for emphasis. This is symbolic of a couple.
Also, ask why does a leaf fall? Leaves fall when they die. Where does it fall from? Leaves fall from trees. Trees are symbolic of life. "Family tree" or "tree of life" and so on. The loneliness outside the brackets represents the feelings of the one left behind. And the final line of the poem is read as 'one-ness', again singular. BTW- "la" and "le" on the first two lines are also singular in French and other foreign languages.







Joe said...

As I rake leaves today I am reminded that they fall singularly but land together.

When left to "nature" they blanket the ground and hold the moisture overwinter and recycle as they decompose.

Just my thoughts


carawaycamel said...

If you enjoyed this poem, you'll enjoy "in Just-Spring" another one of cummings extremely creative works. The imagery in the title alone illustrates the complexity. Should this be read as in merely the Spring time, in a Spring of injustice, in the only Spring of justice...the possibilities for interpretation of the three words alone demonstrate the effective genius of cummings' mind.

~spen said...

very very enlightening interpretations of the poem!

I would also like to add in -=DaRiV=-'s very witty interpretation that cummings' l(a might be a continuation of Basho's Haiku poem:

Won't you come and see loneliness? Just one leaf from the kiri tree. Basho, 1692

The kiri tree is a very important tree in Japan. cummings obviously influenced by Haiku tradition layed on the paper the same ingredients of Basho's poem but created a whole new thing. There is strong emotion from the notion of loneliness-oneness and does make the reader an active participant to the poem, as one follows it.

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Lynn Goya said...

I have read that poem hundreds of times through the years and have never thought of =DaRiV='s interpretation. While I don't exactly agree, I think he defends his interpretation well. I have always thought it one of the most brilliant poems ever written because it says so much with just two words, creates a vivid image and leaves a strong emotion.

One has to remember that Cummings, a WWI veteran, was really breaking the mold of conventional poetry. Although many modern readers don't know who he is, he has left a lasting impression on modern poetry and brought to it the same kind of deconstruction that Picasso, whom he had met in Paris, was doing in the visual art world.

Although I always felt there was a haiku feel to his work, I never directly connected cummings with Basho, although clearly, he uses nature in the same way as classic haiku and often leaves the most important elements of the poem unstated.

What a fun discussion.

And one more thing. Apparently, it is really E.E. Cummings:

Very interesting, and for those who love him, appropriate for us to give his name the respect due.

Anonymous said...

The idea that you can incorporate a mathematical application to deduce the mearning is a joy and a deight to those of us who feel nothing in education can be separated.

6913 said...

Parentheses do more than alienate. Note that "a leaf falls" is literally in "loneliness:" a leaf falls in loneliness.

Satan said...

i read this poem so many times, in high school.
and i utterly hated it.

now, i was then, and still am, a HUGE Cummings fan, to the extent that i have a piece of his poetry tattooed on my arm. he is my idol, as a poet. i emulate him and draw inspiration from his work in many ways.

but for years, i hated this poem. and the reason i hated it was because i never understood it.

it took me years to work out the meaning, because although i had read it many times, no one had ever taught it in a class.
but somewhere between the 15th and 34th or so reading of it (because it's in every literary anthology ever, it seems), it clicked.

i started understanding it. and it's become one of my favorite poems, ever since.