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 
individuality (200).

 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.


Works Cited

 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
 Press, 1979.

 Marks, Barry A. E. E. Cummings. New York: Twayne Publishers, 
Inc., 1964.

 Triem, Eve. E. E. Cummings. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota 
Press, 1969.

 Wegner, Robert E. The Poetry and Prose of E. E. Cummings. New 
York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1965.

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