With the release of E. E. Cummings: Complete Poems 1904-1962 last September and Susan Cheever’s biography e. e. cummings: A Life this February, Cummings’ poetry is once again being discussed by critics. Most acknowledge that whatever shortcomings his lesser poems might possess, his best are vividly written, his love poems often held to be among the finest of the last century. I once had a strong passion for Cummings’ poetry when I was younger and while its intensity has mitigated somewhat over the years—I’ll concede that there isn’t the depth in his poetry that there is in his peers’—I haven’t gone so far as a friend who once declared that had it not been for the invention of the typewriter, Cummings would have been unable to write his “poetry.” Rather, I agree with the critics who often point to Cummings’ virtuosity with poetic form, particularly the sonnet, the form he used and experimented with most often. In fact, in his New Yorker review of Cheever’s book, Paul Mulroon argues that Cummings wrote sonnets so often that his reputation as an innovator may be overstated, mainly by Cummings himself.
Regardless, whenever I go back and read Cummings, I’m always happy I do because many of his poems are as surprising as they are lovingly crafted. Take his poem “l(a”—Cummings never titled his poems—from 95 Poems, the last book of poems published during his lifetime. It is a sparse poem, appropriate for its theme, and achieves so much with so little:
The poem is an excellent evocation of loneliness while offering it as the timbre of existence. The first line establishes the brevity of the poem’s lines, most not exceeding two letters, the overall shape of the poem resembling a number one or the trail of a leaf drifting to the ground. The evocation of the number one, that loneliest number, is reiterated in the first letter, an “l” that with serifs resembles a one: “l.” The letter following the “l,” an “a,” further stresses this sense of aloneness—a thing, of course, being one thing.
What follows are lines organized to capture the rhythm of a leaf as it flutters in the air, falling then pausing, twisting, as the reversal of the letters “a” and “f” suggest in lines three and four with “af/fa”—reminding me of the delicate poem by the eighteenth and nineteenth century Japanese poet Ryōkan: “Maple leaf / Falling down / Showing front / Showing back”—still falling, pausing, then coming to rest on the ground.
Interrupting the word “loneliness” with the image of a leaf falling to the ground doesn’t feel arbitrary. It is such a fragile image, one that would not draw our attention were we not paying attention to it. It is so quiet, so infinitesimal in the scheme of things. Yet it is a natural occurrence, a tree shedding its leaves part of the coming and going of everything, the course of each single leaf subject to the movement of the wind, buffeted by the elements, as we all are. What cannot be controlled not only shapes our lives, it is the shape of our lives. That the image calls to mind autumn, emphasized by the word “falls,” reinforces the association of the leaf with the course of our lives. Autumn is the season of maturity, of reflection, when one is apt to think about the path one’s life has taken and to look more toward the other side of one’s binary: zero, nothingness.
Still, if nothing is conjured, the leaf’s falling concludes with the word “one,” striking because it is the first time in the poem that a line has contained three letters and that “one,” which has haunted the poem’s lines through suggestion up to this point, is finally, explicitly stated. “One” is immediately followed by another single “l,” that is, another “one,” so that within the context of this poem, the falling leaf brings us back to a sense of being alone. Indeed, the reiterations of “one,” of a sense of solitude, bracket the falling of the leaf more emphatically than the parentheses embedded in the poem.
There is another way to read that solitary “l,” too. Without a serif, the “l” is indistinguishable from a capital “I,” the singular pronoun that is also the sign of the ego, the self. In fact, this other reading of the singular “l” deepens the poignancy of the falling leaf. Without the serifs, the two adjacent “l”s in the middle of the poem, surrounded on each side by blankness, resemble a caesura, which in music, as in poetry, represents a break, a pause, or an interruption. Situated where it is, the pause definitely seems to be an interruption. But is the action of the leaf interrupted by the “I,” insistent in its stuttering repetition, or am “I,” following the course of the falling leaf, interrupted by blankness, a blankness that each of us will have to face and experience alone?
In spite of that ambivalence, one thing is clear: the poem tells us that loneliness, that sense of being alone, is the condition of existence. Because the word that brings all the intimations of being alone and not-being alone in the poem to a conclusion, at five letters, is the longest string of letters in the poem and so the weightiest: “iness,” the condition of being “I.” Existence as loneliness certainly is a bleak notion. Yet while it’s true, it is only so long as you keep believing in yourself as one.