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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 an
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