I don’t know whether Cummings, one of my favourite 20th Century American writers, saw himself as more of a painter or a poet, but the fact that he was both is clear throughout his work. He loved playing with syntax, typography, metre, shape, and perhaps most of all, form, giving every one of his poems an extra layer of meaning.
This is perhaps his most famous poem, and arguably one of the most unusual in the Cummings canon. It is my favourite Cummings poem because of the undeniable power that the form actually has on the poem’s meaning and its effect on the reader.
Cummings’s use of typography affects the way we read. Pause, gravity and emphasis are heightened by the devices he employs; the sense and significance of individual letters, words or lines are underscored. But, most importantly of all, meanings are created as the reader’s thoughts are slowed in their progress through the poem. We are forced to go back and forth, thereby becoming aware of the meanings in what Norman Friedman calls an immediate moment of perception.
If Cummings had simply written, “a leaf falls, loneliness,” his publishers would probably have laughed at him. But he didn’t: he put the first ‘l’ on its own, outside the parentheses to reinforce a sense of solitude (because it is not in capitals, it looks like a number one); he put the ‘a’ on its own between the first parenthesis and the line break, and again this indefinite article suggests loneliness; this is seen also in the next line, ‘le’, the French definite article, perhaps again implying isolation; line seven contains simply the word ‘one’, and line eight is comprised only of the letter ‘l’, having a similar effect; and finally, the poem actually looks somewhat like a letter one, not to mention the image of the words, like a leaf, literally falling down the page. Cummings develops this simple poetic symbol for loneliness into something far more potent.
Norman Friedman is right, or at least he is right when it comes to this poem: the meaning stuns the reader at once, when all is suddenly perceived and understood – it isn’t just a gradual unfolding, it is a beautiful and incredibly powerful representation of humanity’s sense of seclusion. It isn’t just words – the page is alive. Cummings wanted to reverse the tendency of language towards stasis without losing intelligibility altogether. He wanted to make it new and innovative, without denying its power.
This poem was first shown to me by my granddad, a poet himself. I love it for its simplicity, and the fact that, through this simplicity, such underlying complexity is so expertly revealed. Richard S. Kennedy, Cummings’s biographer, labeled the poem "the most delicately beautiful literary construct that Cummings ever created." It is instantly unforgettable. If you like this poem, make sure you read his poems “in Just” and “i carry your heart with me (i carry it in”, also favourites of mine.