views updated


e. e. cummings 1958

Author Biography

Poem Summary



Historical Context

Critical Overview



For Further Study

Published in 1958, when cummings was 64 years old, “l(a” was among the last new poems published in the poet’s lifetime. At first glance, the poem appears to be either deceptively simple or maddeningly opaque; a more detailed examination reveals it to be a fine example of cummings playful experimentation with words on the page, resulting in a successful merging of form and meaning. In a mere four words, stretched across nine lines, the poet presents us with an entire world in a single, simple leaf—revealing both his esthetic and philosophical sympathy with the Transcendentalists.

Author Biography

Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1894, cummings spent his childhood in that city, where his father, Edward Cummings, was a sociology professor at Harvard and a Unitarian clergyman. From an early age cummings showed a strong interest in poetry and art, which was encouraged by his mother Rebecca. Cummings attended Harvard University from 1911 to 1915 and joined the editorial board of the Harvard Monthly, a college literary magazine. While in college he became fascinated by avant-garde art, modernism, and cubism, and he began incorporating elements of these styles into his own poetry and paintings. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1915 and a master’s the following year.

His first published poems appeared in the anthology Eight Harvard Poets in 1917. These eight pieces feature the experimental verse forms and the lower-case personal pronoun “i” that were to become his trademark. The copyeditor of the book, however, mistook cummings’s intentions as typographical errors and made “corrections.”

During World War I cummings volunteered for the French-based Norton-Harjes Ambulance Service. As a result of his disregard of regulations and his attempts to outwit the wartime censors in his letters home, cummings spent four months in an internment camp in Normandy on suspicion of treason. Although he found his detention amusing and even enjoyable, his father made use of his contacts in government to secure his son’s release.

Cummings returned to New York and pursued painting but was drafted in 1918. He spent about a year at Camp Danvers, Massachusetts, during which time he wrote prolifically. Beginning around this time, cummings, with the knowledge and approval of his friend Schofield Thayer, had an affair with Schofield’s wife Elaine. Cummings’s daughter Nancy was born in 1919, but she was given Thayer’s name. Cummings and Elaine Thayer married in 1924, at which time cummings legally adopted Nancy.

During the 1920s and 1930s he traveled widely in Europe, alternately living in Paris and New York, and developing parallel careers as a poet and a painter. He published his first poetry collection, Tulips and Chimneys, in 1923.

Politically liberal with leftist leanings, cummings visited the Soviet Union in 1931 to learn about that government’s system of art subsidies. He was very disillusioned, however, by the regimentation and lack of personal and artistic freedom he encountered there. As a result, he abandoned his liberal views and became deeply conservative on social and political issues.

Cummings continued to write steadily throughout the 1940s and 1950s, reaching his greatest popularity during this period and winning a number of honors, including the Shelley Memorial Award for poetry in 1944, the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship at Harvard for the academic year 1952-53, and the Bollingen Prize for Poetry in 1958.

Despite such successes, however, he never achieved a steady income. Cummings continued to give poetry readings to college audiences across the United States until his death in 1962.

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

Poem Summary

Line 1

Immediately, the poet asks us, perhaps forces us, to pay close attention—and prepares us for what is to come. This is clearly not standard or proper English; and while the reader may not know it yet, he or she may have to get through to the end of the poem before the meaning and function of this first line becomes clear.

Lines 2-6

These lines don’t offer us much more than the opening line, although when we get to the close-parenthesis, we at least know that what is inside is

Media Adaptations

  • A video cassette titled E.E. Cummings: The Making of a Poet was released in 1971 by Films for the Humanities.
  • An audio cassette titled “E.E. Cummings Reads” is available from Audiobooks.

of an entire piece. Once that is extracted, the rest of the poem falls into place. So perhaps we might return to the open-parenthesis before we even finish the poem. In this way, our reading method mimics the “fluttering” nature of the leaf within the poem, as if our eyes are caught in a gust of wind from the page.

Lines 7-9

At first glance, line 7 appears to be a complete word, the only complete word on a line in the entire poem. In fact, it is merely a part of the larger word (“loneliness”) that opens and closes the poem. By giving it an entire line to itself, the poet emphasizes both the “alone-ness” and the “one-ness” of one person and one leaf, and possibly of one poet. Reading these three lines as a piece to themselves, they could be heard, or rather seen, to be “one-liness.” Again, this is perhaps intended to emphasize the solitary nature of man, of a leaf, or possibly the voice of this poem. Taking a clue from cummings’s own word games, the adventurous reader might note that in the pre-computer typewriter type of the time, the numeral one was also denoted by the lowercase “1,” the same “1” that opens the poem and that follows line 7.

By employing such multiple interpretations, the adventurous reader quickly realizes that there is an entire world of meaning and language in this brief yet complex poem—just as there is in a leaf itself. As cummings himself said of his own work, “DO NOT TRY TO UNDERSTAND IT. LET IT UNDERSTAND YOU.” It might be a mistake to take this admonition too literally, since it could be argued that, in this particular poem as in much of the poet’s later work, the reader’s act of deciphering the poem (or it deciphering the reader) may actually be cummings’s desired purpose: he seeks to engage us, as much as to convey a single, concrete idea. In other words, a poem is only alive while it is being read or thought about. As soon as the reader knows what the poem says or means, he or she moves on to a new experience, leaving the poem itself to flutter to the ground.


Language and Meaning

Neither of the ideas expressed in this poem—“loneliness” and “a leaf falls”—is particularly powerful in and of itself, and even when they are put together side-by-side, they would only draw a quick nod of appreciation that is over as soon as the reader feels she or he has seen the obvious connection. Breaking the words into small units slows readers down and makes them drink in the poem’s idea fully, but that is the least of its effects. The individual parts of the words also express ideas that expand upon the poem’s main theme. For example, old typewriters did not even have a key for the numeral “1”, but left it to the typist to use a lowercase “L” to represent it. Reading “1” to mean “one,” this poem has a fifth line that says “one-one” and an eighth line that says “one,” in addition to the l’s that start the first two lines and the seventh line that directly says “one”. Taking this a step further, the last line can be read as saying “I-ness,” as in a self, alone. These accidents of language, where the very letters used in the words correspond to the idea being conveyed, help to strengthen the author’s point. Cummings also used the narrowness of the lines to simulate what is being discussed. Of course, the long narrow shape (beside once again resembling the number “1”) brings us as close to the idea of “loneliness” as can be evoked without isolating each individual letter on its own line-which would make the author’s intent too obvious and draw too much attention to the page layout, instead of the idea. Including the parentheses, the two-letter lines of the second stanza alternate consonant/vowel/vowel and consonant/consonant/vowel, spinning slowly but evenly, the way a leaf falling to the ground spins. This poem uses the layout of the letters on the page both to draw attention to subunits that reinforce the meaning of the words and also to, in some way, act out the words’ message.


The intellectual connection between a falling leaf and the human emotion of loneliness is not clear unless we bear in mind that the leaf is falling because it has died and also consider that it is very rare to see two leaves becoming detached from a tree at the same time. The falling leaf is, in itself, no more of an appropriate symbol for loneliness than a lone snowflake or a bird gliding across the sky would be, but the leaf’s recent death—its disconnection from the source of its nutrition—is more accurate at bringing to mind the unhappiness we feel when we are lonely. The power of loneliness does not come from the realization that we are all independent organisms (an idea that is recognized and emphasized in our culture), but from the idea that we will be permanently separated from others with no hope of uniting. Death carries this permanence. Any solitary object can be made to represent loneliness, but the connection between a falling leaf and death brings readers to the core of loneliness’s power, and it is therefore appropriate that this image is parenthetically planted like a seed within the word.

Order and Disorder

One look at this poem conveys a sense of order, since all lines have two or three letters (or characters, if you include parentheses) and the lines are clustered into stanzas in a neat one-three-one-three-one pattern. This is how we know that a human consciousness is in charge, imposing this order upon the letters for some reason. We assume, from the overall shape of the poem, that cummings has some special significance that he wants us to get from the way he has put these four words together, and our faith in that significance makes us a little more patient as we try to determine exactly what it is. On the other hand, the poet’s overall design is not evident throughout every little aspect of the poem. Before recognizing individual words, for example, readers will often feel frustration about seemingly nonsense lines such as “af’ and “l(a.” This sense of disorder is actually a reassurance that the words were not chosen only for their ability to be manipulated, that they have an inherent meaning that cannot be twisted into a tidy design.


As with the majority of cummings’s work, “l(a” is immediately identifiable as his. Before we actually read a word, we recognize his unique visual style—

Topics for Further Study

  • Think of another event that could be inserted between the parentheses of this poem to bring out the idea of loneliness. Try to divide your event into lines and stanzas that make sense.
  • Explain the title. In what way does it give you a lens through which you can look at the poem? How is your understanding of the poem changed by it? How would your experience be changed if there were no title at all?

a style that reflects cummings’s lesser-known work as a painter, where he was drawn to Cubist and other Modernist forms. Cummings pays little attention to traditional rhyme or meter here. Instead, the layout of the words mimics what they describe: the letters themselves appear to float down the page just as a leaf gently floats to the ground.

Note that no line contains a complete word, and the work itself is not even a grammatical sentence, a technique which invites—or forces—the reader to enter into the poem to decipher it. If we were to “translate” the poem into a single line, it would read as follows:

l(a leaf falls)oneliness

Without cummings’s “visual construction,” the words lose their weight and emotion, and the parenthetical interruption of “loneliness” seems merely capricious. However, in its final form—which we can assume that cummings slaved over as much as another poet slaves over matching rhymes—the same words of the above line become a poem, a poem that opens the willing reader to a deeper understanding of the natural and human worlds.

Historical Context

The history of American poetry, at least since Walt Whitman, has shifted like the swinging of a pendulum, going first to the side of form-free expression and inevitably swinging to the opposite side, which

Compare & Contrast

  • 1950s: Millions of Americans watched the televised Army-McCarthy Hearings, during which Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose investigation of Communism in public figures had ruined careers and bullied people into testifying against friends, was condemned by the Senate for misconduct.

    1973: The Senate Watergate Hearings were broadcast to the country, with high-ranking government officials testifying to their part in burglary and wiretapping charges; this lead to a Senate vote the next year to impeach President Nixon.

    1988: The televised Iran-Contra hearings found that members of President Reagan’s administration had sold weapons illegally to Iran in order to illegally give money to the Nicaraguan Contras.

    Today: With the greater number of television stations made available by cable television, political hearings seldom capture the entire nation’s attention by being broadcast on one of the larger networks.

  • 1958: The first integrated circuit was invented.

    1969: CompuServe, the first commercial online service, was started.

    Today: More than 40 percent of U.S. households own personal computers, and the number is still growing.

  • 1958: The federal deficit was $2,790,000,000.

    1968: The federal deficit was $25,161,000,000.

    1978: The federal deficit was $59,161,000,000.

    1988: The federal deficit was $155,151,000,000.

    Today: After reaching a high of nearly 300 billion dollars, the deficit is being reduced.

appreciates formal structure as being necessary to the imitation of life, and then swinging back again with the next generation. Before Whitman, American poetry had no character that was uniquely its own, and instead used forms that were inherited from Europe. Even the most innovative early-American poets, including Walt Whitman (1819-1892) and Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) were more known for their ideas and for working within existing techniques than they were for improvising with form; Whitman’s contemporary, Emily Dickinson, wrote in the 1860s in a form that owed little to tradition, but she wrote in the same form consistently. Walt Whitman’s collection of poems Leaves of Grass, first published in 1855 and revised in subsequent editions throughout his lifetime, is as lively in its structure as it is in its insights. He touched upon themes that had not been covered in poetry before (including an unheard of degree of sensuality and homosexuality that shocked readers and made him lose his government job), and he matched his original content with a style that continually adjusted itself, line by line. He seldom used a regular, repeating rhyme scheme, but then it would not be unusual for a Whitman poem to break into a stretch of rhyming pattern and then break out; he repeated when he found it necessary for emphasis (as in the lines “Lisped to me the low and delicious word death / And again death, death, death, death.”); he alternated stanzas that had over twenty lines with stanzas that had two and poems that ran for twelve pages with poems that consisted of just a few lines. In short, Whitman defined American poetry by throwing out all of the old rules and assumptions and using whatever techniques he felt necessary for describing what life in this country was like.

The key to Whitman’s genius was that, free-form as his poetry was, he did in fact apply technique, without which it would be difficult to distinguish his artistry from common rumblings. The question that faced poets who followed him concerned how much freedom could be allowed and how much technique could be left out to still have something defined as poetry. To capture a democratic society such as the United States, which has no strict social order, it would not be appropriate to use a strict traditional poetic structure: such poetry tries to show form and tradition to be myths. In the twentieth century we have seen a great parade of artistic movements whose work does not look like traditional poetry because it is defying tradition and trying to create new ways of expression.

At the end of the 1800s and early in the 1900s, society became disillusioned with hoping that rational, orderly thought could truly understand the world, and the forms and techniques that artists had at their disposal were seen as meaningless. The general term that is used to cover this artistic stance is Modernism, although this term is not very meaningful in general discussions because it covers a wide span of artistic practices across a number of years. Some examples of Modernism are Absurdism, which purposely offends audiences’ sense of character development and motive in order to provoke thought, and Imagist poetry, which focuses on conveying a specific image to the audience but does not provide the image with meaning or significance. We can see the influence of Modernism’s belief in freedom of artistic style in the form of “l(a”. But this poem also uses its radically unique form to address the poet’s personal emotion. To the extent that it is more concerned with the message than with its own uniqueness, it can be seen as a response to the way Modernism stresses style for style’s sake. In this sense the poem fits into the next phase of artistic development, Postmodernism. During the 1930s when the country was in the middle of the Great Depression, Americans found the mad-artistic-genius syndrome of the previous cycle to be too self-indulgent, and poets started to once again write about what they believed in. Compassion and making a better world could not be expressed by poetry that had purely private meanings, but reusing the same old forms in the same old ways would lead to an approval of old social orders that Americans did not believe in anymore. Postmodernism merges the artistic freedom that Modernists took to an extreme with a greater concern for the artist’s function in society.

By the 1950s, when this poem was published, there was no real dominant school of poetry, but the freedom that the Modern age stressed had led to a number of styles and sensibilities operating at once. Confessionalist poets drew from personal experience, and in order to convey their experiences to a wide audience, they used traditional techniques of rhyme, rhythm, and symbolism—but certainly not as rigidly as those techniques had been used before Whitman. Beat poets, on the other hand, emphasized spontaneous expression, and therefore sacrificed consciousness of poetic style in an attempt to capture life’s uncertainty. In this environment, cummings offended many as belonging to the “other side”—both too original and too deliberate. Although cummings’s style owes some to the writers who came before him, his greatness was that he created new ways to be unique and still be meaningful.

Critical Overview

There is little, if any, specific criticism of “l(a.” However, much of the general critical response to cummings’s work, both positive and negative, is applicable to this piece.

More than one critic has disapproved of cummings’s stylistic inventions, considering them a major flaw in his otherwise interesting work, because they allowed the poet’s own personality to intrude on, and sometimes overwhelm, the individual poem itself. To these critics, the fact that a cummings poem is identifiable as his simply through the look of the words on the page is not a commendable trait.

In response, Rushworth M. Kidder, in his book e. e. cummings: An Introduction, reminds us that “the spatial arrangements ... are the work neither of whimsical fancy, nor of a lust for novelty. Poetry and visual art grew, in cummings’ minds, from one root.” In critiquing cummings’s penchant for natural objects—leaves, stones, stars—in other poems of the same period, Kidder finds the implication in cummings’ poems that inanimate objects have no expressive qualities of their own, and that they only gain meaning when “given them by the user of language....”

In an essay from 1959, James Dickey, himself a renowned poet, called cummings “daringly original.” To pick out flaws in his work, Dickey felt, was no different than pointing out defects in a rose, an act that would seem to miss the overall meaning and importance of the thing itself. Dickey considered cummings’ greatest gift to be that “he has helped to give life to the language,” not simply by “tinkering with typography,” but by combining “right words with other right words.”


Chris Semansky

Chris Semansky is a freelance writer and has written extensively on modern and postmodern literature

What Do I Read Next?

  • In 1991, all of cummings’s poetry was collected in Complete Poems: 1904-1962.
  • Richard S. Kennedy’s Dreams in the Mirror, published in 1980, is considered to be the definitive biography of e.e. cummings. The poet led an interesting life and knew most of the most important literary figures of his time. Much has been written about him, but no source tells his story as clearly as this. Kennedy also wrote a shorter book in 1994 called E.E. Cummings Revisited, which gives a much more intellectual look at how cummings’s work developed as his life progressed.
  • For those who think cummings’s unique styles were a way of avoiding direct communication, the Selected Letters of E.E. Cummings, edited by F.W. Dupee and George Stade, give a more personal look at the author. It is clear from his letters that cummings’s verbal gymnastics were a part of his life, present whenever he picked up a pen.

In the following essay, Semansky explains how cummings used not only words but also their visual presentation on the page to shape the meaning of his work.

A painter and a poet, e.e. cummings was as interested in how a poem looked on the page as in how it sounded or what it meant. He consistently draws our attention to the fact that writing, in its material form, basically exists as ink in the shape of letters. These letters are then combined into units, or words, and the words are organized into phrases or sentences which give them meaning. A relentless experimenter, cummings played with how words and sentences are assembled and arranged on the page to create new ways of expressing meaning. In so doing, he blurs the boundaries between reading and viewing, forcing his readers to visualize language—to recognize that writing dramatically illustrates the suturing of the visual and verbal. He would break words apart, coin new words by altering parts of speech, and be deliberately ungrammatical with syntax and punctuation in order to achieve these desired effects. For cummings, such tactics were poetic devices, much the same way that line, color, and lighting are painterly devices. In “l(a”, one of his most popular poems, cummings employs many of these innovations to visually enact the subject of the poem.

Cummings’s technique of spacing characters and words is partially drawn from Cubist painting, a popular artistic movement at the beginning of the twentieth century. Artists such as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque would analyze an image or object, break it down into its formal properties and then reconstruct it. For example, in Braque’s Man with a Guitar we see many straight lines, a very narrow range of color, and what looks like a figure sliced into geometric shapes. We learn nothing about the age, personality, or character of the “man” himself. Indeed, we can barely make out any such figure. Cubist poets such as cummings, Gertrude Stein, and Kenneth Rexroth tried to create in verse what Cubist painters such as Picasso and Braque were creating on canvas. They would take the elements of an image (or rather, the word or words which represented that image), divide them into parts, then reorganize them. This new synthesis was often claimed to represent, by enacting, the increasing fragmentation of the modern world and the alienation from it that human beings experience.

“l(a” vividly exemplifies this visual and poetic technique. Consisting of only four words, three of them in parentheses, “l(a” is not so much “about” something as much as it is doing the thing it is about. Instead of writing “a leaf falls: loneliness,” the poet snaps the words into smaller units and vertically spaces these units on the page. This spacing, a form of typography, allows the poem itself to metaphorically take on the shape and action of a falling leaf. Cummings illustrates the action of the leaf falling by fragmenting the words into units of one consonant and one vowel for the first four “lines.” The middle “line,” consisting of a double “11,” suggests a pause in the leaf’s downward trajectory.

The second half of the poem provides us with an inverse structure. While the first part consists of a one-line stanza and then a three-line stanza, the second consists of a three-line stanza and then a one-line stanza. Compared to the first half of the poem, however, the second half is relatively less ordered in the way the words are broken. Just as the leaf begins its fall in an almost deliberate manner, we as readers cautiously attempt to uncode—to make sense of—the strange, but uniform grouping of letters on the page. But as we approach the second half of the poem that uniformity of grouping disappears; we now have a two, three, one, then five character line. This pattern-steadiness, a lull, then a relatively uneven finish-graphically illustrates the floating fall of a leaf. We see the leaf falling at the same time we read about it. In this sense the poem is more of a picture than a poem.

When writing possesses this quality it is often called an ideogram. Ideograms combine image and idea into a single mark or group of marks by embodying the object or image they represent. Many Eastern languages such as Chinese, Korean, and Japanese inherently contain this quality. “l(a” can be said to be an ideogram in at least two ways. First, it assumes the shape of the image or idea being expressed. Second, it juxtaposes an idea (loneliness) with an image (a falling leaf).

Apart from the falling leaf, however, we have the word outside of the parentheses: “loneliness.” Grammatically, parentheses are a typographical device used to enclose words that add information or identification (for example, these words). The body of the sentence, so to speak, exists outside of them. The true subject of cummings’ poem, then, is the idea or the fact of loneliness itself. He emphasizes this point by literally breaking the word into pieces. In the last three “lines” we receive the rest of the letters for “loneliness” in piecemeal, so we can also discern the words “one” and “oneliness.” Even the small “1,” appearing on a line by itself, resembles the Arabic numeral one. These words and letter themselves echo the solitary nature of a leaf falling. It is interesting to note that “l(a,” which appeared in 1958 in cummings’ last volume, 95 Poems, was later published in The Collected Poems(1991) as “l(a).” Enclosing the indefinite article in parenthesis further emphasizes the theme of loneliness. The fragmentation of the word, its interruption by parenthetical information, its visual spacing on the page, and the very brevity of the work itself (only 22 characters) all contribute to the idea and the feeling of separation, of being apart from whatever it is that provides “one” with a sense of belonging.

We are most likely to encounter a falling leaf, of course, in the fall, a season often associated with death and dying, of a world slowly and gradually emptying itself of itself. The poet cummings captures the melancholy and wistfulness of this season through showing, not telling, us the epilogue of the life of one leaf. He also enacts, with his focus on the loneliness embodied in a falling, solitary leaf, the metaphysical condition of modern alienation. This is not to say, however, that cummings’s poetry embraces alienation as its principal theme. As much a poet of spontaneity and childlike wonder, cummings often explored more optimistic themes in his poetry such as love and courtship, the processes of nature, and the celebration of simply being alive. In this way his poems are perhaps more accurately seen as belonging to the tradition of Romantic poetry, which prized the expression of an individual’s intense emotion and the celebration of the natural world. Cummings, in fact, used the image of the falling leaf in other poems before “l(a.” Indeed, nature imagery provided him with his primary metaphors for describing the human condition. In this sense, cummings aligns his poetry with highly traditional subject matter, since poets long before cummings, including Homer, focused on nature in much the same way.

It is his use of language, however, his treatment of it as a physical thing, that marks cummings as an innovator and a truly modern poet. While critics praised modern masters such as Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and Robert Frost for their use of verbal ambiguity, myth, metaphysical wit, and a tragic vision of the modern world, they did not quite know what language to use to write about cummings, whose playfulness and often childlike vision of the world belied the serious and solemn proclamations of his contemporaries. When 95 Poems appeared (which includes “l(a”) in 1958, however, critics were almost unanimous in their praise, frequently commenting on the complexity and fullness of this volume, which contains poems for every phase of the human life cycle—including sonnets about the birth of cummings’s grandchild, poems about growing old, and poems about dying and death. In retrospect it is almost fitting that 95 Poems was the last volume of original work he published.

Critical reception of “l(a,” though, has been mixed. While some, such as Norman Friedman, consider it a fine example of how cummings employs his typographic techniques to squeeze every last drop of meaning from the poem, others see the poem as little more than a gimmick, a worn-out—even juvenile—technique that does not quite fit in with the other poems in the volume and that proves that cummings’s poetry never really matured. The truth is probably somewhere in between. Frequently anthologized poems are chosen not only because they supposedly represent a poet’s body of work and constitute a part of literary history but also because they have a quality about them that editors believe readers continue to find significant. For “l(a” that quality is to be found in its simplicity, a simplicity that simultaneously embraces trickiness while also partially transcending it.

Source: Chris Semansky, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.

Thomas Dilworth

This discussion details the use of the syllables and letters, their seperation throughout the poem and the use of imagery and their interwoven ties.

Initially puzzling, the separated syllables and letters of this much-anthologized poem resolve for the reader into the statement “(a leaf falls)” within the word “loneliness.” As written, the statement exists within the concept. The statement is an image of a single falling leaf departing a company of fellow leaves (unless it is the last to go). Stanza gaps suggest the rhythm of its fall. The alternation of consonants with vowels in the second stanza suggests drifting to and fro on the air. (Because consonants linguistically weigh more than vowels, the heavier, consonantal side indicates the direction of drift.)

The image of the falling leaf gives narrative definition to the concept loneliness, which is, as a conceptualization of emotion, every bit as compelling and evocative as the image of the leaf. The juxtaposition of image and concept powerfully focuses the poem from imaginatively different directions: the image implying the end of a botanical life story; the concept being an emotional absolute. There is more here, however, than this imaginative juxtaposition or convergence. The poem exists initially in a deconstructed state, with syllables and letters resisting absorption into the word “loneliness” and the statement that it includes. In their presynthesized tumble, the letters and syllables imply meanings that vary and enrich interpretation in ways that seem to mitigate, but ultimately emphasize, sadness.

Richard Kennedy points out that the first letter in the first line is identical to the Roman numeral one, so that the poem can be read as “one (a leaf falls) oneliness. The initial “one” here seems a near homonym for “when.” Without reading this “1” as a numeral, the letters of the first line—which are not separated by a space or, as at the end of the parenthesis, a line break—spell the French definite article, which vocally combines with the noun to make “la leaf,” a light-hearted, silly expression. Of course, this reading is confounded by the intrusive opening parenthesis, which is not, however, pronounced, so that the ghost of la may sonically survive punctuation, though only barely, because in this poem, sight dominates sound. The effect of any of these readings is to endorse the initial line break in separating the initial “l” before the parentheses from “one /l/ iness” afterward and consequently to liberate the other elements of the word.

Given any of these readings of the first line, what immediately follows the closing parenthesis in the fourth stanza is not necessarily the continuous syllabic (syllable-and-a-half) “one/1” but “one” and “l”—the latter, again, indistinguishable from the Roman numeral I. As a number, it reads as a merely factual clarification of its immediate predecessor, as in “one, i.e. l, leaf falls.”

To the degree that any or all of these letters and syllables are separable from “loneliness,” the final line/stanza may be read as one or two possible neologisms: “iness” may be read as “i-ness,” which emphasizes the neutrality of the preceding singling “l,” “one,” and “l.” The suggestion might then be that a person with an i-dentity inevitably experiences loneliness, or that loneliness intensifies identity. As “i-ness,” “iness” is the visually predominant possibility, because it is orthographically correct. It is not, however, aurally plausible because the initial “i” would not normally be pronounced as a long vowel. The aurally plausible pronunciation would be “in-ess” or “in-ness.” The implication of this reading, which the single “n” orthographically obscures, is that “in-ness,” introversion, or inward-directed thought is, if not inevitable, at least an option for those who find themselves alone. Furthermore, “iness” is homonymous with, and therefore evocative of, the Gaelic innis, for island, and at this admittedly evocative distance from the denotative immediacy of the poem, may contradict John Donne’s famous statement that “No man is an island.” The lonely are islands. The connotations of the Gaelic word seem positive, however, because it also means “choice pasture” or “choice place” and therefore suggests that meditative interiority is a good place to graze.

From behind the edges of loneliness, which is the primary subject of this poem, peek happier experiences of solitude. These are vastly outweighed, however, by the words that the letters ultimately make up and by the gravitational teleology of the letters in the pictograph. In the picture made by the letters, the fall of the leaf concludes horizontally in the poem’s longest connected string of letters, suggesting the leaf at rest. What has fallen, then, is “iness” with its positive connotations of identity (“i-ness”) and interiority (“in-ness”). If the denotative subject of this poem is loneliness, an important implication of its image of the falling leaf, and the primary intimation of its pictograph, is mortality.

Source: Thomas Dilworth, “cummings l(a’” in The Explicator, Vol. 54, No. 3, Spring, 1996, pp. 171-173.

James Dickey

Here, the work of cummings is analyzed and discussed with a focus on the poem “l(a.”

“In their presynthesized tumble, the letters and syllables imply meanings that vary and enrich interpretation in ways that seem to mitigate, but ultimately emphasize, sadness.”

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

“Immediacy and Intensity are Cumming’s twin gods, and he has served them with a zeal and single-mindedness which we should learn to appreciate...”

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

Source: James Dickey, Babel to Byzantium, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1968 pp.100-106.


Dickey, James, “e. e. cummings (1959),” in his Babel to Byzantium, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1968, pp. 100-06.

Friedman, Norman. E.E. Cummings: The Art of His Poetry, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1960.

Friedman, Norman, “E.E. Cummings and His Critics,” in Criticism, Vol. 6, 1964, pp. 114-33.

Kennedy, Richard S., E.E. Cummings Revisited, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.

Kidder, Rushworth, “Cummings and Cubism: The Influence of the Visual Arts on Cummings’ Early Poetry,” in Journal of Modern Literature 7 April 1979, pp. 255-91.

Kidder, Rushworth M., e. e. cummings: An Introduction to the Poetry, Columbia University Press, 1979, pp. 3-4, 232-34.

Lane, Gary, I Am: A Study of E.E. Cummings’ Poems, Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1976.

Norman, Charles, E.E. Cummings The Magic-Maker, New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1958.

For Further Study

Baum, S.V., “E. E. Cummings: The Technique of Immediacy,” in E. E. Cummings, edited by Norman Friedman, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1972, pp. 104-20.

This look at how cummings’s unique style enabled him to get closer to the truth is just one of the useful essays in this interesting and readable collection.

Folsom, Ed, “Recirculating the American Past,” A Profile of Twentieth Century American Poetry, edited by Jack Myers and David Wajahn, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991, pp. 1-25.

Astonishingly, most of the essays in this book seem to pass over cummings, whose career spanned the first half of the century. This introductory essay, however, lays a strong foundation for understanding the world of poetry that cummings grew up in.

Gray, Richard, American Poetry of the Twentieth Century, New York: Longman, 1990.

Gray’s discussion of Modernism is one of the clearest and available and is very useful in the difficult task of distinguishing it from literary movements that came before or after.

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

This book was published two years after the poet’s death and shows a little more reverence for cummings’ artistry than many critics have. It opens with a long analysis of “l(a”.

Mazzaro, Jerome, Postmodern American Poetry, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

This book gives a good sense of the wide range of styles and sensibilities that fall under the broad category of Postmodernism.