The Writing Style
of E. E. Cummings
E. E. Cummings, was born in 1894 and died in 1962. During
his lifetime, he 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
meanings, is extremely effective. The reader does not
simply read and forget Cummings' ideas; instead, he must
figure out the hidden meaning himself/herself. In doing
this, he/she 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.
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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