E. E. Cummings, who was born in 1894 and died in 1962, wrote manypoems with unconventional punctuation and capitalization, and unusualline, word, and even letter placements – namely, ideograms. Cummings’most difficult form of prose is probably the ideogram; it is extremelyterse and it combines both visual and auditory elements. There may besounds or characters on the page that cannot be verbalized or cannotconvey the same message if pronounced and not read. Four of Cummings’poems – l(a, mortals), !blac, and swi( – illustrate the ideogram formquite well.
Cummings utilizes unique syntax in these poems in order toconvey messages visually as well as verbally.
Although one may think of l(a as a poem of sadness andloneliness, Cummings probably did not intend that. This poem is aboutindividuality – oneness (Kid 200-1). The theme of oneness can bederived from the numerous instances and forms of the number ‘1?throughout the poem. First, ‘l(a’ contains both the number 1 and thesingular indefinite article, ‘a’; the second line contains the Frenchsingular definite article, ‘le’; ‘ll’ on the fifth line represents twoones; ‘one’ on the 7th line spells the number out; the 8th line, ‘l’,isolates the number; and ‘iness’, the last line, can mean “the stateof being I” – that is, individuality – or “oneness”, deriving the“one” from the lowercase roman numeral ‘i’ (200).
Cummings could havesimplified this poem drastically (”a leaf falls:/loneliness”), andstill conveyed the same verbal message, but he has altered the normalsyntax in order that each line should show a ‘one’ and highlight thetheme 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 afalling leaf gliding, back and forth, down to the ground. Thebeginning ‘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 theground, represented by ‘iness’. Cummings has written this poem soperfectly that every part of it conveys the message of oneness andindividuality (200).
In mortals), Cummings vitalizes a trapeze act on paper. Oddlyenough, 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 thatCummings is trying to emphasize the concept of self-importance (Tri36). This poem is an amusing one, as it shows the effects of a trapezeact within the arrangement of the words. On line 10, the space in theword ‘open ing’ indicates the act beginning, and the empty, staticmoment before it has fully begun. ‘of speeds of’ and ‘&meet&’, lines 8and 12 respectively, show a sort of back-and-forth motion, much likethat of the motion of a trapeze swinging. Lines 12 through 15 show thefinal 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 tothe top of the poem, where he finds ‘mortals)’. Placing ‘(im’ at theend of the poem shows that the performers attain a special type ofimmortality for risking their lives to create a show of beauty, theyattain a special type of immortality (36-7). The circularity of thepoem causes a feeling of wholeness or completeness, and may representthe Circle of Life, eternal motion (Fri 26).
Cummings first tightly written ideogram was !blac, a veryinteresting poem. It starts with ‘!’, which seems to be saying thatsomething deserving that exclamation point occurred anterior to thepoem, and the poem is trying objectively to describe certain feelingsresulting from ‘!’. “black against white” is an example of such adescription in the poem; the clashing colors create a feeling in syncwith ‘!’. Also, why “(whi)” suggests amusement and wonder, anotherfeeling resulting from ‘!’ (Weg 145). Cummings had written a letterconcerning !blac to Robert Wenger, author of The Poetry and Prose ofE. E. Cummings (see Works Cited). In it, he wrote, “for me, this poemmeans just what it says . . . and the ! which begins the poem is whatmight be called and emphatic (=very).” This poem is also concerns thecycle of birth, life, death, and renewal. This is derived from the ‘.’preceding the last letter. This shows that even though the poem isfinished, the circle of life is not, and is ever cycling (Weg 144).
Through the poem’s shape, !blac also shows a leaf fluttering to theground. The lines’ spacing synchronizes the speed of the reading withthat of the leaf at different points in its fall. With its capital‘I’s, ‘IrlI’ also indicates a leaf falling straight down before ithits the ground (147). Reading this poem, one may realize the lonecomma on line 12. The poet writes about the sky and a tree, and then acomma intrudes, which makes the reader pause, and realize the newawareness that the comma indicated – that of a falling leaf (145).
Lines 1 through 6 are also very important to the poem. Although “blackagainst white” may be referring to the color of the falling leaf incontrast 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 “blackagainst white” could be indicating life death versus life. It showsthat even though a leaf falling may be an indication of death, fallingof 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 ismuch more complex than that.
swi( is another poem of Cummings’ ideogram form. The essence ofthis poem is seeing a bird’s swift flight past the sun, and the wonderof this experience. The poem mainly tries to convince the reader ofthe difference between conception, what one sees, and perception, whatone knows he is seeing (Mar 105). The first line, ’swi(’ shows thatthe object the poet sees is moving so rapdly that before he completelyutters his first word, he must describe the object, and that it ispassing before another object – the sun. His use of only primarydescriptives, such as speed, direction, color, and shape indicatesthat he is trying to describe the bird as quickly as possible. The wayhe speaks, in terse syllables that lack syntactical relationship toeach other, imitate one who tries to speak before he knows exactlywhat he wants to say; it is another indication of how quickly theobject is moving (106). “a-motion-upo-nmotio-n/Less?”, the 6th line,is signifying that although the poet knows that both the objects aremoving, one’s motion causes the other to seem still (106). The ‘d,’ atthe end of the poem is showing that after the poet has finally namedthe object he saw, he immediately loses interest and stops, as writingmore to further organize his thoughts would be superfluous (106). Thecontrasting words in this poem are very important. ‘against’ contrastswith ‘across’, and signifies a halt. It seems that the poet wants tostop the object in order to describe it. But a stopping of motionwould contradict ’swi/ftly’, so Cummings decided to refer to the speedaverage of the two, ‘Swi/mming’ (106). swi( contains less symbolismthan the other poems being analyzed, but it is similar in that thesyntax adds greatly to the poem.
Cummings’ peculiar method of using syntax to convey hiddenmeaning is extremely effective. The reader does not simply read andforget Cummings’ ideas; instead, he must figure out the hidden meaninghimself. In doing this, he feels contentment, and thus retains thepoem’s idea for a more extended period of time. Cummings’ ideogrampoems are puzzles waiting to be solved.
—Works CitedFriedman, Norman. E. E. Cummings: A Collection of CriticalEssays. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1972.
Kidder, Rushworth M. E. E. Cummings: An Introduction to thePoetry. New York: Columbia UniversityPress, 1979.
Marks, Barry A. E. E. Cummings. New York: Twayne Publishers,Inc., 1964.
Triem, Eve. E. E. Cummings. Minneapolis: University of MinnesotaPress, 1969.
Wegner, Robert E. The Poetry and Prose of E. E. Cummings. NewYork: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1965.
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