Friday, May 29, 2009

e. e. cummings "l(a" deconstructed

Hello, faithful readers. Please check out the poetry animation I have posted on YouTube. It animates the poem "l(a" by e. e. cummings. This often-anthologized poem is notoriously one of cummings's most difficult. The animation shows how easy it is to decode, actually.

There's more that one can say about this poem, as well.





e. e. cummings
95 poems (1958)

The form of it, first of all, resembles the letter l or the number 1 because of its skinny vertical shape. (As you probably know, on older typewriters — like the ones cummings used — there is no key for the number one; instead typists would type the letter l to represent a number one.)

What cummings uncovers for us here is how many times the number one (as suggested by the letter l) appears in the word loneliness: four times. And of course there's also the letter l/number one in the word leaf. The lineation cummings uses, then, is not arbitrary. He is emphasizing all the instances of the number one along with the literal appearance of the word one itself within the word "loneliness."

The leaf, as an image, is of course a time-honored way of talking about life and its transitory nature. The leaf falling off the tree is both an image of death as well as aloneness. The movement of the leaf as it falls is suggested by cummings here in the movement of the poem downwards on the page, especially because of the line skips (stanza breaks?). As many have noted, the "af" followed by the "fa" implies through the letters changing position the twirling of a leaf in air. Some have even suggested that the first line, "l(a," represents a leaf on a branch; the poem before the last line portrays the movement of the leaf as it travels through the air; and the final line is a pile of leaves.

While that may be (cummings, after all, was a well-known painter and critics of his work have pointed out the pictorial aspects of his poetry), one can also read the last line, "iness," as "I-ness." In other words, loneliness and perhaps the knowledge of the inevitability of death are part of what it means to be an "I," to be a human being, to acknowledge one's own identity.

That's lot to pack into 22 letters, 6 syllables, 4 words. And cummings accomplishes it through enjambment, lineation, and stanza-making. Incredible.

Please leave me a comment below about the video or anything on this post. I'd really like to know what you're thinking. Also, do you have any suggestions for poetry animations? Thanks.

NOTE: For more about e. e. cummings and his artwork, see Milton Cohen's book Poet and Painter: The Aesthetics of E. E. Cummings's Early Works (1987). Cohen explores cummings's considerable body of writing on aesthetics and applies these theories to both the paintings and poems.

Do watch it on YouTube as well: . . . and please post a comment there. Okay to repeat because it's a different community. Thanks.


Polly Forns said...

Granted, I am cerainly NOT a poetry critic..but the question lingers with me, "why?"

P.S. The analogy in the utube video was really quite interesting!

Nick Carbo said...

very nice job vince!

Vince Gotera said...

Nick! Thanks so much. I really appreciate that, coming from a "visible verse" expert.

Vince Gotera said...

Hi, Polly. I hope you're well. I'm not sure what your question means? Why what?

Vince Gotera said...

P.S. Polly ... I'm also not sure which "analogy" you're talking about?

Sorry if I'm being dense!

J.D. Schraffenberger said...

Very cool animation, Vince. Have you ever thought of doing some of your own poems as animations? I'm thinking in terms of the videos at

There have been some animated poems in various places on the web, but I think using animation as a teaching tool is quite novel. I love the possibilities here!

Vince Gotera said...

Jeremy: thanks, Vince. I do want to do some of my own poems as animations. I'll check out That's Billy Collins's animation site, right? Thanks again.

Barb said...

Not only is it "an image of death as well as aloneness," the poem also implies that basically, we die alone. We may have friends and family around us, but that final, involuntary act is done alone. And then we join the other dead people already under ground, or on the ground in a pile of leaves, as the "iness" you point out.

Vince, I'm totally impressed by the animation and interested in how you did it. You don't have to answer here, but I'd love it if you messaged me. Thanks!

Vince Gotera said...

Barb ... I never thought of it that way. Interesting. The phrase "die alone" makes me think of Lost. One of its tag phrases is "Live together, die alone." Anyway, back to the video: I did it in PowerPoint. You can convert a presentation into a movie. I probably need to learn Flash better so I can get a better product. Do you do animations?

Barb said...

Of course you had to mention "Lost" again! ROFL. Huh. I thought I didn't have Power Point, but I do. I'd love to dabble in animation but know nothing about it, which is why I was asking.

Vince Gotera said...

I bet your PowerPoint came with tutorials. It's a pretty easy program. Try it! Lost ... Lost ... Lost. Ha ha. Or, as they say in Spanish-speaking countries, ja ja.

Susan Elbe said...

Vince, I absolutely love this! I think it's an amazing way to teach poetry and I predict it will be used more and more in the classroom. I'm thinking it would really grab the attention of the very young to show them what poetry is all about.

Barb said...

I agree. This would be an excellent teaching tool. You don't know how many comments readers have left on my blog about how they just don't "get" poetry or aren't "smart" enough to read it. I tried explaining that it's kind of like being able to read music; it has to be taught. The animation would be an exciting, appealing way to teach it. I mean, come on, what teenager today (or in my day for that matter) really care that Wordsworth "wandered lonely as a cloud"? ;-)

Vince Gotera said...

Susan and Barb ... thanks so much for your comment. I hope people do use it for class. I think cummings's poem "l(a" is a perfect poem to use to teach people who say "they just don't 'get' poetry" how to get it. Thanks again.

Vince Gotera said...

Going back to Polly's question "why" above: since Polly hasn't clarified what she meant, I'm going to take a stab at answering her question, assuming that she's saying why has cummings written the poem this way when he could say it much more simply in, say, a bit of prose.

The answer, as I see it, is comparable to the answer to the question "Why create an abstract painting?" or "Why cook a gourmet dinner?" Obviously mac and cheese feeds the body as adequately as fettuccine alfredo but ... well, do I have to say more?

Cummings is making art, and he expects you as reader or viewer to work hard at understanding the art. And what he accomplishes is saying volumes with an amazingly small collection of language.

Hope that helps, Polly. Could you ask more if it doesn't? Thanks.

Polly Forns said...

Ah, that answered my question perfectly and gave me pause to THINK. Sorry I hadn't checked back in here for a few days, though, as the comments have been interesting to catch up with, too.

And yes, I'm one of those people who just doesn't "get" poetry, but even at the ripe old age of 56, I follow your blog, the poet that you are, and STILL try. My lit teachers would be proud that I still try :)

Thanks, Vince.

Vince Gotera said...

Whoa, Polly! I'm 56 too. We're neither "ripe" nor "old," huh? ;-D Glad you haven't given up on poetry!

EILEEN said...


p.s. Also glad to hear you're not yet "ripe", lest you F





Vince Gotera said...

Hi, Eileen! Thanks so much for your comment. Very funny!

Anonymous said...

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