German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said:
“…it is my ambition to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a book—what everyone else does not say in a book.“
First published in 1958, “l(a” is a short and beautiful work by 20th century poet e e cummings which accomplishes exactly that. Concerning human loneliness, and requiring merely nine lines and four words, it provides ample margin space for musing and interpretation. I follow his lead below with a little over 1,300 words of my own — a ratio I hope you find worthy.
Taking the lower case “l” which begins the poem as the personal pronoun, the beginning reads “I a”, an ungrammatical variation of “I am”, and continues to form “I a leaf”. The first three lines, taken instead as three words, create a literal pronouncement of what the poem itself makes metaphorical: the individual human as a leaf. Whereas for many poets an interpretation that relies on ungrammatical phrasing would rule that interpretation out, cummings is famous for utilizing such phrasing himself. We are therefore free, to an extent, to elaborate where we please, unrestrained by grammar.
As the “I” is parenthetically separated, and the “le” shoved to the following line, the indefinite article “a” is left stranded to further reinforce its loneliness. The use of “a” rather than the definite article, “the”, ironically isolates the object it refers to by saying it is one of many: one member of a group that it is simultaneously not, or no longer, a part of. Writing “the leaf” would focus too much attention on the particular object, whereas “a leaf” pulls one back to a larger image, perhaps of a towering branch, a peaking tree, a crowded forest. More so, however, the image need not just include what is higher, or where a leaf is falling from, but where it is falling to. The ground is littered with leaves, each dead, each together yet alone, fallen. One is free here, precisely thanks to the indefinite article, to scale outwards from the isolated leaf — again, further isolating it.
The breadth of this new image means a leaf is certainly part of that image, as we can see having stepped away from it; but the breadth also means a leaf is too small to notice. Since loneliness is one separate from another, the indefinite article captures the essence of loneliness as involving at least two objects, or two leaves, or two persons. “The leaf” is not alone — it has itself — and may even be proud; but “a leaf” is a meaningless thing in the world: there are billions of them. Perhaps to visually achieve this same effect of one among the vast, the poem itself is thin and long, leaving a lot of empty space around it. Critic Iain Landles notes (in an essay I encourage you check out):
“…in the original printing of 95 Poems (1958), “l(a” appeared opposite a blank page — thus at once suggesting the loneliness explicit in the poem…”
Within such a presentation our eyes would at once zoom in toward the piece while also scattering among the surrounding whiteness. This alternation is a central theme of the poem, revealed by looking at individual bits, and then again at the entire visual, observing how the details are related and yet isolated by their part in the whole.
Our eyes do the same within the piece, too, from line to entirety to separate line, as we try to make sense of it via connections. And a leaf, after-all, does not so much fall directly to Earth, but, depending on the wind, scatters within its descent. The energy of the poem, likewise, does drift downward, but it also spirals, sways, rises, plummets, and finally flattens.
First, the stanzas themselves, as units, are lines of 1-3-1-3-1. The 1’s are sudden shifts in direction; the 3’s slightly more circular floats. The first stanza — “l(a” — and the second stanza — “le / af / fa” — alternate consonants and vowels, composing a quicker, twisting motion than the larger swaying of the stanzas. As we read, we find our eyes descend to the next line but then shoot up again to piece it together — much like wind suspends a leaf’s descent, carrying it up an inch or foot or more, delaying what has already occurred, attempting to reunite it with the whole.
The idea of reuniting is also central: human beings, it is suggested, were together once, but we have separated ourselves as a leaf from the tree and letters from the word. (I would go one step further and say, in today’s society, we have also separated the word from the image; but let’s continue…). With this fear we move onward: the “ll” stanza visually facilitates decline and, as we approach the last few inches of space before the ground, a leaf gives one last push, one last horizontal gust, into the longest line of the poem so far, “one” — but is, regardless, with a final plummet, “l”, flattened against the Earth into the even longer “iness”.
The alternating, the turning, the up-and-down, evoke a struggling image, and we must struggle to understand it; but that struggling is caused entirely by the disruption of the whole, of a letter from its word, a leaf from its tree. Yet even a leaf, a gentle, harmless leaf, resists loneliness with all its heart: it is not meant to live this way. The most common alternating theme of the poem is found within this back-and-forth between a leaf — the one — and what it is now separate from — the whole. Note all the variations of “one” that appear separately in the piece:
- The opening letter, “l”, resembles the personal pronoun, and it is followed by the definite article “a”; together, they form the French feminine article “la”, which the next stanza begins by countering with the masculine “le”.
- The first, third, and fifth stanzas are all one line long, and are separated by three line stanzas.
- The “s)” all by itself, and as the start of a new stanza, suggests a plural missing the noun it would modify, thus denoting an utter absence of plurality: even the “s” is alone.
- It is succeeded by the only full English word in the poem, “one”, which is then followed by a lower-case “l”, resembling once more the personal pronoun.
- The last stanza reads “iness” and, knowing that cummings always utilized the lower-case “i” in place of the proper personal pronoun, we are again led to read “I-ness” or “one-ness” or, more directly, “loneliness”.
- Note that all of the above applies whether you view the lower-case “l” as a capital “i”, or as the number “1”.
From the details of each “one” in the poem, and then out again to the whole, we see that the poem itself resembles a large, numerical “1”. Each individual instance of “one” is thus united in its “one-ness” by the whole, yet syntactically separated. This alternating relation between individual and whole, between isolation and togetherness, between the words themselves as understandable and how they are broken into seemingly arbitrary bits, expresses the human condition of meaningless, of feeling unnecessary; it provides a commentary on systems which at once rely on individuals while alienating them from one another and from what they come together to produce. Perhaps further, it expresses our need to relate to the whole in a meaningful way; to not be “l(a” or “s)”, but to be “a leaf falls”, or to be “loneliness”, or to at least clearly visualize how we, as “s)”, mean something to the whole, how it wouldn’t be the same without us. The arrangement of the poem horizontally reads: “l(a leaf falls)oneliness”. This make sense to us; it is reassuring — but what does “af” mean? Nothing.
In support of the idea that cummings’ work is not about loneliness in isolation, but about isolation from the whole, take the very middle stanza, “ll”. Applying the same logic to these two letters that we have elsewhere, we get two personal pronouns, and we get them together. Still, their togetherness is separated from the whole — they are two “l”s who are together, yes, but not coherently. What do two “l”s together mean if they are not two “l”s together into “all” or “ally” or “allegiance” or “a leaf falls: loneliness”? Cummings appears to offer a way out of the loneliness he has created, but we will likely have to journey in and out, in and out — into each line, out to the poem; into each fragment, out to the image — again and again, for the rest of our lives, to know what that way out is and, more importantly, how to take the whole with us.