May 2024

David Alpaugh


Even readers familiar with “e. e.” who knew that he loved to play with language may have found themselves scratching their heads when they encountered the first poem in his 1958 collection “95 Poems.”


Here’s a poem you can neither read nor recite. Still, it’s not difficult to figure out what Cummings is up to. He’s having fun, playing with a three-word sentence and a three-syllable word.


a leaf falls         loneliness


That’s the raw material for his poem. As such, it sounds like a rather trite free form Haiku. What Cummings does with sentence and word, however, is extraordinary.


1.    He deploys his sentence as a parenthesis inside the word loneliness.


l(a leaf falls)oneliness


2.    He sorts his characters into five meaningless segments.


l(a    leaffa   ll     s)onel    iness


3.    He changes the direction of these segments from horizontal to vertical, creating what appears to be a poem with five stanzas.
















These nonsensical stanzas do suggest the motion of a leaf falling to earth. Its loneliness is emphasized by enclosing it within a parenthesis located inside the word loneliness itself.


Placed first in a collection of poems it feels like an ars poetica, an introduction to the nature of Cummings’ poetry. He may have been thinking of Archibald MacLeish’s celebrated poem “Ars Poetica” which appeared in Poetry in 1926, beginning with the lines:


            A poem should be palpable and mute

            as a globed fruit.


By fragmenting easily readable language, Cummings tongue-ties his readers, making his poem “palpable” but “mute.

Just as applicable to Cummings is the tenth stanza of MacLeish’s poem:


            For all the history of grief

            An empty dooryard and a maple leaf.


Poets! Don’t carry on about grief. Give us concrete images. An empty dooryard and a maple leaf will shortcut excessive verbiage via metaphor, instantly generating powerful emotions in your readers.


A close up of a leaf  Description automatically generated


The sensation MacLeish’s leaf elicits is grief. The sensation Cummings’ leaf elicits is the separation from others that causes loneliness.


As poets continue to write they often revisit matters touched on in previous works from a new perspective or aesthetic. Here’s an early Cummings poem that appeared when he was 26 and that he may have been thinking of when he published Poem #1 at 64, a few years before his death:

              since feeling is first
              who pays any attention 
              to the syntax of things
              will never wholly kiss you;

              wholly to be a fool
              while Spring is in the world

              my blood approves,
              and kisses are a better fate 
              than wisdom
              lady i swear by all flowers. Don’t cry

              —the best gesture of my brain is less than
              your eyelids’ flutter which says

              we are for each other: then
              laugh, leaning back in my arms
              for life’s not a paragraph

              And death I think is no parenthesis

A youthful Cummings cautions us not to second-guess emotion, preferring what “the blood approves”—a kiss, an eyelid, flowers— to “the best gesture of my brain.” Paying attention to “the syntax of things” will compromise the sheer delight in “wholly” kissing one’s beloved.


Cummings’ argument is similar to what William Blake argues in “Eternity.”

                He who binds to himself a joy
                Does the winged life destroy 
                He who kisses the joy as it flies
                Lives in eternity’s sunrise.

Kissing, joy, and acceptance of ephemerality are valued by both poets.


Poem #1 is all about disarming syntax, making it difficult to impossible to pay attention to it. One can only restore syntax by reconnecting the letters, thus de-kineticising the motion of the leaf, destroying its “winged life,” making it a mere “gesture” of the brain. Life is not a paragraph and Poem #1 is not a sentence.


Although at 26 he writes “Death is no parenthesis” at 64 Cummings uses one to cordon off his leaf, thereby emphasizing that the isolation of individual consciousness makes loneliness inevitable. You may be surrounded by loved ones on your deathbed but, as the saying goes, “everyone dies alone.”


Loneliness, however, is the human condition that we all struggle (quixotically) to defeat. In the rubble of what appears to be merely letters of the alphabet “i” manages to raise its head more than once. The poem’s title suggests not only the number one, but the “i” of the human beings that the leaf represents. In stanza four we get the poem’s only intelligible word— “one” —immediately reiterated by the second “l” of loneliness which could just as well be the numeral l. Cummings caps off this sequence, with a trochaic foot, accenting the “i” in “iness.” Although “iness” does not appear in dictionaries I can hear Cummings chuckling at his witty coinage.


If we’re up for some partial reconnecting we can go further and put “one” together with the second “l” of loneliness and the “iness” that follows to come up with what Wiktionary tells me is the obsolete word “oneliness” (defined as “the state of being one or single”). There is poignancy in these multiple manifestations of isolated ego signs that protrude from the meaningless letters and syllables that litter the rest of the poem: “le,” “af,” “fa,” “ll.” and “s.”


I began by asking if we are contemplating a puzzle or a poem and conclude by scratching my head and saying, both. Yes, we can solve the puzzle by deconstructing the poem with gestures of our brains. But I suspect that Cummings wants us to see his visual piece steadily and see it whole.


That’s how I first encountered it in a high school textbook years ago. I stared with my literary naivet茅 at the squiggles on the page for five minutes or more until, suddenly, the magic of metaphor occurred. The separated leaf and its loneliness came into focus, dancing with e.e.’s mute and palpable letters.



A book cover with a red leaf  Description automatically generated




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David Alpaugh ’s newest collection of poetry is Seeing the There There  (Word Galaxy Press, 2023). Alpaugh’s visual poems have been appearing monthly in Scene4 since February 2019. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where he has been a finalist for Poet Laureate of California. For more of his poetry, plays, and articles , check the Archives.

©2024 David Alpaugh
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