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Friday, May 31, 2013

Rolling and Tumbling: Back In "!blac"


by E.E. Cummings



te sky
rees whic
h fr

om droppe



s wh


"Nonsense!" you say. "What a dumb poem. It makes no sense." Some of my old students might even protest and defend their views by telling me: "This is junk!"

And, everyone is entitled to their opinions concerning poetic form, style and theme. But, who said poetry has to contain conventions that limit its structure or it connotations? After all, Robert Frost said, "Poetry is what gets lost in translation." The vital rhythm of poetry takes on many, many forms. The reward of meaning can be very simple. Sometimes, to me, simple is best.

Concerning the economy of words in poetry, I once heard the shortest poem in English is this couplet attributed to Shel Silverstein:


Had 'em.

I don't know if this is true, but "Fleas" does illustrate how meaning and even rhyme can be conveyed in four syllables. I'm not sure a poem with any meaning can be just two like such as "nice ice."

Thomas Harrison stated, "A poem conveys not a message as much as the provenance of a message, an advent of sense." If you take a few minutes to reread "!blac" and consider Cummings and his distinct style, I believe you may appreciate the poem for its compact genius. I promise to reward you with a little more meaning than "bare bones" lines and syntax.

E.E. Cummings

Edward Estlin "E.E." Cummings (October 14, 1894 — September 3, 1962) was an American poet, painter, essayist, author, and playwright. His body of work encompasses approximately 2,900 poems, two autobiographical novels, four plays and several essays, as well as numerous drawings and paintings. He is remembered as an eminent voice of 20th century poetry. 

Cummings's poetry often deals with themes of love and nature, as well as the relationship of the individual to the masses and to the world. His poems are also often rife with satire.

While his poetic forms and themes share an affinity with the romantic tradition, Cummings's work universally shows a particular idiosyncrasy of syntax, or way of arranging individual words into larger phrases and sentences. Many of his most striking poems do not involve any typographical or punctuation innovations at all, but purely syntactic ones.

A number of his poems feature a typographically exuberant style, with words, parts of words, or punctuation symbols scattered across the page, often making little sense until read aloud, at which point the meaning and emotion become clear. Cummings, who was also a painter, understood the importance of presentation, and used typography to "paint a picture" with some of his poems.

Cummings's work often does not act in accordance with the conventional combinatorial rules that generate typical English sentences (for example, "they sowed their isn't").


E.E. Cummings's poem "!blac" definitely has a certain"haiku-like" quality. Scholars of poetry see the Japanese touches.

"The vertical (kakemono) format puts the poem like a calligraphy scroll into the tokonoma (display alcove), and highlights it as a display object. 

"The separation of words into letters, besides enhancing verticality, has the effect of prolonging the action described: slowing down the experience of the poem and letting the reader concentrate on its immediacy; another Zen feature. 

"The initial exclamation point marks a first excitement at the start trees against sky, and the final period (on the ground, as it were) marks the end of the leaf's descent, a bit of dynamic connecting two static things; very Bashô. And another framing device, to emphasize the poem-object as such. All this is beautifully done, but it is perhaps fairly obvious."

(E Bruce Brooks. "E E Cummings: '!blac.'" An illustration for: Nine Maxims On Translation.  University of Massachusetts. December 2002)

If we horizontalize and recollapse the wordstock of the poem, we get three periods (here marked by commas):

"black against white sky trees, which from dropped, leaf a goes whirling"

And if put into normal word order, we have

"black trees against white sky, from which dropped, a leaf goes whirling"

And it is obvious that the poem is produced from the normal order by reversing the order of the middle period, and by delaying certain elements in the other two periods. If we repeat the normal form, highlighting the two elements which are to be delayed in the final version, we get:

"black trees against white sky, from which dropped, a leaf goes whirling"

The Japanese construction looks evident, yes, But, we also know Cummings had a classical education. And, scholars relate that the same sort of grammatical separation (adjective-noun pair) is typical of Quintus Horatius Flaccus (8 December 65 BC – 27 November 8 BC), known in the English-speaking world as Horace, who was the leading Roman lyric poet during the time of Augustus.

My Take
Can you see the shape of the poem lends itself to the image of falling? The poem is pretty simplistic as far as the event -- a leaf whirls from a tree. Yet, I feel the poem is far more, and that witnessing this "fall" is both familiar and oddly emotion.

For better understanding, I would divide the poem into two parts:

Part A: "!black against (whi)te sky" -- this presents the reader with a conflict: black against white.
Part B: "?trees which from dropped leaf a goes whIrlIn.g" -- this depicts an image of a falling leaf.

The black/white contrast introduces a natural conflict, an opposition. Direct opposites (in this case opposition of color) create the greatest conflict -- a black tree against the white sky is symbolic of the fall of a small, natural life -- a leaf. Could Cummings be commenting on racial conflict? I guess, given his writings, this may also be possible.

To an English teacher, one thing is certain -- without opposition, no conflict is possible. In this case, what has been growing as part of a tree is now a dead leaf spiraling to the ground. It is a journey of finality. Whether the large "white" sky" is emblematic of a white society, I am not sure.

The punctuation is clever. Consider the exclamation mark (!) used to dramatize the event. This mark of punctuation is used to indicate intensity of emotion or even astonishment. Such a simple natural occurrence as the falling of a leaf is symbolic of the finality of all things living. Rumination on a falling leaf could cause a person to consider his own autumn or bemoan the eventual demise of humans.

Parentheses are often used traditionally to enclose words not directly relevant to the main topic of the sentence but too important to omit. And, of course, a question mark is used to indicate a query. Consider "(whi)te sky?"

Does the color of the sky necessarily have anything to do with the descent of a leaf? I think not.

For that matter, when is the last time you have seen a "white" sky? I wonder if Cummings is having a little fun with this image and suggesting that we not make too much (black = bad, white = good) from witnessing such a simple event. Or, maybe the speaker in the poem is somehow prejudiced in his somewhat "warped" perspective and overly melodramatic while painting simplistic black/white connotations.

Is the unique punctuation in "a:;go" just word play that suggests "a" as the article that modifies the noun "leaf" that "goes whirling" but might also be read as the word ago, which connotes a passage of time. In this case, the witnessed time passage is part of a significant cycle in the life of the leaf, and, on a larger scale, in the life of the tree itself. It it both symbolic of death and rebirth. Is this poem a death scene or a natural, musical dance in an endless cycle?

Capitalization is used to show specificity and importance as in capitalizing a proper noun such as "Joe." The period is a punctuation mark that shows a full stop or the end of an idea. Consider "whIrlIn.g" as an interesting construction. When something like a leaf is whirling in air, it does so in a very asymmetric manner, catching breeze in an unpredictable flight. Perhaps caps to lower case indicates this movement. At the end of the poem, the leaf is not necessarily described as grounded and immobile, so maybe Cummings prefers "whirlin.g" to indicate a touchdown that can still be carried by the breeze.

Words can be denotative, connotative, and just plain enjoyable in unique combinations. A poem can be a very powerful piece of literature in a condensed form. E.E. Cummings used lots of "different" word presentations to create perspective and meaning. Simple yet complicated? Isn't that really true of the art forms we appreciate most? I love to look at word "pictures" and discover different worlds of thought. I hope you enjoyed this one.

"To be nobody but yourself in a world doing its best to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle 
any human can ever fight and never stop fighting."

--E.E. Cummings

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