By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
What do we call this short E. E. Cummings masterpiece? ‘l(a’, after its first line? ‘loneliness (a leaf falls)’? But that violates the careful syntax of Cummings’ own poem. ‘a leaf falls on loneliness’? But that separates the two things that need to be kept together. ‘l(a leaf falls)oneliness’ then?
But that loses the spacing and line endings that make E. E. Cummings’ poem so distinctive and meditative, turning its delicate verse structure into a piece of prose, and prose verging on the prosaic.
A slender thing, this poem comprising a single sentence (if it can be called a sentence), with the phrase ‘a leaf falls’ placed parenthetically within the word ‘loneliness’. How should we analyse it?
Probably inspired by the Japanese haiku form, this beautiful E. E. Cummings poem suggests a link between the eternal concept of loneliness and the fleeting motion of a falling leaf. And is it significant that the word ‘one’ appears on a line, appropriately, by itself, or that the ‘l’ in the following line – again, placed all alone – could almost be misread as the rendering of ‘one’ as a numeral, or as the singular personal pronoun ‘I’?
One, as the old line has it, is the loneliest number, but Cummings’ thoughtful spacing and line-breaks serve to bring out the ‘one’ lurking within ‘loneliness’, just as the space between that ‘l’ and the final part of the word, ‘iness’, open up a gulf between that ‘one’ (and ‘l’) and what follows, reinforcing the sense of separation and alienation which are so often bedfellows (the only bedfellows) of loneliness.
Why a falling leaf? Well, the haiku comparison helps to bring that miniature image into focus. The haiku contains two elements which are usually divided by a break, a pause or a shift which is not unlike the volta or ‘turn’ in the sonnet.
This break is marked by a ‘cutting word’ or kireji in Japanese. The two elements divided by this kireji are usually distinct, although they may be related in some way. One element will often be general and universal (the oceans, a mountain, the changing seasons), while the other will usually be a more local, personal, and momentary perception (the way the rain lands on the river, for instance).
The nature of the elements varies, but there should be the two electric poles between which the spark will leap for the haiku to be effective.
Returning to Cummings’ brief poem, which we’ll call ‘a leaf falls on loneliness’ for convenience’ sake, we can analyse ‘loneliness’ as the more general, abstract, universal theme or backdrop, onto which (or into which) is inserted the local, momentary observation of the falling leaf. Falling leaves suggest death, decline, the coming of winter: despondent and melancholic images of frailty and transience.
These feelings sit well alongside the concept of loneliness, which may well be accompanied by such moods. In this regard, a productive analysis might be undertaken between Cummings’ poem about loneliness and the falling leaf and Ezra Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’, another haiku-inspired poem, which has a fragile image of petals on the bough of a tree.