Life is Meaningless: E.E. Cummings’ l(a

Throughout his illustrious career, E.E. Cummings produced some of the finest poems, plays, and paintings the world has ever seen. While many are masterpieces, few are as unique as his leaf-style poems. Perhaps his most famous – and arguably his best – of those poems is the transcendent “l(a.” At the surface, “l(a” is a frustratingly incoherent jumble of letters in an equally confusing order. Yet, Cummings has crafted an exceptionally interesting and complex poem through the use of jarring syntax, brilliant diction, and profound symbolism.

The poem begins with an string of words not easily pronounced: l(a, then le. Subsequent lines, ending in –iness, are written in a very similar fashion; each line, with few exceptions, house only two letters. Although not in full-length sentences, the syntactical structure of the poem suggest to the reader that the poet wants to reinforce his poems theme of loneliness by showing the unpredictability and abject uncertainty of life, which is invariably shrouded in profound mystery. Its structure (letters pieced out into different lines, with considerable spacing in between each line) also creates a sense of separation, which has been identified as a substantial cause of loneliness. Reading the poem with the eyes of a deconstructionist, though, it takes on an entirely new meaning. The syntactical structure of the poem allows the reader to decipher the code that consists of the jumbled letters. Pieced together, the poem reads as: (a leaf falls) loneliness. With this in mind, the poem takes on another new meaning. The metaphor that a leaf falling is akin to loneliness is apropos because it informs the reader how boring and melancholy and meaningless life becomes when lonely. Just like the life of a leaf, a lonely person is born, (usually) cared for, and eventually cast away to the loneliness that is adulthood, death, and eventual decomposition. In that sense, the poem is very nihilistic; from the point of view of a structuralist, though, the poem is very optimistic. It is optimistic in that, while Cummings’ diction (his choice to include incomplete words) as the poem goes along, complete thoughts begin to form, suggesting that life is like the poem – at first humans are unable to form complete, coherent thoughts and are unable to be certain about things in their life. But, as humans get older, life gets better (and less lonely) for them because they are able to be more certain about the happenings of their life and are able to speak coherently, easing their burden. On the flip side, deconstructionism tells the reader to approach the poem from a nihilistic point of view. Although according to the concept of difference there is not a single meaning to a text, Cummings’ careful choice of diction tells the reader that they, like the leaf, have no choice in the matter: everyone will die and decompose and over time will become inconsequential. In other words, the leaf is a transcendental signifier for the meaningless nature of the lives of humans, animals, and leaves.

From birth, humans have the extraordinary ability to quickly equate symbols with emotion. For example, newborns may equate a bottle filled with just about anyone would correlate a sharp knife pointed at them with profound fear. After all, food is good and death is bad. Nevertheless, in “l(a,” Cummings uses symbolism to paint a solemn emotional picture. He correlates a single leaf falling with the sad state of loneliness. From a young age, one recognizes that a single leaf falling is symbolic of its loneliness (and loneliness in general). This is, at its core, symbolic interactionism. In other words, through learned experience and the utilization of language, humans (while, ironically, in the presence of other humans) are able to understand what a single leaf falling symbolizes. In that sense, l(a is a deconstructionist poem because it uses symbols with arbitrary meaning – or, in deconstructionist language, signs – to create a simple yet profoundly elegant story about loneliness and the deep affect it has on organisms (at the surface level, leafs, but at a much deeper level, humans).

The eyes through which the reader studies this poem changes it meaning entirely. Through the eyes of a structuralist, the poem can be read as an optimistic ode to self-determinism, the changing nature of life, and how chaotic the early years of humans are. Through the eyes of a deconstructionist, the poem takes on a totally different, nihilistic meaning and world view that says that, no matter class, race, religion, or gender, everyone ups in the same place: dead, decomposed, and forgotten.

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