One Is the Loneliest Number:
The Structures of Solitude in E. E. Cummings' "l(a"
By Ann L. Itical

        E. E. Cummings' "l(a" embodies the feeling of being alone. In every aspect -- its form, the division of its stanzas, the imagery of the leaf -- the poem concentrates its attention on solitude. But, channeling all of its energy into this single task leaves the poem as bereft of emotion as it is of company.

        Literally embedded in "loneliness," the metaphor of "a leaf falls" absorbs the meaning of the word that surrounds it. That the poem's shape registers the pattern of a leaf falling strengthens the image's connection to the notion of being lonely. In other words, a poem that resembles a descending leaf actually contains the word "loneliness," which itself contains the words "a leaf falls." By containing the textual version of the dropping leaf within "loneliness" and this again within the shape of that same dropping leaf, the poem effectively fuses feelings of solitude to the image of the leaf.

        In "l(a," "loneliness" and "a leaf falls" do not look as they appear in the above paragraph. By dividing them into "l(a // le / af / fa // ll / s) / one / l // iness," Cummings' poem emphasizes the separateness that a person feels when alone. The very word "loneliness" and phrase "a leaf falls" have been separated; no longer a group of letters joined together to form words, individual letters stand comparatively alone. Some, like "l" (8) are literally solitary; others, such as "le," "af," and "fa," cling together in apparently meaningless syllables. Shattering these words into their component parts creates the sensation that, like the leaf, these letters drift, lost and alone.

        The deliberately fragmented structure creates other "lonely" resonances. For example, the recurrence of the number one emphasizes solitude. The "l" of the first line can be read as "one" and, as such, calls attention to the other "ones" in the poem: "ll" (5), "l" (8), and "one" (7). These "ones" reinforce the larger shape of the poem, which, if not a vertical line, comes as close to a vertical line as possible. In having not only the form of the poem but the very letters in the poem refer to "one," Cummings' "l(a" enhances the lonely imagery within that shape.

        Inasmuch as noiselessness conveys the sensation of being alone, the poem's unpronounceable form works with its central image to draw us into solitude. Though almost all poetry must be read aloud to be fully understood, this poem defies the reader to speak it: "1(a" offers only the sounds of silence. Instead of tripping the tongue over "le," "af," and "fa" or stumbling into vowel-less clusters like "ll" and "s)," one lets the poem sit silently on the page. In collaboration with the image of a falling leaf, the poem's literally unspeakable structure strands the reader in a quiet, solitary stillness.

        Though a clever way to represent loneliness, Cummings' poem remains as empty of feeling as it is of community. Every aspect of the poem tends towards its central meaning, but the minimal, disjointed form may leave the reader feeling not the loneliness of the leaf but the indifference of the tree. Put another way, the very cleverness of the poem works against the reader's ability to experience loneliness. Instead of bringing us emotionally nearer to the solitary leaf, this 22-character poem forces the reader to assemble its meaning, establishing a cool, analytical relationship between "l(a" and its audience. By distancing the reader from the pathos of the leaf falling, the poem's craftiness ultimately undermines its central metaphor. One may be the loneliest number, but, ironically, Cummings' "1(a" prevents us from truly feeling alone.


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