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Baby S World Poem Analysis Essays

WHAT IS IT like to be a baby? For centuries, this question would have seemed absurd: behind that adorable facade was a mostly empty head. A baby, after all, is missing most of the capabilities that define the human mind, such as language and the ability to reason. Rene Descartes argued that the young child was entirely bound by sensation, hopelessly trapped in the confusing rush of the here and now. A newborn, in this sense, is just a lump of need, a bundle of reflexes that can only eat and cry. To think like a baby is to not think at all.

Modern science has largely agreed, spending decades outlining all the things that babies couldn't do because their brains had yet to develop. They were unable to focus, delay gratification, or even express their desires. The Princeton philosopher Peter Singer famously suggested that "killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often it is not wrong at all."

Now, however, scientists have begun to dramatically revise their concept of a baby's mind. By using new research techniques and tools, they've revealed that the baby brain is abuzz with activity, capable of learning astonishing amounts of information in a relatively short time. Unlike the adult mind, which restricts itself to a narrow slice of reality, babies can take in a much wider spectrum of sensation - they are, in an important sense, more aware of the world than we are.

This hyperawareness comes with several benefits. For starters, it allows young children to figure out the world at an incredibly fast pace. Although babies are born utterly helpless, within a few years they've mastered everything from language - a toddler learns 10 new words every day - to complex motor skills such as walking. According to this new view of the baby brain, many of the mental traits that used to seem like developmental shortcomings, such as infants' inability to focus their attention, are actually crucial assets in the learning process.

In fact, in some situations it might actually be better for adults to regress into a newborn state of mind. While maturity has its perks, it can also inhibit creativity and lead people to fixate on the wrong facts. When we need to sort through a lot of seemingly irrelevant information or create something completely new, thinking like a baby is our best option.

"We've had this very misleading view of babies," says Alison Gopnik, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of the forthcoming book, "The Philosophical Baby." "The baby brain is perfectly designed for what it needs to do, which is learn about the world. There are times when having a fully developed brain can almost seem like an impediment."

One of the most surprising implications of this new research concerns baby consciousness, or what babies actually experience as they interact with the outside world. While scientists and doctors have traditionally assumed that babies are much less conscious than adults - this is why, until the 1970s, many infants underwent surgery without anesthesia - that view is being overturned. Gopnik argues that, in many respects, babies are more conscious than adults. She compares the experience of being a baby with that of watching a riveting movie, or being a tourist in a foreign city, where even the most mundane activities seem new and exciting. "For a baby, every day is like going to Paris for the first time," Gopnik says. "Just go for a walk with a 2-year-old. You'll quickly realize that they're seeing things you don't even notice."

There's something slightly paradoxical about trying to study the inner life of babies. For starters, you can't ask them questions. Young children can't describe their sensations or justify their emotions; they can't articulate the pleasure of a pacifier or explain the comfort of a stuffed animal. And, of course, none of us have any memories of infancy. For a scientist, the baby mind can seem like an impenetrable black box.

In recent years, however, scientists have developed new methods for entering the head of a baby. They've looked at the density of brain tissue, analyzed the development of neural connections, and tracked the eye movements of infants. By comparing the anatomy of the baby brain with the adult brain, scientists can make inferences about infant experience.

These new research techniques have uncovered several surprising findings. It turns out that the baby brain actually contains more brain cells, or neurons, than the adult brain: The instant we open our eyes, our neurons start the "pruning process," which involves the elimination of seemingly unnecessary neural connections. Furthermore, the distinct parts of the baby cortex - the center of sensation and higher thought - are better connected than the adult cortex, with more links between disparate regions. These anatomical differences aren't simply a sign of immaturity: They're an important tool that provides babies with the ability to assimilate vast amounts of information with ease.

While the pruning process makes the brain more efficient, it can also narrow our thoughts and make learning more difficult, as we become less able to adjust to new circumstances and absorb new ideas. In a sense, there's a direct trade-off between the mind's flexibility and its proficiency. As Gopnik notes, this helps explain why a young child can learn three languages at once but nevertheless struggle to tie his shoelaces.

But the newborn brain isn't just denser and more malleable: it's also constructed differently, with far fewer inhibitory neurotransmitters, which are the chemicals that prevent neurons from firing. This suggests that the infant mind is actually more crowded with fleeting thoughts and stray sensations than the adult mind. While adults automatically block out irrelevant information, such as the hum of an air conditioner or the conversation of nearby strangers, babies take everything in: their reality arrives without a filter. As a result, it typically takes significantly higher concentrations of anesthesia to render babies unconscious, since there's more cellular activity to silence.

The hyperabundance of thoughts in the baby brain also reflects profound differences in the ways adults and babies pay attention to the world. If attention works like a narrow spotlight in adults - a focused beam illuminating particular parts of reality - then in young kids it works more like a lantern, casting a diffuse radiance on their surroundings.

"We sometimes say that adults are better at paying attention than children," writes Gopnik. "But really we mean just the opposite. Adults are better at not paying attention. They're better at screening out everything else and restricting their consciousness to a single focus."

Consider, for instance, what happens when preschoolers are shown a photograph of someone - let's call her Jane - looking at a picture of a family. When the young children are asked questions about what Jane is paying attention to, the kids quickly agree that Jane is thinking about the people in the picture. But they also insist that she's thinking about the picture frame, and the wall behind the picture, and the chair lurking in her peripheral vision. In other words, they believe that Jane is attending to whatever she can see.

While this less focused form of attention makes it more difficult to stay on task - preschoolers are easily distracted - it also comes with certain advantages. In many circumstances, the lantern mode of attention can actually lead to improvements in memory, especially when it comes to recalling information that seemed incidental at the time.

Consider this memory task designed by John Hagen, a developmental psychologist at the University of Michigan. A child is given a deck of cards and shown two cards at a time. The child is told to remember the card on the right and to ignore the card on the left. Not surprisingly, older children and adults are much better at remembering the cards they were told to focus on, since they're able to direct their attention. However, young children are often better at remembering the cards on the left, which they were supposed to ignore. The lantern casts its light everywhere.

"Adults can follow directions and focus, and that's great," says John Colombo, a psychologist at the University of Kansas. "But children, it turns out, are much better at picking up on all the extraneous stuff that's going on. . . . And this makes sense: If you don't know how the world works, then how do you know what to focus on? You should try to take everything in."

While thinking like an adult is necessary when we need to focus, or when we already know which information is relevant, many situations aren't so clear-cut. In these instances, paying strict attention is actually a liability, since it leads us to neglect potentially important pieces of the puzzle. That's when it helps to think like a baby.

This new understanding of baby cognition, and the peculiar ways in which babies pay attention, is also giving scientists insights into improving the mental functioning of adults. The ability to direct attention, it turns out, doesn't merely inhibit irrelevant facts and perceptions - it can also stifle the imagination. Sometimes, the mind performs best when we don't try to control it.

The differences in how babies and adults pay attention are primarily caused by the unformed nature of the prefrontal cortex, a brain area just behind the eyes. While the prefrontal cortex has been greatly enlarged during human evolution - it's responsible for a wide variety of cognitive abilities, from directed attention to abstract thought - it's also the last brain area to fully develop, and often isn't done developing until late adolescence.

Although scientists have long held the lack of a functional prefrontal cortex responsible for all sorts of "childish" behaviors, researchers are beginning to realize that, sometimes, it might actually be better to allow the prefrontal cortex to loosen its grip.

A recent brain scanning experiment by researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that jazz musicians in the midst of improvisation - they were playing a specially designed keyboard in a brain scanner - showed dramatically reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex. It was only by "deactivating" this brain area that the musicians were able to spontaneously invent new melodies. The scientists compare this unwound state of mind with that of dreaming during REM sleep, meditation, and other creative pursuits, such as the composition of poetry. But it also resembles the thought process of a young child, albeit one with musical talent. Baudelaire was right: "Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will."

The immaturity of the baby brain comes with another advantage: utter absorption in the moment. The best evidence for this comes from brain scans of adult subjects as they watched an engrossing Clint Eastwood movie. The experiment, led by Rafael Malach at Hebrew University, found that when adults were watching the film their brains showed a peculiar pattern of activity, as their prefrontal areas were suppressed. At the same time, areas in the back of the brain associated with visual perception were turned on. As Gopnik notes, this mental state - the experience of being captivated by entertainment - is, in many respects, a fleeting reminder of what it feels like to be a young child. "You are incredibly aware of what's happening - your experiences are very vivid - and yet you're not self-conscious at all," she says. "You're not thinking about anything but what's on the screen."

But it's not just the movie theater that transports us back to a newborn state of mind, in which we're fully immersed in the moment. Gopnik notes that a number of other situations, from Zen meditation to the experience of natural beauty, can also lead to states of awareness so intense that the self seems to disappear. "This is the same ecstatic feeling that the Romantic poets were always writing about," she says. "It's seeing the world in a grain of sand."

If people could never regress into this babylike consciousness, then we'd struggle with the kind of tasks that require us to stop being self-conscious and lose ourselves in the job. Such moments are often described as "flow" activities, and can occur whenever we're completely captivated by what we're doing, be it stirring a risotto or solving a crossword puzzle. The Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki referred to such modes as "beginner's mind," since people are able to think like a baby, open to possibility and free of errant preconceptions.

Gopnik has discovered for herself the advantages of being able to shift between a babyesque form of cognition and a more adult frame of mind. "As a scientist, you really need to use both kinds of thinking," she says. "Sometimes you need to focus and analyze your data. But you also need the ability to be open and creative, to think in a new way if the old way isn't working."

At such moments, she suggests, we need to think with the innocence of an infant - to release the reins of attention and look anew at a world we're still trying to understand.

Jonah Lehrer is the author of "How We Decide" and "Proust Was a Neuroscientist." He is a regular contributor to Ideas.

© Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company.

An Analysis of Two Poems by E.E. Cummings--An Essay by Iain Landles


The purpose of this investigation is twofold. First, to apply post-structuralist critical theory to Cummings' work in such a way as to glean "new" facets of Cummings' work which are relevant to today's critical thinking. Secondly, to justify the using of post-structuralist theory with Cummings' work by showing that only post-structuralism can expose these "new" facets of Cummings' work. The exposé of "new" areas in Cummings criticism and his relevance to today's critical thinking will lead to a call for a re-evaluation of Cummings' status as a poet who has been accorded a "minor" status by many.1

in Just-
spring        when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman

whistles        far       and wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it's

when the world is puddle-wonderful

the queer
old balloonman whistles
far       and       wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing

from hop-scotch and jump-rope and

           goat-footed                                            [end page 31]

balloonMan      whistles
wee                                                                 (CP 27)

This analysis shall start with critically accepted interpretations of the poem, taken from established critical positions regarding Cummings. It shall then move on to read Cummings in "new" ways, taking the post -structuralist theories of Jacques Derrida as a working basis.

Criticism so far published has concentrated upon three areas in interpreting this poem. First, the conclusion that the poem is an experience shown from the point of view of a child. Secondly, that the figure of the "balloonman" is symbolic in some way. Lastly, that the spacing and odd syntax are both deliberate and suggestive of Cummings' work as a painter. In supporting the first interpretation we need progress no further than Cummings' placing of this poem in his book Tulips & Chimneys. The poem "in Just-"is the first in a section entitled CHANSONS INNOCENTES-literally "songs of innocence." This clearly links Cummings back to Blake and alludes to Blake's own Songs of Innocence, which present a series of poems apparently simple and childish. Indeed, "in Just-"has also attracted the same "simple" description, and furthermore, "it [the poem] cuts through to the essence of things as only a child can" (Marks 46). The unusual compounds that Cummings invents are suggestive of a "child's language": hence, "mud-luscious" and "puddle-wonderful." These compounds have been described by Richard Kennedy as "the natural condition that children enjoy (but that adults dislike)" (Revisited 6). The children have been playing at "marbles," "piracies." "hop-scotch," and "jump-rope." It will be noted that the names of the children are, first, without capitalisation. Like Cummings' own (in)famous and diminutive "i", the lack of capitals suggests a small, "unhero," child-like persona. Secondly, the names are merged into one another; "eddieandbill" and "bettyandisbel." The effect here is to render the hustle, bustle, and speed of the children as they come running to the summons of the whistle. Indeed, they run so fast, blurring into one another, that in Isabel's case, a syllable has been left out (behind?). Finally, the "wee" suggests not only the noise of the whistle, but also the child-like noise of children playing, perhaps imitating a whistle. As Rushworth Kidder has pointed out, the poem suggests the "innocent and `wonderful' world of childhood" (24). However, as we shall see, this "innocent" world is at the same time a troubled world of deviant sexuality and foreboding. If we turn to the author himself, we find the inspiration for the poem, "[in Just-] is a hint of youth and Norton's Woods" (Letters 70). In Kennedy's biography of Cummings, Kennedy points out that

Spring thaws filled a low spot in the street . with a huge puddle, a "mud- [end page 32] luscious" site. In years to come, the memory of this annual occurrence plus the advent of the balloon-seller, blowing his whistle, and the remembered joy of childhood play coalesce to inspire E.E.Cummings' best known poem "in Just-/spring" . (25)

Cummings remembers this childhood moment but attempts to render the poem from the point of view of a child. The poem contains a breathless quality, and the language is structured like a nursery rhyme, variations on the same theme. The "nursery rhyme" quality is further enhanced by the repetitive "and" and the three repeated verses, which, in this context is indicative of the limited linguistic knowledge of children's songs and chants.

The figure of the "balloonman" has been interpreted in many, often conflicting, ways. To Richard Kennedy the "balloonman" is "the toy-bringer" and revealed to be the "god Pan-or some other mythic satyr" (Revisited 6). The constant interpretation of the "balloonman" as either Pan or a satyr appears again and again. Gary Lane goes further, however, and suggests that the "balloonman" is the "essence of two Pans.2 Like Peter, he is the spokesman of wish" (27). Rushworth Kidder, however, suggests that the "balloonman" is "simply a sign of returning spring and a focus for childhood's delights in fragile and evanescent toys." Furthermore, Kidder suggests a linking to the "Pied Piper" in the sense that the "balloonman" also "draws children out of their separate boyish . and girlish . concerns" (24). One interpretation seemingly omitted is the interpretation of the "balloonman" as a pilot-literally an air balloon man. This "pilot" fits in with the image of the "balloonman" as a guide, steering the children to the awakening of adulthood. The childish awakening from a state of innocence to knowledge is not detected by all critics. Kidder observes that the "balloonman" draws the children "toward each other, [and thus] toward a world of complex adult interrelationships which is . ominously waiting" (24). Lane, on the other hand, suggests that "the balloonman epitomizes fertility. Bringing the sexually separate children together . he is the divine maypole about which these innocents begin le sacre du printemps" (28). These critics link the "goat-footed / balloonMan" to sex and lechery through the conventional metaphor of a goat representing lust. Thus, the innocent surface of the poem is undermined by the shadow of sexual practice and adult relationships. This is deemed negative by these critics, since childhood / innocence is lost and it is only this childhood / innocence which can recognise the "secrets of nature" (Kennedy, Revisited 6). However, as we shall see later, the critics fail to analyse these symbolic images to any great depth, thus not realizing that the poem contains a more extreme sexual stance which is both deviant and clearly paradoxical to the poem's surface position of innocence. This opposition can also be detected in the syntax of the poem, but before we investigate this aspect, we shall instead turn to more traditional interpretations of the poem's spacing and syntax.

Comment on the spacing and visual arrangement of the poem has rested on two main thoughts. First, Kennedy states that "spatial arrangements in Cummings' poems can contribute to meaning, but sometimes they only provide the pleasure of [end page 33] pattern, as in the three different arrangements of the words 'far and wee'" (Revisited 6). This "pleasure of pattern" is something constantly linked back to Cummings' appreciation of the visual form of poems due to his work as a painter.3 However, Lane suggests that "using the white space within or between lines, Cummings is able to regulate the poem's tempo." This is important since "what seems at first mere idiosyncrasy quickly reveals itself to be a kind of notation, like the musical rest." The "pleasure of pattern" set against "musical" notation. Furthermore, Lane (the only critic to do so) notes that the lack of punctuation is deliberate because the "season he [Cummings] describes runs like a watercolor; punctuation, regimenting phrase and clause, would delineate too sharply for this mud-luscious time" (29).4 Most critics agree that the compression of words heightens the sense of speed and haste, as we have seen. Whilst the two capitals in the poem have provoked certain disagreements, critics generally conclude that the capital in "balloonMan" represents a shift toward adulthood. Emphasising the "Man", Cummings is either pointing toward the (hidden?) sexual theme of the poem, or toward the state of adulthood in general.5 The main omission in critical discussion seems to be about the capital in "Just-." To Kidder, the capital emphasises a "spring which brings its own inevitable justice," and he favours this interpretation over two others: "in the earliest spring," or "in the only season ('just in spring') in which such things could possibly happen" (24-25). This interpretation ("justice") introduces a moral theme which Kidder fails to expand upon. Certainly a moral angle could balance the amoral sexual nature of Pan / satyr / "Man" and could be a deliberate indicator by Cummings as to which interpretation he favoured. Cummings used capitals to emphasise either noise or a quality-see the lack of capitals above and in his own presentation of the poet's persona as "i."6 What we can conclude from this mass of criticism is that each interpretation presented thus far fails to negotiate every level discussed here. Thus, most critics ignore at one time or another syntax and spacing, or the sexual motif within the poem. Most importantly, the critics fail to analyse, or attempt to explain the seemingly paradoxical nature of the innocence / adult sexuality binary and how this could be related to syntax and spacing.7It is time to address this issue and attempt to interpret Cummings from a post-structuralist perspective since it is only with post-structuralist theory that these connections can be made.

In their search for a "truth" or "meaning" for "in Just-,"the critics have interpreted parts of the poem which seem at odds with the general theme of innocence / childhood. Furthermore, given Cummings' reputation for syntactical oddities, the critics seem to ignore, or gloss over these very issues in the poem. In short, the evidence doesn't add up. Barry Marks concluded that the "balloonman disappears into the pure spring air" leaving behind a scene "blessed" by the "goat-footed god Pan" (47). However, what is the scene left behind? Bethany Dumas suggests that "the innocence of childhood play is only intensified by the poet's recognition that the balloonman introduces into the scene a potentially satyric note" (63). What of this "satyric note"? Dumas withholds from analysing the implications of this "satyric note," yet this seems to be her main point about the poem. It is a point which only [end page 34] one critic touches upon, yet who unfortunately withdraws from it in the same moment. Thus, Kidder states that the poem's innocent surface also contains "an underlying presence inimical to that very innocence." Rather than force the issue, Kidder contents himself by concluding that "Goats conventionally emblemize lust-clearly not a childlike quality-and the capital in the final `balloonMan' emphasizes the adult's presence in the child's world." It must be remembered that Kidder is the critic who also favours "Just-" to represent "its own inevitable justice." The question begs, what is this "inevitable justice"? Kidder ends by stating that the "balloonman" has drawn the children "toward a world of complex adult interrelationships" (24). In other words, that the children, at this moment, are moving from an innocent state to a state of knowledge-a "growing up" of sorts. However, the conclusion that the poem shows this move from childhood to adulthood is flawed in that the children are still children at the end of the poem. What has changed is the "Man" in "balloonman." This suggests that Cummings wished to emphasise the "man" part of the "balloonman." The children are unaffected by this change, for nowhere in the poem do we glimpse either the children interacting with one another (sexually), or "growing up" for any particular reason. Instead, much is left out. Inconsistencies abound, yet each critic touches upon the same issues and themes-for example, they all mention spring, innocence, Pan / satyr. Yet each interpretation is shown to be both inadequate and flawed. There are two conclusions to be drawn from this. First, that the critics have failed to analyse the poem to the depths which, distasteful as they may seem, are required to produce a reading wholly at odds with the innocent surface of the poem-a reading completely opposite to that conventionally reached. Second, it must be recognised that this "new" reading is neither the "truthful" nor "right" meaning, but a reading that has equal prominence within the poem with other established readings. In other words, the "new" reading highlights an undecidable struggle for "truth / meaning" within the poem, which promotes a blurring or contamination of one opposite with the other-in the sense that each "opposite" reading needs the other to define itself. Now, since the conventional and "new" readings differ from and defer to each other, a complex moral statement is seen to emerge from the poem which previously had not existed explicitly. Since no conclusion is given, this moral statement remains open-ended, leaving an anxiety for the reader absent from earlier interpretations. Perhaps it is time to investigate this "new" reading.

If we examine the first line of the poem we notice that ambiguity abounds. We have seen how the "in Just-" has already been interpreted in three ways. However, there is also a fourth way. In interpreting this line, the capital becomes the main problem. Cummings was famous for rearranging words within lines to achieve "new" and more interesting effects. Thus, for example, we get

i like my body when it is with your
body. It is so quite new a thing                                     (CP 218)8
If we assume that Cummings has simply rearranged the opening line for such an [end page 35] effect, we could interpret the line as "Just in / spring," putting the capital where it belongs, and agree with Kidder that the line "means" that what follows could only happen in spring. However, to do this would be to ignore the hyphen. This hyphen plays an important role, for it creates the new compound "Just- / spring." Alternatively, the capital could be pointing to "Justice," but justice isn't always capitalised. The third interpretation-early spring-fails for the same reason: the capital. Why should the adjective "just" become capitalised? Perhaps, then, ambiguity is the point. In other words, Cummings is deliberately placing the capital and the words where they are to create ambiguity. Cummings never placed capitals or punctuation marks at random-there was always some point behind the deviancy. If ambiguity is the point, then Cummings is hinting at what follows-in other words, that not all is what it seems to be. This interpretation allows us to penetrate the surface of the poem and treat all definitions, allusions, and symbols with suspicion. In particular, this interpretation draws us to the "new" compounds that Cummings invents and any unusual words that he uses. Thus, when the reader comes to "wee", a decision must be made. The dictionary gives us two definitions. First, the adjective regarding size: very small, minute, or tiny. Clearly, this definition "fits" into the poem, since the "whistle" could be "small" (i.e. not very loud)-being "far" away. The second definition is the informal / slang use: to urinate, or urine. This second definition is especially pertinent since it is a word chiefly associated with, or used by, children. This interpretation begins to resonate with association once we return to the first compound invented by Cummings- "mud- / luscious." Defined by all critics as a "mud" that is extremely attractive or pleasurable, they connect the childish love of "mud"with the adult abhorrence of it. However, in slang, "mud" is also excrement - to "draw mud" is to defecate in one's pants. A scatological semantic field begins to emerge from the poem. "Puddle-wonderful" now takes on different connotations. The "balloonman" is then described as "queer" and could point to homosexuality in this interpretation, especially since the word comes between the separate activities engaged by the two sexes. To stretch a point (perhaps) to its limits, it should be noted that both sexes "come" from their various activities. The lack of punctuation here helps this interpretation, since by supplying a comma after "come," the sentence still remains grammatical. Arriving at the "new" compound "goat-footed," we must examine the spacing around the word. Being placed in its own "white" space means, in Cummings' poetry, to emphasise. Thus, the "goat-footed" aspect is important. Half-man, half-goat, is an image clearly associated with satyrs and in particular the god Pan.

However, no critic has ever examined the allusion to its fullest extent. Taking the satyr image first, we find that satyrs are "goatlike men who danced and drank in the train of Dionysus and chased the nymphs," and is also "a man who has strong sexual desires." Indeed, the condition of satyriasis is a "compulsion in men to have sexual intercourse with many women without being able to have lasting relationships with them."9Remembering that our "balloonman" is also "queer" (bi-sexual?) and a transient person, it can be seen that this description could "fit" into a "new" interpre- [end page 36] tation of this poem. Dionysus also conjures up images of drunken orgies of wild abandonment and in his history is associated with toys and pirates. Also, note the connection with "dancing." Dionysus stands in direct opposition to order, being associated with chaos. Thus, Kidder's definition of "in Just-" as representing "law and order," is undermined here. Finally, there is a connection between nymphs, sylphs, vegetation, nature, and spring. In turning to the god Pan, we find that he too was "lascivious and debauched," was "constantly chasing nymphs," and "was no less interested in boys who often satisfied his needs."10 Also a god of chaos, he drove people into unexpected madness or lust, and interestingly, Pan played pipes-linking us to the Pied Piper and perhaps to "whistles." We could examine in even more depth the histories of both satyrs and Pan, but the moment has come to take stock. Sexual orgies, intoxication, deviant sexual practices, nature, and clear hints of pedophilia abound in every line of this poem. It is perhaps no wonder that the "man" in "balloonMan" literally becomes erect and capitalised.

The reading just discussed is not purporting to be the "truth" or correct "meaning" of the poem. It serves merely to illustrate the propensity of the poem to contain multiple, and equally important, readings within itself. The opposition established here of innocence (established criticism) / debauchery (this "new" reading) (or perhaps good / evil) is dependent upon itself-the opposites both differ from and defer to each, for how can one define "evil" without recourse to "good"? Indeed, this contamination of each other by each other is seen in the surface of the poem and hinted at even by established criticism. The struggle to determine "truth" in this poem remains undecidable since neither one nor the other can assume the supremacy. Even the "middle" interpretation-the move from innocence to sexual awakening-is no more the "truth" than the other interpretations. This undecidability promotes a moral anxiety, since the surface innocence of the poem is found to be corrupt, and since no conclusion or closure is offered, what exactly is the poem trying to say morally? This anxiety opens the poem up to issues far and beyond those associated with the poem in established criticism. However, what is at issue here is not morality but language. This "language issue" is highlighted in the poem, and shown in the deliberate attempts by Cummings to bend / extend language through "new" inventions and ambiguities. Whether we can conclude that Cummings is highlighting the limitations of language, or whether we can conclude that Cummings is using a subjective, yet connotative vocabulary to extend "meaning" is almost irrelevant since it is the debate about "meaning" that takes prominence here. It is also a contemporary and highly relevant debate and one that Cummings has always been engaged in.


In moving on to a second Cummings poem we shall investigate claims that Cummings' experimental work, like Mallarmé's, provokes a crisis in language by showing the unstable and undecidable relations between meanings, between meaning and form, and between different grammatical categories. Derrida claims that this crisis is as a result of the "logic of language and not an aberrant distortion of it." Furthermore, that the crisis is both new- "we are still developing critical methods [end page 37] adequate to it"-and very old-as old as Plato and Aristotle (Derrida, Acts 111). The poem under discussion is "l(a":






(CP 673)

This haiku-like poem has been described as the "most delicately beautiful literary construct that Cummings ever created" (Kennedy, Dreams 463).11 Consisting of just four words, which the poem splits into two distinct phrases- "loneliness," and "a leaf falls"-the poem has generated a wide range of critical analysis. It is with this established criticism that we shall begin. The connection between the two phrases seems at first tenuous. The falling of a leaf is a concrete act, whilst the word "loneliness" is an abstract concept. However, conventional criticism has made the link. Rushworth Kidder, who described the poem as a "brief description of autumn," states that "the single leaf falling is a metaphor for both physical and spiritual isolation" (200-201). Barry Marks, in a highly detailed reading, asks the reader to hold the two phrases simultaneously together so that various possibilities emerge. Thus, "Loneliness is like a falling leaf," or "The feeling of loneliness is the feeling a man gets when he watches a single leaf falling." Marks concludes that "It does not take much . . . to . . . think of autumn, the end of the growing season, the death of the year" (23). Autumn (fall) and the autumn of a man's life-death is a lonely business. Such speculation is interesting indeed, but to the critics, not the point of the poem- "it [the poem] asks us to look at the printed page" (Marks 23). The form of the poem does indeed foster an attitude of internalisation, of drawing attention to itself as an artifact, a work of art. To begin with, the poem dribbles down the page, at once suggesting the descent of a falling leaf, whilst also visually resembling the figure "1", or a vertical stroke on a page (see Heusser 269-70). The reader's progress is slowed down by the shattered syntax, and the reader's eye is forced into a similar movement as that when watching a descending leaf, both finally coming to a rest on the "ground" ("iness"-the longest and last line). We see that the poem is organised into stanzas [end page 38] of alternating lines of 1-3-1-3-1, whilst the first four lines alternate vowels / consonants, both indicating, perhaps, the twisting motion of the leaf as it falls. The parentheses aid this twisting movement, showing first, descent one way, then another. The downward movement is enhanced by lines 5 ("ll") and 8 ("l"), which can be seen as visually enacting the journey. Without even reading the words and using fields of representation perhaps unusual in poetry (the visual in this case), the reader is drawn toward one of the main themes of the poem-that of "one." It is no surprise that this poem was the first poem in Cummings' book 95 Poems and was numbered "I", further impressing the main theme upon the reader. Furthermore, in the original printing of 95 Poems (1958), "l(a" appeared opposite a blank page-thus at once suggesting the loneliness explicit in the poem-whilst all other poems except the last appeared in twos. The twenty-three characters (including the title) seemed lost, overwhelmed by the white space, and one's eyes are automatically drawn to the fragile construction. Metaphorically, then, the poem enacts the vastness of space and the smallness of man within that space. This has existential undertones and implicitly suggests another theme of the poem-that of death (autumn).

However, it is once the reader begins to read the poem that the form becomes vital. Starting with the first line, we see that the letter "l" is the same character on the typewriter keyboard as the number "1." Thus, moving into another field of representation (the numerical), we see the number one repeated throughout the poem. Furthermore, the next letter "a" is the indefinite article and its singularity at once supports the concept of "loneliness" and "one-ness." However, pushing into yet another field of representation, this time the French language, we see that "la" is the French equivalent of "a" as well as a singular article. Immediately following this comes: "le," at once another "one" (the "l") and also another singularity (this time male-as if even the sexes are separated). Lines three and four enact the twisting of the leaf as it is seen from different sides. Line five repeats the "one-ness' motif (ironically in a pair) as well as visually enacting the downward movement of the leaf. Line seven explicitly states "one," whilst line eight numerically does the same. Finally, line nine, "iness," can be interpreted as "I-ness', (remembering that Cummings always used the lower-case "i" to represent "I") or "one-ness." Meaning is thus enhanced by the overlapping fields of representation, promoting a kind of unification of meaning-a "one-ness." Yet the closer we examine the poem the more the concept / numeral "one" is shown to be both fragmented and multiple. Thus, the themes of "one / singular / alone" are only perceptible, paradoxically, through the splintered, diverse, and shattered syntax. The "I / 1" is, literally, seen to be many "1's" at the same time. Metaphorically, then, the poem enacts the same "dismantling" of man that has occurred with the rise of post-structuralism.12 However, leaving this point for future investigation, this analysis shall turn to the theories of Derrida in order to examine the syntax of this poem further.

In his 1974 essay "Mallarmé," Jacques Derrida contended that Mallarmé's writings have usually been associated with semantic richness-the possibilities that language can be used for multiple meanings, references, and allusions.13 Instead, Derrida [end page 39] reads it as a decomposition of linguistic elements, and especially of the word. Taking Mallarmé's "Or," Derrida shows how Mallarmé plays on the French word "or," showing it to be two letters, a syllable, and a word. In fact, Derrida suggests it is all three. Indeed, even as a word, "or" isn't stable. It can be a noun ("gold"), an adjective ("golden"), and a conjunction ("now"). Also, being proficient in English, Mallarmé knew that "or" could also be a syllable, a word, or letters in English. Concluding that this isn't so much semantic richness as semantic indecision, Derrida contends that this arises from the unsettling placing of letters, sounds, and words-in other words from syntax (the location of linguistic elements), not from semantics (meanings). In fact, it upsets and derails meaning. Thus, Derrida's interest is not the semantic richness but the dislocation of content by strategic syntaxing. This dislocation results in a position where truth/meaning is undecidable, and Derrida can conclude that "No more word: the efficacy often comes from one syllable which scatters the word" (Acts 125).

From the description of Derrida's theory we can see quite clearly how Cummings' poem "fits" into this picture. Cummings decomposes the words to produce a series of results that stem clearly from syllables, or indeed from single letters. Moreover, Cummings extends the fields of representation used to interpret the poem beyond semantics. The poem takes in, as we have seen, the visual, numerical, and French language fields of representation. The poem, then, becomes a poem of "associative meaning"-that is, a poem which forces the reader to go outside the poem for meaning, despite being constantly forced back into the poem. Thus, in "l(a" a tension of sorts develops as the reader is pulled both inside and outside the poem. Let us illustrate this point. To begin with, both the visual and verbal elements of the poem fail to allow the reader direct, unimpeded access to the thing itself. This statement seems paradoxical since we have established that the visual / verbal elements support each other to aid meaning. However, when "reading" a poem, the visual is undermined since the reader's concentration is on individual letters / syllables, which the reader is attempting to build into larger structures-words. As Timothy Matthews says, talking about Apollinaire's Calligrammes, "reading the poems dismantles the identification of the objects that the word shapes seem to suggest" (164).

Furthermore, as Foucault pointed out, "As soon as [the reader] begins to read, in fact, shape dissipates . the [poem] never speaks and represents at the same moment. The very thing that is both seen and read is hushed in the vision, hidden in the reading" (Ceci 26). The constant motif of "one", hidden in the visual, is lost when reading, yet simultaneously, the "leaf" and the concept "loneliness" are lost when the visual is favoured. Thus, the visual / verbal support system breaks down quickly, and furthermore, the poem seems to announce its failure to represent the object-concept -theme visually / verbally by drawing attention to its own artificial self-i.e. the fragile structure swamped in white. As Derrida states, "in their literal sense painting and writing are totally incapable of any intuition of the thing itself, since they deal only in copies, and in copies of copies" (Reader 176). We have seen already, in our analysis of "in Just-," how language fails to convey single, stable, universal truth / meaning, [end page 40] since language can "mean" many things simultaneously. The visual suffers the same fate. According to Derrida, the artist has traditionally embodied the power of seeing and making visible (Memoirs 48-52). However, to Derrida, drawing originates in blindness. The object or model, even if facing the artist, cannot be seen at the same moment as the mark of drawing is made. There is always a gap or delay. The mark relies on memory, and when memory is invoked, the present object is ignored: the artist will be blind to it. Furthermore, drawing, like language, is impossible without the play of presence/absence, and this cannot be seen. Thus, the artistic power of seeing and making visible is inhabited by blindness it cannot recognize. Modes of representation, then, fail to convey any truth or "transparent window" to the object; indeed, the artistic medium always intervenes between reader /observer and the thing itself. Thus, when imagining the leaf twisting, descending, or coming to rest, the reader will be blind to the letters / syllables on the page. Thus, the modes of representation used in the poem fail to convey truth / meaning to the reader.

Now, to return to the inside / outside dichotomy: the reader is first pulled inside the poem since the visual elements of the poem fail to convey direct, unimpeded access to the thing itself. The reader goes inside the poem-the verbal / semantic-to find meaning. However, because of the decomposition of the words in the poem, the multiple puns, allusions, and meanings, the reader is forced into other systems of signification outside the poem. Thus, the reader looks outward toward fields of French and numerical representation. This oscillation between inside / outside is one of the many undecided issues within the poem. There are also the undecided issues of abstract / concrete, female / male ("la" and "le"), the numerical / verbal, and the visual / verbal. Furthermore, as we have seen, there is a metaphysical dimension to the poem that links "a leaf falls" and the "autumn" years of a person's life. However, this melancholic reading need not apply, for the state of "loneliness" isn't necessarily a negative one (Kidder 201). The poem seems to be dealing with issues far and beyond that of an interpretative meaning. Its undecided status points to this. Cummings is dealing with the problems of representation itself, and that is a major issue currently under debate. Cummings' work then, seems particularly relevant to today's thinking.

To conclude, Cummings' poem supports Derrida's radical conclusion that since all the words in this poem can be decomposed, there are no more words. This has relevant implications in the current post-modern debate about systems of signification, especially in an era where the sign can mean so many things (life styles, wealth, or even social status). Cummings' work, in using different fields of representation, disrupts conventional thinking about representation, and it is as if Cummings were exploring the limits, not just of language, but of the problems of representation in general. Art is artificial: it is no "transparent window" showing universal truths and realities, and the construction of poems such as "l(a"is an obvious rejection of art as a transparent medium.

-Hampshire, UK

[end page 41]


1 [Editor's note] See Kennedy "Major / Minor" and Webster "Issue" for discussions of Cummings' status as a major or minor poet.

2 See Marks p. 47, Kidder p. 24, and Dumas p. 63.

3 See the definitive work on this, Milton Cohen's, POETandPAINTER: The Aesthetics of E.E.Cummings' Early Work, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987.

4 Note also the use of "watercolor."

5 See Kennedy, Revisited p. 6, Kidder p. 24, and A.C. Labriola, "Reader-Response Criticism and the Poetry of E. E. Cummings: `Buffalo Bill's defunct' and `in Just-'," Cithara 31 (May 1992): 40-42.

6 For a fuller discussion of this, see Norman Friedman's E .E. Cummings: The Art of His Poetry.

7 See Cohen pp. 190-/194 for a discussion about this in relation to other poems.

8 For a fuller discussion of this sort of word rearrangement, see Irene Fairley's E. E. Cummings and Ungrammar.

9 Collins Concise Dictionary, Third Edition, Glasgow: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995.

10 Wordsworth Dictionary of Mythology, Edinburgh: Wordsworth Editions Ltd. 1991.

11 Kennedy also says that "Mitchell Morse called this poem `in spirit a perfect haiku'" (Dreams 512).

12 See in particular Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, London: Routledge, 1997 and Frederick Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, London: Verso. 1996.

13 See Derrida's essay on Mallarmé in Acts of Literature.

Works Cited
Cohen, Milton M. PoetandPainter: The Aesthetics of E. E. Cummings's Early Work. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987.

Collins Concise Dictionary. Third Edition, Glasgow: HarperCollins, 1995.

Cummings, E. E. Selected Letters of E. E. Cummings. Ed. F. W. Dupee and George Stade. London: Andre Deutsch, 1972.

-. Complete Poems 1904-1962. Ed. George J. Firmage. New York: Liveright, 1991.

Derrida, Jacques. Acts of Literature. Ed. Derek Attridge. London: Routledge, 1992.

-. A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds. Ed. Peggy Kamuf. Hemel, Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991.

-. Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins. Trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. London: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Dumas, Bethany K. E. E. Cummings: A Remembrance of Miracles. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1974.

Fairley, Irene R. E. E. Cummings and Ungrammar, New York: Watermill Publishers, 1975. [end page 42]

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge, London: Routledge, 1997.

-. Ceci n'est pas une pipe. Montpellier: Fata Morgana, 1973.

Friedman, Norman. E. E. Cummings: The Art of His Poetry. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1960.

Heusser, Martin. I Am My Writing: The Poetry of E. E. Cummings. Tubingen: Stauffenburg Verlag, 1997.

Jameson, Frederick. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso, 1996.

Kennedy, Richard S. E. E. Cummings Revisited, New York: Twayne, 1994.

-. "E. E. Cummings, a Major Minor Poet." Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society. NS 1 (1992): 37-45.

-. Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E. E. Cummings. New York: Liveright, 1980.

Kidder, Rushworth M. E. E. Cummings: An Introduction to the Poetry, New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.

Labriola, A. C. "Reader-Response Criticism and the Poetry of E. E. Cummings: `Buffalo Bill's defunct' and `in Just-'." Cithara 31 (May 1992): 40-42.

Lane, Gary. I Am: A Study of E. E. Cummings' Poems. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1976.

Marks, Barry. E .E .Cummings. New York: Twayne, 1964.

Matthews, Timothy. Reading Apollinaire: Theories of Poetic Language. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987.

Webster, Michael. "Cummings, Kennedy, and the Major / Minor Issue." Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 4 (1995): 76-82.

Wordsworth Dictionary of Mythology. Edinburgh: Wordsworth Editions Ltd. 1991. [end page 43]

from SPRING, The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 10 (2001): 31-43.

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