Artwork by Fatema Boxwala
The Creation of Meaning in Space in e. e. cummings
by Marziah Rashid
Writing about the experience of driving through the “desert” that is America, Jean Baudrillard (1996) refers to speed as “the triumph of instantaneity over time as depth” that suggests “the superficiality and reversibility of a pure object in the pure geometry of the desert.” The same can be said of space in the poetry of e. e. cummings, with particular reference to his epigraph to The Enormous Room and “61” from his collection of 73 poems, in which the line breaks and spacing are such that meaning is anticipated but never fully realized. In other words, as per cummings’s particular take on visual poetry, the poems are spatial rather than temporal in nature; meaning shifts across space rather than time. This suggests that definitive meaning does not arrive at the end of each poem; instead, “superficial” and “reversible” meaning exists at various points throughout. Cummings employs such a structure to reflect the structure—or lack thereof—of the mind, in which thoughts do not progress along a teleological and linear trajectory but across a network of connections. In this way, cummings uses avant-garde techniques to represent a Modernist theme.
In the epigraph to cummings’s wife Anne Barton in his novel The Enormous Room and his “61,” line breaks and spacing are used to alter and extend the meanings of words in primarily two related ways, each of which is observable in one poem. First, line breaks appear after particular words for the abovementioned purpose. In the epigraph, both content and form can be interpreted as defying the notion of linear time as necessary to the creation of meaning in poetry and the mind. The speaker contemplates the past and future by “looking,” as though it is space; in this way, cummings draws attention to this conventional yet unusual metaphor in language that refers to time as space, in order to suggest that space takes precedence over time. In addition, the speaker is “looking forward into the past” and “backward into the future,” implying that the mind does not operate in the same way as teleological time, which rather moves backward into the past and forward into the future.
On the other hand, with reference to the structure of the poem, the first line ends at the word “looking,” which as a consequence appears both at the beginning and at the end of the line. In the first instance the “looking” is oriented “forward”; in the second, “backward.” Yet the “looking forward” appears before the “looking backward” in space rather than vice versa, as the order would be through time. Similarly, the word “forward” appears in front of “past.” It is true that in the second line the word “backward” appears before “future” as per the expected direction of time. However, this only emphasizes that the mind is haphazard, chaotic, and resistant to a single train of thought. This distribution of the lines is hardly accidental: cummings might have manipulated the line breaks and spacing in such a way that the arrangement of the words would imitate the natural progression through time, for example thus:
into the past
or looking backward
into the future
Talking of spacing, as the poem progresses—or perhaps, since we are considering the poem in terms of space, moves downward—the space on either side of each line widens while the text in each line becomes narrower. The result is that two curves, perhaps the “highest hills” to which the speaker refers, are carved out. The curve on the left goes downhill while the one on the right continues uphill. It is interesting to note that the text of the poem occupies the “valley” between the hills, the space that is neither uphill nor downhill but borders both. An alternative view of the shape of the poem might see it as resembling a champagne glass—with cummings’s
wife’s name, Anne Barton, serving as the base—which can be used to toast to times gone by or those to come. In either scenario, once again, space in the poem is representative of the unstable inner workings of the mind, while time is shown to be ineffective in the same representation.
Secondly, line breaks interrupt and break up words, the effect of which is not only that the full word is delayed but that the word acquires multiple and nuanced meanings. The result is that meaning is manifested not only as the pieces of the word rearranged from left to right but as the totality of meanings the pieces accumulate as the word extends downward. In “61,” for example, the word “alighting” is fragmented in such a way that it contains the meanings “a light,” which conveys the softness of the snowflake’s landing; “li in” or “lie in” if the word is read vertically, in which the assonance of the “i” sound has the same effect and also describes the action of the snowflake; and finally “alighting.” If the meaning of the word is considered as coterminous with the one we are left with after the period of time required to read it, then the letters together only signify the lattermost meaning. That this is not the case is readily deducible from the fact that the letters are not ordered “correctly,” as it were, in space.
The word “gra/v/es/t,” too, is made up of several meanings. As one reads the word, one’s expectations as to what the completed word will be might shift from “grass” to “graves,” both of which indeed are possible in the context of the poem. Perhaps the snowflake falls on snow-covered grass. Certainly it falls on the graves of other snowflakes that have fallen before it, as though it dies at the moment it joins the others—becomes a member of the crowd—and loses its individuality when its unique structure breaks down. Neither of these meanings is discounted when the word is completed; they can be returned to since meaning is constructed in space rather than time. Indeed, although the poem descends down a straight line, it is neither linear nor teleological as Figure 1 might indicate. In contrast, since the word “one” is repeated at the end of the poem from its beginning, it more closely resembles the cycle depicted in Figure 2.
The area A in Figure 2 represents the space in which meaning takes place in “61.”
In his article Poetry and Painting: An Essay on Visual Form in Modern Verse, Richard Bradford (1990) also contends that in cummings, meaning is created in space:
We cannot simply regard the printed poetic line as a temporary record of its spoken form: […] [W]e will ask ourselves why the poet has chosen to create a spatial arrangement of linguistic integers which bears no apparent relation to the imperatives of the linear dimension of syntax or rhythm. In some poems, spatial form will threaten the distinction between the oral linear dimension of hearing language and the silent, spatial dimension of seeing it. (p. 48)
Bradford (1990) goes on to state that it is for this reason that it is difficult to read e. e. cummings aloud: the “spatial dimension” to which he refers cannot be translated into heard speech. He characterizes cummings’s poetry as falling under the genre of Concrete poetry, which “separate[s] the two dimensions of sight and sound” (p. 50). He does not mention, however, that speech is thus limited because it unfolds through time, which cummings’s poems do not.
Thomas Dilworth (1996) makes a similar argument to the one above about “61” with regard to cummings’s poem “l(a,” to which “61” bears considerable resemblance. He writes:
The poem exists initially in a deconstructed state, with syllables and letters resisting absorption into the word “loneliness” […] In their pre-synthesized tumble, the letters and syllables imply meanings that vary and enrich interpretation in ways that seem to mitigate […] sadness. (p. 171)
In Dilworth’s (1996) view, a line break occurs after “l” in the first line—with the parenthetical comment in between—because it is not of necessity connected to the lines after the closing parenthesis which together read “one/l/iness.” Therefore, “l” has a different, independent meaning owing to its position in space in the poem: it can stand for the Roman numeral I or be taken together with the “a” that follows the opening parenthesis to make the French word for “the,” so that the first two lines read “la leaf” (pp. 171-172). However, Dilworth (1996) reasons that although as a result of these intermittent meanings, the poem “mitigate[s] […] sadness” or loneliness, it also “emphasize[s]” it, because of “the words that the letters ultimately make up [the word under our scrutiny is “loneliness”] and […] the gravitational teleology of the letters in the pictograph” (p. 172). In contrast with the main thrust of this paper, then, the poem is seen as teleological and characterized by an ultimate, definitive meaning that arrives at its end.
However, if as Bradford (1990) argues, sight and sound are separated in cummings—and if, as Dilworth (1996) himself argues, “sight dominates sound” in “l(a” (p. 172)—then this cannot be accurate of the poem. This is because, as both critics point out in different terms, the poem creates meaning in space. Sight, as opposed to sound, cannot be teleological. If a poem is spatial, meaning can be detected at any point in the space it occupies, not only at the bottom as with time.
This is true of the poetry of e. e. cummings in general—and, cummings seems to suggest, of the human mind. In the same way that meaning in poetry is not continuous or coherent, thoughts and memories oscillate back and forth, descend and ascend, bounce off of each other to invoke other unrelated thoughts and memories, remain incomplete. Cummings plays with line breaks in an avant-garde turn of events in order to illustrate this Modernist idea.
Baudrillard, J. (1996). America. New York: Verso.
Bradford, R. (1990). Poetry and painting: An essay on visual form in Modern verse. Writing Ulster, 1, 48-66.
cummings, e. e. (n.d.). Poetry by e. e. Cummings (1894-1962). Retrieved from
Dilworth, T. (1996). Cumming’s “l(a.” The Explicator, 54(3), 171-172.
 In the above reworking of the poem’s opening two lines, the words “forward” and “future” are spatially in front of “past” and “backward” as they should be temporally.
 If it were connected, the word would read “loneliness.”