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Literary Criticism Resources: Criticism v. Overview

This guide will help you locate sources of literary criticism

Literary Overview

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[Chris Semansky is a freelance writer and has written extensively on modern and postmodern literature. In the following essay, Semansky explains how cummings used not only words but also their visual presentation on the page to shape the meaning of his work.]

A painter and a poet, e.e. cummings was as interested in how a poem looked on the page as in how it sounded or what it meant. He would break words apart, coin new words by altering parts of speech, and be deliberately ungrammatical with syntax and punctuation in order to achieve these desired effects.

“l(a” vividly exemplifies cumming's visual and poetic technique. Consisting of only four words, three of them in parentheses, “l(a” is not so much “about” something as much as it is doing the thing it is about. Instead of writing “a leaf falls: loneliness,” the poet snaps the words into smaller units and vertically spaces these units on the page.

The second half of the poem provides us with an inverse structure.We see the leaf falling at the same time we read about it. In this sense the poem is more of a picture than a poem.

Apart from the falling leaf, however, we have the word outside of the parentheses: “loneliness.” Grammatically, parentheses are a typographical device used to enclose words that add information or identification (for example, these words). The body of the sentence, so to speak, exists outside of them. The true subject of cummings' poem, then, is the idea or the fact of loneliness itself. He emphasizes this point by literally breaking the word into pieces. In the last three “lines” we receive the rest of the letters for “loneliness” in piecemeal, so we can also discern the words “one” and “oneliness.” The fragmentation of the word, its interruption by parenthetical information, its visual spacing on the page, and the very brevity of the work itself (only 22 characters) all contribute to the idea and the feeling of separation, of being apart from whatever it is that provides “one” with a sense of belonging.

Critical reception of “l(a,” though, has been mixed. While some, such as Norman Friedman, consider it a fine example of how cummings employs his typographic techniques to squeeze every last drop of meaning from the poem, others see the poem as little more than a gimmick, a worn-out—even juvenile—technique that does not quite fit in with the other poems in the volume and that proves that cummings's poetry never really matured. The truth is probably somewhere in between. Frequently anthologized poems are chosen not only because they supposedly represent a poet's body of work and constitute a part of literary history but also because they have a quality about them that editors believe readers continue to find significant. For “l(a” that quality is to be found in its simplicity, a simplicity that simultaneously embraces trickiness while also partially transcending it.

Source Citation   (MLA 7th Edition)
Semansky, Chris. "An overview of 'l(a'." Poetry for Students. Detroit: Gale. Literature Resource Center. Web. 3 Oct. 2012.
Document URL

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420004745

Criticism v. Overview



General plot summary

Will generally focus on a specific aspect of a the work

Rates or ranks work from an entertainment, cultural, orartistic perspective

Discusses the work within a historical, social, political, or theoretical context

Usually short to medium length

Substantive length

Written by journalist or staff

Written by a scholar, or other expert in the field of literary studies

Literary Criticism