Skip to main content

Analysis of Poem "a total stranger one black day" by E. E. Cummings

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.



E. E. Cummings and "a total stranger one black day"

The poem, a total stranger one black day, is a relatively easy poem to get to grips with given that it was written by a poet whose poems can be extremely difficult to grasp. That said, this little poem does have its challenges and lives up to the poet's opinion on art in general:

'So far as I am concerned poetry and every other art was and is and forever will be strictly and distinctly a question of individuality.'

Cummings was certainly an individual and stands out in the world of modern poetry as a defiant, playful experimentalist. His poems are unashamedly different, they are abstract and awkward and mock traditional form and lineation.

His work tends to divide opinion. Some love his risk-taking and whimsical approach, others find the poems baffling and childish.

What cannot be denied is his willingness to push the boundaries of syntax, grammar and form; he rarely writes a straightforward poem but rather wants to deconstruct the language and build it back up according to his own design.

This is why many people are afraid of Cummings. They read one of his poems, struggle to 'get it' and think, well, if they're all like that I'm going to get precisely nowhere.

With Cummings, a reader has to persevere, learn the idiosyncratic language, and become familiar with his unorthodox, ungrammatical, fragmented poetry. Once the threshold has been crossed, it may dawn on the reader that the form may be unfamiliar but the subject matter is often traditional: love, the seasons, nature, the human condition, social issues and so on.

Cummings' a total stranger one black day deals with the idea that we as humans have many sides to our personalities, and that sometimes, out of the blue, we can discover that, inside, we're not who we think we day.

The stranger is inside each and everyone of us and it often takes a shock or trauma to release that stranger, that shadowy side of our nature. Once revealed and confronted, we can bring harmony and wholeness through acceptance and understanding.

So the poem is universal in the sense that we all can transform ourselves for the better once we face the more negative aspects of our psyche. In other words, to paraphase a well known bibical maxim - we can forgive ourselves our own trespassing and transcend the limits.

The Poem

a total stranger one black day
knocked living the hell out of me-

who found forgiveness hard because
my(as it happened)self he was

-but now that fiend and i are such
immortal friends the other's each

Analysis of "a total stranger one black day"

a total stranger one black day appears on the page as a simple, short poem of three lower cased couplets. The title is the first line (Cummings didn't have conventional titles) and trips off the tongue with an iambic lightness that somehow betrays the seriousness of the line.

A complete stranger on a forbidding day, it could be any day in the life of any person, appears, and it seems, set in motion a violent act. To knock in this context suggests being punched about the head and heart and this is perhaps the focal point of these first two lines.

The poet has rearranged the words in the second line so as to throw the reader and make them aware of this out of the blue act of aggression. It's a shock tactic. The words knocked living represent a double stress and work together with hell out to produce maximum effect.

The keywords are stranger/black and living/me. Why?

The reader is perhaps none the wiser until the second couplet because it soon becomes apparent that the stranger and me are one and same person. The puzzle is, just who forgives who? Does the stranger forgive the me, or the me forgive the stranger?

Forgiveness is a christian idea and one that reflects the poet's upbringing - his father was a minister - and in the context of the poem represents reconciliation, the two coming together in a state of new harmony.

But that forgiveness had to be fought for, so to speak, it didn't just arrive, or did it? Like a thunderbolt, it came suddenly to light up the conscience after knocking some sense into this person.

And the self is the stranger, existing within the same psyche, unaware of each other until now. Just why the day of awareness is black is a puzzle - perhaps the black signifies the desperate struggle going on as these two separate entities acknowledge one another. Perhaps they don't initially want to do that?

But this individual overcomes adversity and finally is able to embrace the whole, to admit the shadow exists, face it and go with the flow of mutual co-existence.

As vulnerable, complex humans, reaching that point where the awareness of a darker side - the stranger within - has to surface into the light, can be a momentous situation.

But, once experienced and embraced, fiend is absorbed by friend and they are able to heal each other's wounds.

Analysis - Rhyme and Rhythm

  • a total stranger one black day is a six line poem made up of three couplets.
  • the end words to each couplet are imperfect rhymes: day/me, because/was, such/each, which creates some dissonance but loosely connects the whole.
  • the dominant meter (metre in UK) is iambic tetrameter, that is, there are 8 syllables and four feet in each line:

a to / tal str / anger one / black day - iambic tetrameter (steady regular rhythm)

knocked liv / ing the / hell out / of me - 2 spondees, 2 pyrrhics (abrupt then soft)

who found / forgive / ness hard / because - iambic tetrameter again.

my(as / it happ / ened)self / he was - trochee + 3 iambs.

-but now / that fiend / and i / are such - iambic tetrameter.

immortal friends the other's each. iambic tetrameter.

  • So lines 2 and 4 are the complex ones metrically, reflecting the sense within the line.