"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Syntax of Love


"your homecoming will be my homecoming --
my selves go with you . . .
dreaming their eyes have opened to your morning
feeling their stars have risen through your skies"
E. E. Cummings

The following four poems have come into my life over the years -- "since feeling is first" in high school, "Permanently" in college, "The Cool Web" in grad school; and most recently "Because She Would Ask Me Why I Loved Her," when my son Ben called it to my attention a few months ago. I used to enjoy pairing up Cummings and Koch, or Koch and Graves for my students to analyze in their Comparison and Contrast essays. These poems are connected by the certainty that love cannot be diagrammed like a sentence or broken down into component parts. Sentence structure . . . word order . . . never mind!

In "since feeling is first," E. E. Cummings advises against paying too much "attention / to the syntax of things . . . for life's not a paragraph." When it comes to life and love, there isn't always a thesis statement or five points of logical development. Cummings concludes with a couple of negative metaphors: life, whatever it may resemble, is not a paragraph; death is not parenthesis -- it can neither be contained nor bracketed off from the whole:

since feeling is first

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don't cry
—the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids' flutter which says

we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life's not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis

E. E. Cummings, 1894 - 1962
Popular, unconventional American poet

"lady i swear by all flowers"

As in "since feeling is first," the setting for "Permanently" is also Spring -- fresh flowers, grassy lawns, carefree antics. Kenneth Koch's playful personification makes this one of my favorite poems ever. The impressionable Nouns, the busy Verbs, the dark beautiful Adjectives, and a few lonely Conjunctions ("And! But!") are outside enjoying the fine weather:


One day the Nouns were clustered in the street.
An adjective walked by, with her dark beauty.
The Nouns were struck, moved, changed.
The next day a Verb drove up, and created the Sentence.

Each Sentence says one thing -- for example,

"Although it was a dark rainy day when the Adjective walked by,
I shall remember the pure and sweet expression on her face
until the day I perish from the green, effective earth."

Or, "Will you please close the window, Andrew?"

Or, for example, "Thank you, the pink pot of flowers on
the window sill has changed color recently to a light
yellow, due to the heat from the boiler factory which
exists nearby."

In the springtime the Sentences and the Nouns lay silently on the grass.
A lonely Conjunction here and there would call, "And! But!"
But the Adjective did not emerge.

As the adjective is lost in the sentence,
So I am lost in your eyes, ears, nose, and throat --
You have enchanted me with a single kiss
Which can never be undone
Until the destruction of language.

by Kenneth Koch, 1925 - 2002 [pronounced "coke"]
American poet, playwright, professor

"Will you please close the window, Andrew?"Still Life #30 (Museum of Modern Art)
by Tom Wesselmann, 1931 - 2004
American collage artist, painter, sculptor

[Something about this picture reminds me of Koch's poem.
I think it must be the window and the green grass, where
perhaps the Sentences and Nouns are lying silently. And
I suspect that the pot of flowers on the window sill might
be on the verge of changing color due to some kind of
factory or other, not far off there in the distance.]

In "Permanently," it seems unlikely that the enchantment of a single kiss will ever succumb to "the destruction of language," whereas for Robert Graves in "The Cool Web," such dispossession takes on the proportion of a serious threat. He describes a harsh world made palatable by a different kind of enchantment: the cool web of language. We need speech to take the edge off, to tame reality with a spell -- the magic of the ABCs!

The Cool Web

Children are dumb to say how the day is hot,
How hot the scent is of the summer rose;
How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky,
How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by.

But we have speech, to chill the angry day,
And speech, to dull the rose's cruel scent.
We spell away the overhanging night,
We spell away the soldiers and the fright.

There's a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear;
We grow sea - green at last and coldly die
in brininess and volubility.

But if we let our tongues lose self - possession,
Throwing off language and its watery clasp
Before our death, instead of when death comes,
Facing the wide glare of the children's day,
Facing the rose, the dark sky and the drums,
We shall go mad no doubt and die that way.

by Robert Graves, 1895 - 1985
English poet, novelist, scholar, translator, writer of antiquity

"We spell away the overhanging night"

In "Because She Would Ask Me Why I Loved Her," Christopher Brennan writes of another web, the "mesh" of our mortality that governs our experience of love. Unlike Graves, Brennan is not convinced that "all our tale [is] told in speech." For him, knowledge is not all; questioning doesn't always make us wise. His view, that the way to understand love's secret is to gaze into another's eyes, is consistent with Cummings conclusion that "kisses are a better fate / than wisdom . . . the best gesture of my brain is less than / your eyelids' flutter."

Because She Would Ask Me Why I Loved Her

If questioning would make us wise
No eyes would ever gaze in eyes;
If all our tale were told in speech
No mouths would wander each to each.

Were spirits free from mortal mesh
And love not bound in hearts of flesh
No aching breasts would yearn to meet
And find their ecstasy complete.

For who is there that lives and knows
The secret powers by which he grows?
Were knowledge all, what were our need
To thrill and faint and sweetly bleed?

Then seek not, sweet, the "If" and "Why"
I love you now until I die.
For I must love because I live
And life in me is what you give.

Christopher Brennan, 1870 - 1932
Australian poet, scholar, librarian

If. Why.

And! But!

Don't cry!

These four poems are perfect for the early days of Spring. The images are so vivid: fluttering flowers and eyelashes, "the green, effective earth," the roses and the sky, hearts of flesh sweetly bleeding. Language, life and love, inextricably woven into a cool, enchanting web that can never be undone.

Next Fortnightly Post
Saturday, April 14th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

Saturday, March 10, 2012

That Old Blue Willow Has Me in Its Spell

The Epicure

This painting appeared first in The Seven Ages of Childhood, 1909
by American author of verse and parodies
Carolyn Wells, 1862 - 1942
& American illustrator of magazines and children's books
Jessie Willcox Smith, 1863 - 1935
(later reprinted as a Vintage Green Tiger Press Postcard)

Blue Willow
My fate might not have been the dreamer's,
No time for prose and all for froth,
If the ware had not been old blue willow
From which I supped my daily broth!

A child, I lived the quaint tradition,
I was the Chinese maid, Kong Shee,
Flitting the bridge with Chang, the lover,
From the convent house by the willow tree.

I drained my mug at every serving
To rid it of its milky sea
And bring to light a gull still sailing
Above the swaying willow tree!

A whimsy thought but one for toying,
For who has power to estimate
The end of a young poetic fancy
When nurtured from a willow plate?

by Mildred D. Shacklett

Shacklett's poem can be found in the well - loved
anthology from my formative years:
The American Album of Poetry
compiled by American radio personality
Ted Malone, 1908 - 1989

Malone's book, filled with sentimental selections and companionable commentary, nurtured my poetic fancy as did the traditional Blue Willow bread and butter plates upon which my grandmother served us many a childhood breakfast of "dippy eggs and toast soldiers." When I got married, I also grew enamored of Wedgwood's pastel rendition of the pattern called "Chinese Legend," that Gerry and I discovered on one of our trips to England in the early 90s:

At the suggestion of my friend Ann de Forest, I recently read Rebecca Solnit's extended essay, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, which carries a recurring theme of "The Blue of Distance." I guess it should not have come as a surprise to find Blue Willow amongst the ubiquitous images of blueness!

I was touched by the truth and beauty of Solnit's insight into our ageless attraction to "that blue - and - white stuff whose most familiar imagery is also a small tale of tragedy, the blue willow pattern of birds, trees, water, and separated lovers, like the items of a song you could drink from, teacups that would always be a cup of sorrow" (125).

Ah, a cup of sorrow.


Some Nice Books for Children & Collectors

"She was seeing what no one else in that room could see. Leaning willows and running water. Blackbirds balancing precariously on slender reeds. The river. . . . Her eyes were fixed on the ragged line of blue - green foliage that marked the river. There the willows grew, and in amongst them would be shade and running water and an endless number of delights that Janey couldn't have listed but which she could feel very plainly in her bones. It was the same feeling she always had when looking at the willow plate. Something fine was about to happen" (66 - 68).

"One morning Chang wrote, 'As the willow blossom falls onto the water, so my heart flies to you. Meet me on the banks of the river, as the tide turns under the moon.' When night came, the lovers finally met under the weeping willow, hidden from the Great Pagoda by an apple tree."


"It was some time later, while the last leaves were still on the willow, turning yellow from cool evenings, that there was a cloudburst in the late afternoon. The merchant was at his scrolls, writing with black ink and an empty heart, when he heard the villagers cry out on the opposite shore of the river, and he went to the window.

"His heart leapt at the sight, for just above the foot bridge that led to his daughter's pavilion, there appeared a most wondrous rainbow of every color, and while the villagers watched, and while the merchant watched, two swallows fluttered above the willow tree and kissed, their wings making the sound of wind in bamboo."

Next Fortnightly Post
Wednesday, March 28th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

Detail from The Epicure