"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

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my shorter, almost daily blog posts

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