An Addendum to Nietzsche and language: The Poetry of e.e. cummings

One impression that I get from Nietzsche’s writings on language – previously rambled about here – is not only that language is a perpetually incomplete striving-towards an richer, deeper unnamed reality (“rainbow-bridges”), but also that it is an attempt to impose an artificial sense of order, structure and form upon something that perennially resists classification and taxonomy, an attempt to bind, to limit, to chart the boundaries of, to identify and define (and so, perhaps, control?) something that, by its very nature, is free of any such human constraints. The two points are similar and linked, and are also in some way connected to (my interpretation of) the upshot of Auden’s own musings on the point – the deceptively simple conclusion that some things can only be experienced – and nothing more.

I think that through the following poem, e.e. cummings makes this point rather well:

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

Different parts of this poem are memorable and striking for different reasons, but focusing in particular on the first stanza, and upon the emphasised lines: when cummings says that “feeling is first“, I think he means two things by the word “first”: not only “first” in the sense of chronological priority (that is, feeling comes before we attempt to find the words, or the language, to express it), but also in the sense of normative priority, that is, feeling is in some way superior to (richer? deeper?) or takes precedence over, expression of that feeling. And so, attention to syntax, the way of constructing sentences in language, is tantamount to degrading or trivialising feeling by trying to pigeonhole it into constructed categories and labels; perhaps, diluting its intensity by imposing an artificial order upon it, by forcing it to conform to established limits and definitions. Don’t describe. Just kiss.

I think that this idea permeates much of cummings’ aesthetic vision. Out of the many poems to choose from – because I am always a sucker for impassioned love poems – consider this:

[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
                                                      i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)


It isn’t as explicit as the opening stanza of “since feeling is first”, but I think that the same idea is at play here: cummings’ eschewal of formal metre and structure, of a coherent expression of feeling, and even, at times, of grammar – stems out of (or so I’d like to believe) an aesthetic conviction that you cannot impose order upon love.

There are similarities between cummings and the fractured verse employed by the first wave modernist poets, in particular T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. But I think, also, that there is an important difference: the fractured verse of Prufrock, for instance (at least I understand it), is designed to capture accurately through the use of the disjointed form – the disjointed thoughts of Prufrock as well as the disjointedness of life in the 20th century. cummings’ cut-up form and broken verse, on the other hand, are employed in the service of a specific aesthetic vision that rejects ordinary language’s attempts to capture beauty because of its imposition of artificial form and structure – and indeed, seeks for that beauty by an attempt to directly transcribe the feelings in question, without any form of constraint.

I recognise, of course, that the difference between the two schools is far more fluid than the above, schematic distinction seems to suggest. But I think that there is a difference, and that cummings’ poetry is very interesting to engage with, keeping in mind that he has a specific idea of beauty, and about how and where to find it.

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2 Comments

Filed under e.e. cummings, Nietzsche

2 responses to “An Addendum to Nietzsche and language: The Poetry of e.e. cummings

  1. Irpinder

    Thanks, enjoyed reading the finer distinctiuons.

    There is an entire universe in the nirgun bhakti and therfore in the nirgul poetry in India spanning nearly 7-8 centuries..
    Nirgun : One without attributes.
    In this poetry the SHABDA [word/verse] is given preeminence, but it is always in the service of SHABDATEET.
    SHABDATEET : that which is beyond the word; what the word cant capture.
    But from it arises the SHABDA [ wrod/verse]
    And therfore there has been a school that has shunned “written” saying that it fixes that what is by nature fluid. With FIXING, follow huge structures/platforms in defence of the fixed.

    Great Going. Keep writing. Irpinder

  2. Brian Joseph

    Indeed I think that you are on to something with your pondering on the limited nature of language and how some of these thinkers have looked at the topic.

    Though the approach is different, there entire host of scientific research and writing on this subject which is also very interesting. Some of Steven Pinker’s books come to mind.

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