Love’s “Unknownness”

At times cummings almost seems obsessed with love, particularly with sex, but, in the last part of Collected Poems there seems to be a subtle shift in many of these love poems, not that he wasn’t still writing poems devoted to sex.

Strangely, I marked these two poems both when I first read them in college and this time as I read them, though i can’t imagine that I had similar ideas about love at such different points in my life. Of course, this first one with its emphasis on “unknownness,” seems to be universally true, at least among men.


love’s function is to fabricate unknownness

(known being wishless;but love,all of wishing)
though life’s lived wrongsideout,sameness chokes oneness
truth is confused with fact,fish boast of fishing

and men are caught by worms(love may not care
if time totters,light droops,all measures bend
nor marvel if a thought should weigh a star
—dreads dying least;and less,that death should end)

how lucky lovers are)whose selves abide
under whatever shall discovered be)
whose ignorant each breathing dares to hide
more than most fabulous wisdom fears to see

(who laugh and cry)who dream,create and kill
while the whole moves;and every part stands still:

This “unknownness” of love lends itself particularly well to cummings’ poetic style, its enjambment, it’s Metaphysical conceits and contradictions. Who could argue that love is “all of wishing,” that “truth is” quite often “confused with fact?” Men may boast of their prowess with women, but more often than not it’s they that end up caught “by worms.” Often it’s the mystery of the other, of the lover, the constant sense of discovery that seems to drive love, at least romantic love.

I guess it makes sense if we know so little about this love that is so precious to us that we need to be “More careful” of it “Than of anything:”


be of love(a little)
More careful
Than of everything
guard her perhaps only

A trifle less
(merely beyond how very)
closely than
Nothing, remembers love by frequent

Her least never with most
memory) give entirely each
Forever its freedom

(Dare until a flower,
understanding sizelessly sunlight
Open what thousandth why and
discover laughing)

Although it’s the first stanza that seems to be the most quoted, the most interesting juxtaposition of words to me is the narrator’s admonition that we should guard it “a trifle less” “closely than” … “Nothing.” Doesn’t this suggest that it’s actually impossible to “guard” love at all, precisely because we must “give entirely each/ Forever its freedom?”

cummings’ “Nobody wears a yellow…”

I’ll have to admit that at times I find myself tiring of some of cummings’ oft-repeated themes, whether spring or “love,” so I’m delighted when i find an odd little one like this that I really like:


Nobody wears a yellow
flower in his buttonhole
he is altogether a queer fellow
as young as he is old

when autumn comes,
who twiddles his white thumbs
and frisks down the boulevards
without his coat and hat

-(and i wonder just why that
should please him or i wonder what he does)

and why(at the bottom of this trunk,
under some dirty collars) only a
was it perhaps a year) ago i found staring
me in the face a dead yellow small rose

Perhaps my recent rummaging through old papers and old photo albums piqued my interest in this poem, but I suspect that once you reach a certain age and look back that you begin to wonder why the heck you did some of the things you once did — not that I didn’t start wondering the same thing long before now.

When I go back and look at some of my old pictures I can’t imagine what the heck I was thinking of when it was taken. Perhaps we’d all learn something important about ourselves if we re-examined the different “roles” we’ve assumed in our lifetime and tried to figure out why we did so.

I’m pretty sure I never wore a yellow flower in my buttonhole, considering my allergies, but I wouldn’t be a man if I hadn’t managed to make a fool out of myself trying to impress members of the fairer sex.

cummings’ anti-war poetry

Though not necessarily a favorite, cummings’ “147” somehow seemed appropriate on this fifth anniversary of our invasion of Iraq:


“next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn’s early my
country ’tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?”

He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water

I generally don’t like ANTI-war poems because i feel almost ALL poems, at least modern poems, are anti-war. But, if you were looking for anti-war poems, cummings would be a good place to look. Although he volunteered as an ambulance driver in France during WWI he was imprisoned by the French for seditious writing.

What makes cummings more effective than most anti-writers is his sense of humor, which often does little more than quote those in favor of war, exposing the inherent irony. In fact, I wonder if cummings writes for The Daily Show?

It’s hard not to see the absurdity of slogans when they’re strung together like this, though some might not immediately recognize the irony in the first line until they see “…and so forth oh.” aFter all, NO one ends a prayer with “AND SO FORTH” because it immediately reveals how clichéd such phrases are.

It is a little sobering when we realize that it’s the “heroic happy dead” who have been acclaiming America’s glorious name “by gorry by jingo by gee by gosh by gum” because “they did not think” but “died instead.”

If it weren’t for those like this politician who finished his speech with “a glass of water” the voice of liberty might well be MUTE.

Cumming’s “oDE”

I was a little surprised to discover that I had marked this poem as one of my favorites the first time I read it long ago while in college. I suspect I must have liked it for very different reasons than i do now:




the sweet & aged people
who rule this world(and me and

you if we’re not very


the darling benevolent mindless
He-and She-
shaped waxworks filled
with dead ideas(the oh

quintillions of incredible
dodderingly godly toothless

the bothering
dear unnecessary hairless


As a college student I must have seen this as a rebellious statement, now I find myself worrying I’ve become that doddering old fool “filled with dead ideas.” It’s hard not to feel like a dinosaur when you go to your local Blockbuster and can’t find a single movie you really want to sit through. Is that really music they play on most local stations? No wonder the record companies are complaining about losing money.

I must admit that every time I look at some “dodderingly godly toothless/ always-so-much-interested-/ in-everybody-else’s-business” Republican explaining why we must Stay The Course i’m pissed that the Republican party is giving a bad name to us poor old white guys.

“Humanity I love you…”

There’s certainly nothing particularly new about the ideas expressed in cummings’ “101” but I still love the way he says them, exhibiting both his endearing sense of humor and the ambiguity typical of his best poems.

You gotta love a poem that begins “Humanity i love you” and ends “Humanity i hate you.” Surely, somewhere between those two extremes must lie the truth, or, at least, something that will pass as the truth:

Humanity i love you
because you would rather black the boots of
success than enquire whose soul dangles from his
watch-chain which would be embarrassing for both

parties and because you
unflinchingly applaud all
songs containing the words country home and
mother when sung at the old howard

Humanity i love you because
when you’re hard up you pawn your
intelligence to buy a drink and when
you’re flush pride keeps

you from the pawn shop and
because you are continually committing
nuisances but more
especially in your own house

Humanity i love you because you
are perpetually putting the secret of
life in your pants and forgetting
it’s there and sitting down

on it
and because you are
forever making poems in the lap
of death Humanity

i hate you

Those of us who’ve spent our lives trying to improve society (I’m pretty sure I wasn’t teaching for the money) seem oblivious to the fact that human nature is remarkably resistant to change. Although this poem was written at the beginning of the 20th Century, it certainly seems as true today as the day it was written.

The media, and, thus, society is fixated on Success and those who’ve attained it, no matter how many people they’ve betrayed on their trip to the top.

Even in a society as depraved as our own, “country,” “home,” and “mother” still seem to have the ability to launch songsters to the top of the pops ladder.

And judging from the popularity of some seriously dumb beer commercials, more than a few young people have pawned their “intelligence to buy a drink.”

It’s almost enough to make you question why you continue to love the human race, isn’t it?

Cummings’ “89”

There’s a surprising number of e.e. cummings’ poems that strike my fancy, but many are so well known it hardly seems worth the bother to present them here. What’s more, many involve Spring, and I’m beginning to wonder if my longing for Spring weather hasn’t altered my very taste in poetry.

Here’s a poem that I didn’t note the first time through, probably because I was so caught up with studying to become someone or something I wasn’t that it didn’t appeal to me:


               let's live suddenly without thinking

               under honest trees,
                                  a stream
               does.the brain of cleverly-crinkling
               -water pursues the angry dream
               of the shore. By midnight,
                                               a moon
               scratches the skin of the organised hills

               an edged nothing begins to prune

               let's live like the light that kills
               and let's as silence,
                                           because Whirl's after all:
               (after me) love,and after you.
               I occasionally feel vague how
               vague i don't know tenuous Now-
               spears and The Then-arrows making do
               our mouths something red,something tall

I’m not a stream, and though at times I seem little more than a stream of thoughts, at this point in my life I can see the wisdom in living “suddenly without thinking/ under honest trees.” It’s too easy in this society to get caught up in the brain of “cleverly-crinkling-water,” caught up in the “Whirl” of activity. I don’t even have a job, but when i got home from a week-long vacation I found 125 emails waiting for me in just one of several email accounts, not to mention the thousand-or-so articles waiting to be read in my RSS reader.

In a world where you’re just as apt to be speaking to a person halfway around the world as to the person sitting next to you, Whirl seems ALL. No wonder some of us have trouble deciding whether we’re better friends with someone halfway round the world who you play Scrabulous with daily or the neighbor you haven’t talked to in six months.

e.e. cummings’ celebration of Spring

It’s been a long time since I read e.e. cummings, though he was one of my favorite poets in college. Mike’s suggestion that I might want to take a look at his Unitarian roots made me decide to re-read his Collected Poems. I’m enjoying reacquainting myself with his poetry, especially since it gives me a chance to compare poems that I liked while at college and poems that I like now. I decided not to look at poems I’d marked until I’ve actually re-read them.

I did look back and see that I also enjoyed this poem the first time I read it, suggesting that neither cummings nor i have entirely shaken our Romantic heritage:


Oh, sweet spontaneous
earth, how often have
fingers of
prurient philosophers pinched
has the naughty thumb
of science prodded
beauty . how
often have religions taken
thee upon their scraggy knees
squeezing and
buffeting thee that thou mightest conceive
to the incomparable
couch of death thy
thou answerest

them only with


Generally when I think of e.e.cummings i tend to forget about the content of his poems and focus on the rather obvious differences between his poetry and that which proceeded him. Poems like this remind me just how traditional much of the comment seemed. Of course, seen in the context of contemporary poetry, his style also seems much more traditional than it did when i read him in the 60’s. In fact, he reminds me more of Metaphysical poems like Doone and Herbert than he does most current poets.

Still, there’s an immediacy to this poem that reminds me more of Taoism than I would ever have imagined. He rejects attempts to turn Nature into Gods, but contrasts the marvel of spring to the “incomparable couch of death” it’s “rhythmic lover.”