Discover more from Bewilderment
since falling is first
failure is fundamental
This poem is one of my favorites. Like many of e.e. cummings’ poems, it seems at first a little opaque. What is going on with the sentences? We have fallen right into the middle of something. And why are there things that look like “mistakes” all over the place here? Did the typesetter mess up? Is the poet ignorant of “correct English”? I think I love it because it makes me learn to read, and that teaches me to write, and I learn to do both here by letting go of the guideropes—my certainty about “how language works”, what is “correct” or “possible” in English and in poetry, “standard” punctuation and grammar, my familiarity with “what poems are”—and by falling into what’s actually on the page. How do I love it? Let me count the ways.
So: this poem makes an argument, and the argument comes right away. The first line argues (“since”, as in “hey, since after all we both agree that…”) “feeling is first”. First could mean both “primary, privileged”, and “taking place before other things do”. In the poem, whatever else happens, even “wisdom”, is second in all ways to feeling—comes after feeling, and is not as important as feeling.
If feeling is first (best, primary), it can only be so by comparison. We have to know what isn’t first (best, primary). What is feeling different from here? One thing that seems to be opposed to feeling right away is “the syntax of things”. What is “syntax”? The correct arrangement of things, of words in a sentence or, by metaphorical extension, of the parts of something relative to its norms. The correct or habitual order of things; the order that makes sense in a kind of passive way, the sense we hear and can immediately process and agree or disagree with.
One thing I love about this poem is that it requires me to feel toward understanding—to follow feeling and believe it: that there is meaning here, despite the poem’s refusal of the “syntax of things” (in this case, the usual ways sentences tend to arrange themselves over lines in English-language poems). And I love what this teaches me about reading and writing poetry: that making art means making something that feels ‘wrong’ or like a failure, because that’s what going outside the bounds of familiar syntax feels like. This poem reminds me that making poems isn’t about being well-behaved according to the history of prosody, but about paying attention to the felt ways of knowing that precede the codes, systems, and names of schools that follow them—even though knowing like that can feel very much like falling.
When I read the lines “who pays any attention/ to the syntax of things/ will never wholly kiss you” my attention clicks together the poem’s playful refusal of poetic ‘syntax’ and grammatical normalcy with the argument it’s making. It isn’t just telling me how things should be or are: it’s doing those things. So the argument in the first four lines seems to be something like, since, after all, feeling is both fundamental and the first thing to happen, those who operate primarily (first of all, fundamentally) by reference to an existing framework of rules—a grammar of behavior or of ways of being; a rules-based rather than a felt and responsive, bodily approach to the world—will never wholly kiss you. A whole kiss? A kiss totally present and fully experienced? Is not a syntactical, rule-checking kiss but a kiss from feeling. A kiss, it turns out, from fooling.
The word “wholly” occurs twice (lines 4 and 5) in relation to the verb “kiss” and the phrase “to be a fool/while Spring is in the world”. Completely, entirely being a fool and completely entirely kissing are two things that are unlike the “syntax of things” and also unlike a person “who pays any attention/ to the syntax of things”. Being a fool (in spring! season of emergence and renewal and burgeoning and sex) means being a person who is to some extent outside the rules that govern normal behavior, or a person willfully contravening those rules, or even being someone who is unversed in or unaware of those rules and so appearing foolish to those who know them. A fool may not have a place in the “syntax of things” but, the speaker says, “my blood approves”. What could be more intrinsic than the approval of one’s own blood? This is not a pat on the head from a boss or a look of approbation from a public genius. It comes entirely from inside. And, after all, “kisses are a better fate/ than wisdom”.
What looks like failure at first, in artmaking, is often just difference from the syntax of things.
Recently a writer friend asked me if I feel guilty when I’m not writing and it gave me pause. I don’t, I said, and my mind searched for a metaphor. Then I asked her, does the world feel guilty when the tide goes out? Although I respect my friend’s very different and normal experience of the world, it seems to me that not-writing, or failing at writing, or writing things that fail is a normal, necessary, even living part of writing anything at all. Failure means play, not moral insufficiency (or artistic insufficiency). Failure (looks like pause, looks like does not move me, looks like not quite, looks like too much like someone else and not like me, etc.) means something is happening. The tide is out? —then the tide is out. The land lies fallow for a season: so normal, so necessary. Sometimes you need a winter in order to have a time when “spring is in the world”. But my friend is not the first writer I have heard talk about the feeling that there is a right way to write and a wrong way, and that she is doing it wrong—and ending up feeling bad about it. Not the first writer I’ve talked to for whom failure alternately looms and motivates. I hear echoes of this when I hear students talk about failure as something to avoid, or when I come across writing tips online that more or less come down to how to succeed in business without really trying.
It’s difficult to disentangle the fact that to make art that means with one’s whole life, attention, and being requires one to be willing to fail and even to fail much of the time from the facts of an education system that experientially equates failure to shame and reduction of status, and a literary world in which success is visible and sensationalized while failures of all kinds, from the ordinary and necessary “failures” (drafts, learning to think, getting it wrong, change over time) that are just another name for process, to the ordinary and common “failures” (rejections, going unnominated or unpublished, anonymity, marginal position) that are the natural outcome of treating the human need to make meaning as grounds for economic and social competition, are mostly hidden from view. I want to be clear that I am using the quotation marks around the word “failure” here because to me these seem less like failures than like part of the pattern of an artmaking life.
It is a fact that to find out what we mean, like learning to walk, means falling over and over as we try to understand in body and mind what gravity is, how foot can feel (being unshod), and how locomotion among and through other moving beings and static objects works. And then we do that again and again! No less, all our lives, do we learn subtly to change, adapt, grow, adopt new manners, skills, attitudes. None of it easy; we fall down often. And then we change tactic, do it again. Just part of life. Failing, falling, cannot be separated from learning to move, think, be, write.
Artmaking and writing are responsive processes. They respond to our knowledge (which changes over time) and to our perceptions, to the world around us, and to the processes themselves as we undertake them. These processes of meaning-making may sometimes have recourse to the “syntax of things”, but they are not that. To make a poem is not to replicate the habits and gestures of the thing called “poem” but instead, having carefully examined those things called “poem” and having deeply attended to the ways they make meaning, to ask, then what is “poem”? and to make an object that replies as a flower replies, or an eyelid’s flutter replies, or a kiss replies, in the way only the living thing can.
We are not made to fit ourselves mechanically into pre-made molds, whether those are received forms or other people’s ways of working. We are made to pay attention to what is in front of, inside of, around and through us, including received forms and others’ ways of working, and to discern the ways meaning can be made, changed, extended, complicated. We use language and form (visual, sonic, conceptual, and other forms), in the case of poetry, to attempt to accomplish some communication of what our attention has given us. And of course we fail—and of course we need fallow time—because this is difficult. It is very, very difficult to make a world. It takes so much imaginative work to make the world a poem is. Even a place as comparatively small as Rome wasn’t built in a day.
It might seem like following rules and guidebooks and lists of tips on writing websites will get us safely where we have to go. But will it? And would it be so foolish to fail, in any case? In the world of cummings’ poem, those who pay “any attention/ to the syntax of things” are incapable of “wholly” kissing or “wholly” being “a fool”. It’s pretty clear that the poem values both kissing and fooling! There’s a line in the poem that for me connects the two nouns “fool” and “wisdom”, and it’s a line of binary opposition. Which is better? To be a philosopher or a fool?
In the poem, the speaker says it is “blood”, common substance of all bodies, that “approves” being a fool. Not a government, not a religion, not a grammar. No top-down rule that can approve this, but one’s own vital blood. “Wholly to be a fool” is to invert a hierarchy that might otherwise value “the best gesture of my brain” over “your eyelids' flutter”, the trappings of syntax (brains, wisdom, paragraphs) over the “best gesture[s]” of the living body (laughter, flutters, flowers). But Cummings does not simply invert the hierarchy of fool/philosopher, because both live together in the complex space of the poem. He inserts an inversion of value (kisses>wisdom, life>paragraph) into a proof that, though broken across lines, obeys syntactic logic. The world in which feeling is first lives in relation to a world of syntax, a both-and world. Where the poem falls or fails it is also held. I think he probably had to fail in the making to find his way to this form.
This is a poem—there are several of cummings’—that I feel I could spend years talking through. They are tiny, intricate syntax-and-feeling puzzles. I can’t imagine they came fully formed. In fact I know they did not, because, reading through cummings’ collected poems I can see his ability to move and use and play in/with language change over time. We embark on thinking, writing, making, being at the beginning of these processes. To do them well is not a question of arriving at some absolute point of ability but a question of reflective continuation after repeated failures—and also a question of learning to see what might look or feel like a failure as just part of the act of thought.
Be beginning. Be feeling it out. Be paying attention. Be open to what isn’t yet or “couldn’t possibly be”. Do what shouldn’t or can’t and see what happens. Because we can’t know what we think until we write it. We can’t know in advance what the writing will be until we do it, and then again. We are not here simply to fill in forms, governmental or poetic. We are here to find out what it can be, our art, when we cross for our few brief years of life its immense history, and then pass it on to unknown others, changed. The thing about poetry is, remember, it comes from make. And that’s our job: to make it, to make it new in ways we couldn’t have imagined yesterday and that often require us to feel as if we’re falling from the paths we know to find them.
This goes for what writing looks like, too, I think. Factory work is harmful for human beings and our world. It does not enliven or delight. So what convinces us to think about writing as a question of productivity? Why is the assembly line the image for a writing life? Writing is not for producing writing; writing is for being in the world. The books come along if we can do that second (first!) part with care, returning to it over and over. We need the parts of writing that look like rest or walking or looking or reading or listening to music or thinking, and the parts that look like not-knowing, and the parts that look like getting it wrong. And we also, I think, need the parts of life, the ‘failures’ at writing, that teach us to discern what the difference is between exhaustion and fear or avoidance or laziness or too much Twitter. We need to fail because it teaches us how to understand what we want and where and how to find that.
Be gentle, writer. Writing is endless because language does not end: we are in an ongoing process of learning to make what doesn’t yet exist, and learning to suss out what kinds of actions can bring us to make what we need to make. There is enough room and time for all of us. And I think allowing writing to be all it is, including its fallow times and its failures, can help us understand how “to be a fool/ while Spring is in the world”, which is to say, how to write poetry, but also to say, how to be human with other humans, in this living, changing place that only lasts an hour.
Thanks for reading! See you next week.