Sometimes poets don’t lie

When he wasn’t composing sonnets about prostitutes, the American poet E. E. Cummings (we capitalize his name here on Retrievals) wrote the following poem which is almost impossible not to like:

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)

Why do people like this poem? Well, you can tell me. My sense of it–that is to say, why I enjoy it–is that it seems to say something attractive about love, something that either is true of love, or something that should be true of one’s love.

E.E. Cummings, full-length portrait, facing le...

E.E. Cummings (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But is it, in fact, true? Now Plato might have harbored suspicions. Were he in a particularly quarrelsome mood, as he was in Book X of the Republic, he might ask about the details of the life of E. E. Cummings. This sounds like an unfair attack upon the man, but Plato would point to a principle that it is hard not to accept: given a choice, a right-thinking person would choose to do an actual good thing rather than to merely represent it artistically. According to this logic, if Cummings really knew something deeply true about love, one would rightly expect to see him living out this truth.

But Plato isn’t quite as mean as you think he is. The fact that the love life of Cummings had its ups and downs (affairs, children out of wedlock, a couple of divorces) might have actually been good news as far as Plato was concerned. His objection to supposing that epic poets such as Homer knew anything worthwhile about subjects such as politics and war was based on the fact that there was absolutely no evidence that Homer had any involvement in such activities. E. E. Cummings, at least, had a lot of experience with love, for good or ill. Sometimes we learn wisdom through suffering.

At the very least, one truth Cumming’s poem expresses is the decisive nature of whatever “occupies” one’s heart. In the poem above, the carrying of the heart of the other molds all other perceptions: “you are whatever a moon has always meant / and whatever a sun will always sing is you.”

It is, in a strange juxtaposition to be sure, a similar insight to that of Matthew 6:21: “wherever your treasure is, there also your heart will be.” The object to which one directs one’s attention is humanly decisive. This is why God does not hesitate to present himself as a “jealous God” in the Old Testament (“You shall not have other gods before me”). Such focused attention upon God was necessary for the maintenance of the covenant between God and his people. And it is also true on the natural level. We sense, with Cummings, that a vibrant and real love ought to involve such sustained attention to the beloved, that one ought to “carry” the heart of the other in one’s own heart.

Positively, this helps to explain why it can be beneficial to learn the “love language” of one’s spouse–the heart of another is not identical to one’s own, and so we ought to respect and express our love for the beloved in the way he or she will understand (i.e. carrying the heart of the other, rather than attempting to mold it according to one’s own will).

Negatively, this helps to explain the failure that is pornography, that strange idolatry in the order of love. If a man spends hours looking at pornographic clips on the Internet, do you really suppose that, as the poem puts it, moon will continue remind that man of his wife? Will the sun will continue to sing to him of her?

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3 Responses to Sometimes poets don’t lie

  1. Lee says:

    It’s always possible that moon would and if moon didn’t, who knows the mind of a man and how he directs his energies? Despite his jealousies and threats, God is reluctant to let his people go under any circumstances. Divine grace can happen and is designed to happen when people least deserve it. What is likely is not all of what is possible.

    • alexanderschimpf says:

      Indeed, all things are possible for God–and I’m always happy to be reminded of that, so I appreciate your comment.

      But as humans, the moral thing to do is to make our choices according to what is likely. It is possible that my wife and kids will continue to love me if I am a jerk to them, but I would be a morally bad person if I thought that possibility licensed me to do so.

      Does the same logic apply to our relationship with God? In one way obviously not, since we aren’t dealing with a human to human relationship. But it would work like that on the part of the human, at least. Only someone who prays (direct his attention to God, somehow) is going to have a living faith.

  2. Pingback: cummings | Distracted Blogging

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