since feeling is first
I first came across E. E. Cummings in high school, like many people have, and he had an immediate effect on me. He was so different from the rest of the stuff I’d been reading in my classes that he shook me to the core, and made me want to write poetry just like his. I grew out of that, thankfully, but he’s never stopped being a favorite of mine. The first book of poetry I ever bought was a selected verse–I have it to this day, dogeared and having survived more moves than I can count.
This poem in particular was one that stuck with me from the beginning–I copied it onto my English folder, and I memorized it as well. I’m no good at that sort of thing, mind you. I’ve memorized probably three poems of any length in my entire life, and two have come mostly because I’ve taught them so often. (I don’t count “The Red Wheelbarrow” because it’s what, 16 words?) I can mostly get “Channel Firing” and Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130” and that’s about it–except for this one.
What I love about the poem is the way Cummings sets up the two worlds of love or emotion and reason at odds with each other, and the way he used words outside their expected syntax to get this across, like the way he uses “first” in the opening line as prominence, as if he’s saying “since emotion is the most important thing.” This declaration sets up the rest of the poem–it assumes the position the poet is taking is the correct one and proceeds to argue for it. It’s the logical fallacy of “begging the question,” to be sure, but since reason is going to be set aside anyway, it makes a peculiar sort of sense for this poem.
So let’s look closer at the opening lines:
since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you
He’s saying here that since emotion, love, feeling is primary, the person who pays attention to the logical structure of things–the syntax–will never wholly kiss you, or, will never be willing to abandon him or herself completely to emotion. Put your trust in logic and you’ll lose the chance to really be overwhelmed by love.
And with this in mind, Cummings evokes the heart by saying “my blood approves / and kisses are a better fate / than wisdom.” He’s turned the decision making over to the seat of emotion, the blood, and is so enraptured by love that he’d rather have that than wisdom. He reiterates this when he says “the best gesture of my brain is less than / your eyelid’s flutter which says // we are for each other.” I saw a guy on YouTube a few days ago complaining about this line, saying that it played into gender stereotypes about males being logical and women being emotional, but I think he missed the point of the poem. First of all, there’s nothing definitively male about the speaker–it’s only in a heteronormative setting that we make that assumption–but more than that, Cummings has already spent a lot of time in this poem making clear that he’s comparing logic and reason to emotion, so why should we depart from that reading to make this about men and women now? He’s saying that emotion–the “eyelid’s flutter which says we are for each other”–is superior to logic and reason–“the best gesture of my brain.”
It’s probably not a great way to live every day of your life–logic and reason do have their places, and it would be as silly to abandon oneself completely to emotion as it would have been for Marlowe’s nymph to run away with her passionate shepherd without at least asking a question or two about their winter quarters–but it is a nice way of looking at these two parts of the human psyche and noting that, in some cases at least, it’s good to let go of the syntax at times.
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