Sunday, October 31, 2010

on e e cummings and the simplicity of the gospel

For years I seldom read poetry unless it was required it of me. But e. e. cummings was different. I was introduced to one of his poems in high school and raced home to devour the rest of the collection. I no longer have the book and had all but forgotten it until recently, when a friend posted a reading of this poem - the very one that got me to buy the first book of poetry I ever owned:
i carry your heart with me

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 the 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)
edward estlin cummings
It made me smile to hear it again, and to hear it read more beautifully than it ever sounded in the voice in my own head. It delighted middle-aged me at least as much as it did teen-me. I glanced at the commentary provided by the man who had read it with such deep feeling. As it turned out, the man hates this poem and promised to extend little more than civility to anyone he meets who likes it. He offered this disparagement:
"To me, this is a poem for people who in general do not like poetry."

Though I knew I was being insulted, I could not argue with his statement. It's true. I "in general do not like poetry". And yet here was a poem, and I had liked it, and had proceeded to consume a whole book of Cummings' poetry, which I also loved, much of which the critic did approve of.

And, so, my question is: what is wrong with writing a poem so winsome that even a dolt like me can be delighted? Is it possible that the very fact that it could crack a heart as hard as mine speaks to its strength, not its weakness? What is the point of poetry anyway? Exclusivity? Is the mark of a good poem that it appeals only to an elite few? Does the poet really not care that others are touched by it? I find that difficult to believe. What voice cries into a wilderness longing not to be heard?

Yet I've seen this exclusive mindset all over the artistic world - artists pouring out their hearts, dreaming of making a mark, and patrons trying to hoard them to themselves. I've seen it in churches too, people taking hold of the message and soon, as though unable to tolerate its simplicity, burying it under regulations and nomenclature then sitting smugly atop the mound, smirking at those who "just don't get it".

How quickly we forget the simple beauty of first love. How easily bored we become with even the greatest splendor. We aren't content to have enjoyed it, but must own it. So much of what we think of as love of beauty or love of God is really love of self. It's about feeling elite, elevated, in the know, superior, powerful. Appreciating this poem or that teaching, makes me feel smart, set apart from the masses. Yes, Me. I've done it. I've cheapened many wonderful things by using them to class myself up. I've done it with literature. I've done it with music. I've even done it with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
"Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord." 1 Cor 1: 26-31 (emphasis mine).
Now that I know Christ as the one in whom " all things hold together" and who has given me a new heart, this simple poem reads more like a prayer.

You can listen to the man who hates the poem read it beautifully here.  Ironically, and sadly, I could find no better reading of it than his.

7 comments:

Tuirgin said...

"I carry your heart with me I carry it in my lunch box. Heh. Heh."

Tom O'Bedlam's closer gave me the chuckles. Can we still be friends if I admit my sensibilities are closer to O'Bedlam's than yours on this particular poem? I wouldn't go so far as he does, to say that "it is unlikely that we will ever be close friends or have very much in common," and yet I understand the sentiment. There are things in life about which I could say this, and yet there are surprises. Where friendship is often grounded in common experience or feeling, love is quite a different thing. I feel so strongly about the images in Tarkovsky that I could say that no one who fails to be touched by him could ever really share much with me, but then I'd be alienating several of those who love me most.

I don't think any of this has to do with artistic or intellectual elitism. Strength of feeling, yes. Intellectual and aesthetic criticism, yes. Even a misplaced sense of identification with a work of art. But I really don't see the smugness of a superiority complex -- perhaps because I share it?

Because it is something I have struggled with. You say you have attempted to "class up myself." I've been guilty of that, too. Especially in my early 20s, but perhaps that little green devil lurks in the shadows still.

I remember reading about a certain Bishop in the UK who delighted when some wretchedly painted, sentimental icon was said to be miracle-working. An esteemed Orthodox scholar and writer retorted, "They must be damned poor miracles."

Rather than resolving the tension one way or the other, I think the tension, itself, is what speaks truth.

Laurie M. said...

Christopher,

Thanks for commenting! I'd begun to think no one cared.

To be perfectly honest, I really don't care if people are elitist when it comes to things like poetry, film, or even punk music, though I do thank you for deigning to overlook my enjoyment of "i carry your heart with me"....

My problem is when that attitude or personality trait that many naturally have is applied to the gospel and Christian living.

Tuirgin said...

Forgive me -- I'm about to ramble.

I remember reading Spurgeon when I was a teenager, and a particular sermon where he talks about how narrow the path is and how few would be saved -- all couched in Biblical texts, of course, for Spurgeon was no slouch -- and then alternately reading sermons by George MacDonald. The first left me fearful, and judgmental, the other left me humbled and in love and longing for a God who love us.

Elitism is a funny thing. To push one's self beyond the normal -- this is a good thing. And when we talk about athletes, then we often revere the "elite," and honor them for their achievements. But when the subject is intellectual or artistic we generally have this stereotype of the ivory towered elitists who look down their nose on everyone else. Haughtiness is never right or good. There are artistic and intellectual achievements that are so far beyond the capabilities of the average mind that they are effectively exclusive, but it needn't be done haughtily.

The spiritual life, though -- that's like competing in love. One can compete in knowledge and understanding of theological arguments. One can compete in adherence to laws and religious observances. But how does one compete in love? One can compete in toadyism, but not love.

Coming back to art -- I think there's an argument to be made that the best art is an act of participation in love, even when it is wrestling and arguing in the way of Jacob and the Psalmist, and even when it is not explicitly "spiritual." On this, a favorite "pet" quote:

"I myself, I don’t know what the word ‘secular’ means. It is a conventional historical term because there is a spiritual element in everything—or not, as the case may be. Even though the title under a picture may say ‘The Virgin Mary’, if the picture is painted in an uninspired way, if it has something superficial, banal and flat about it, then it won’t have anything to do with spirituality. And it’s very important to understand that there isn’t some literature which is spiritual and some which is unspiritual or ‘secular’, but rather there is literature with spirituality and literature without spirituality, there is good literature and bad literature. And truly good literature will always have a bearing on the eternal problems." -- Priest Alexander Men from Two Understandings Of Christianity

This is to say that there is never room for bigotry nor arrogance, but that the striving towards excellence is one that is properly human so long as it isn't driven by mercenary purposes.

Jessica Watson said...

Laurie,
I'm glad to see you blogging again. I've missed reading your insightful posts. This idea of "feeling elite," loving self, not God is one that resonates.
I love the Screwtape letter where Screwtape discusses his patient's prayer life and tells Wormwood how to tempt the patient to be proud that he is being humble. Sin is so subtle, so nuanced. How difficult it is to learn to love God,not our own love for Him; to delight in truth, not our own understanding of it!
When all is said and done we will do so imperfectly, we will deceive our own hearts, and so we must simply rest in the mercy of Christ.

Laurie M. said...

"How difficult it is to learn to love God,not our own love for Him; to delight in truth, not our own understanding of it!"

Well put, Jessica. That fairly well defines the trap I fell into, when knowledge replaced love. It took heartache and tragedy to show me what a seductive yet cold bedfellow doctrine can be. That is the warning in 1 Corinthians: if I have all knowledge and can explain all mysteries and have not love I am nothing. And I was very close to becoming nothing.

The place where the two meet is a narrow path indeed.

Jessica Watson said...

Laurie,
I don't know what sorrow you have experienced, perhaps even recently, but my prayers are with you.

Laurie M. said...

Thank you Jessica. It's impossible to predict what event, or combination of circumstances can lead to a dark night of the soul. As much as I've been struggling, I can say at this point that I'm glad I've been shaken because it is teaching me what is solid enough to cling to to keep from falling. Through it all it has only been the hope of the Gospel - the hope that is in Christ that has held me up.

I pray God will lead you and give you wisdom for the new journey you and your family are embarking on.