poets day: the e.e. cummings edition

[Ed. Note: This piece was originally posted at ordinary-times.com on 4/14/22 which was a Friday, Good Friday as a matter of fact. You can look it up.]

It’s not just P.O.E.T.S. Day, it’s Good P.O.E.T.S. day. A holy day but nonetheless a day to enjoy some clever verse and in the great Scots’ (probably) tradition connive your way out of work, find a convivial barstool before the clock strikes three, and enjoy the happy hour prices in the full glory of a Spring day.

Getting out of work early is never easy but if you are a Christian with a blasphemous streak and a true believer in the power of the confessional or cleansing prayer1, Good Friday presents a unique option. In the morning start complaining about having to skip breakfast. As the day goes on mention that you feel a headache coming on as that’s a possible side effect of fasting. Later you need to feign lightheadedness. If someone suggests you eat a candy bar or just something small to keep you going don’t just say “No.” Snap at them with a “No! Dammit!” Mood changes and irritability are side effects too.

Every once in a while, sit with your elbows on your knees and rub your eyes. Step up the irritability with a touch of fatigue and eventually someone is going to suggest that you go home. Don’t blow it at the end by hopping in your car and driving off into the nowhere near sunset. Tell everyone you’re not up to driving and call an Uber.

Yes, you’ll have to leave your car in the parking lot and come fetch it the next day but if you did P.O.E.T.S. Day right and properly you were going to leave your car in the bar parking lot and take an Uber anyway. Yes the Uber from work to drinking establishment adds an extra paid ride, but absorb the hit and count your blessings. You are free.

For the non-Christians reading this…um….Maybe cough a lot?

There’s an interesting theory about fasting and The Reformation. I told my dad about the theory and he thinks it’s rubbish but I read a lot about food history and I’ve seen this theory championed in several books. It’s about the olive oil-butter divide.

The divide is, as you might imagine, between regions where olive trees grew and where they didn’t. Where they didn’t grow food was cooked in butter fat. The olive oil-less suffered mightily during the roughly 180 days of prescribed fasting in which fish may be eaten but not any meat products. They ended up eating turnips and salted herring (over which the Dutch held a near monopoly and charged mightily.) The countries to the south that cooked in olive oil rather than butter fat went along eating sauteed fish in oil as they regularly did anyway.

If you look at where Protestantism took hold, the olive oil eaters remained Catholic. Those who cooked with butter did not. It’s not hard to imagine the draw of remaining Christian and dumping the expensive salted fish and root vegetable diet nearly half the year.

It’s an interesting theory.

Now on to this week’s poem, “since feeling is first” by e.e.cumming.

As per usual, I read as many interpretations as I can about the weekly choice and the preponderance of reviews say that this is about abandoning reason and letting feeling lead you. It’s a Robin Williams movie written in lower case. “Don’t question love. Seize the moment, let go and dive in.” I couldn’t disagree more. It may look that way at first glance, but there are complexities and contradictions that reveal a different poem entirely.

As per usual, the brief analysis I put forth is an amalgam of observations from reviews and breakdowns I’ve read over the week and my own thoughts.

This is a poem about loss and sadness. e.e.cumming makes arguments as to why you should ride the wave of passion, but the arguments are based in logic and there is a pleading tone. I also think there is a defiant dig at his critics early by referencing syntax as he was often decried for a lack of, when really much of his work is built on syntax played with in brilliant ways.

The narrator has passed from carefree childhood into a more adult state. He sees the world through a veil of reason now and laments that once the realization of logic and rational is made there is no return to feeling alone: that which came first.

He sees his love in the midst of leaving feeling for rationality and he’s saddened by it – “and kisses are a better fate than wisdom.” He wants her to live a carefree, unburdened life. “laugh, leaning back in my arms,” he pleads, though he knows that the girl is on the cusp of being a woman “for life is not a paragraph.” Life is a much longer composition made up of paragraphs you pass through and move on to the next.

The best explanation of this view can be found at fromshadowofiris.com. It’s a bit long, but fantastic.

From their analysis:

“The mention of death at the end is very subtle, indeed. So long as we are talking and arguing we are aware of consequence, and the ultimate consequence is death. It’s everything that we might associate with thought. Thought is entirely about avoiding negative consequences, avoiding death, yet in doing so—in becoming so absorbed in thought, we leave life behind. We don’t think the tension in the poem is resolved, but only given a greater deepness. Knowledge of death can’t be put back into Pandora’s box. Once it’s out—it stays out, it can’t ever just be parenthesized.”

since feeling is first

e.e.cummings (1894 – 1962)

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady I swear by all flowers. Don’t cry
– the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids’ flutter which says

we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life’s not a paragraph

and death i think is no parenthesis


  1. This has nothing to do with today’s poem but when I wrote “but if you are a Christian with a blasphemous streak and a true believer in the power of the confessional or cleansing prayer” I thought of Christopher Buckley’s book God Is My Broker which is a spoof on Deepak Chopra and after every chapter there’s a satirical prayer. My favorite is titled “Prayer of the Proactive Sinner.” I can’t find my copy but if you get a chance to pick it up, the book is really funny.

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