Friday, January 4, 2013

Return to the Labyrinths, Mazes, and Mature Subject Matter


In the eight and ninth grades, when algebra and algebra teachers tormented me, I taught myself to believe that math was a subject fit for other minds, certainly not mine. Many years later, when computers began to encroach upon older, time-consuming methods, I determined not to be left behind and enrolled in a programming course. The teacher advised that basic algebra wouldn’t hurt my chances for success so I enrolled in a community college algebra course for college freshmen.

The class was a joy, nothing like my public school experience. I earned A’s on quiz after quiz, test after test, and for the first course and another because I enjoyed working the problems and did more than required. I was on fire.

The difference? I was a confident, accomplished learner, already a college graduate with a master’s degree. More important though, I had mad study skills and enough self-discipline to use frustration as fuel.

Some works of literature, poetry in particular, were like algebra when I was young. T. S. Eliot baffled me most of the time. James Joyce’s tomes, especially Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, were abandoned in favor of less cerebral works with fewer allusions. Much later, with more life experience and increased confidence in my own abilities to think, interpret, and evaluate text, I explored Joyce’s labyrinth and returned to e. e. cummings, a poet whose work seemed unnecessarily odd and unrewarding. Now, these and more speak to me as if the poet himself whispered them in my ear. Here’s one from e. e. cummings:

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look will easily unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully, mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully ,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;
nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility: whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

Let us consider this poem about love and love’s effects upon us:

The speaker of this poem is lucky enough to have found one other in this world, one who touches him, one in whose presence he is vulnerable and emotional and alive. That other conveys truths in a look beyond language. Together, the lovers open unto each other as blooms open in the ripe conditions of warmth and water, but they also shield each other against the coming cold, closing and abiding until warmth comes once more. The other is powerful, able to play the lover easily like an instrument, making music, but always tenderly, gently.

As a teenager and young adult, I could not appreciate this poem. I had little knowledge or understanding of a love, selfless and infinite, one into which I might fall gratefully. Now that I am older, I can return to e. e. cummings and experience his poetry fully.

Never be afraid to return to reading that once puzzled you. Bring with you your confidence as a reader, a writer, and a person who has hurdled one more decade, gathering along the track wisdom and insight.

Reading Challenge:

Subscribe to an online daily poetry delivery. Move beyond your past, unpleasant experiences with poetry and enjoy.

Writing Challenge:

Reread a passage that puzzled you. Write a short summary of it.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

Readers remember that e. e. cummings did not use capital letters, and he certainly did not follow the rules for punctuation usage. Why didn’t he? Did he set out to confuse us?

Roi Tartakovsky explains in an article titled “E. E. Cummings’s Parentheses: Punctuation as Poetic Device, available for reading at www.engl.niu.edu/ojs/index.php/style/article/ view/18/15: “Theodore Spencer is accurate when he writes that through his typography Cummings ‘wants to control the reading of the poem as much as he can, so that to the reader, as to the poet, there will be the smallest possible gap between the experience and its expression.’”

Punctuation facilitates meaning, but for cummings, poetry lives in the present moment. Removing punctuation enhances the immediacy of the poetic experience.