may my heart always be open to little
e e cummings
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old
may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it's sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young
and may myself do nothing usefully
and love yourself so more than truly
there's never been quite such a fool who could fail
pulling all the sky over him with one smile
Here a hungry and supple loving openness to living the spontaneous song of life is pitted against something called 'knowledge', pitted against something to do with 'being right', religiosity, utilitarianism.
So what's the pitting? Is it fair; are the contrasts meaningful? Considered as conveying psychological wisdom the poem's message is perhaps apt, yet basically dull: May I be without fear, flexibly minded, not get caught up with needing to be right, not cleaving too firmly to received beliefs, etc.... Right, but poetically boring. And also, for such a reading we have the question: What's all that stuff about age, singing versus knowing, not being useful, pulling the sky over oneself with a smile? Have we just caught the most always romantic e e cummings in one of his more exuberant soppy moments?
So instead let's have a look through a philosophical lens. The one I'm shuffling into my scope right now is perhaps borrowed from Heidegger, but let's not be fussed with Heidegger exegesis here (this is just a blog post, ok). Here's a distinction to get us going: between originary discourse, in which the 'being' of things is disclosed to us, and representational discourse, in which a grasp of 'being' which has already been disclosed is now simply redeployed in a description.
A function of poetry on the one hand is to reveal things in their sui generic being to us. The poet intones 'A' and brings the being of A alive for us; the A-ness of A is evoked by her words; metaphors used here will be live ones. Poetic thought, furthermore, is thought to no purpose beyond itself. Poetry which descends into point-making, like some conceptual art which serves only to convey ideas which could equally be expressed in language, denatures itself as art.
A function of representational and technological thought, on the other hand, is to tell us which, of various already-grasped options, we have to do with in a particular case. The scientist says 'A is a case of F.' Any metaphors deployed here will be essentially dead. Here we have to do with thought not as originary evocation, but instead as a re-presentation of something already cognised. We don't give voice to phenomena, but instead merely talk about them.
An important theme in Heidegger and elsewhere is the way in which the very fact of the prior disclosure of Being in representational discourse is lost on us. The very fact of disclosure itself is lost on us, and because of this we are condemned to tacitly reiterate pre-understandings of Being which are only part of the story of what is, and try then through our metaphysics and epistemology to find ways to accommodate certain of the manifest facts about ourselves to a universe which has been pre-understood in an impoverished way.
Anyway, what about Cummings' poem? Well seen through the lens just offered I think a fuller range of its meanings become immediately available. Anyone who has listened to the song of little birds will, I suggest, find it baffling that they are just singing, that its not obvious that any why can or should be offered as to their singing exactly this, then, now, etc. (Though we can of course offer evolutionary and ecological explanations of their having and manifesting the ability to sing.) They are, as it were, pure expression, pure self-becoming, in their singing. Hearing this singing, being alive to the un-representing spontaneity of their singing, is better than any amount of 'knowing' or representational thought. Being 'right' too is a matter of representational matching. Better to be 'young' - to be close to the evocative pulse of life rather than stifled by unwittingly adopted dead metaphors - than to be one who is 'right'. And utility, too, is a matter of non-poetic thought: A is done for the sake of something outside of itself; it is not true to say of what is 'useful' that it is done 'for its own sake'; we are instead always thinking of doing A to meet end B. The image of 'holy' fools who fail (who are not in the business of representational fitting, success, aiming at extrinsically defined goals, but who instead are just pulsing with love and life) is, finally, one familiar to many of us in religious literature.
Another prayer of Cummings, this time of thanks rather than petition, ends:
(now the ears of my ears awake andA sui generic sensibility awakens to sui generic stimulation: here there's no danger of closed, old, correct, knowing hearts at all.
now the eyes of my eyes are opened).