688: [since feeling is first]

688: [since feeling is first]

688: [since feeling is first]


I’m Ada Limón and this is The Slowdown.

You wouldn’t know this about me, but there are times that I actually hate talking about poetry. I mean, even when I was studying at NYU as a young poetry graduate student, even when I teach, even when I talk casually with friends, there are times when I want, like a petulant child, to say “You’re ruining it! You’re ruining it by talking about it too much!”

I once sat with a friend in Central Park and he asked me if I could explain what I did with my endings. And I felt suddenly betrayed as if we were talking about something so intimate and dangerous that to respond would be heresy. He saw me blush and asked why I was suddenly silent. I said that it felt sometimes like blasphemy to talk about how a poem worked.

And then of course there are days when I feel exactly the opposite and, when explicating a poem, when pulling out the meaning of its punctuation, syntax, line breaks, the meaning of a certain image, certain sounds, somehow makes the poem blossom—into something even more meaningful than I thought was possible. When someone points out something in my own poem that I haven’t seen, it feels like discovering some new code for living.

Still, it’s not always enough, is it? The poem itself, the sexy line, the perfect phrase, are all wonderful, but sometimes we need more from our lives, we need to live off the page. If you’ve ever been wooed by a poet, or been the poet or artist doing the wooing, there comes a moment when the art is not enough, you need action. More showing, less telling.

I had a friend say, when asked what she wanted her poems to do, “I want them to clean my house and pay my rent!” And when we’d go to readings we’d heckle each other from the crowd, “Read the one where I’m rich! Read the one that makes me feel happy! Read the one that makes me feel beautiful!” As if poetry could do all that.

I have another friend who will stare at something and say, “Now that’s a poem.” A glove in the snow, a bird feather stuck in the fence post, a good meal. It feels like she is blurring the lines between what we think is a poem and what is poetic, between what is real life and the language we use to capture it.

Today’s poem, by the beloved poet E.E. Cummings, does that work of showing us the resounding “yes” to the poem—and also “yes” to the real, tangible, touchable, life.

[since feeling is first]
by E.E. Cummings

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