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The Syntax of Things: A (Re)Examination of Cummings’s Anti-intellectual Bias


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1Jean Garrigue’s statement that “every line a poet writes is autobiographical” may initially cause some confusion, since poetry often lacks objectivity and clarity—two seemingly necessary qualities for autobiography; but many prose autobiographies have proven that neither characteristic is necessary to meet the definition for autobiography. Often how an author writes indicates much about what that writer wants to express; thus the choice of poetry for autobiography reveals something about that particular writer’s views on life. Many poets have managed to provide fairly straightforward autobiographical elements through their poetry, while other poets have written equally valid autobiographical poems in semi-obscure language, incorporating more complex elements of irony and ambiguity. Cummings’s “since feeling is first” falls under this second category of autobiographical poems.

2Like Garrigue, Cummings identifies with his poetry. In front of a classroom of students, he muses aloud upon the problem of conveying his autobiography, which he states is

united by a certain wholly mysterious moment which signifies self-
discovery. Until this mysterious moment, (...) I am the son of my parents
and whatever is happening to him. After this moment, the question “who
am I?” is answered by what I write—in other words, I become my writing;
and my autobiography becomes the exploration of my stance as a
writer. (six nonlectures 4)

3Cummings writes himself into each of his poems, so when he states that he wants to put feeling above reason and cast off restraint, many critics take him at face value. The problem with poetry though, is that it cannot always be interpreted literally. The meaning of a poem could be the exact opposite of what the poem says. Or a poem could be interpreted both literally and ironically. In “since feeling is first,” Cummings exalts feeling and casts off all conventions; but a closer look at the poem reveals some elements that contradict what the poem might initially suggest. This paper focuses on the ironic yet valid autobiographical elements found in Cummings’s “since feeling is first,” and thus reassesses the anti-intellectual stigma that Cummings often critically receives.

4Taken at face value, “since feeling is first” develops several themes which prove to be essential to Cummings’s philosophy on life and writing. Cummings argues first for the supremacy of feeling over reason. In “since feeling is first,” he unabashedly extols emotions, as can be seen in his choice of words like Spring, feeling, beauty, youth, laughter, and kisses. Using fleeting and somewhat abstract concepts such as these, he celebrates feeling as the supreme king of life. He yearns “to be a fool / while Spring is in the world” (lines 5-6), later claiming that “kisses are a better fate / than wisdom” (8-9). He chooses to swear by an oath of flowers—something only slightly more permanent than kisses—that “the best gesture of my brain is less than/ your eyelids' flutter” (11-12). Most people believe that the poem addresses an actual woman, but the poem’s addressee actually remains unclear. This ambiguity allows for the interpretation that Cummings means to address Spring, his reoccurring female symbol for the intense feelings experienced in youth. In light of this interpretation, Cummings comes to the conclusion that he and Spring “are for each other” (13).

5Further lines from this poem also demonstrate his emphasis on feeling. Cummings effusively proclaims that those people who care about “the syntax of things / will never fully kiss you” (3-4). In other words, people who live their lives by reason will never live to experience true emotion at its fullest. And the idea that “death (...) is no parenthesis” (16) expands on this theme. Cummings seems to suggest that death is not an end to those living in everlasting Spring, and he points out the absurdity of dwelling on death when one could live in the ecstatic realm of feeling. Cummings scholar John M. Gill ties in this theme with Cummings’s other writings: “The theme of the poem, clearly enunciated in the first line, is a major and constant electrifying current in Cummings’ work. He insists over and over, [that there] ‘exists no / miracle mightier than this: to feel’” (105). In a sense, “since feeling as first” serves as a microcosm for the philosophy behind Cummings’s other poetry.

6Second, Cummings develops the theme of resistance to convention. He refuses to follow “the syntax of” many literary and grammatical conventions. Unlike traditional poets who wait until the poem’s end to suggest the solution to the issues discussed, Cummings states his resolution at the very beginning of “since feeling is first” (Sillay [1]). Also revolting against traditional grammar, Cummings refuses to end thoughts with punctuation. He often runs the end of one sentence together with the beginning of the next as when he says “since feeling is first, / who really cares about the syntax of things/ will never wholly kiss you” (1-4). Cummings views emotion as “a never-ending run-on sentence that should not be diagramed or dissected” (Sillay [2]). Emotion to Cummings cannot be confined within periods and commas, which to him are denotations of a cold, and unfeeling system of rules. He further chooses not to follow established rules for capitalizing beginnings of sentences, lines, and proper names. Cummings rebels against those who confine their emotion to their rigid academic format. To verbally pit his resistance to rules against traditional conformity, Cummings repeatedly jumps back and forth between the concrete imagery of grammar and the more abstract language of emotion. Because “life is not a paragraph” (15), he resists the order and cohesion found in the prescriptive writing rules that dictate how he can or cannot express himself. Since life is not one “topic sentence, developed with unity, coherence, and emphasis” (Gill 107), it cannot be regulated as such.

7These two themes—supremacy of feeling and the resistance to convention— present themselves prominently in many of Cummings’s other works. First, Cummings’s poetry presents a strong emphasis on feeling over reason. One would be hard-pressed to glance through a book of poems by Cummings and not notice this reoccurring theme. For example, in “The Ballad of the Scholar’s Lament,” Cummings contrasts feeling with the anguish of the intellectual: “Of what avail is all my mighty lore? / I beat my breast, I tear my hair, I scream: / ‘Behold, I have a Herculean chore. / How shall I manage to compose a theme?’” (25-8). In “you shall above all things be glad and young,” Cummings talks about the wonderful feeling of one’s “mind taking off time” (8) to instead live purely by feeling. Elsewhere, Cummings speaks of the tragedy of the “logic thwarted life” (“in heavenly realms of hellas dwelt” 38). To Cummings, nature already embodies this emphasis of feeling over reason. He asks that his “heart always be open to little / birds who are the secret of living / whatever they sing is better than to know” (1-3). Over and over again, Cummings demonstrates the primacy of placing the senses above the mind.

8Resonating with “since feeling is first,” Cummings’s prose also emphasizes feeling over reason. In Cummings’s autobiographical book, The Enormous Room, Cummings places reason as the antithesis of feeling, stating that “there are certain things in which one is unable to believe for the simple reason that he never ceases to feel them” (231). In an essay prefacing an exhibition of his paintings at the American British Art Center, Cummings states that “to feel something is to be alive” (quoted in six nonlectures 68) and later, “not to completely feel is thinking” (65). Cummings here denigrates the state of thinking into an undesirable quality as he chastises those who refuse to fully give themselves over to their feelings. His new-found attentiveness to feeling giving him a sense of divinity, Cummings decrees that “a human being who is true to himself—whoever himself may be—is immortal” (69), and again, “life,for eternal us,is now” (“Introduction to New Poems” 461). This emphasis on the divinity that feeling over reason brings, resembles the concluding lines of “since feeling is first” where Cummings advises the woman to “laugh” (14) because “death is no parenthesis” (16).

9Second, Cummings’s resistance to convention also comes across in writings other than “since feeling is first.” Wanting to be known as the poet who refuses to follow “the syntax of things,” Cummings refuses to conform to poetic conventions and traditional order. Sometimes he scatters words from his poems all over the page or begins lines with dashes; he almost never rhymes. He sprawls words backwards or jumbles them, as in his famous “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r” (grasshopper) poem. In other works, he splits words at the end of lines or joins non-related words as he does in “2 Shes”:

laughing obvicouldn’t
ouslyhelp it why be
cause. (9-16)

10Later in the same poem, he joins the words “allatonce” (33) together. Cummings often makes up words such as “wanderfuling” (“a football with white eyebrows the” 1) or “upclimbest” (“the people who” 6). Many times he uses elements of awkward synesthesia such as “Fragrance unvisible” (“the people who” 9) and “intense fragility:whose texture/ compels me with the colour of its countries” (“somewhere i have never traveled” 14-15). Cummings refuses to limit his style to conform to other’s expectations. In a foreword to is 5, the book in which “since feeling is first” was published, Cummings speaks of the freedom and creative powers that come with the casting off of convention: “Whereas nonmakers must content themselves with the merely undeniable fact that two times two is four, [the one who rejects convention] rejoices in a purely irresistible truth(to be found,in abbreviated costume upon the title page of the present volume)” (Foreword to is 5” 221). Cummings here states that for people who follow convention, two plus two will always will equal four. But for those who are willing to resist rules—even if those rules may be thought by some to be a priori truths—they will find out that sometimes two plus two is five, (hence explaining the somewhat eccentric name for his this particular collection of poems). Referring to Cummings’s literary rebellion, biographer Charles Norman notes that Cummings was “one to challenge all his contemporaries” (47). And yet as this paper shall explore later, his consistent emphasis of certain themes, even rebellious themes, denotes a kind of rationale.

11Cummings’s life additionally reflects these themes illustrated in his prose and poetryy. First, he lived by an emphasis of feeling over reason. He married three times and had affairs with various other women. In early modern society, his behavior was becoming more accepted but still frowned upon, especially since Cummings’s father was a minister. He often lived in fear of incurring his father’s displeasure but bucked against his father’s authority anyway. Cummings wanted to be seen as a poet of intense feeling as opposed to one of reason. Rather than be understood, Cummings wanted to be felt. Cummings advises critics seeking interpretation not to try to understand any of his works, but rather to let the work “try to understand you” (quoted in Kennedy Dreams 295). He beckons the reader to experience his work rather than explain it.

12 Second, Cummings lived out his philosophy of unconventionality. Even as a child, Cummings displayed an enormous amount of nonconformity and ability to think outside of the box. When half of the neighborhood came down with the whooping cough, young Cummings formed the “Whooper Club”. His sister recalls that “anyone could belong who had whooping cough or who expected to come down with it. My brother was president and the editor of the ‘Whooper Club’ paper (...). We all played together and had so much fun that children tried to get exposed to the whooping cough so they could join” (Norman 20). As Cummings grew up, he also retained his resistance to “the syntax of things.” Referring to a tribute Cummings wrote to his mother, “if there are any heavens,” biographer Charles Norman notes that “in a time when it is seemingly fashionable to hate one’s parents, he was refreshing” (8). Cummings demonstrated quite an anti-establishmentarian approach to a static lifestyle as well. When he grew tired of living in one place, Cummings decided to join World War I, not as a soldier but as an ambulance driver in France. Cummings and another nonconformist acquaintance were said by their leader to have been a “disgrace to the section” (quoted in Norman 64) for refusing to conform to the squad’s clean image by shaving or changing clothes when they became spattered with grease stains from ambulance driving. At one point, Cummings and his friend were detained. To avoid going to prison during the war Cummings had only to say that he hated the Germans, but he refused, instead willingly going to jail for several months (Norman 64). “Since feeling is first” presents the anti-conventional philosophy Cummings displayed in much of his writing and in his life.

13But just when we think we have finally understood what Cummings is trying to say, the poem presents several ironies and apparent contradictions that, intentional or not, are just as, if not more, autobiographical than the surface elements. First, Cummings contradicts himself by placing reason over feeling. Despite all his protest against thinking, Cummings shows very thoughtful placement of words and sounds in “since feeling is first.” He contrasts the objective (syntax, wisdom, brain, paragraph, parenthesis) with the subjective (feeling, kiss, fool, Spring, blood, flowers, laughter, life), showing clever parallelism. Ironically, Cummings rationally crafts lines to debase reason in favor of emotion. Also ironic is the incongruity between his emphasis on emotions and his telling the addressee not to cry. His punctuation (or lack thereof) often allows one thought to be applied to two different concepts. For instance, the first few lines could be read as a question: “Since feeling is first, / who pays any attention / to the syntax of things[?]” (1-3). The word “who,” however, could read, “Who[ever] pays attention to the syntax of things/ will never wholly kiss you” (2-4). Often, instances of Cummings’s apparent irrationality turn out to be instances of his unique rationality.

14Second, Cummings pays close attention to “the syntax of thing” in “since feeling is first,” contradicting his second main theme of resistance to order. The very fact that he has a characteristic style or view of writing indicates that he ascribes to some form of convention. Cummings also employs various literary devices. He uses line and stanza divisions to divide certain words. He incorporates internal rhyme such as “flutter” (12) and “other” (13). He utilizes consonance (“laugh leaning”) (14) and assonance (“best gesture”) (11) to make his poem flow. Using metaphor (and almost a form of litotes), he defines concepts by what they are not, noting that death “is no parenthesis” (16), and life “is not a paragraph”(15); he utilizes metonymy in saying “my blood approves” (11) and paradox in his desire to be the wise-fool. His writing, though it does stray from conventional poetry, reveals a deep concern for syntax. Although he refuses to follow normal capitalization rules, he does capitalize to emphasize importance—words such as “Spring” in his final stanza of “since feeling is first”—proving that while he bucks tradition, he adheres to his own self-imposed rules. There is reason behind Cummings’s placement of words advising the reader to ignore reason.

15The contradiction between Cummings’s professed beliefs and actual practice, as seen in “since feeling is first” is also reflected in much of Cummings’s other poetry. Because the poem “since feeling is first” presents almost a thesis statement for his whole body of poetry, I think it would be appropriate to look at these. First, in other writings, as in “since feeling is first,” Cummings places an emphasis on reason. According to Gill, “That Cummings was himself ‘man thinking’ at times is revealed not only in the ideas of his writing, its vocabulary, structure, stylistics, but also in the elaborate mediation, concern, pondering and thinking exemplified” (106) in many of his writings. Cummings wants to advise people to live in a completely tactile world, and yet he realizes that even this requires thought. Cummings expresses these sentiments well in a sonnet which says that “only love/ immortally occurs beyond the mind” (“true lovers” 7-8). He seems to recognize that thought is necessary but wants to relegate it to as low a role as possible. However, the ability to deduce such thoughts suggests a mind capable of great reason.

16Cummings seems to dismiss death in “since feeling is first,” but other writing reveal a more rational acceptance. Although Cummings celebrates life in “since feeling is first,” his reason will not allow him to get away from the concept of death. In a sonnet entitled, “it is funny, you will be dead some day,” Cummings recognizes that he, along with everyone else, will someday die (1). And in “who’s most afraid of death?thou” (1), Cummings refers to a lover’s concern for his beloved’s vulnerability to death. Though “since feeling is first” would suggest that death’s immanence is laughable, the fact that he even mentions death shows that the possibility has indeed crossed his mind. Gill states that rather than function as a love poem, “since feeling is first” presents a coherent “way of living and an approach to dying” (107). As part of his celebration of life, he also reveals his insecurity about death. And yet, in the face of death’s uncertainties, he still chooses to pursue temporal feeling. He summarizes this attitude in a poem entitled “I love you” in which he says “I had rather a rose than live forever” (12). In lieu of death, Cummings wants to live life to his fullest, yet in order to so, he must employ the faculties of his mind.

17Cummings seems to leave room for several ambiguities in “since feeling is first,” most notably, his final statement that “death is no parenthesis” (16). This idea, while seemingly straightforward, is actually quite equivocal. The casual reader will most likely interpret “parenthesis” to mean “enclosure.” But “parenthesis” can also mean a departure from the main message, such as an aside or digression, or it can indicate an interlude or hiatus. So by emphasizing that “death is no (italics mine) parenthesis” (16), Cummings could be saying that death is open-ended, death is a part of life, or that death is the main message. Or in keeping with his propensity for contradiction, he could be taking a polysemantic approach and mean all of these. Regardless of which interpretation is correct, the fact remains that in spite of his superficial celebration of life, there remains in Cummings’s poetry a frequent and rational acknowledgement of death; in spite of his desires to set aside all normal use of punctuation, death remains a great question mark in Cummings’s mind.

18Second, despite his valiant attempts to ignore the “syntax of things,” Cummings demonstrates his adherence to convention through his literary indebtedness. Cummings wants the reader to view him as he viewed himself—a literary rebel, but unfortunately Cummings proves to be not quite as much of a rebel as he thought. He tries to be original, advising readers in “since feeling is first” to resist convention, yet his poetry eclectically borrows from many poets, genres, and styles, and eras from Biblical to Modern. In his series of poems entitled Orientale, Cummings imitates parts of The Song of Solomon. Henry W. Wells, in New Poets from Old, states that Cummings also “follows Renaissance models not only in many (...) sonnets but even in the use of one of the most artificial of all Renaissance forms, the sestina” (153). Cummings hides his “literary obligations behind a glaring cloak of modernity” (Wells 238), and even owes much to contemporary poets of his time. Biographer Charles Norman also notes the influence that the imagism of Amy Lowell and the writings of Gertrude Stein had on Cummings, shaping his literary persona and helping him evolve into the poet we know him as today (47). Although Cummings celebrated a deviation from tradition, he was not alone in his efforts to seek individuality. Ironically, he follows a school of contemporary poets, all attempting to rid themselves of having to follow anyone. Cummings himself notes that his theory of technique “is far from original” (Foreword to is 5 221). Cummings, together with other twentieth-century iconoclasts such as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and William Faulkner, staged a literary upheaval that, although it shocked post-Victorian society, failed to produce a truly original approach to writing.

19Cummings’s attention to syntax also comes across in other aspects of his writing. Modernist critic M.L. Rosenthal notes that “every unorthodoxy of punctuation, spacing, and noncapitalization (...) can be read functionally” (147). Though Cummings does attempt to cast off the oppressive rules of grammar, he very carefully constructs his poetry to create a certain emotion; through his atypical placement of words he attempts to mirror the cadence of the senses. “Cummings’s precise machines made of words [and] (...) his carefully planned patterns of letters, words, syntax, grammar, and spacing are both arbitrary and motivated, meaningless, and meaningful” (Webster 92). Cummings recognizes his attention to syntax, calling himself “an author of pictures, a draughtsman of words” (quoted in Norman 4). Although he sometimes misspells or joins words, such as eddyandbill (“In Just” 6), he does so for a purpose, perhaps to give a sense of a blending together, a universality, or a reduction of individuality. He may join words together, such as “allatonce” (“2 shes” 33) to give a sense of the quickness of a happening.

20Cummings’s life also contradicts the themes found in “since feeling is first.” First, Cummings shows an enormous capacity for reason. “Since feeling is first” states that “kisses are a better fate than wisdom,” and yet it seems that fate has decreed he should carry the burden of wisdom. The fact that he arrives at the conclusion that feeling is more important than reason suggests that’s he’s been “cursed” with a brain capable of deduction. For him to know that kisses are better than wisdom indicates that he has experienced both. His ingenious ability to be ambiguous and yet simultaneously straightforward with his message suggests an immense amount of forethought. At the end of “since feeling is first,” he states that “Death, I think (italics mine), is no parenthesis” (16), acknowledging the role his mind plays in his speculations.

21Despite his apparent rebellion, Cummings’s lifestyle shows a great deal of conformity to convention. Like many men of his time, he followed societal conventions in his enjoyment of alcohol, several extramarital affairs, and joining the army. In a sense, he follows convention by attempting to live by his feelings. He also followed the pattern of many other great writers by agreeing to lecture on poetry and his life (Norman 227). He lived a very normal life for his time in spite of his radical poetry, and though he had some negative attitudes toward science and the government, he never became a politically outspoken rebel or societal recluse as one refusing to follow “the syntax of thing” would be thought to do. Toward the close of their brief marriage, Cummings’s first wife chided his two-faced attitude with the statement, “You who live as an advanced poet and reactionary [rebel] at other moments fall back into an inability to adjust yourself to a change in your private life” (quoted in Sawyer-Laucanno 245). Commenting on this statement, Sawyer- Laucanno replies that her accusation was justified. “For all of his love of revolt, he was quite self-content with the way he lived and saw no reason to rebel against his decidedly adolescent behavior. He bought himself off by deciding that he was being true to his bohemian ethic that snubbed its nose at conventionality in any form” (245). So Cummings’s contradictory and hedonistic views of life also come into play in the way he viewed conformity. He picked which conventions he would follow and which he would resist.

22Although Cummings would like to portray life as one long Spring, he often suffered cruel winters. Cummings wrote “since feeling is first” while beginning a relationship with Anne Barton, but he had already experienced one bitter divorce, followed by a long, drawn-out battle for custody of their daughter. At this point in his life, Cummings has not been so far removed from hardship to forget the pain that follows hard on the heels of pleasure. Ironically enough, “since feeling is first” was published in 1926—later that same year, Cummings’s father was to die in a tragic car accident. Cummings sees the contradictions in life—some extremely pleasurable moments and some intensely painful times, but rather than chafe at these seeming polarities, Cummings accepts them as a part of life. Speaking of contradictions in Cummings’s poetry, Turco states that often when “twin themes comprise an antithesis, they make up a paradox. One theme appears to cancel out the other, but in fact does not: both themes continue to exist and remain true” (76). Cummings recognizes that life is a series of contradictions. Despite wanting to place feeling over reason, he realizes that reason must also play a vital part of life.

23Cummings’s “since feeling is first” accurately depicts his contradictory views on life. Poetry provides a more subjective presentation of autobiographical elements through irony and ambiguity than does prose, but to Cummings, these more subjective elements of poetry represent life better than straightforward prose. Like poetry, life is not always what it appears to be and cannot be fully told. The autobiographer must select certain events, attitudes and influences to emphasize, though he may not even be fully conscious of all his influences. Or the autobiography one tells may be misinterpreted or distorted by another. Cummings’s own prose autobiography (The Enormous Room) about his experiences in prison was changed drastically by his publishers without his permission (Norman 93). Since poetry is more subjective and does not require the objectivity expected of prose, poetry becomes in some senses, the more fitting vehicle for autobiography. Cummings rationally recognizes the incongruities of life and the futility of trying to factually convey that life. When he says that “life is not a paragraph” (15), he implies that life does not follow the linear path of prose writing; it does not consist of one nice smooth page of topic sentences followed by carefully chosen transitional statements all supporting a main thesis. The hardships of life cater to the ambiguities of poetry. Life, like poetry, is short, unclear and cannot ever be interpreted fully. So in a sense, Cummings accomplishes exactly what he set out to prove. Perceiving that perhaps objective words are not adequate for self-revelation, Cummings rationally utilizes contradiction and irony as vehicles to convey the essence of life—a concept, which to Cummings, follows no syntax apart from that of feeling.

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Wells, Henry W. New Poets from Old: A Study in Literary Genetics. New York: Russell and Russell, 1964.

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Kristen LEATHERWOOD, « The Syntax of Things: A (Re)Examination of Cummings’s Anti-intellectual Bias », E-rea [En ligne], 5.1 | 2007, document 6, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2007, consulté le 28 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.184

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Bob Jones University, SC
Kristen Leatherwood currently teaches Composition and Rhetoric at Bob Jones University and is pursing her M.A. in English Language and Literature. She plans to pursue further graduate study with an emphasis in modern literature after completing her M.A. in 2008.

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