Wednesday, May 06, 2009

On e. e. cumming’s A Poet’s Advice

I'm reading R. Buckminster Fuller's Critical Path now, and in the Foreword, he included a piece by e. e. cumming entitled "A Poet's Advice". Here's how it goes:

A Poet’s Advice

A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feeling through words.

This may sound easy. It isn't.

A lot of people think or believe or know they feel - but that's thinking or believing or knowing; not feeling. And poetry is feeling - not knowing or believing or thinking.

Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you're a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you're nobody-but-yourself.

To be nobody-but-yourself - in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else - means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.

As for expressing nobody-but-yourself in words, that means working just a little harder than anybody who isn't a poet can possibly imagine. Why?

Because nothing is quite as easy as using words like somebody else. We all of us do exactly this nearly all of the time - and whenever we do it, we are not poets.

If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you've written one line of one poem, you'll be very lucky indeed.

And so my advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something easy, like learning how to blow up the world - unless you're not only willing, but glad, to feel and work and fight till you die.

Does this sound dismal? It isn't.

It's the most wonderful life on earth.

Or so I feel.

- e. e. cummings


It is very good advice, and is relevant for everyone, poet or not. What I like most about it is the being nobody-but-yourself part. It’s true that most of what we think or believe or know, have been taught to us by others, perhaps our parents, or our friends, or our leaders.


But what we feel is purely us. What I feel, despite what I know and believe and think, is purely me. Nobody-but-myself.


And here’s the thing, most of us, when we feel something other than what people expect us to feel, sometimes we lie about how we feel, so that they won’t judge us. Or sometimes we tell the truth, but feel the need to explain and justify our feelings. But mostly, we can’t explain our feelings, so we keep it to ourselves, knowing that most people will not agree with us, and will probably judge us for it.


What I’ve been thinking lately, and in fact, almost every time I encounter another human being, is how hypocritical we all are!


Yes, even myself!


I am a hypocrite, and so is everyone else in this world. Everyone! Anyone who says they aren’t is a hypocrite. But that’s another story altogether, let’s just stick with this one first.


Here’s why I say we’re all hypocrites:


Have you ever advised anyone else for them to “just be yourself”? Or perhaps you’ve told them, “be confident”, “believe in yourself”, “follow your heart”, “do what you think is best”, “don’t care what anyone else think”, or any other piece of advise in this vein?


Parents say them to their children, friends say them to friends, everyone else say them to everyone else.


But guess what? There’s a caveat, “just be yourself… as long as *I* approve of who you are”, “be confident… as long as you’re not as confident as *I* am”, “do what you think is best… as long as *I* agree with what you think is best”, “don’t care what anyone else think… as long as you care what *I* think”.


It’s sad, but it’s true. And don’t shake your head and agree with me that that’s how everyone *else* thinks, because the truth is, this is how *you* think. This is how *I* think.


That doesn’t mean that we can’t improve on our thinking, I believe life is all about improvement. Be better today than you were yesterday, and be better tomorrow than you are today.


Yes, sometimes I do think that some of my friends and family, and even some people that I don’t know personally, are stupid or crazy or weird or hopeless or whatever, because they don’t think like me. But I try to understand them, or if I can’t, I try to simply accept them as they are. I think that’s the least any of us could do.


The reason e. e. cumming’s A Poet’s Advice spoke to me, is because when he said you’re a lot of other people when you think or believe or know versus being nobody-but-yourself when you feel, I realize and understand that my thoughts and beliefs are a result of what family, friends, and society has taught me.


But sometimes I feel differently from what I think, and perhaps I can say the same about most people too.


Perhaps our feelings are where we can start to find the real us. The nobody-but-ourselves. Regardless of what anybody else thinks.


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