May 8, 2014

Poking and Prodding: e.e. cummings’ “O sweet spontaneous” and the Nature of Nature (and; un-Schooling



At Kensington Metropark the other day, I discovered an island hubbub, a rookery full of Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, and Cormorants. Below them Canada Geese squawked. Closer to shore, red winged blackbirds clung to reeds and half-seriously threatened me, I assume because of nearby nests. Two male geese squared off as if to fight—much hissing and honking in goose profanity, I'm sure. Later, two male redwings got into the longest physical squabble (maybe ten seconds) I’ve ever seen between two birds. At home, the wiser gold finches, doves, cardinals, and sparrows make only symbolic gestures of combat. 
 
My big birding day at Kensington got me thinking even more about spring and nature, and that reminded me of e.e. cummings’ poem,  “O sweet spontaneous,” in which he offers mockery and contempt for philosophy, science, and religion. Whatever those three endeavors might be, what they are not—and never will be—is spontaneous. They are considered, rehearsed, systematic invasions and perversions of nature, which is so magical and supra-rational that spring, season of rebirth and renewal, is the “rhythmic/lover” of death.


Nature is spontaneous in the sense that it simply is; it cannot be understood empirically. Philosophers and scientists are “prurient” and “naughty” voyeurs, while religionists try to knock nature around, “buffeting” it as they attempt to pull gods from its womb. Is that not a rather violent image of birthing, perhaps suggestive of abortion?

In the ongoing American hostility and debate about evolutionism vs. creationism, what might e.e. cummings say? And what might he say about religion in the schools? Would he tell us to avoid teaching philosophy, science and religion altogether?

As a poem, “O sweet spontaneous” is surely vulnerable to charges of oversimplification and sentimentality (that is, excessive or unearned emotional content).  Does it cross that line into touchy-feely, art-fart mush? Or does it try to demonstrate through simplicity its own argument that nature and the cosmos cannot be known in Academy-sanctioned curricula? 
Does the poem ask us to plop the kid in a field to witness the elk and experience snakebite? Shall we cancel science classes nationwide? What would a school run by cummings look like?

What would cummings do about climate change? Or cancer?

Would he argue that pantheism, animism, atheism and their ilk are also “prurient,” “naughty,” and “squeezing” and “buffeting”?  Do they too have “scraggy knees”? Or is it only mainstream schools of thought that are villains and morons? Kill the Presbyterian, let the hippie roam.
 
See how easy it is to take cummings to task? And aren’t his anti-traditional punctuation, capitalization, and diction rather juvenile, facile, disingenuous rebellions?

Or are they the most honest, urgent, cogent way to challenge authority? Maybe they demand that we experience the world as cummings does, unfettered by semicolons.
 
Whatever the case, when I’m having a good experience in nature, what I’m feeling feels unknowable—fwom de pwitty wittle finchee (change now to a baritone voice) to the big mean hawk that eats him (“the incomparable/couch of death”?).  What I’m experiencing might be such a vigorous firing of neurons, or such a jiggling of stardust as it wiggles with what I am, that no mere empirical Discipline can touch it.

Surely the solution is to invite politicians to write up an exam that tests a student’s life-essential knowledge at age 15. For if politicians don’t know what must be learned, who does? 














13 comments:

Julie Brown said...

Nature does fire neurons that are important to mental health, IMO.

Banjo52 said...

Julie, no argument here.

Ken Mac said...

Great post back at my joint. Thanks!

Banjo52 said...

Thanks, Ken. Sometimes I get a little wound up. I'm sure you hadn't noticed!

Stickup Artist said...

I guess it is in our nature to look for reasons and answers. Though common sense seems to elude us as a species in favor of self-gratification of the ego and the need for dominion, control and power. I love the poem and "sometimes I get a little wound up" too!

altadenahiker said...

I wish. Nature doesn't feel like answeresting us with spring this year.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

"Kill the Presbyterian, let the hippie roam."

OR convert the Presbyterian to a Jesus Freak. I remember my older sister and her friends filling in that niche. Somewhere between post hippie and pre punk.

Those nests piled into a single tree are fascinating. Guess those birds do get along.

Banjo52 said...

Stickup, thanks. But of course you might be starting another whole discussion: how are we to know when our search for reasons--and survival--is becoming a need for "dominion, control and power"? The questions just keep coming, and sometimes it seems that cummings and I, and now you, are the only ones without answers. Other than seasons and birds . . .

AH, so I've heard. I wonder if even the loudest, dumbest anti-global-warming morons are beginning to wonder what's up. I saw Al Gore's movie only once, but didn't he and his scientists predict the very weather chaos we're seeing? The extremes, the violence.

PA, except for goose honk, those big birds do seem to get along. And as I said, the quarrels among the back yard birds are kinda laughable and quaint. I could swear they know they don't want actual combat; a beak jab at the air surrounding the other guy is enough. B flees; A, the air-jabber, goes on eating.

If bird brains know this, is it any wonder that cockroaches will survive us after we blow each other up?

Do you suppose the video-virtual world, including plain old TV, keeps us so out of contact with actual violence that we can't imagine it till it's dismembered us? And military veterans come back so rattled that they can't communicate about the reality.

Let's not let the birds get hold of computers and TV.

But ladies and gentlemen in their finery, in their carriages, from their hillside luxury box seats, watched the first battles of the Civil War for amusement. So maybe nothing's new under the sun, as usual?



Ken Mac said...

good stuff

RuneE said...

I tend to forget that in the US creationism is still an issue. It shouldn't be in this time and age. As for the debate between philosophy and science, I may be a bit disqualified by my scientific background. Since Bacon, Galileo, Newton & al. science has been looked upon as a method, while philosophy in my opinion still to a very high degree defines words.

My way of looking upon Nature is to enjoy it as much as you possible can, but it doesn't harm to know a bit about how it works.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

"But ladies and gentlemen in their finery, in their carriages, from their hillside luxury box seats, watched the first battles of the Civil War for amusement. "

is that true?

Banjo52 said...

Rune, I don't have your scientific qualifications, but I agree anyway. At some point one has to trust authority, and in this case it also makes sense. My position has always been that science and philosophy/religion should see where they can agree--rather than looking for reasons to hate each other--and the politely go their own ways. But science makes a lot more sense to me.

PA, I've read or seen that in two or three different sources. Once the gentility got a look at the reality of war, AND the fact that it wasn't going to be the one- or two-month affair they expected, things changed. It might have been first Bull Run that was especially gruesome, fops watching slaughter for amusement. NASCAR, bullfights, maybe even football?

Banjo52 said...

Rune, I don't have your scientific qualifications, but I agree anyway. At some point one has to trust authority, and in this case it also makes sense. My position has always been that science and philosophy/religion should see where they can agree--rather than looking for reasons to hate each other--and the politely go their own ways. But science makes a lot more sense to me.

PA, I've read or seen that in two or three different sources. Once the gentility got a look at the reality of war, AND the fact that it wasn't going to be the one- or two-month affair they expected, things changed. It might have been first Bull Run that was especially gruesome, fops watching slaughter for amusement. NASCAR, bullfights, maybe even football?

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