Everything Which is Yes: E. E. Cummings on Gratitude

I can't remember when I first encountered E. E. Cummings, but I think it was my junior year of high school when I took a creative writing class.  His wacky syntax, joyful rhythms, and refusal to play by the usual rules of grammar must have spoken to my teenage taste, because while I was sitting in portable classroom number three I began to love his poems.  Later, in college, I remember learning that Cummings was inspired by the principles of Cubism and that the syntactical structures in his poetry echo the visual forms in Cubism. Cummings even made a point of visiting Picasso during one of his many trips to Europe, because he was so enamored with the artist's ideas.  I was delighted by the sheer novelty of this concept: a poet appropriating ideas from painting and using them to form his sentences. It seemed like a terribly clever idea and a very good topic for a paper.  (Being in college, I had to write one anyway.)

If, back then, I noticed the effusions of gratitude which are also a part of Cummings' work, I don't remember it.  Of course Cummings is clever, but he is much more than that.  Here he is at his most ebullient:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything 
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the day
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

e.e. cummings

In one sense the poem is a prayer addressed to God, but in another sense it is also a reminder of what gratitude sometimes looks like.  Cummings is not writing about gratitude for health, success, happiness, or money.  He is expressing gratitude for merely being, gratitude for every visual, tactile, and auditory sensation which lifts him up out of the "no / of all nothing".  Cummings celebrates the very fact that he is alive, or, more specifically, "alive again" (italics mine).  It is as though his eyes have been opened to the gift of life, and he cannot get over the extravagance of the gift.

Time is an interesting element in the poem, because Cummings celebrates both beginnings - "the sun's birthday" - and things without end - "everything / which is natural which is infinite which is yes".  It is strange to think of the sun as having a birthday, since birthdays are measured by the earth's revolution around the sun.  But the sun did come into being at some point, and celebrating that moment is a way of celebrating light, life, warmth, seasons, and time.  Infinity may not be measurable, but if it were, we would probably measure it using the sun, since this is the way we measure finite time. 

But I'm getting caught up in the cleverness of the poem again, and I don't think that's the most important part of it.  What I like best here is the sheer joy and affirmation of being, the "everything which is yes".  I found a clip of Cummings himself reading the poem, and when I hear him speak, I sense his own gratitude in each slowly-savored syllable.

Outdoors right now there are very few "leaping greenly spirits of trees".  Those greenly spirits turned yellow and red a month ago; now many of them are bare.  Even the "blue true dream of a sky" is darkening earlier, and tomorrow morning we will have to turn back our clocks to save the daylight.  Still, Cummings' poem feels appropriate to this season.  Being alive to every sensation - even the bitter winds that indicate winter is coming - is a gift.  

While Cummings may have first appealed to me for his syntactical dexterity, I'm realizing now that his gifts as an artist extend far beyond phonetic gymnastics.  I suspect this is the case with many of the best writers and artists.  They draw us in by delighting or surprising us and then, while our guard is down, tell us something terribly important.  Arguably, this is one of the tasks that is set before artists: find a new way to show the truth, and people who dismissed it the first time around may listen to it in this novel form.

A Blue Pigment for Mary

Victoria Finlay's Color: A Natural History of the Palette has been on my nightstand table for the past couple weeks.  The book is a travelogue structured around the colors of the rainbow.  Finlay travels to places where historically significant pigments (such as Carmine Red or Yellow Ochre) were originally used or created and then tells the stories she discovers behind each color.  These stories often include elaborate recipes which artists of the past used to create the colors on their palettes.  

Naturally, since I'm in Italy right now, I'm drawn to the parts of the book where she writes about this country and the artwork here.  In her chapter on the color blue, Finlay writes about Ultramarine pigment and answers the question of why painters often showed the Virgin Mary wearing this radiant shade.  Basically, it comes down to money.  Ultramarine (or Oltramarino, meaning "from beyond the seas") was made from lapis lazuli stones, which are found in only a few parts of the world and are tremendously expensive.  The vast majority of the lapis lazuli in Western art was imported from Afghanistan, so an Italian Renaissance artist who chose to paint Mary's robes with Ultramarine was honoring her with an extravagant and exotic color.  

Pietro Perugino,  Madonna and Child,  1500

Pietro Perugino, Madonna and Child, 1500

Of course not every artist or patron could come up with the money to buy lapis lazuli, so there were substitutes.  Even these cheaper colors, however, followed in the tradition of using blue to honor Mary.  For example, some artists used the mineral azurite to make an inferior blue pigment which, unlike Ultramarine made from lapis lazuli, would fade over time.  

It is one thing to read about the significance of blue in Italy and quite another to actually talk about it with the people here.  By chance, I happened to have just such a conversation with Marina Merli and her mother Adria at the Arte Studio Ginestrelle.  The three of us were talking, and Marina mentioned that the color blue symbolizes the Virgin Mary.  When I indicated that I find this very interesting, she showed me the table that her mother ate at when she was a little girl growing up in Umbria.  It's a lovely, if slightly worn, shade of blue. 

Adria Merli's Blue Table at Arte Studio Ginestrelle

Adria Merli's Blue Table at Arte Studio Ginestrelle

As we talked more I discovered that it was common for people in this region to make their own homemade blue paint from local materials.  The blue Pervinca (Periwinkle) flower grows wild in Umbria, and, along with some other wildflowers, it was dried and ground into a power.  This blue powder could be made into a light or dark blue pigment, depending upon how much lime was added to the mixture.  Marina also showed me a small chair, one which had belonged to another family originally, in this darker shade of blue.  

Blue Chair at Arte Studio Ginestrelle

Blue Chair at Arte Studio Ginestrelle

Following in the tradition of the great artists who had painted with expensive lapis lazuli, the families who painted their furniture with this homemade wildflower blue were also honoring the Virgin Mary.  The difference is that their blue is inexpensive and local, not costly and foreign.  While it may not have the permanence or the saturation of its flashier cousin, the simple blue on these tables and chairs is nevertheless a lovely dedication to a holy woman.  

It seemed like a delightful coincidence to me that I would discover this story about a blue pigment from Umbria even as I was reading a book about pigments from foreign places and times past.  I'm not sure if I was more alert to the possibility of there being such stories in these hills because I had just read Finlay's book, or if I would have come across the story anyway.  Regardless of the answer to that question, I'm grateful to the Merli family for sharing with me.