just so long and long enough

Shortly after Thanksgiving I promised my cousin an explanation of what I thought was going on in [as freedom is a breakfastfood] by E.E. Cummings. Here we are in March, and I’m finally paying my debts. First, the poem:

as freedom is a breakfastfood
or truth can live with right and wrong
or molehills are from mountains made
—long enough and just so long
will being pay the rent of seem                                                     5
and genius please the talentgang
and water most encourage flame

as hatracks into peachtrees grow
or hopes dance best on bald men’s hair
and every finger is a toe                                                                 10
and any courage is a fear
—long enough and just so long
will the impure think all things pure
and hornets wail by children stung

or as the seeing are the blind                                                        15
and robins never welcome spring
nor flatfolk prove their world is round
nor dingsters die at break of dong
and common’s rare and millstones float
—long enough and just so long                                                    20
tomorrow will not be too late

worms are the words but joy’s the voice
down shall go which and up come who
breasts will be breasts thighs will be thighs
deeds cannot dream what dreams can do                                25
—time is a tree(this life one leaf)
but love is the sky and i am for you
just so long and long enough

Eating peaches from hatracks and hearing the wails from hornets done wrong are such suggestive images that I confess to having liked this poem when it still appeared to me to be a string of nonsense lines arranged in whatever order might seem most pleasing. I still think much of the poem is nonsense, but it’s a deliberate nonsense, and repays a closer look.

Similes do most of the work in the first three stanzas, as the narrator picks two things up and puts them side by side. He then carries that pair over to another pair to see how they look as neighbors. Is freedom a breakfastfood in the same way that truth can live with right and wrong? Well, not quite. That doesn’t seem to mean anything. But can truth live with right and wrong in the same way that molehills are made out of mountains? Very nearly. If truth resigns itself to (“can live with”) the inevitability of right and wrong actions–as opposed to delighting in actions obedient to truth itself–this is much the same as making smaller troubles (“molehills”) out of larger ones (“mountains”) because the mountainous troubles are too great. And if resignation is what we’re meant to see as the narrator plunks lines two and three next to each other, then line one begins to make sense as well. Of all the glorious things freedom might suggest, it’s no slight to the first meal of the day to say that eating whatever one wants for breakfast is aiming pretty low.

But this way of life will only hold “long enough and just so long” (line 4). Unambitious freedom, tamed truth, and unassailable troubles all have their moment, but freedom will one day be exercised, truth will one day be obeyed, and the world will be seen as it is (molehills as molehills and mountains as mountains) rather than as it appears to be. Seem will no longer own being, but things will be according to what and how they are (line 5). Genius will not have to dance a jig for validation from those who would judge talent, and the essential light of all the above–freedom, truth, clarity, genius–will not be quenched, but will be allowed to burn high and bright (line 7).

Though I’ve taken the encouragement that water renders flame to be a euphemism for the relationship between the two elements, with “most encourage” basically doing the same work that “quenches” might, the positive aspects of encouragement also begin to prepare the reader for the reversal of the order of nature in the second stanza. Just as water doesn’t encourage flame as we normally understand that word, so too the dead wood of a hatrack does not grow and bear fruit (line 8), the barren field of a bald man’s head is a place hope may sing a dirge but not “dance best” (line 9), and fingers are not secretly toes in disguise (line 10) any more than courage is dressed up fear (line 11). If these lines describe absurdities rather than the way things are, what’s the point of introducing them?

The narrator answers by repeating his reminder that the absurdities have a shelf-life (“long enough and just so long,” line 12) and then listing two more absurdities that are as common as they are harmful. The impure believe they’ve understood purity (line 13). One who lives in darkness will gladly speak as long as he’s allowed about the light. Those who neither understand nor practice righteousness seldom question their own ability to know what righteousness looks like. They will tell you a finger is a toe. They will tell you that peaches should be ripening any time now from that hatrack in the corner. They will tell you a marriage is whatever five out of nine judges say it is, a boy is a girl, and unborn babies may be chopped up and sold for parts. And what happens when, with the innocence of a child, someone points out that these things aren’t so? The ones with the stingers cry that they’ve been stung by the hate and intolerance of the child of reality (line 14). But they’re the hornets and they’re the ones running the con.

And now that the narrator explicitly has the disorder of human nature in his sights, he doesn’t let go. Not only are things out in the world a mix of tensions and absurdities, but we ourselves undermine our own faculties (“the seeing are the blind,” line 15), define ourselves by our errors (“flatfolk” refusing to see the world is round, line 17), and set up warring factions on the silliest pretenses (dingsters vs. dongsters, line 18). This is a forgetting of what we’re made for, the same as if the robin forgot her song in spring (line 16), or words meant their opposite (“common” and “rare”), or stones began to float (line 19). It’s disorder without, and disorder within. But then for the third time we’re reminded that the contradictions the narrator has identified are passing away. These things hold true “long enough and just so long” (line 20), and here he adds that if tomorrow were the day of everything being set right, it would not be a day too late (line 21).

So then, what will this setting right be like? The narrator breaks from the pattern he’s been using in the previous stanzas to tell us: it will sound like the voice of a beloved–not words on a page, but the joy of a familiar voice (line 22). From the various Whiches, this is the one Who whom the narrator has desired his entire life (line 23). He acknowledges that sexual love has its place and a certain kind of glory to it (line 24), but those who see the pleasures of breasts and thighs as ultimate suffer from a lack of imagination–they’re fixated on the deed and cannot dream what’s ahead (line 25). The narrator clues us in: time is a tree held within the scope of the sky which is love, and the life in which we experience the disorder of creation is a small part of that tree. And because love encompasses and exceeds time’s boundaries, the narrator is able to look at everything that’s messed up in the world and declare his undying love for his beloved (lines 26-28). The formula that has appeared in each stanza to announce a coming end has been reversed to announce eternity. The groaning of life among the absurd lasts “long enough and just so long,” but the pledge of the lover to his beloved is the opposite of that and has no end: “just so long and long enough.”

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