One and Many

e.e. cummings

I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing
than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance

What happens here when the negation gets introduced? What does it do to the stated preference to learn how to sing from one bird? The form “I would rather X than not Y” creates a tension because the relation “rather than” implies a choice but here the alternative is not to do something which implies doing its opposite. We are left the the image of dancing stars and the lingering of bird song. The difference between learning and teaching annuls itself. See what happens with a bit of transposition to another sphere of activity (and with a fractional movement of the negation): “I’d rather read bird song / than not write star dances”. We rub away the choices that e.e. cummings offers and return to the possibility of bearing with the less liked to indulge in the more liked. It’s a calculus that becomes more absolute if we move the negation from verb to object as it was in the parallel construction of the lines from e.e. cummings. We get an obliteration of the twinkling: “I rather read bird song / than write no star dances”.

Wonder if that one bird would be Keats’s Nightingale … another constructor of fleeting music.

And so for day 1291

This entry was posted in Poetry. Bookmark the permalink.