“Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.”
—E.E. Cummings, from his introduction to New Poems -or- enfolded into Poems: 1923-1954
Cummings is one of my cornerstones. Mostly for the inventiveness within his poems—you can see his profound influence on my work in any of my poems—but also for his odd epigrams. They’re very nearly poems themselves, I think.
Witness this one.
Chasing it down, I bumped into a writer whose blog takes this quote as its title-! She sees the quote as another way of thinking about Christ’s calling us to love in community, a wonderful calling that I agree with whole-heartedly. (She writes strong posts; go read her stuff!) She has a persuasive interpretation—over and above it being hers and therefore…well, true and valid as she writes it.
But this thinking is not what’s embedded the quote into my thinking.
In fact, the quote had bubbled back through my head as I was sending an article off to a friend. She and I shared a wide-ranging conversation yesterday, and the article offered a new way of slicing one of the ideas we’d tossed between us. No doubt I acquired the habit in my time as a liberal-arts person in a crowd of engineers, but I am perennially drawn toward expressing any given difficulty as precisely as I can figure out. Somehow I am intuitively convinced that all questions can be answered… but only if you’re asking the proper question. Is a tech support person productive? Let’s count how many support tickets they close! Oh, wait… the tech is answering the phone, opening a ticket, hanging up on the caller, and closing the ticket. Guess we didn’t ask that question very well, because that’s a horrible answer. So how do we ask it differently?
I am forever asking and re-asking questions, and studying the beauty of the answers.
I see Cummings’ quote as poem-like in that it holds her thinking and my thinking without straining. Even though our ‘handles’ for the sentence have very little in common! Yesterday I read a good exhortation by the poet and NYTimes poetry editor Matthew Zapruder that included this:
By being placed into the machine of a poem, language can become alive again. It is both what it is and what it means, but also something that is greater than the ordinary.
That in itself seems like a beautiful answer to my answer. Ask another question!
ps: my commonplace book also includes:
“many parents wouldn’t exist if their children had been a little more careful”
—E.E. Cummings, Jottings #16 (thanks to Michael Dylan Welch for a neat paper in SPRING and a citation!)