Page One

Robert Arthur Reeves

Otros: T.S. Eliot

August 14, 2015

T.S. Eliot isn’t my favorite poet, and made decisions in his life, art and taste which I deplore, but from the first moment of reading him in my early teens, I’ve never quit being a fan.  I love almost everything he wrote;  the exception is his most beloved work, the light-verse collection that turned into Cats.  (Insert vicious feline hiss.)

Eliot, in later life, renounced the character who speaks in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” but as poetry, the poem seems to me to be one of the very few perfect poems.  It’s most obviously a poem of fear—fear of bad opinion from bored people who lead boring lives—but also a poem of solidarity with such people and their “evenings, mornings, afternoons” that “sleep so peacefully.”  If the speaker has a terrible secret he’s afraid to utter, like Lazarus “come back to tell you all,” it is that he loves his life.  The title calls the poem a “love song:”  not the love of an individual, but of seemingly dreary middle-class existence, which to the speaker always seems dramatic, though he relegates himself to the role of fool.  He has seen the mermaids, and though he does not think “that they will sing to me,” the point is that no one else sees them.  Prufrock is content with his timid and unaccomplished life because to him it’s poetry—some of the purest and best poetry I know, like the couplet that has the mermaids “combing the white hair of the waves blown back / when the wind blows the water white and black.”  We use “black and white” as a synonym for dullness.  Here it means stark, piercing beauty.

“Preludes” is another meditation on beauty, or on the poetic eye’s power to transform urban ugliness into at least a wish, a longing, for healing—is it the city or the human race that’s identified as an “infinitely gentle / Infinitely suffering thing?”

“La Figlia Che Piange” [The Weeping Girl] is about guilt and regret, ostensibly the guilt of a young man for spurning the girl in the title in a callous, offhand way—and despite the speaker’s careful distinction between “I” and “him,” it’s obvious his own past is in question:  but clearly the actual guilt is the poet’s over sacrificing a possible love for the sake of a coldly lovely image of rejection.  “And I wonder how they should have been together!” is as simple and clear as Eliot ever gets.  If you know his biography you also know who the girl was and how passionately immediate this poem is, for all its artful distancing.

I don’t think I need to say much about “The Waste Land.”  Other people, Eliot included, have said far too much about it, helpful and not.  Its power doesn’t die, but please, please, read it aloud.

Ditto “The Hollow Men,” which is lesser poetry because less ambivalent about what it is and says.  But it’s an achievement in poetry to say-what-you-mean-&-mean-what-you-say and still be poetry, not prose.

“Ash-Wednesday” is a religious poem in a more superficial and therefore less genuine sense than the Four Quartets, where religious faith is simply incarnate in reality, or a calm view of reality.  But the early poem is a new convert’s breathy experience of grace coupled with the knowledge of the shadowy weight of sin still hanging on him like a burnt shell.  Eliot plays with liturgical rhythm and rhyme, as well as mystical typology, by way of giving the feeling of public ritual to these very personal squirmings.  The title identifies the ritual as Lenten, more specifically the beginning of Lent, beginning of a season of repentance and preparation for rebirth at Easter.  Ezekiel’s bones that will be brought back to life are only one of the “Waste Land”-reminiscent images waiting to be transformed, not by the poet’s gift this time, but by God alone, to whom the whole poem is a cry.

“Journey of the Magi,” taking off from a sermon of Lancelot Andrewes, is what Eliot called a “highbrow Christmas card,” and perhaps we shouldn’t spend any more time on it than that.  But it is also further insistence that birth of any kind in Christianity requires death ... requires “hard and bitter agony.”  Eliot never loses sight of this or tries to make “the comfort of the Resurrection” easy.

“Burnt Norton” is the clumsiest and least poetic of the Four Quartets, though in some ways it is the most rooted in lived experience and at the same time fantastic, imagined experience:  and at the same time “what might have been” and couldn’t be (again, the biographical model for the girl in “La Figlia” is present here, in similar hopeful yet inaccessible ways).  That high poetry descends into clunky, ashen prose at key moments is intentional, works up to a point, and we excuse its failure because the poem flows on in such a way that the present—fleeting yet timeless—is always at the center of our seeing and hearing.  The laughing children in the bushes are an image of it, and are at the same time laughing at us for caring about it.

“East Coker” steps away from the present to examine the linkage between past and future—though the lines about the current afternoon in Eliot’s ancestral village are some of his lightest and freest.  One feels the endless cycles of time and history in this poem, and the weariness and cynicism that comes with trying to sum up what one has “learned” in a lifetime “largely wasted” and about to “go into the dark.”  Despite all that, the air of setting forth on a mysterious sea voyage at the end is a whelming taste of what was earlier called “the folly of old men:”  “Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession, / Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.”  Fear is the index of adventure and discovery.

Eliot retreats from that excited note, however, in “The Dry Salvages,” though the sea and river ambiance persists (the Mississippi River at St. Louis of Eliot’s childhood and the rocky New England coast of his adolescence).  Krishna in Bhagavad Gita encourages Arjuna to fight his battle using the strange argument that nothing he does really matters, that all of nature is a drama written and performed by God for the entertainment of immortal spectators—and there’s something of this chilly anti-wisdom in the poem (aside from the fact that it references the book).  We’ve explored the three tenses of time, and now we want to set the stage for something different:  not the occult revelation of the future but “to apprehend / The point of intersection of the timeless / With time.”  Eliot calls that “an occupation for the saint,” but he means every serious Christian.  I think this poem falls short because, like “Ash-Wednesday,” it succumbs to “religion” in a dogmatic, teachy sense that only serves to erode the power of the poetry.  When Eliot says in “East Coker” that “The poetry does not matter,” we may take it as an ironic self-comment.  Were he to say it here, we would have to take it as an insult to us his readers.  We thought we were reading a poem.

All those quibbles go away when we come to Eliot’s masterpiece “Little Gidding.”  Poetry and vision, personal life and the life of humanity, the secular and the spiritual, the world and the afterlife are seamlessly wedded.  So are form and content, as well as (Eliot’s habitual vice) comment upon form vs. content.  Past, present and future don’t so much “intersect” with eternity as their meaning intersects with it—but not a meaning that can be summed up in any way but poetry finally.  “All manner of thing shall be well / When the tongues of flame are in-folded / Into the crowned knot of fire / And the fire and the rose are one.”  There is no way to turn that into prose.  Go ahead, try.  And just before this conclusion, Eliot reminds us of “the children in the apple-tree” who have only been “half-heard.”  Even poetry has to take a back seat to the ultimately uncapturable moment.



Grade A: Why Payyasi Was Fat

July 30, 2015
Why Payyasi Was Fat (from The Observations of Payyasi Ram) Written in Albuquerque, living on Gold SE, October 1985.  Payyasi came to me one night…

Otros: Dickey & Donne

July 19, 2015
Most poets secretly or openly wish they could, like James Dickey, write a bestselling novel.  The hair-stood-on-end excitements of his Deliverance are only equalled by…

Grade A: Those Kisses

June 28, 2015
Written in Albuquerque (living on Gold SE with Sondra Tudor and teaching at the University of New Mexico), September 1985:  for Alex Bradley.  I thought…

More posts by Robert Arthur Reeves

Follow Bob

Sari Krosinsky

Abstracted

July 9, 2015

Crescent Moon by Araldia
One of my favorites by Araldia, titled "Crescent Moon," but I always think of it as "the sea creature" or "the pink crustacean."

I've been pretty thoroughly nonverbal for some while, but the visual art has been flowing. In the past, I've mostly gravitated towards representational art in my own work — though I love abstract art by others, like my favorite fractal/digital artist, Araldia. Lately I keep drawing these abstract/organic/geometric things and collaging them with fractal art and NASA public domain images using GIMP. I wonder if the abstraction and the trouble with words are connected?

For now, I'm stashing my visual artwork on Flickr [Edit August 5, 2015: and now on DeviantArt, as well:]. Here are a few samples:

Solar Prayer Brain Geometry 1 Martian Dinosaur



Rearranging the Shelves
April 3, 2015
UPDATE, 2015/4/23: The book page is now set up with the changes. You can order "god-chaser," "Complications" and "Yossele" directly from me with payments processed…

Listen to a bit of last night's reading
February 27, 2015
A couple poems, one by Bob and one by me, from last night's Fixed & Free Poetry Reading. I'll add a few more another day.…

Live Poetry in February & March
February 21, 2015
We're breaking our quiet streak to come out for three poetry events this month and next: Bob and I double feature at Fixed & Free…

More posts by Sari Krosinsky

Follow Sari