So, right after finishing my last entry, I thought, “You know what? I am totally in the mood for some other poetry. What else is kind of short?”
Thus, I went a-googling, looking for a) a well-known poet who b) had a volume of collected works that was under 250 pages long.
At some point, my googling turned up this volume. Apparently, T.S. Eliot’s collected poetical works come in at only around 220 pages. That’s crazy low, considering he’s the most famous 20th century English-language poet. After some more googling, I realized that I could download this collection off of openlibrary.org and start reading it immediately.
But then I had a moment of pause. I thought, “Hmm…isn’t T.S. Eliot kind of dense? Didn’t you just write a whole blog post about how you’re not good at interpreting poems and how you don’t think that’s how poems are meant to be enjoyed anyway?”
So I went hunting for a poem by T.S. Eliot. And it was just my bad (good?) luck that the poem I stumbled upon was “The Journey Of The Magi”—a thoroughly accessible (and extremely awesome) poem that’s about exactly what it sounds like: the journey of the magi to go see the birth of Jesus.
With my anxieties thus assuaged, I started reading. I’d had to read “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” in high school, so I felt like I was on pretty solid ground there. In fact, most of the early poems were pretty accessible to me (as in, I could tell what they were about). In fact, I was kind of enjoying myself. Or rather, not enjoying myself. It was the opposite of enjoyment. I was reading these poems at 9 PM, all alone, in my apartment, with its dirty floors, in front of desk, with its heaps of papers and books and office supplies, and with my feet on my bed–all around me I was surrounded by squalor and decay. And I was reading all of these poems about the emptiness and futility of life. I was reading:
Here I am, an old man in a dry month,
Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain.
I was neither at the hot gates
Nor fought in the warm rain
Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass,
Bitten by flies, fought.
My house is a decayed house,
And the Jew squats on the window sill, the owner,
The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands.
With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.
And I was thinking, “This is really not what I read right now. Aggh, my other option for tonight’s reading was to hit up Anthony Trollope’s Autobiography. I bet that would’ve been super nice and pleasant. Goshdarnit, why can’t I read more things that are just purely ‘nice’. I’m really starting to see the appeal of Celine Dion right now.”
So, when I hit “The Wasteland”, I was in kind of a dark place. Luckily, the Wasteland didn’t exacerbate that feeling, because I just did not understand most of it. I definitely came to the limits of my “no interpretation” technique. Yes, the words of “The Waste Land” were very scary, and they chilled me, but I think I escaped most of their brunt.
My next encounter was not so lucky. “The Hollow Men” begins:
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
It is a horrifying poem, but also one that’s filled with beautiful phrases: “the supplication of a dead man’s hand”, “death’s other kingdom”, “sunlight on a broken column”, “this is the cactus land”. I think I loved it the most out of any of the poems in the volume.
After “The Hollow Men,” Eliot gets religious. He also becomes a bit more abstract and metaphysical and symbological. His poems no longer have these definite speakers whose characteristics can be identified. Oh yeah, and he finds God and loses some of his sense of the hopelessness of life. Or at least, that’s reputedly what happened.
Eliot’s religion seems like some pretty chilly stuff. It seems like it’s all about rejecting the vanity of human endeavor and just sort of sitting tight and trying to think about God. His first religious poem is “Ash Wednesday”, which contains persistent meditations on the image of a veiled lady who intercedes for mankind:
Will the veiled sister pray for
Those who walk in darkness, who chose thee and oppose thee,
Those who are torn on the horn between season and season, time and time, between
Hour and hour, word and word, power and power, those who wait
In darkness? Will the veiled sister pray
For children at the gate
Who will not go away and cannot pray:
Pray for those who chose and oppose
O my people, what have I done unto thee.
Will the veiled sister between the slender
Yew trees pray for those who offend her
And are terrified and cannot surrender
And affirm before the world and deny between the rocks
In the last desert before the last blue rocks
The desert in the garden the garden in the desert
Of drouth, spitting from the mouth the withered apple-seed.
O my people.
After this poem (only halfway through the book), I am just going to confess that I got a little lost. I touched base with some good poems, like the aforementioned “Gathering of the Magi” and the other Ariel Poems (which I gather were meant for an audience of general readers). Hell, one of Ariel Poems was even about Christmas. Can you believe this shit? Isn’t T.S. Eliot a little bit too pointy-headed to be allowed to write an ode to Christmas? That’s like if I wrote a story about a space marine saving Earth from an alien invasion by using the power of free will and individuality. But let’s not kid ourselves, even his Christmas poem swings around to death and to a man’s last Christmas.
Once we get beyond Christmas, to his unfinished verse dramas and his final masterpiece, the Four Quartets, I am only in and out (comprehension-wise). Magpie-like, I started accumulating the nice bits of poesy, like the following rumination on the writing life:
“So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years-
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of Ventre deux guerres-
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition-
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
But by and large, I didn’t understand much of it. I think the poems were mostly to do with Jesus. The strange thing is, though, that I wasn’t bored. I actually get bored fairly easily. Not here. There was something entrancing about the words. I didn’t have the training to read them the way they needed to be read, but there was enough magic in there to keep me reading. As Eliot wrote at the very end of the book:
By whom, and by what means, was this designed?
The whispered incantation which allows
Free passage to the phantoms of the mind?
By you; by those deceptive cadences
Wherewith the common measure is refined;
By conscious art practised with natural ease;
By the delicate, invisible web you wove—
The inexplicable mystery of sound.
(from “To Walter de la Mare”)
There was something captivating in that “mystery of sound”. I also think that Eliot might have finally worked in some kind of antedote to Prufrock and The Waste Land, because by the end of the work, that despairing feeling had dissipated. In a way, I was almost sad to see it go. It was a feeling induced by poetry, and that’s a rare enough beast in my life. And there’s something pleasurable about being able to pin down despair and stare at it under a microscope for a few hours. And it was only few hours—perhaps four hours from start to finish (and another half hour to write this blog post).
Definitely a pretty intense experience. Someday, when I have a little more knowledge, I hope to revisit this book and, perhaps, find some way to extract the rest of its riches.