Poetry “Friday”: Christmas 2013

The prolonged blog outage continues—my apologies to you faithful readers—as we continue to adjust schedules and devote ourselves to the raising of a now slightly-more-than-six-weeks-old daughter.  But I cannot leave December wholly unblogged, nor can I bear to skip my tradition of offering a little poem here as Christmas nears.  I strive, as I always do on these religious holidays that mean something to me but only to some of you, to find a poem that both captures what I love about the holiday and still has (I think) something that would speak to someone who doesn’t experience these days through the lens of my faith.  I am, perhaps understandably, musing this year on the idea of birth, of the arrival of a child, and that combines with my persistent interest in Christmas as a holiday where the earth is somehow nearer another realm—underneath the materialism and commercialism which it is almost cliché to descry, there is a still space where this world is moved by something else.  And I think this year, Edwin Muir captures these feelings for me as well as any poet, with his poem “The Annunciation”:

“The angel and the girl are met.
Earth was the only meeting place.
For the embodied never yet
Travelled beyond the shore of space.
The eternal spirits in freedom go.

See, they have come together, see,
While the destroying minutes flow,
Each reflects the other’s face
Till heaven in hers and earth in his
Shine steady there. He’s come to her
From far beyond the farthest star,
Feathered through time.  Immediacy
of strangest strangeness is the bliss
That from their limbs all movement takes.
Yet the increasing rapture brings
So great a wonder that it makes
Each feather tremble on his wings.

Outside the window footsteps fall
Into the ordinary day
And with the sun along the wall
Pursue their unreturning way.
Sound’s perpetual roundabout
Rolls its numbered octaves out
And hoarsely grinds its battered tune.

But through the endless afternoon
These neither speak nor movement make,
But stare into their deepening trance
As if their gaze would never break.”

I think the poem wins me fast, with that opening line.  A simple declarative statement—no names, as though “the angel” and “the girl” are the only angel and girl we could possibly imagine, as though no other angel or girl could occur to us now.  And the tension and anticipation in the simplicity of “are met”: have we been waiting for this news?  It comes to us as though whispered by the underground resistance—the two are met.  Something is on the move tonight.  The signal has been given.

And then the poem just tears into the idea of time, a recurring fascination here (see my entire series on Eliot’s Four Quartets, for instance)—the “destroying minutes”, the strangeness of an angel being “feathered through time” (what could that mean?), the idea that somehow the impossibility and rapture of the moment call a halt to everything surrounding.  We are looking into a fixed point, like gazing over the edge of a black hole or into a painting, but somehow it is all very real, very alive, almost more alive than we are in its frozen perfection.  Beyond us goes the world in motion, the grinding of sounds like a barrel organ, but something captures us in orbit at the edge here.  The poem does not resolve it for us—it leaves us caught there, observing.  The two never move on, do not so much as speak.  How many lifetimes will pass before the angel’s lips part and say “hail”?  The poem is unconcerned.

I will not try to unpack the implicit theology here (I am grossly unqualified, and anyway I like it better as poem than as theology).  What I think lingers about the verse, and what I think may work for those of you for whom Christmas is merely a day off, or perhaps a nice day with family but no larger implications, is the way it grabs hold of what it might feel like to have a meeting that changes your life.  Despite the poem’s total lack of eros, I think the “love at first sight” experience probably carries some of the same flavor.  I imagine even less “relationshippy” meetings might carry the same weight—what it feels like to be a person confronted with the moment your existence was meant for.  Churchill holding the telegram declaring that France had fallen.  A few brave passengers locking eyes in the back of United 93.  Lincoln, late in the White House evening, considering the South’s final peace offer before the firing on Fort Sumter.  I like the magic that Muir plays with, the feeling of time being stripped off of us and leaving us frozen.

And of course for me and for some of you there is that added layer, that sense of all that had led to that angelic encounter and all that would follow.  The sense that creation might, in fact, pause and give space to that moment because in some ways all of the planet’s existence pivots around it.  I hope to capture a little of that feeling in the few days ahead, and in the long run I hope to share it with my daughter as, each year, I watch her grow past one Christmas after another.

Poetry Friday: 1942, part 3

I finish now the series on T. S. Eliot‘s Four Quartets which was begun in May; last week, I mused on the first four sections of the final quartet, “Little Gidding“, and today I’m back, as promised, to wrap up with one of the stretches of poetry I like best of the stuff I’ve read.  I’m going to share two big excerpts from this last section, and talk a little about why I love them, and why I think they successfully conclude the project Eliot has been working on, at this point, for years.  Again, more than anything else, I hope my posts are nudging you to pick up the Four Quartets somewhere and read them yourself.  There’s a lot there, and I don’t imagine that my interpretations are the only ones, or the best ones, necessarily.  Here’s one excerpt from “Little Gidding” that has always moved me:

“Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.”

The meditations on time that Eliot began in “Burnt Norton” were steps out into a larger world—he opens with the idea that “time present and time past / are both perhaps present in time future“, and the dizzying logic of that first section of Norton unfolds the possibilities inherent in time.  Time seems to burst outwards and allows us to move in all directions.  But here in Little Gidding, Eliot is drawing things back together.  I love the clarity of his focus on words here—on the idea that all of the things we write and say are limits somehow.  They mark our time, carving it up into the space before something is said and the space after it, and ultimately words and actions and everything we do will take us to mortality, which Eliot seems to envision as a great martydom, the saint beheaded or set aflame, the prophet cast into the sea and the forgotten sage whose monument crumbles to dust.  But Eliot’s phrasing avoids, for me, any sense of sorrow or loss here: he confronts death as a great tidal motion much like time, and somehow we go out and come back with the dead in a sojourn that seems to be going somewhere.  I can feel its importance between the lines.  Eliot wants us to cast loose from our temporary physical existence and see the world in a new way—through the lens that acknowledges that the frail petals of a single summer and the strong boughs that have seen a hundred summers are somehow the same.  Time is something mysterious here, malleable and able to be commanded.

I confess, I don’t know what it means that a history-less people is not redeemed from time, no more than I know what it means that history is “a pattern of timeless moments”.  But I can feel the truth in Eliot’s fading winter twilight (what a perfect and gorgeous image for this last benediction of the quartets).  England means something to him more than England the physical place or the government or society.  It was the home he looked for and found, it was a road that led him back into a past he found he could encounter, and here in 1942 it is a bulwark against dark forces and a hope that has been sustained through the lonely months when the storms of Europe raged.  “History is now and England” is a secret language that Eliot alone knew how to speak, but it resonates with me, because I think Eliot is trying to show us the great connectedness of the particulars of our lives, our hopes, our experiences, and the world of human experience.  As he said in the final section of the second quartet, “East Coker“, “Home is where one starts from. As we grow older / The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated / Of dead and living. Not the intense moment / Isolated, with no before and after, / But a lifetime burning in every moment / And not the lifetime of one man only“.  He is trying to sustain both the delight of our particular lives and our selfhood and the wonder of the pulse of life that unites us all somehow, across time and space and every other kind of boundary.  And then he kicks it into another gear entirely:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
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.”

This is why the Four Quartets, taken as a whole, deserves a place among the greatest of the explorer’s poems, for me: as great as Homer’s Odyssey and all those poets inspired by it, Tennyson with his “Ulysses” and Cavafy with his “Ithaca” and W. H. Auden with his zany “Atlantis”.  The journey we began in “Burnt Norton” by following the echoes through the door we did not open into “our first world” is ended here in that unexpected outcome—the echoes have led us around the great circle and we are back at the door again, but now we see it and understand what the journey was for.  Our travels have built in us an ability to understand that the one thing we knew all along is the one thing we will have to learn anew.  We started, as I said, by going through the door we did not open; we end by returning to the gate we do not know and have not remembered.  This experience is core to much of our art—when I think of the works I like best, “homecoming” is an element in many of them, especially the unlooked-for arrival, the happy shock of rediscovery.  For me, all these images begin to work together across the poems—the voice of the hidden waterfall at the source of that longest river (Time?) seems to me to be the echo that called to me through the unopened door at the beginning of these poems, and even the murmur of the children in the apple tree whose voices can barely be heard “between two waves of the sea” reminds me (maybe spuriously, but it does) of the human voices that Eliot’s anti-hero, Prufrock, thinks will wake him to drowning while he swims with the mermaids at the end of his “Love Song”, Eliot’s first great work.

Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich is the source of, among other things, “all manner of thing shall be well”—her theology of optimism and love (and her embrace of the femininity in God) was about eight centuries ahead of her time, unfortunately for her. (Photo credit: Flickr user “rocketjohn”)

What we capture in this last sweep of our eyes and ears, beyond the waterfall and the voices of the children and the long river running to the sea, is I think almost perfect as poetry—the sense of immediacy and eternity co-existing, the complete simplicity we can gain only by submitting all things to its purpose, the gentle cry of Julian of Norwich that there is no thing that can by stumbling fail to reach the joy of its ultimate purpose.  The symbolism of the fire and rose, and the infolding Pentecostal flames into a crowned knot, is I think both easily explored (there are plenty of critical commentaries, at least) and deeply personal to Eliot.  To me it resonates backwards into the rest of “Little Gidding”—the destructive fire that made ashes of the air and swallowed the town in the poem’s second section is also (in the fourth section) the divine fire that descends from Heaven on Eliot and the “intolerable shirt of flame” that Love imposes on us (in an echo of the myth of the death of Hercules) which we cannot remove, and somehow in the end it joins with the rose in a way that does not consume it but fulfills it.  There’s an immense peace to this finale that I’ve loved since the first time I read it, I think in part because Eliot makes us so sure that there is a happy ending to this world we inhabit, and in part because he strikes the perfect level of ambiguity and obscurity for me with his poetry.  His word are at once both easy for me to identify with and hard for me to explain or interpret—in fact, the images that mean most to me are often the ones I can do the least to comment upon.

I’ll take on something less demanding next week—something maybe easier to take in all at once, and certainly something that requires less quotation and allusion from me.  I know that a lot of people aren’t as taken with Eliot as I am, and especially that Eliot’s late career move into this kind of symbolism and metaphysical musing is as unpopular with some folk who like his early work as it is welcome to me (who finds it hard to enjoy his early stuff as much as I’d like to).  I’m glad some of you have some along on this journey, though, and hope you’ve gotten something out of it.  If anybody read one or more of the quartets and has anything to say about it, I hope you’ll share in the comments: thanks!

Poetry Friday: 1941?

As I turn now to a poem from the year 1941, I can hear some of you saying, “But wait, James, the whole point of these year-driven poems on Fridays is that you’re immersing yourself in the year of the Pulitzer-winning novel you’re reading, and right now you’re still in 1940 with The Grapes of Wrath!  You can’t move on yet, can you?”  Well, first of all, thank you for your continued visits here on Fridays for poems—I like the chance to share poetry with you and hear what you think.  Secondly, I was feeling the same way you were about moving on, but then I realized two critically important things: A) The Grapes of Wrath is incredibly long and I’m starting to run out of poems from 1940 that I feel have something useful or interesting for me to reflect on right now, and maybe more importantly, B) there was no Pulitzer-winning novel in 1941, so if I stick with the current Poetry Friday schedule, I’ll have to leap over all the poems of 1941.

Sail Rock, off the coast of Maine

Sail Rock, off the coast of New England, similar in appearance/location to the Dry Salvages (Photo credit: Albert Theberge, NOAA)

Not only does that seem like a bad idea in principle, but in actual fact it would pose a major problem for us, since you and I have been making our way slowly through T. S. Eliot‘s Four Quartets, and the third of them, “The Dry Salvages”, came out in 1941.  So I’m throwing aside my scheme for a week or two, and as I finish up John Steinbeck‘s immense and engrossing novel, I’ll hit a couple of the poems of 1941, starting with Eliot’s piece.  Two little pointers: the poem is named for a group of islands called “The Dry Salvages” off the coast of Massachusetts, and the last word in the title is pronounced to rhyme with “assuages” or “enrages”.  With that said, let’s dive into an excerpt from the first section of this five-section poem:

The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite,
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation:
The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale’s backbone;
The pools where it offers to our curiosity
The more delicate algae and the sea anemone.
It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,
The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar
And the gear of foreign dead men. The sea has many voices,
Many gods and many voices.
          The salt is on the briar rose,
The fog is in the fir trees.
          The sea howl
And the sea yelp, are different voices
Often together heard: the whine in the rigging,
The menace and caress of wave that breaks on water,
The distant rote in the granite teeth,
And the wailing warning form the approaching headland
Are all sea voices, and the heaving groaner
Rounded homewards, and the seagull:
And under the oppression of the silent fog
The tolling bell
Measures time not our time, rung by the unhurried
Ground swell, a time
Older than the time of chronometers, older
Than time counted by anxious worried women
Lying awake, calculating the future,
Trying to unweave, unwind, unravel
And piece together the past and the future,
Between midnight and dawn, when the past is all deception,
The future futureless, before the morning watch
Whem time stops and time is never ending;
And the ground swell, that is and was from the beginning,
The bell.

The whole of this third of the four poems is consumed by water—the theme of time that Eliot maintains, bobbing like a pennant in the wind as it weaves above and then inside the verses, is fused here with a really elemental interest in water.  The first section opens with a contemplation of the river as a strong brown god, forgotten by humanity, neglected and overlooked but there beneath our great cities.  What I really like about the excerpt I chose, then, is how that image of the divine and moving water is immediately fused with us—Eliot and you and me—and it takes us back in time to these primitive creatures of the deep and a lost world that resonates with some of the symbols and images he’s been playing with since the beginning of “Burnt Norton” several years ago.  The sea is incredibly powerful—it gives back what we have lost (but these things return to us shattered, irretrievably changed), it grabs material things like earth and rock and the rigging of ships and uses them as a means to project its voice, its unceasing motions sound the buoy-bell and mark out time, but not our time.  That fascination with time continues here in “The Dry Salvages”, and I think it’s really fruitful for Eliot here.

He is pulling apart time into many pieces—what kind of time does the sea have; what does it have to do with us?—and I love the idea of one time being older than another, as in the case of the young time kept by the watch and the clock (which seems fairly obvious) but then stretching out to remind us that time has ticked away since before there were human beings to lie awake in it and worry.  The association of time with anxiety is really powerful there, and I like it—how much of our anxiety has to do with time, after all.  Will we be too late?  Will we have the money we need before the day the bills are due?  Will I live to see another sunrise, to see another Christmas?  And the brilliance of Eliot, for me, is that he unpacks all our words about time and forces us to wrestle with them.  What is that time between midnight and dawn, the fretful passage where we cannot trust our memories or believe in the future we hope will come to us?  That time that, as he says so simply and yet so truly, stops and is never ending.  He captures the experience I feel I’ve had so many times—the lying-awake and feeling like a person out of time, someone trapped in a moment and also languishing there for lifetimes.  And then ringing the section to a close is that bell, moved by the swelling wave that Eliot ties into the primal waters, the seas over which the Spirit moved when all else was without form and void.  A stirring beginning to the piece.

As usual, I’ve only shared a short portion of the poem, and I’m hoping you’ll track down a copy and read the rest of it—Eliot digs deep into the ideas he begins here, asking what it means for some things to be endless (is there such a thing?) and tying that reflection into his musings on death and mortal finality.  He weaves in, over and over, imagery of the sea and the shore, the feeling of traveling by water and how it changes us.  He reaches out more explicitly to religious imagery: to God, to the Queen of Heaven who protects the sailors, to Krishna who urged all journeyers onward to their end.  Ultimately, again, Eliot is considering how all these things—material being and mind and time—intersect in us and in the idea of incarnation.  “The Dry Salvages” ends with him nudging us further towards an answer.  He is still talking about only “half-guessing” at the realities he describes, but it’s clearer and clearer that he doesn’t mean to stop at that.  “Little Gidding”, which is only a couple of years away from us, will bring these themes together and allow Eliot to emerge more directly and tell us what he means.

Unaddressed by me, I should note, is the passage of actual time and its relationship to the poem—Eliot began this poem in a pre-war Europe, but this particular section is written while England is besieged and on the verge of being overwhelmed.  I don’t know how much of Eliot’s feelings about the future of the world (from the vantage point of England during the Battle of Britain) play into his statements about time and mortality, but I think there’s a lot of ground for fruitful speculation there.

I’m hoping you’re enjoying this slow walk through Eliot’s long poem—I certainly am.  It’s making me more aware of sections I’d neglected in previous reads, and making me more in love with the poem than I originally was (and I liked it a lot, initially).  I think this particular section works especially well for me in reminding me of a lot of the philosophical passages in Melville’s Moby-Dick, where Ishmael makes a lot of symbolic sense of the ocean and the sea creatures and humanity’s relationship to all of it.  I hope it works for you on some level, and that you’ll speak up about your thoughts.

Poetry Friday: Spending the first day of autumn with Rainer Maria Rilke

Photo of Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer Maria Rilke, a Bohemian-Austrian poet writing at the fin de siècle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The weather of fall has come at last to Chicago, one of many cities where, this summer, heat records fell and the grass scorched in the sun and people cowered indoors behind the whirr of window air-conditioning units.  Now, at last, there are clouds and rain—the air is cool enough to walk in, and the green is back in quick little glimpses on lawns and in hedges.  So it seems as fair a time as any to turn, at least for one week, to the contemplation of my favorite season, and to the poets who praise it.  I pondered plenty of good choices for today to usher in the fall, but finally I settled on a lovely little piece by Rainer Maria Rilke entitled “Herbsttag”, or “Autumn Day”.  There are many translations of the poem, but the one I prefer comes from William Gass‘s book, Reading Rilke, and so it is the one I share with you below.  This is a poem Rilke composed in Paris exactly 110 years ago—that is, on September 21, 1902—after traveling to that city alone that summer:

“Lord, it is time. The summer was too long.
Lay your shadow on the sundials now,
and through the meadow let the winds throng.

Ask the last fruits to ripen on the vine;
give them further two more summer days
to bring about perfection and to raise
the final sweetness in the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now will establish none,
whoever lives alone now will live on long alone,
will waken, read, and write long letters,
wander up and down the barren paths
the parks expose when the leaves are blown.”

Rilke writes an elegy to a season of changes and closing doors, and there is a deep presence of relief in the poem’s opening lines.  It is initially addressed to God, but more as a man might speak to an authority figure he knows personally—the German there is “Herr”, which can mean “Lord” as Gass translates it, but the connotation is usually less divine.  It’s more like saying “Sir,” as though you were addressing your supervisor or your landlord.  Rilke is being formal, but he is also trying to advance the plot, so to speak.  He needs to nudge God—to remind Him of a task that should be attended to.

Sir, he says, it is time.  There’s a loveliness to that phrase—in a sense, all of the poem is an expression, an unfolding, of that one idea.  It is Time.  That is the subject of the poem.  Time as duration, as the summer that lingered too long.  Time as the shadow thrown by the gnomon that counts the hours, time as the ripening and reckoning of the harvest.  Time as the coda that brings an end—what has not yet been done by now, will not be done—and time as the ellipsis, the unfenced expanse of lonely days and roads that stretch on forever.

There is also a sense in the poem, for me, of how natural all these events will be—the winds will be freed now, and the last fruits will finally reach the end of their long journey. Even though there’s a melancholy to the last stanza, there’s also a peace about it—the unsheltered will roam the earth, and the lonely will immerse themselves in their loneliness and find something there.  Whatever conditions we have now (with maybe the minor adjustment of a last sunny day or two), they will persist and this is no bad thing.  It is, to the contrary, what we ask for—to end the summer of striving and take some refuge in rest.  To an extent, I’m being led by Gass here, who doesn’t translate “unruhig” (restless, anxious, literally “unpeaceful”), a word Rilke uses to describe the wanderings of the lonely.  But I wonder if he’s not right to pass it by…there is something so gentle and unanxious about the preceding lines, reading and writing long letters and so forth, that maybe softening the blow of “unruhig” is faithful to Rilke’s meaning on a deeper level.

Ultimately, this quiet, understated poem captures many of the things I love best about autumn—the desire to see a hot summer fade, the sweetness and richness of the foods associated with the fall, the way that the outside world inspires me to more reflective and introspective moods.  It isn’t particularly soaring in this translation (nor is it in the original German, to the extent that I can read it with any feeling) but autumn isn’t that kind of cymbal-crashing trumpet-blowing season, at first.  The real winds and storms will come, and are their own kind of joy.  For now I’m relishing the beginnings of the peaceful autumn I love—the weeks stretching from my birthday to my wife’s, generally speaking—and Rilke helps me sink into them with comfort.  If you have a favorite autumn poem or poet, I hope you’ll mention them in the comments section: I’d like to return to the season at least one more time on an upcoming Friday, and would gladly share a poem suggested by one of you, if it catches me right.

Poetry Friday: 1940, part 3

I return to the poems of 1940 to celebrate an American poet I haven’t taken much time for on the blog—the enigmatic and experimental E. E. Cummings.  (Yes, E. E. Cummings—modern scholarship has basically determined that he never meant to go by “e. e. cummings”, despite the orthographical choices of some of his editors.  Save that one for a bar bet, I guess.  A really unusual bar.)  Cummings’s work is always daring and weird, sometimes (for me) totally impenetrable, but sometimes breathtakingly lovely.  He has captured the minds (and pens) of a lot of young poets, I know, and I taught him almost every year I was a teacher, since I think he raises (and answers) a lot of questions about what poetry is, and what it can do.  Here, in 1940, he plays with meaning, syntax, and other conventions of writing in one of his more famous compositions—a poem entitled “anyone lived in a pretty how town”:

“anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did

Women and men(both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain

children guessed(but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
autumn winter spring summer)
that noone loved him more by more

when by now and tree by leaf
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone’s any was all to her

someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake hope and then)they
said their nevers they slept their dream

stars rain sun moon
(and only the snow can begin to explain
how children are apt to forget to remember
with up so floating many bells down)

one day anyone died i guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was

all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
wish by spirit and if by yes.

Women and men(both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain”

My appreciation for the poem has grown over the years, aided by a recording I’ve heard of Cummings reading it aloud in a very expressive and high-pitched voice, trembling just a little—the closest comparison I can make for the sound is the voice actor who played Winnie-the-Pooh in the Disney animated featurettes of the 1960s and 1970s.  The innocence and the optimism suddenly came through the poem in a way that it doesn’t quite on the page (for me).  But what is the poem really about?

Love isn’t a bad initial answer—Cummings slowly develops the story of anyone and no one, a simple man and the woman who loved him.  His choice of names, which is of course a distinctively him thing to do, allows him to get a lot of resonance out of very simple lines: take, for one example, the difference between “one day John died, I guess (and Mary stooped to kiss his face)” and “one day anyone died i guess (and no one stooped to kiss his face)”.  There’s something incredibly emotional and moving about the image he presents—my brain yaws wildly from the sadness of the initial meaning (no one mourns him?) to the sudden heart-breaking gladness of the real image (it’s her!  No one mourns him!).  There is a fragile beauty to their love, like a delicate flower or a butterfly emerging from a cocoon: the way it grows “bird by snow and stir by still”, the way their wedding vows and honeymoon rush by us as “they said their nevers and slept their dream”.  Even the deep hope of their graves is powerfully connected to their love for each other, where they now “dream their sleep” in these fantastic phrases—“earth by april”, “wish by spirit” and “if by yes”.  What does that mean?  I know I understand, but I cannot shape that understanding into words.  There is a resurrection inside those phrases, of a form and purpose that not even Cummings, I reckon, fully realizes or could possibly describe.

Time is a good answer also, the way Cummings turns again and again the seasons “spring summer autumn winter” and the weather “sun moon stars rain” to give us a story unfolding on a large canvas (yet an intimate one).  His decisions at times to shift the phrasing are surely significant, but what do they mean?  When he says “stars rain sun moon” right after anyone and no one marry, and before he asides to us his marveling that the children are apt to “forget to remember”, what do we make of that?  Something about the poem wants to get its arms around time, but what?

And much of the poem is left to us to ponder—what does it mean to live in a “how town”?  Who are these children, and do they serve any purpose in the poem other than acting as a kind of Greek chorus?  What are these bells, these floating bells?  I can’t answer it all for myself, let alone for you.  What I do know is that this poem, which once baffled me and even alienated me a little, is now a source of hope.  There is something undying about it, something resilient and human, especially in the lines “little by little and was by was / all by all and deep by deep / and more by more” that lead to his contemplation of the dreaming sleep of the dead.  Cummings is easy to caricature or parody, but difficult to pin down—the man was wise, and I hope there’s some wisdom locked in this poem for you to unearth this weekend.

Poetry Friday: 1940, part 2

English: St. Michael's, East Coker, Somerset T...

St. Michael’s in East Coker, where Eliot’s family came from, and where his ashes are buried. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s been four months since I began our intermittent look at one of the 20th Century’s greatest poems—T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.  In one of my posts on the poems of 1936, I devoted my attention to the opening stanzas of the first of the quartets, written in that year—“Burnt Norton” captured the imaginations of more than a few of you, and since then I’ve been anticipating “catching up” with Eliot’s poem and getting to dig into the next section.  Here we are in 1940, and it’s time to ponder the second of the quartets, which is entitled “East Coker”.  This time, rather than drawing from the first section of the quartet, I’ve skipped forward to Eliot’s summation in the end of the fifth section, since I think there’s a lot of meat on the bones there, and I’m hoping it will further inspire some of you to give the whole thing a read.  This is an excerpt from section V of “East Coker”:

“Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.”

Eliot’s fascination in the quartets with a few powerful images—time, love, the idea of home, etc.—continues here, and I love the phrases he turns.  In “Burnt Norton” he opens by inviting us into a garden of metaphor, into “our first world”, and here he seems to clarify what he’s interested in: for me, at least, the notion of home being “where we start from” identifies a little more clearly what he means by “our first world”.  Eliot likes to surprise, and I find it surprising (but also intriguing and maybe true) that as we age, the world grows, not more familiar, but more strange.  Time starts to burst open again here, as it did in “Burnt Norton”—each moment contains, not merely a moment, but a lifetime.  And not merely a lifetime, but an age of the Earth, something that happens on the scale of geology (the “old rocks”).  And then suddenly the poem is homely again; we are pulled from that kind of epic abstraction back to an evening with lamps on side tables and photo albums open in our laps.  What is he doing to us?  What is he doing to time and place?  I am confused but not letting go.

He shifts then to one of his other great themes—Love—and says something I feel sure is true: that love is (at least in some ways) most itself when we are detached from the here and now.  “East Coker” plays with love in many senses . . . in another famous passage from earlier in the quartet, he tells his soul to be still and “wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing.”  I don’t know what that means, other than that in all of these phrases I get the sense that the way to gain love is to lose it; the way to find it is to give up the chase.  Eliot tells us at one point that we “must go by the way of dispossession . . . what you own is what you do not own.”  There’s something powerful and real locked up in there, and I don’t know how much of it I can give words to, even though I feel I understand him.

The last portion of “East Coker” is reminiscent for me of another famous English poem—Alfred, Lord Tennyson‘s “Ulysses”—where old men decide to explore on, and “smite the sounding furrows”.  I think that’s intentional, but unlike Tennyson’s Greek hero, Eliot isn’t restless and purposeless in this desire for adventure.  He’s not taking to the seas again to escape the “still hearth” and “barren crags”, like Ulysses—instead, he wants a deeper communion.  With whom?  With what?  We are not yet told.  Only we are told that he must pass (and we must pass, if we continue on with him) “through the dark cold and the empty desolation,” through, in that most evocative of phrases, “the vast waters of the petrel and the porpoise.”  What waters are these?  The waters over which the Ruach brooded in Genesis, the formless and the void?  The waters at the edge of old maps, ribboned with sea serpents, pouring endlessly over all sides of the world?  He is imbuing this journey, and this sea, with something symbolic, but I’ll confess I can’t settle on a specific image.  I only know that it moves me.

There’s a lot more to “East Coker” that I can’t get into—there’s an enormously important series of allusions to Dante (Eliot describes himself as being “in the middle way”, and there are direct references to purgatory, etc.), for example—because it’s too big, and because I want you to read it.  Even the last line (“In my end is my beginning.”), which I want badly to try and unpack, is too much for the scope of a blog post.  Eliot is tying up all of “East Coker”, which begins with the line “In my beginning is my end,” and which plays more than once with the notion of ends and beginnings.  Eliot’s engaged in something really valuable.  We’ll be back with him and the last two quartets before long—probably before 2012 is out.  In the meantime, I hope you’ll ponder his words, and share your thoughts in the comments below.

Poetry Friday: 1936, part 2

This is, as I mentioned in my last 1936 PF post, an incredible year for poetry.  Another beauty I can’t let escape notice is “Burnt Norton”, the first of what would come to be (in about a decade) a set of poems by T. S. Eliot called the “Four Quartets”.  In them, Eliot reflects at length about an incredible variety of topics, drawing together issues he previously explored in poems like “The Hollow Men” and “The Waste Land” into a solemn but hopeful reflection on time, mortality, and purpose.  Each piece of the quartet carries its own delights, and I’m sure I’ll ponder them as they surface one at a time (the rest of them in the 1940s, during the war).  For now, let’s take a run at the opening lines of “Burnt Norton”, and Eliot’s first wrestle with the idea of time, a topic he returns to throughout the set:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
                                       But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
                                       Other echoes
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush? Into our first world.

Eliot is grappling with a concept so abstract and impossible that I think we are tempted not to engage with the poem at all—we can set it aside as being “too deep” or “too artsy” or whatever we use to distance ourselves from it.  But I’m hoping to encourage you to try resting with the words on your mind a little, and seeing if they start to awaken some understandings for you: I know I’ve had to do that with this poem, and that it becomes more rich every time I return to it over the years.  Eliot begins with the very simple idea—that we are creatures bound by time, and that time is a strange thing.  There are all these ties that bind the past, present and future together.  And the past and future are really only ideas we can confront in the present—now is the only time in which you ever live, or ever can.  Eliot calls it, later in this quartet, “the still point of the turning world”.

We are not conscious of time in this way, normally—our memory, and our ability to imagine, allow us to live in the past and the future very happily for hours at a time, maybe even our whole lives.  Eliot is calling us out of our reverie into a very serious contemplation of where we really are.  What might have been and what actually has been are the same in one way—we access them only through our minds, only through the lens of the present in which we live.  And words are caught up in this, too.  Eliot tells us about footfalls, about a rose-garden we did not enter, and in our minds these images appear and echo.  Do we see ourselves opening the door we did not open (an image that resonates enough with me that I wrote a poem about it, although not consciously in homage to Eliot)—if we see that, who is it we see?  Where is that me, opening that door, and when does he open it?

I know, I know, this is getting a little too fanciful for you.  But Eliot is trying to evoke things not easily expressed, and the images will come tumbling out of us if we linger near him.  Are we willing to take up his invitation—to follow these echoes of memory and time where they lead, into the garden we never enter?  He suggests we will enter the first gate with him, into our first world.  Our first world—what is that?  Where is it?  I find the phrases powerful and almost threatening without knowing why.

I like poems that do this—poems that work on me slowly, sometimes over decades (as this one has), maybe never to be fully understood but always in the act of opening, like a flower.  If you’ve never read the “Four Quartets”, I hope you’ll take them on: they’re easy to find (online and in print), and you can easily skim past what isn’t striking you right now to dwell on what does.  For me the light in them began in the last one, “Little Gidding”, and is only now reaching “Burnt Norton” in a way that illuminates it, and still only in part.  Or, if the poem just isn’t speaking to you, sit for a moment, sometime soon, and dwell on the idea of time and memory.  I find it almost endlessly rewarding, and I expect you will too.