Not presentable

Thy will be done

Woke up from a dream that caused me to wonder, right off:

Have I done
a single
will

?

Will I have

?
done

° ° °

A white policeman shot an unarmed black man, triggering the 1943 Harlem race riot. Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son – sweet, somehow raw essays with seemingly simple rhetorical movements.

The Americans in Baldwin’s Paris, the “little band of bohemians” who share “a total confusion about the nature of experience.” They discount the power of society because they can’t believe “that time [i.e., a society’s powerful history] is real.” Without society they are rootless, unable to find themselves. With society they are trapped, because “society is never anything less than a perfect labyrinth of limitations.”

Experience, if permitted, leads to untenable associations. Experience will always teach me that I killed the Christ.

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Brooding

And certainly poetry is not the inculcation of morals, or the direction of politics; and no more is it religion or an equivalent of religion, except by some monstrous abuse of words . . . . On the other hand, poetry as certainly has something to do with morals, and with religion, and even with politics perhaps, though we cannot say what.

– T. S. Eliot, from his preface to the 1928 edition of The Sacred Wood

T. S. Eliot was a poet, but he was also a man, and I imagine and care about and defend the man, and do so without defending his religion or his politics or even his poetics, because of his poetry.

Eliot wouldn’t have liked that – I mean, the care I profess for him through his poetry. He could make no connection to himself through his published poems. If he could have in a given case, the poem in question would hardly have been worth publishing. That is (and to state the contraposition), Eliot’s successful poem entirely replaced the feeling that gave rise to it. The feeling was private, anyway, and is of no interest to anyone but the poet.

Particularly in Eliot’s case, however, the opposite was true. It seems as if everyone were interested in what Eliot was thinking and feeling when he wrote his poetry. Everyone, it seems, except Eliot. Although he thought highly of parts of The Waste Land, for instance, he said for him it was “just a piece of rhythmical grumbling.”1 He thought highly of his poem only in the context of the tradition it entered. There was nothing of him left in the poem to connect with as its creator.

Tradition alone is objective, Eliot thought, so poetry is tradition’s alone. To “surrender to the tradition,” as Frank Kermode explains it, Eliot was required to lose whatever emotional fillip first caused him to pick up his pen. Eliot approved of Gottfried Benn’s description of the poet’s process:

When the words are finally arranged in the right way – or in what he comes to accept as the best arrangement he can find – [the poet] may experience a moment of exhaustion, of appeasement, of absolution, and of something very near annihilation, which is in itself indescribable. And then he can say to the poem: “Go away! Find a place for yourself in a book – and don’t expect me to take any further interest in you.”2

Eliot’s poems left him to make their way in the world, or at least in the world of tradition, which for Eliot was the same thing.

T. S. Eliot

Tradition fed Eliot’s aesthetics and made room for his poems, but tradition also gave Eliot a sense of himself as both a public and private man. Try to ignore the public Eliot, and the private Eliot will meet you at his door with ironic, mirthless laughter. Eliot insisted on his masks, and not just because he was a playwright. Masks make men – public men, anyway, and public men take the pressure off and even defend the private men they correlate to. Eliot’s “objective correlative,” then, is not just part of Eliot’s rather uncomplicated poetics. Just as a poem’s impersonality comes “at the expense of its correlation with the suffering of its author” (Kermode’s explanation)3, so the health of a man’s public persona comes at the price one pays to protect his private self.

Eliot’s tradition wasn’t merely a literary tradition. The tradition that permits greater means of understanding and evaluating Eliot’s poetry involves arts, letters, education, religion, and politics. He was driven to Roman Catholicism in part because of its catholicity. He was driven to conservative and imperialist politics in part because of what his poems required of him. Kermode explains that there was in Eliot “an element of mysticism also, and a scholastic sense of the complexities of time and eternity” that informed his religion and politics.4 Tradition is not just literature but also tradition’s public sphere and the public men and women who walk around it. No tradition, no poetry, and worse: no public man.

° ° °

Though Eliot’s politics fail even as a guardian over an artistic tradition5, I’m drawn to his notion of poetry as “something to do with morals, and with religion, and even with politics perhaps, though we cannot say what.” Eliot hated the idea of a society of sequestered religious, literary, and political specialists, a problem that has steadily grown worse since he wrote about it:

And just as those who should be the intellectuals regard theology as a special study, like numismatics or heraldry, with which they need not concern themselves, and theologians observe the same indifference to literature and art, as special studies which do not concern them, so our political classes regard both fields as territories of which they have no reason to be ashamed of remaining in complete ignorance.6

The sequestration of politics, religion, and art, he believed, is endangering the planet’s physical health:

For a long enough time we have believed in nothing but the values arising in a mechanized, commercialized, urbanized way of life: I would be as well for us to face the permanent conditions upon which God allows us to live upon this planet. And without sentimentalizing the life of the savage, we might practice the humility to observe, in some of the societies upon which we look down as primitive or backward, the operation of a social-religious-artistic complex which we should emulate upon a higher plane.7

Yes.

I brood a lot, as I guess my occasional screeds suggest. I’m no politician, theologian, or literary scholar. But as a lawyer I worked with politicians, as a church worker I had an interest in theology, and as an English teacher I’ve kept my hand in literature. Over the past number of years I find that my blog has divided itself among political, religious, and literary posts. Nothing could have pleased me more than finally finding some common ground among my three interests, as I reported recently in an update to an old post, “Our Sardonic Lord.”

I viscerally feel the lack of Eliot’s so-called “social-religious-artistic complex” if only because I feel torn among something like these three callings while something inside tells me I should hear them as one.

I am afraid to move: there is little left of a public sphere. “When the wicked rise, men hide themselves” (Proverbs 28:28). I like to hide; besides, I’m certainly no more talented than the next man. But the calling itself, whether it ever involves anything like action, is primarily a call to brood – to pray.

My heroes, too, are often brooders. I frequently picture three of them, and all of their actions or inactions I trace to their brooding. I have a primary brooder in each field – literary, political, and religious. It’s a good thing for me Eliot isn’t my literary brooder since he believed that he left nothing of himself in his poems.

Instead, my mind finds comfort in Robert Lax, the promising poet who left America in the 1960’s to become a hermit in Patmos until just before his death in 2000. I see him writing one, maybe two words, thinking about them for an hour or so, and then going down to the shore. Thomas Merton on his friend Lax:

. . . a mind full of tremendous and subtle intuitions, and every day he found less and less to say about them, and resigned himself to being inarticulate.8

My political brooder is Lincoln. I’ve read loads of Lincoln books, but the scene that sticks closest to me is the one Stephen B. Oates, in his Sandburg-like biography With Malice Toward None, engenders:

In 1853, Lincoln was riding circuit when reports came of new Congressional skirmishing over slavery in the territories. It appeared that Senator Stephen A. Douglas was trying to organize a Nebraska territory out in the American heartland, but free-soil and proslavery forces were wrangling bitterly over the status of slavery there. Lincoln followed the course of Douglas’s territorial bill as it was reported in the Congressional Globe, and he became melancholy again. Friends who saw him sitting alone in rural courthouses thought him more withdrawn than ever. Once when they went to bed in a rude hostelry, they left him sitting in front of the fireplace staring intently at the flames. The next morning he was still there, studying the ashes and charred logs . . . . [ellipse original]9

The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska bill the following year pushed Lincoln to act. “In a single blow, the bill had obliterated the Missouri Compromise line and in Lincoln’s view had profoundly altered the entire course of the Republic so far as slavery was concerned.”10 But rightly or wrongly, I trace back every action Lincoln took after Kansas-Nebraska to that all-nighter in front of the fireplace.

My religious brooder is the Sprit itself:

. . . the earth was wild and waste,
darkness over the face of Ocean,
rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters—11

Some translations have the Spirit in action – “moving” – and others have it brooding – “hovering.” But Fox captures for me the possibility of both, the “rushing-spirit . . . hovering.” Fox also captures best what for me is the next-most pivotal verse in scripture, the verse after which Israel, as slaves and without a public life, would slowly begin to emerge from Egypt:

God hearkened to their moaning,
God called-to-mind his covenant with Avraham, with Yitzhak, and with Yaakov,
God saw the Children of Israel,
God knew.12

 

  1. Kermode, Frank. Introduction. Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. By T. S. Eliot. New York: Harcourt, 1975. Print. At 17.
  2. Id. at 17-18.
  3. Id. at 17
  4. Id. at 19
  5. He fears “an irresponsible democracy” as much as “a pagan theory of the State.” Holding Italy up as a positive example in 1939, he writes that the operation of such a pagan theory “does not necessarily mean a wholly pagan society.” He rejects democracy as potential home for a vibrant literature “unless democracy is to mean something very different from anything actual” (The Idea of a Christian Society).  Picking up the spirit of his book title – mine might be The Idea of a Liberal Democracy – I might respond that American democracy means something very different from anything actual.

     

    Eliot fears modern democracy because the community is solely a servant of the individual; he fears totalitarian states because the individual is solely a servant of the state (see his essay “Religion and Literature”). I fear both, too. The liberal notion of equality and its consequent majority rule held in check by reason and nature has been given a bad name by our tendency toward a Jacobin notion of unlimited majority rule that leads in time to one or the other extremes Eliot fears. Lockean liberalism requires God because it requires men and women with equal rights – none of them a god over his fellows. Locke’s equality leaves each man his property and, as a necessary consequence, makes room for his talents, artistic and otherwise. To showcase those talents it contemplates a vibrant public life; indeed, Madison’s overarching purpose for a separation of powers and a bicameral legislature was to model public discourse to the young nation.

    Like a number of Catholic writers, Eliot seems receptive to the notion of natural law. He writes about mankind’s relation to nature and God as if he were pining for a return of Locke’s philosophy. In Christian Society, he points out an imbalance in the hierarchy among God, humanity, and nature:

    . . . a wrong attitude towards nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude towards God, and that the consequence is an inevitable doom. For a long enough time we have believed in nothing but the values arising in a mechanized, commercialized, urbanized way of life: I would be as well for us to face the permanent conditions upon which God allows us to live upon this planet. . . . We have been accustomed to regard “progress” as always integral; and have yet to learn that it is only by an effort and a discipline, greater than society has yet seen the need of imposing upon itself, that material knowledge and power is gained without loss of spiritual knowledge and power. (We must) struggle to recover the sense of relation to nature and to God, (and) the recognition that even the most primitive feelings should be part of our heritage . . .

    Locke’s natural law, of course, is mostly part of a tradition stretching back to Aquinas’s natural law, and from there back to ancient Israel and Athens. It has far more tradition associated with it than does the more modern doctrine of the divine right of kings. I like to think Eliot would have liked Locke had he read him.

  6. Eliot, T. S. “The Idea of a Christian Society.” 1939. Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. New York: Harcourt, 1975. 285-91. Print.
  7. Id.
  8. Merton, Thomas. The Seven Storey Mountain. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1948. Print.
  9. Oates, Stephen B. With Malice toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994. Print. At 107.
  10. Id. at 108.
  11. Fox, Everett. The Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy ; a New Translation with Introductions, Commentary, and Notes. New York: Schocken, 1995. Print. Genesis 1:2-3
  12. Id. Exodus 2:24 – 25.

Marginal

On East Coker on the rebind.

Tell me, ye learned, shall we for ever be adding so much to the bulk — so little to the stock?

Shall we for ever make new books, as apothecaries make new mixtures, by pouring only out of one vessel into another?

Are we for ever to be twisting, and untwisting the same rope? for ever in the same track — for ever at the same pace?

Sheall we be destined to the days of eternity, on holy-days, as well as working-days, to be shewing the relicks of learning, as monks do the relicks of their saints — without working one — one single miracle with them?

— Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy, and adapted, according to Sterne’s editor James A. Work, from Burton.  (I’m sure Work gives Burton’s first name in an earlier footnote, but as a two-minute Google search proved inconclusive about Burton’s first name, and as Work goes on to say that Burton himself adapted his own version from some unnamed source, and really, in the spirit of the passage, I’ll leave it at that.)

Poetry & prose

The self-absorbed speaker in Robert Lowell’s “Eye and Tooth” who can’t connect with his surroundings reminds me of the narrator in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.  Both narrators have poetic flights that fall into prosaic prose – a sort of never fully getting off the runway.  Prufrock’s attempts are based more on imagery and are more the product of an active imagination.  Eliot keeps up the meter even in the most prosaic expressions.  But Lowell collapses the meter to emphasize his narrator’s inability to get beyond himself.  Compare, for instance:

I grow old . . .  I grow old . . .
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind?  Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

with:

Outside, the summer rain,
a simmer of rot and renewal,
fell in pinpricks.
Even new life is fuel.

My eyes throb.

I’ve read that Lowell is widely credited with making poetry personal again after the likes of Browning and Eliot focused on dramatic monologue.  I don’t see that clean of a break, though.  Four Quartets is as personal, in its way, as “Eye and Tooth” is.  And a poem’s narrator is never exactly the poet.

I’ve selected Robert Lowell’s “Eye and Tooth” for my celebration of SoloPoMo.

The language

Most of the books I’ve read in the past three years I last read long ago.  Four Quartets is an exception: I started rereading it a decade ago.  But it’s typical – even a fugleman – of these books in another respect: I didn’t understand it when I read it in college, but I loved it anyway.

I wrote some pretty insightful notes in its margins back then, but I think that came from a professor’s lecture.  Anyway, none of that stayed with me.  What I remember is the language.  I loved it.  It’s what my younger self and I can share when we read it now.

Four Quartet’s thought helped save me from a dark time around age forty.  I never would have picked it back up then, though, if I hadn’t remembered it then like young love.

Milton paints purple trees.  Avery.
And Wolf Kahn too.
I’ve liked their landscapes,
Nightdreams and daymares,
pastures and woods that burn our eyes.
Otherwise, why would we look?
Otherwise, why would we stretch our hands out and gather them in?

(The first stanza of Charles Wright’s “Thinking of Winter at the Beginning of Summer,” the poem I rememorized this year for class when I couldn’t master Lowell’s “Eye and Tooth.”)

Eliot burned my ears.

Maybe that’s why I’m attracted to ornate language.  I mean, look at whom I’ve been rereading: Faulkner, Dostoevsky, Fielding.  Wallace is almost baroque.  Stevens. And Lawrence Sterne, too.  All stuff from high school or college. It’s the sound of it that made me swallow their seeds and kept them inside me for decades, long enough to germinate, long enough for me to have made some sense of it, or – better – for it to have made some sense out of me.  Sound before insight: the thunder before the lightning, in my case.

All of this stress on short sentences (or at least simple ones) and plain language.  I like plain language; I even believe in it, particularly deceptively plain language.  How could I not, given the present age?  But plain words don’t impact me like the winding-road sentences of, say, Tristram Shandy.  I dream recurring dreams of paths leading to bright lands of purple trees and orange sky.  I fall asleep listening to Peter Barker’s reading of Sterne as if to the swoosh-swoosh and universe of my mother’s womb.

The Program Era, Mark McGurl’s delightful, 2009 romp through the last century of American fiction, points out two major approaches to literature, one epitomized by F. Scott Fitzgerald and the other by Thomas Wolfe in an exchange of letters McGurl summarizes:

Taken up by Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and subsequently by a great many of the writers who would be associated with writing programs after the Second World War, the poetics of “show don’t tell” would gradually evolve into a more general understanding of good fiction as founded on discipline, restraint, and the impersonal exercise of hard-won technique.  Thus we find Fitzgerald, in an avuncular letter to his fellow Max Perkins protégé, encouraging Wolfe to cultivate “a more conscious artist” in himself, and to consider the aesthetic benefits of subtraction, as in the example of Flaubert, whose greatness is measured as much by what he left out as by what he put in.  Wolfe’s response to Fitzgerald was both churlish and impressively learned; he invoked a parallel tradition in the novel, including works like Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy, produced not by “taker-outers” like Flaubert but by “putter-inners” like himself.  All he could take from Fitzgerald’s advice, he wrote, circling back as always to the primacy of authorial selfhood, was that “you think I’d be a good writer if I were an altogether different writer than I am.” (99)

(The passage’s main point, for you kids using this post to prep for SAT’s, is how another Max Perkins is as unlikely to show up as another Shakespeare.)

Wolfe is always out of favor; he almost was from the start.  But as I’m looking homeward, myself, I might reread him, too.  (My grandmother gave me Look Homeward, Angel to help me cope with my adolescence, and maybe I’m coping with it still.)  I like Fitzgerald, but I’m a howling Wolfe man.

But don’t get George Steiner started!  Unlike McGurl, he takes sides.  He sees Hemingway as “a brilliant response to the diminution of linguistic possibility”:

Sparse, laconic, highly artificial in its conventions of brevity and understatement, that style sought to reduce the ideal of Flaubert – le mot juste – to a scale of basic language.  One may admire it or not.  But, undeniably, it is based on a most narrow conception of the resources of literacy. . . . By retrenching language to a kind of powerful, lyric shorthand, Hemingway narrows the compass of observed and rendered life.  He is often charged with his monotonous adherence to hunters, fisherman, bullfighters, or alcoholic soldiers.  But this constancy is a necessary result of the available medium.  How could Hemingway’s language convey the inward life of more manifold or articulate characters?  Imagine trying to translate the consciousness of Raskolnikov into the vocabulary of “The Killers.”  Which is not to deny the perfection of this grim snapshot.  But Crime and Punishment gathers into itself a sum of life entirely beyond Hemingway’s thin medium.

(From “The Retreat from the Word,” a 1961 essay republished in Steiner’s Language & Silence, pages 30 and 31.)

Steiner is more concerned in this essay with the extent of our functioning vocabulary than he is with sentence length or structure, strictly speaking.  But it’s all of a piece these days.  I heart Steiner’s précis of my man Faulkner, who loved big, fun-sounding words and vine-like syntax more than he loved merely long sentences:

Within a syntax whose convolutions are themselves expressive of Faulkner’s landscape, ornate, regional language makes a constant assault upon our feelings.  Often the words seem to grown cancerous, engendering other words in ungoverned foison.  At times, the sense is diluted as in a swamp-mist.  But nearly always, this idiosyncratic, Victorian night-parlance is a style.  Faulkner is not afraid of words even where they submerge him.  And where he is in control of them, Faulkner’s language has a thrust and vital sensuousness that carry all before them.  Much in Faulkner is overwritten or even badly written.  But the novel is always written through and through.  The act of eloquence, which is the very definition of a writer, is not let go by default. (32)

Steiner, who wrote this around age thirty, is an old soul, and, while I find that he often rushes too quickly to judgment for my taste, he is not afraid to say things that sound strange to me but I suspect were held true by most serious writers before McGurl’s “program era.”  So the act of eloquence is “the very definition of a writer.”  Who says that anymore?

The possibility of poetry

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years-
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying 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.

T. S. Eliot writes a great deal about writing and poetry, and most of this criticism understandably is found in his essays and not in his poetry. The above section from “East Coker,” the second of Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” is a rarity: Eliot in poetry on poetry. In writing about his craft in these lines, Eliot also comes across as Eliot, and we have something like a self-portrait. This also is rare, because Eliot the poet seems in some way to often hide behind the broken characters and settings he creates in his poetry.

Some of Eliot’s normally reserved tone may come from the subjective isolation Eliot’s characters live in. In his book Poets of Reality, a compilation of six longer essays on Conrad, Yeats, Eliot, Thomas, Stevens, and Williams, J. Hillis Miller describes Eliot’s early poetry as an expression of a subjectivist world, and as Eliot’s attempt at a means of communication and self-discovery despite the isolation this world poses on his characters. “Though reality is unity, all men, by the fact that they exist as conscious selves, are alienated from it, and must travel the path of appearance, the ‘Way of Seeming,'” according to Miller. Because everyone is condemned to a dualistic existence, the reader, the writer – everyone, for that matter – is removed from whomever Eliot puts on the examination table.

In examining the possibility of more than one consciousness, Eliot’s early poetry inherits something from the nineteenth century dramatic monologue. However, “Browning’s dramatic monologues are usually speaking to someone,” Miller points out, while Eliot’s characters can’t even speak with one another. No neighbor comes and searches Prufrock. Prufrock speaks only to himself when he invites himself to leave for the party, and his conversations, real or imagined, with a lady there end twice with the lady’s “‘That is not what I meant at all.'” There is no possibility of real communion in a fully subjective universe. If Browning was somewhere evident in the psychological interchange between the monologue and its audience, Eliot had to be entirely out of sight, as removed as the rest of the universe from his subjects.

Late in his career, however, Eliot enters his own poetry as a broken character first in “Ash Wednesday” and again in the “Four Quartets.” In the above lines from the “Four Quartets,” he’s also being quite candid about his craft, laying open his struggles in terms he usually reserves for his essays. What is it that he wishes to express in his poetry? A “general mess” of feeling and “[u]ndisciplined squads of emotion,” on the one hand, and something like truth, on the other. At least the last lines in the above passage suggest that he is after truth, since he claims that men have struggled to find it in earlier ages. How does Eliot believe poetry should relate to feelings and truth? How do feelings and truth themselves relate? Finally, how does Eliot, late in his poetic career, come to examine himself in his poetry?

[book cover]Eliot believes in unity and reality, but he believes that man’s true self is largely unknowable and that we normally function apart from our true selves. According to Miller, Eliot’s early poetry demonstrates that “[w]hatever exists for the self, exists as already part of the self, and the self can never encounter anything other than itself.” The true self manifests itself only in emotion, particularly the unnamed and unexplainable kind of emotion. This is all the truth Eliot believes we can know about ourselves, and this truth holds the possibility of truly communicating with one another in the subjective and otherwise isolated modern Western world.

Enter the poet. “It is the business of poetry to name these unnamable feelings, to drag them out of the dark abyss of selfhood into the light of day,” writes Miller of Eliot’s thought. Eliot believes that it is the poet’s job to overcome the radical subjectivism that keeps characters such as Prufrock in their own worlds. Miller on Eliot again: “The intolerable wrestle with words and meanings is the effort necessary to bring [the poet’s] psychic material to the surface and embody it in words.” Because this psychic material is emotion, a poet must discover “an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion…” (I’m quoting Eliot now, from Selected Essays.)

Even if Eliot were sometimes successful in getting across reality in a poem, there may be complications. A line from Eliot’s book On Poetry and Poets may give us pause: “When you have the words for it, the ‘thing’ for which the words had to be found has disappeared, replaced by a poem.” Can the moment – the instant of self-possession – and the poem coexist?

Eliot’s language suggests a choice in the moment between the arising of an emotion and the construction of a poem about it. The transformation Eliot describes seems like a dangerous choice to make some evidence of one’s true self disappear. To write a poem is to lose part of the evidence a poet is given of his true self. The better the poem the bigger the loss. Miller points out that, on the other hand, this kind of authentic poetry is a means of “self-possession” not otherwise open to the lost characters in Eliot’s poetry and age.

But is this self-possession desirable or even possible? One difference between a Zen practitioner and Eliot’s poet may lie in what to do with “the inarticulate sense that there is something lurking in the darkness” (quoting Miller again). Maybe monks and Zen masters live with the inarticulate sense, while poets give “the deep-buried self, octopus or angel… an objective existence which replaces [the inarticulate emotion] with the precision of words and rhythms…” (Miller).

Can one be both a monk and a poet? That is, can one have his evidence and his poetry, too? Thomas Merton was a monk and a poet, though he claimed he wasn’t much of a monk, and his status as a poet is dubious. Many people consider him a good writer, however; and in his prose he seems to make a number of successful raids on the inarticulate. Could Merton both experience metaphysical intuition (a phrase he associates with the essence of Zen) and have it survive his writing?

Is it even possible to be a poet on Eliot’s terms? Is it possible to speak from the true, inarticulate self, however one defines it? Eliot suggests in the above lines from “East Coker” that it is close to impossible, emotions being so fleeting. His discouraging lines are written in terms of his own poetic theory — what Miller calls his “miraculous power of verbal images” that fuels the expression of reality possible in the objective correlative. In “East Norton,” he seems ready to give it up. He finds solace by seeing his writing as a calling and himself as a descendent of a long line of fellow writers, each wishing to restore truth to his generation.

The six essays in Miller’s Poets of Reality trace each writer’s development of thought and spirituality through his writing. Miller is adept at applying the writer’s maturing thought in the writer’s own terms, and Miller effectively describes Eliot’s poetic progression by considering the influence of Eliot’s emerging Christianity on Eliot’s more canonical poems. Miller makes the argument, which I will not develop here, that Eliot sheds his belief in subjective Western idealism in “The Hollow Men” and that he accepts an outer world of “time, nature, other people, and God” in “Ash Wednesday.” By the “Four Quartets,” Eliot has begun to embrace a view of life that challenges the basis of the poet’s role as he defines it earlier in his career.

Eliot may be a step ahead of his reader in “East Coker,” and he may not be as discouraged as he seems. The explicit setting of “East Coker” — “l’entre deux guerres” — suggests that Eliot is writing largely about an earlier view of poetry he is in the process of discarding. Further, Eliot’s earlier acts of humility — for “Ash Wednesday” is in a sense a humble poem — and the possibility of true communion allow Eliot to examine himself and his business in “Ash Wednesday” and “Four Quartets.” Eliot has always believed that, for artistic characters to be effective, they must mirror the poet’s own struggles (Selected Essays 172, 173). Because the nature of his struggles is changing, Eliot no longer needs his solipsistic version of the dramatic monologue to communicate them. Therefore, the means Eliot uses to communicate his struggles in “East Coker” suggests that he thinks he is on his way to solving them.

In the “Four Quartets,” a kind of pattern replaces emotion or private experience as the guide to one’s true self. Miller suggests that Eliot’s maturing Christianity causes him to give up his idea of the poet as someone who makes communication possible by writing poems that embody realizations of his true self:

The poet had been defined as the man who can unify heterogeneous elements into a dancelike form. Now that notion must be abandoned, along with the idea of the infinite value of those subjective images which accompany moments of sudden illumination. Man’s attempt to transcend temporarily either by experiencing eternal moments or by making a spatialized pattern of all the times of history leads only to a parody of the real pattern. The true pattern is God’s order of history, an objective rather than subjective design organized around the central event of the Incarnation….The abnegation of any humanly imposed pattern in order to recover the divine pattern is the central them of the “Four Quartets.” (186-87)

“East Coker” is overall the most pessimistic of the quartets, perhaps in part for its almost direct expression of beliefs Eliot is in the process of reexamining or rejecting. Eliot does not address writing so directly in the two quartets that follow “East Coker,” but some of “Little Gidding,” the final quartet, may amount to an answer to Eliot’s own despair in “East Coker”:

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

Eliot seems to suggest that we who pray are not here to carry report. We are to kneel where others have knelt, relying on valid patterns and not on personal ecstasy or even experience. We have no speech for anything worth saying. Leave that to the dead. Our poems don’t replace us or even embody us. If we pray and we write, Eliot says, we write about the pattern.

Eliot’s pattern, however, is not a rejection of the intense experiences that lead to his objective correlative. Instead, the pattern amounts to a series of such experiences, a series which permits a sort of history. The difference lies in Eliot’s newfound awareness of an objective physical world and the possibility of history that makes his experiences evidence of incarnation.

…Eliot’s moment of the ‘point of intersection of the timeless / With time’ … retains the dimensions of depth, mystery, and transcendence which are characteristic of Christian thought. Nevertheless, the culminating passages of Eliot’s poetry… are certain images which affirm the infinite plentitude of the instant of intense experience. The “voice of the hidden waterfall,” the “hidden laughter / Of children in the foliage,” bird song, the “wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning” are proof that the still point of the turning world is not unattainably distant, but here and now and always… (Miller 189)

Eliot has found a new use for his objective correlative in which he demonstrates a pattern of incarnation. The “Four Quartets” contain none of the complexity of Western culture found in “The Waste Land” and none of the impenetrable worlds of his early poetry. Eliot, while no longer as reserved, is still his impersonal self in the “Four Quartets,” however. Eliot still channels his emotion through verbal images, this time with a new purpose:

…the patterning of the words of a poem so that they move like a Chinese jar still moving in its stillness … is not for the sake of the perfection of the poem. It leads to the perception that the apparently anarchic world is really a pattern, a pattern imposed by God…. This is also the use of lyric poetry: to lead to a recognition of the presence of God in every moment and every event of time. It is possible to give now its full meaning to Eliot’s statement in “Poetry and Drama”: “For it is ultimately the function of art, in imposing a creditable order upon ordinary reality, and thereby eliciting some perception of an order in reality, to bring us to a condition of serenity, stillness, and reconciliation.” (Miller 188-89)

 

East Coker on the rebind

I love East Coker. I do. Last night I patched up my thirty-year-old copy of Eliot’s Four Quartets with clear packaging tape. When I was in college, one of my friends paid twenty dollars to rebind my twenty-five-dollar, leather-bound King James Bible for my birthday. But by last night no one had offered to rebind my $1.65 Harvest Book paperback edition of Four Quartets. Maybe I’m supposed to have internalized all the words I need by now.

The paper is thick, and the pages haven’t yellowed at all. The top edges of the pages have inexplicable, rusty freckles like the ones on my arms. I’m also “in the middle way.” In fact, I’m as old as Eliot was when he wrote East Coker.

Since when is fifty “the middle way,” by the way? Was Eliot flattering himself? My life divides neatly into smaller, decade-long lives, as if I were leading six different lives, and my fifties life makes me feel old, a lot like my thirties life did. My thirties were a little hard. I was out of shape and had lots of aches and pains. Some clock went off in my head at age thirty: I’m not married! What segments each of our lives?

What is the late November doing
With the disturbance of the spring
And creatures of the summer heat,
And snowdrops writhing under feet
And hollyhocks that aim too high
Red into grey and tumble down
Late roses filled with early snow?

When I was forty, I discovered the fountain of youth. An identity crisis and a slow recovery made the world seem new. I started an exercise-and-diet regime and a new career. I rediscovered poetry. My forties fulfilled the promise of my twenties – all of that Bible study and those fifty-four hours of English courses. But old age seemed to return with vigor last year about the time I turned fifty. For the first time, I know in my bones that most of my life has passed.

But, as I say, my youth and old age seem to come and go.

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.

A lifetime burning in every moment. “That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been; and God requireth that which is past,” says the Preacher.

I was twenty when I wrote the first marginalia in my Four Quartets. What gets across the naiveté: my balloon-like script or my borrowed thoughts? Today my handwriting looks more wrinkled – more nuanced, I think. In college I wrote “the neg. theology” beside these lines:

In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

I remember the professor mentioning negative theology, which was the first time I had ever heard of the idea. I remember thinking that it sounded rather holy and cool, kind of like the essence of what my Jesus buddies and I were after in pursuing our very positive theology.

Why did I like Four Quartets back then? I remember liking the somewhat stiff diction that circled around on itself. The “dust in the air suspended” and the roses and bowls reminded me of quiet rooms of now-dead relatives and their loud, slow-ticking clocks. There was something quieting and alarming about rooms like that, and you can’t experience them after middle age. You’re too busy remembering them, outfitting them.

Earlier in his career, Eliot used the inherent contradiction of his language (his diction and syntax are at once kind of stately and creaky) to saturate his voice with irony. But Eliot uses his contradictory language in East Coker to achieve something quieter than irony; he achieves a kind of wisdom-poem, and his language seems perfect for an examination of negative theology. All that dust in the rose bowl and all that shadow fruit, all those footfalls in the garden. It’s an elegant and “a worn-out poetical fashion” all at once. In his end is his beginning.

But little in East Coker would have made sense to me in the beginning except for some of the more aphoristic and outwardly Christian portions of it. My overall attraction to it was inexplicable. Perhaps my spirit had found a kind of blueprint.

My words echo
Thus, in your mind.

East Coker is built on an Ecclesiastes chassis, and, as with Ecclesiastes’s body, you can’t tell if it’s coming or going. Old age, darkness, wisdom, despair, writing, and life cycles of people and families and civilizations circle around one another. East Coker has Ecclesiastes’s “a time for”’s, and it has a loosened pane and a tattered arras for Ecclesiastes’s loosened silver cord and broken golden bowl. The sun also rises:

Dawn points, and another day
Prepares for heat and silence.

A lot of people think Ecclesiastes is depressing, and a lot of people think East Coker is depressing, too. But those people don’t understand apophatic theology, I say. The only thing that seems to depress Eliot in East Coker is his writing.

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying 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 . . .

The subject of preaching and writing is the toughest part of Ecclesiastes for me, too, because the moment preaching and writing point to negative theology (the “goads” and “nails” below, perhaps), they also create a chasm between positive and negative theology:

Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity. And moreover, because the preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yea, he gave good heed, and sought out, and set in order many proverbs. The preacher sought to find out acceptable words: and that which was written was upright, even words of truth. The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd. And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

Do you feel the chasm? After all he went through, the Preacher was stuck looking for acceptable words.

According to the negative theology, God is ineffable, so suddenly you have a problem if you want to explain him or the dance he set in motion around him. Here’s the other point in East Coker where Eliot seems to throw down his pen:

That was a way of putting it—not very satisfactory:
A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,
Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle
With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter.

These appearances make the poet a subject of his own poem. As Eliot moves from the irony of his early poetry to negative theology, he replaces the anti-heroes of his early poetry with his narrator – himself. Ecclesiastes is a personal book, a working through, a seeker’s journal, and East Coker is, too. Eliot’s ancestors emigrated to America from East Coker.  He chose the poem’s opening and closing lines for his epitaph on the commemorative plaque in the church where his ashes are buried — St. Michael’s Church in East Coker.

In East Coker, the only anti-hero – the only fool – is the narrator, since anyone who preaches (or writes about) the negative theology is a fool. Ask the apostle Paul, who in his second letter to the Corinthians deliberately preached it in a clown suit.

East Coker shares Ecclesiastes’s ambivalence toward old age and wisdom just as it does toward writing. In East Coker, old men have nothing positive to offer the young.

Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.

The only wisdom resides in the darkness of God, and the only thing old men have to offer is something negative: the loss of themselves, a kind of death before death.

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

But works like Ecclesiastes and East Coker are meant for the young as well as the old. In fact, East Coker reconciles the young and old, the ends and beginnings, in darkness. Perhaps Ecclesiastes and East Coker lend a little mystery to life, or at least to old age. I remember thinking as I read Proverbs and Ecclesiastes as a teenager, “Maybe the hoary head is a crown of glory, after all.” Young people feel a connection with a long, authentic life, or at least I felt such a connection back then. Even if I couldn’t decipher the old stone in my youth, I could at least carry it around with me.

Ecclesiastes ends rather perfunctorily: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” I can hear Thoreau rage against this ending, much as he declaims in Walden against the Westminster Catechism’s summary of man’s purpose: to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Suppose Shakespeare had taken Polonius’s famous aphorisms early in Hamlet and had put them in the prince’s mouth at the end. That’s the feeling I get from Ecclesiastes.

To be fair, Ecclesiastes’s end seems to focus on its younger readers – all of us, I guess, with beginner’s mind – since the fear of God and the keeping of his commandments may lead us, by God’s mercy, into the dark night the Preacher and John of the Cross and Eliot’s other mystic heroes believe in.  (And “Fear God, and keep his commandments”: if those ain’t “acceptable words,” I don’t know what are.)

But East Coker ends with a challenge to the old:

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 has given me a vision for my fifties, and maybe for my seventies if I go that long. (My sixties will take care of themselves, I reckon, like my twenties and forties.)

I carry my Harvest Book edition around now like I carried my pocket New Testament around as a teenager. In my beginning is my end.

Posted May 24, 2008.