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)